30 May 2011

Roundup: New Data Tools

As much as I love all of the new data tools and interest in visualization, I have to admit that I am a babe in the woods where all of it is concerned. A fan of the game...maybe even a minor league player/benchwarmer, at best. But for me, all these bright shiny tools I see are inspiring. They are like a workshop full of possibilities. I just need to figure out what those are. Perhaps you have some ideas, too?

Not long ago, Google Trends allowed you to examine how various search terms have emerged and are being used. You might also have seen people playing with Google Ngram Viewer, a way to see how certain words have been used in published works in various languages over time. And now, we have Google Correlate which is described as "Google Trends in reverse," but is really just Trends Squared. You give it a term and Google finds others with a similar pattern. This can lead to some rather interesting pairings, as Bug Girl discovered (e.g. "honey bee" and "raptor cam"), but it also makes me wonder how to better tune into the signal vs. the noise. Maybe we need to look for things that don't match---or where misinformation is most easily disseminated.

Speaking of all things Google, you may have seen or used Google Refine to clean your data, but there is a new kid on the block: Data Wrangler. I haven't used it yet, but I might give it a whirl. Our state puts out any number of spreadsheets with data about schools, but only annual snapshots. There is no way to look at data over time and I have long wished for One Spreadsheet to Rule Them All. (*insert maniacal laugh here*) Okay, so maybe I need to get a life, but in the meantime, a girl's gotta dream what a girl's gotta dream.

Another intriguing tool to play with is Zanran, a search engine for graphs, charts, and tables. How cool is that?

For me, data visualization and all of these tools are a natural outgrowth of the Internet age. They are attempts to corral the volume of information we have access to and translate it into something manageable. They are how we eat the proverbial elephant. I'm sure that in a few months, I'll be back with another post containing more recipes. Until then, please feel free to share your favourite new discoveries in the comments.

29 May 2011

When Failure Isn't an Option

I've been pondering the concept of "failure" recently. I'm trying to wrap my mind around what this means with certain projects or situations. Adam Savage from Mythbusters would say, "Failure is always an option." For the most part, I'm inclined to agree. Perhaps failure is not an option that is purposefully selected from a menu of outcomes, but the sum of either not choosing or making poor choices. There are situations where failure is stigmatized or dangerous, but there are also opportunities to learn that come from such experiences. Failure often implies blame or points to the lack of responsibility---not credit for trying...no kudos for any positive experiences along the way.

Much has been written about failing schools and teachers. Most of us have experience either as a failing student or working with one. Maybe you've had a failed marriage, event, or dream. And as my project from the last two years comes to a close at work, I realize that I have spent so much time focusing on what success will look like, that I haven't contemplated failure. It hasn't ever been an option. There is hubris in this, but I justify it by acknowledging that the work is really not mine. I have facilitated an amazing group of educators...I have worked with some outstanding teachers as they bravely attempted to field test new assessments with their students...I have collaborated with many different stakeholders and listened to numerous voices in order to push and pull the products into their final form. The work itself is not mine. My job was to tell others that I refused to let them fail and provide every ounce of support required.

I don't enjoy discussions about leadership. There is a haughty woman in my workplace who often begins her sentences with "As a leader, I..." or uses other words to consistently refer to her leadership style. Gag. The simple fact is that we have responsibilities. We were not chosen to "lead" by those who are impacted by the work. We are not better or smarter or more capable than anyone else---we just have a different role. Maybe it's a subtle difference, but I think it's an important one. She wants people to see her as the boss/leader. I want people to know that my role is serve them. She doesn't want to be seen as a failure. (Who does?) I don't want the teachers I work with to be viewed that way. But the attitude she displays is pervasive among ed policy types. I'm not sure how we overcome that and yet I see it as the single most important shift that needs to be made.

A few weeks ago, there was concern about a lack of response to a summer PD opportunity that we'd sent out. Nearly 60 districts had been invited. Two had responded. It would be easy enough to do nothing---send no reminders. Isn't that what we tell kids about how the "real" world works? You snooze, you lose. If you don't read the email, then you don't deserve an opportunity. I did my part just by sending it, right? But I really didn't want failure to be an option. The education of students---no matter how few in number---was at stake. So we made nearly 60 phone calls and while not everyone wanted to play, close to 1/3 of them did. They had misunderstood what was originally sent...or missed some important pieces...or were just overwhelmed by the volume of what they were dealing with. In taking some time to reach out on a personal level, we took responsibility and let them know we didn't want them to miss out on learning.

I can't---and won't---tell you that everything is perfect with my 2-year project as it is released to stand on its own two feet. Some components are outstanding. Others are in need of further refinement. Maybe failure will continue to be an option, but so is fighting for success.

21 May 2011

Mind Your P's (and Thrown In Some Q's)

I've noticed recently that a lot of articles and blog posts include the following: problem/project-based learning. It is as if the words "problem" and "project" are interchangeable---two monikers for the same item. And while there are some similarities between problem-based learning and project-based learning, the fact is they are not the same approach.

I first fell in love with problem-based learning (which I will refer to as "PBL" from here on) in 1998. In fact, this was my first extensive experience with ASCD, having been sent by my principal to a 3-day workshop in Seattle. (My notes are here.) At the time I knew nothing about it PBL...and by the end I felt somewhat evangelical. Over the years, I've tried a number of PBL units with kids with varying success. There are a few key elements that have to be in place for things to work.

The prompt (problem) must be finely tuned. Students must be placed in a position of someone who has the power to make decisions about a real-world problem. PBL purists will tell you that all students need to take on the same role. This does not mean that they will all have the same opinion about the problem or come up with the same solution, but it will help the inquiry and discussion along when they have the same mindset. Secondly, the "hook" that drives the inquiry must be irresistible to students.  And finally, the problem must be "fuzzy" or "sticky"---there is not just one right answer. Here is one example of a possible prompt:
You are participating in a toy car race.  You have two different cars and need to decide which one you want to use for the race.  One car is very light, weighing very little.  The other is very heavy, weighing much more.  You will conduct an investigation rolling two different balls representing your cars down an incline ramp. From this investigation you will collect your data using digital applications (Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint, etc.) and use that data to create a line graph representing the speed of each ball.  From these results you will make an informed decision on whether the lighter or heavier car would be more likely to win the race.
It's not too bad. Some kids would no doubt enjoy participating in a toy car race, such as the pinewood derby's run by the Boy Scouts. This prompt does ask students to make a decision, but note the perspective: they are only making a decision for themselves. This is not a powerful role.

So what if we twist this a little:
You have been asked to judge a toy car race. Last year, some cars were so much faster than others that it was believed some racers might have cheated. The organizers want the race to be fair. They would like you to write a set of at least four rules for the event to ensure no car can cheat to win.  The rules must be based on evidence about how weight, time, and distance affect the speed of an object rolling down a ramp.

To develop the rules, you will need to plan and conduct an investigation, collect and interpret data, and explain how your rules will make the race fair. Use digital tools to organize your information and communicate your results to the Racing Committee.
Ah, now the student has some power---s/he is the judge. And, we have a problem to solve---we don't want any cheating. What will it take to make the race fair? Now students have a reason to build their background knowledge with the relationship between weight, time, and distance. We have a hook.

Next, the teacher must present it as a real problem. This does take a bit of suspension of disbelief on the part of the students, but if you've built the prompt well, they will have no issues. A first grader will believe that the school nurse is asking them for advice. A tenth-grader will buy in to the idea that they are genetic counselors advising a real couple. It's hard to explain, but kids need a sense of hope that they really are being asked something significant. If students ask you if the problem is "real," just ask them if it matters. Most want to enjoy the Santa Claus/Tooth Fairy/Easter Bunny effect. Let them have the illusion.

Finally, PBL is about cognitive demand---it requires deep thinking about content. Students have to understand a variety of concepts and put then put them together. Understanding enough about how weight, time, and distance affect objects rolling down a ramp so that you can create rules is much more difficult than simply choosing between a heavier/lighter car.

Project-based learning units have different qualities. First of all, they might put the student in a position to act, but only from a kid-based viewpoint. There's nothing wrong with this---influencing change (especially social change) is important regardless of one's age, but it is not the same as being the one who gets to make the decisions. Project-based learning tends to have more visible results and more community connections than PBL, however. In that sense, project-based learning could be considered as more rooted in the real world. Finally, project-based learning is more focused on collaborative outcomes and action.

Each of these units can have a place in the classroom, but it is important to remember that they aren't interchangeable terms. Mind your p's.

20 May 2011

Small Scale PD

Earlier this week, I chatted (by phone) with a number of supes who head tiny districts in our state. It's the kind of tiny that when you call and ask if they are planning sending teachers to some PD targeted at rural districts, they answer with "The other teacher and I are going to be there."

In Washington, there are 295 school districts. Of these, approximately 40 have enrollments of less than 100 students. If we go up as high as 500 students district-wide, there are about 100 districts that would fall into that category. Still, there must be an enormous difference between a district with 2 certificated staff...and one that has 2 for every grade level.

There are some obvious advantages to being small. NCLB? AYP? Not a problem---you have too few students to fit in the boxes. You can also tread lightly with most federal and state initiatives without anyone raising much of a ruckus. But it's easy to see the challenges, too. You are still expected to push all the same paper as any other district and you're almost exclusively dependent on state/federal funds---no levy money for you. You're probably not just doing "more with less," you're probably doing "more with ancient," in terms of the instructional materials and hardware you have. We know that 99+% of the classrooms in this state have access to a computer connected to the Internet---but how does that matter when you have 10 kids in various grade levels studying a variety of topics...all of whom might need the (8 year old) computer?

As someone in my office pointed out this week---we spend a lot of time in education talking about how to "scale up" initiatives. We don't talk about scaling them down.

For me, the intriguing thing to think about has been the educators in these schools. What does staff development look like when you teach everything to everyone? Is there even such a thing as "job-embedded" PD? I know that the Internet provides great opportunities to connect with other educators...but I also know that it isn't the same as having a trusted colleague next door when you need to explore ideas, plan new lessons, or get some help thinking about working with students.

Is there such a thing as a "Circuit Teacher"---someone who might travel between 4 or 5 small districts each week to provide additional support and instructional coaching? How would you provide opportunities for teachers in these microdistricts to go and observe other classrooms? What do they want to see and learn?

Seems like a fascinating project to find money for. Significance of impact would be qualitative (which I think is fine). But if we believe that every teacher is important and what happens in a classroom should be about kids, then there should be something for these small spaces that makes a big difference.

15 May 2011

Unknown Territory

We're wrapping up field testing, and for the last few weeks, I have been knee-deep in first graders. It's a situation I can highly recommend. I learned a lot---perhaps more than they did---as we looked at data, technology, and health (!) from our different vantage points.

There are very few large-scale content assessments out there for primary students. In fact, in our state, there are none. And before you send me dirty emails about leaving these little ones alone, I'd like to point out that these assessments (a) will be completely optional and (b) are not high-stakes. You can read the one I'm referencing here, but the gist was this: students were given/read a letter from a parent who was worried about her son becoming sick at school (immediately after a trip to the library where there were some new books). Students then did some research about what makes people sick, graphed and analyzed some attendance data, and finally recorded a voicemail to the parent stating what they found out and providing some advice. We selected the health-related content because we knew that the K-2 span is replete with opportunities to discuss where not to put your fingers, how to cough/sneeze in a "friendly" way, and reminders to wash your hands. Why not connect with what is already happening in the classroom?

What did I learn from all of this?
  • The prompt needs some revision, but it is pitch-perfect. Kids totally buy it and are excited about the content. 
  • One teacher told me it was the first time all year that kids went home to talk about what happened in class and then came back to report. However, one teacher "ruined" the illusion that the prompt wasn't "real," and kids were pissed. We need to include more background for teachers on what it means to do a problem-based learning unit with a class. 
  • Another teacher mentioned that while she thought the data pieces would be over the heads of her wee ones (and they were for some), many of the kids who "got it" were her typical behavior problem children. She wondered if they had been bored and in need of a challenge. I can't speak to that, but I can say we were pretty demanding---15 data points to plot. And while all of the teachers had previous taught bar graphs with students, there were never more than 3 categories and no one had ever asked the kids what they thought the data meant. But you know, students did a pretty good job. We asked them to think---and they did.
  • There were fabulous misconceptions uncovered. The adults in the room were fascinated by all the things students shared. For example, one kid said that the student got sick because the author put germs on the books. (Why not? We tell kids the author wrote the book.) Many understood that germs could be transferred from one person to another, but thought that once a germ landed someplace, it was there forever. 
  • Most 6-year olds cannot read their own handwriting. I'm not sure what that surprises me...but it does.
  • Collaboration, even at the elementary level where there is a much more conducive environment, is still difficult. I had one teacher-librarian tell me that the 1st grade teacher refused to spend any class time supporting the math/graphing skills or engaging in discussions of personal hygiene with students because she already had her whole year all planned out. Fair enough, I think to say that things didn't fit with current units of study---but to say that for months in advance you knew what you were doing each day? Makes me think something else was going on.
  • Listening to dozens of 6-year olds explain their thinking will send you into a diabetic coma from the sheer delight of it all.
There will still be some things we will have to figure out at Rangefinding. These assessments are meant to be measures of what students do, and the challenge at primary (when it comes to technology), is that a lot of it is teacher-directed. Kids made some fabulous audio recordings, but not without a ton of assistance and direction. I think that's okay...the committee may think otherwise. The other part of that, however, is communicating to teachers that kids need to use the technology. We had a beautiful description written by a primary teacher that described all of the resources she pulled and activities she did with kids...and not a single one of the student products used technology. I know, part of it is accessibility...part of it is kids knowing what to do and having some practice. But some of it is also a shift in approach. All of these things are on our shoulders, however. Every teacher who participated gave it their all and did an incredible job with the draft materials.

In another 6 weeks, these assessments will be finalized and sent out into the great wide world. After nearly 2 years with this project, we're a little older and wiser, but there's still an awful lot of unknown territory to cover.

09 May 2011


I'm here...lurking. Several large-scale projects for work and home all seem to be wrapping up at the same time. Either I haven't had a lot of headspace or positive energy for blogging the past few weeks. Seems like there's enough whiny voices in the edusphere already. :)  I'll start drafting some posts for the weekend. Hang in there.