Saturday, October 6, 2012

The State of Massachusetts and Education

Whenever I hear the phrase, “The State of (anything)” I can’t help but think of one of my favorite songs from Dropkick Murphy’s called “The State of Massachusetts.”  Enjoy the banjo picking.  And the accordion.  Does it get any better than this?

Now, on to the State of Education as discussed in the blog called The Future of Education.

There were a lot of ideas presented in this webinar.  I’ll touch on a few that I found interesting.

One comment real quick on one of the tools used in the webinar forum.  At the beginning of the webinar the moderator had all of the participants use the “star” icon to show where they were from on a map of the world.  I don’t mean to get too colloquial in my blog (sarcasm) but that was just cool.  Walt’s vision of a small world now rings true.

My reflection on some of the ideas…

First, a gentleman named Alfie Kohn posed two similar questions.  First he questioned whether “assessment” is equal to “measurement.”  He stated that we don’t even consider assessment apart from some quantifiable measurement in evaluating teachers.  He questioned whether this is a valid assumption.

I come from the world of automotive engineering where we used to say, “If you can measure it, you can control it.”  I am not sure I agree with this statement, and so I think it is worth reflecting on Mr. Kohn’s question.

Second, along the same lines, he questioned whether this idea of “excellence” is equal to “beating people” (in the context of competition).  He suggests that we are only measuring “excellence” by how much we are beating other school districts, states, or countries in education measurable.  Is this valid?  Good question…

Second, a theme among all four speakers was this idea that education should remain a largely public institution.  I agree with this.  The idea of public education, in any society, is revolutionary.  In times past, education was restricted to those who could afford it.  Without getting into a long discussion on human rights, I would argue that education is one of the basic human rights. It is a step forward in a society when human rights are made available to all.  (I realize there is much to be argued for and against here…but let’s just leave it there for now).

Lastly, one of the statements that I would have liked to understand better was made by Gary Stager.  He suggested that all of the problems in education have already been solved by past generations, and that we just need to apply those solutions.

I am not ready to say if I agree or disagree yet.  My thoughts about how our current state of education differs from past generations is this:

·      We have significantly more diversity in our public education in terms of cultural, financial, and ethnic backgrounds than has ever been seen in history.

·      We have larger populations of students in our public education system than has ever been seen, which equates to the potential for more students to get left behind (by simple statistics).

·      We have higher expectations on our public school systems than ever before.  This equates to more pressure on teachers and administration, and more fault finding by the public.  This seems to lead to more division at the present time.

I would like to know how Mr. Stager would respond to my concerns before I judge his statement true or false.

All in all it was a very good discussion with a lot of different ideas being suggested.

As if often the case though, this talk seemed to present a lot of concerns, without a lot of action steps.  Although I left the engineering world, one thing I can say for them is that they do not leave a problem without definitive action steps.  We might need to look a little harder at this for our education forums.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Group Love (or lack thereof)

Everyone says time moves quickly.  Not always.  Grouplove agrees with their song Slow (click the link and give it a's Sunday afternoon, what else do you have to do?). The more I listen to this song, the more I enjoy it.  I highly recommend the whole album, Never Trust a Happy Song.  I would humbly suggest that the radio releases from Grouplove are not their best efforts from their first, and now one-year-old album. 

My recent re-introduction to the academic community has been fantastic.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the content and the experience, despite (perhaps even because of) the hard and extensive work that it has entailed.  My colleagues and professors thus far have all been top-notch, and I’ve learned much from both.

That said, if there was on chief “question mark” in my mind around my education, it has been the relentless assault of “group discussion” and “group projects.” 

And I know this is not unique to my university.  It is an epidemic if you will.

Disclaimer: I do not disapprove of group work or group projects.

I don’t want this to be a rant.  I will admit “ranting capability” is fermenting inside me.

What has caused me some……we’ll call it “consternation”……is that in the majority of my classes, we cannot go more than about fifteen minutes without “breaking into groups” of some kind. 

The mentality seems to be that no lesson or mini-lesson is complete until it is discussed for “five-minutes” in a group setting.  These “small groups” often include the production of some kind of written summary document.  Often the groups are all assigned the same task, such that when we go around the room and “share” after the project is complete, we all just repeat the same information.  Rarely is the standard “five minutes” enough to fully extrapolate the ideas found in graduate level classes.  A round of applause is given for each group, and we’re done.

With the extensive group work, I sometimes also perceive what I will call a “lack of the expert” happening.  That is, an instructor can be so focused on getting students to work together, that he/she forgets that they are the experts and we are the students.  The reason we are in the class is for their expertise, not just the opinions of our fellow learners (i.e. current non-experts).

This is admittedly a complex topic.  Most things are, as it turns out (…or maybe I just make them that way).

In a short period of writing, I won’t go into every different group situation that I have been a part of.  Instead, I will throw out some generic observations that I have made and some theoretical ideas I have around them (because you know I love that).

(Hint: Points #1 and #4 are my biggest concerns if you don’t have time to read the whole thing.)

1.) Hat Trick

3 = Good
4 = Marginal
5 or more = Bad

For in-class small group discussions of readings or content, my observation has been that when four or more students are grouped to discuss a topic, someone always bails out on the conversation.

How do I know?  Because usually it is me.  My personality is such that I am not a big fan of larger group discussions.  If you give me the chance, in a group of four or more, I’ll probably keep my mouth shut.  Especially in settings with people I don’t know well (which is common in classrooms).  I’ll still listen and think, but I’m less likely to contribute.  I imagine (hope) I am not the only one like this.

Character flaw?  Sure…I’m fine with that.

For me, four or more often harkens back to that old adage of, “too many cooks in the kitchen”…especially when smart people are involved, which is often the case at my university.

2.) Bigger group discussions need a talking ball

Not literally a talking ball.

Bigger groups without a clear facilitator seem to run better if there is an object, like a ball, that must be held in order to talk.  If you don’t have the ball, you listen.

This social experiment is amazing to watch.  Like my yellow Lab, Molly, we all perform better when there is a ball involved.

(I had a treat sitting in front of her, which is why she looks so intense!)

3.) Bigger groups need a leader

Yes, a literal leader.

Going back to my days in the corporate world, I had several unfortunate experiences involving meetings where no leader was present.

That is not to say a “boss” of some kind was not in the room, just that he/she chose not to lead.  The boss would call it “getting everyone’s opinion.”  I have no problem with that…unless “getting everyone’s opinion” is a cover for being afraid to upset some members of the group by making a firm decision, then carrying it out. 

Getting philosophical, it’s about striking the balance (as always).  No one wants a leader who doesn’t listen.  At the same time, no one wants a “leader” who doesn’t lead (i.e. is afraid to speak up and act decisively).

The classroom version of this is the teacher throwing out the classic “what do you think?” question and thirty minutes later we are no further along in understanding the content.  Everyone simply gives their first thoughts, and no time is devoted to actually breaking down some of those thoughts and digesting the content with respect to them.

The goal of the classroom is to learn the content, not for everyone to get to talk (myself included).  To that end, the teacher needs to facilitate the breaking down of A FEW of the valid points from the students, and direct that toward understanding the material. 

4.) I’m here to learn from the expert

Us introverts want to hear from the expert.  We like forty-minute lectures.  We like taking notes.  We don’t want to discuss it with our neighbors (yet). 

We want to hear what an expert has to say, chew on it, form some opinions, bounce some ideas off the instructor or maybe a friend…THEN we might want to discuss it in a group setting.  Better yet, let us write about it first, and then we might be receptive to talking about it with a group.

Instructors, if you are the expert, please be the expert.

As I said before, I am not opposed to group discussion.  Ron Ritchhart is an author that I have come to enjoy reading through some of my course assignments.  In his book called Intellectual Character he states:

“Social dialogues expose students to the language of thinking.” 

I agree with this statement.  Through social dialogue we get to watch other people think.  I find it truly fascinating to watch how other people’s minds work.  It helps me think.  It makes my mind work better (most of the time).

Talking and writing are also methods by which we congeal our own abstract thoughts and test them for validity.  As such, group discussions are a necessary and important part of educating ourselves.

However, “group discussions” are often used like a saltshaker in the classroom.  The instructor designs a lesson, then sprinkles a bunch of group discussions without any regard to how they will enhance the learning…because the assumption is group discussion always helps the learning…which I contend is a faulty assumption.

What I am asking for is more strategic approach to the use of these social dialogues when the setting is an organized place like a boardroom or classroom.

So did you read the whole thing blog?  Okay, now find three or four people who’ve also read it and discuss amongst yourselves…

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics & the Purpose of Education

Frosted Cheerios are so underrated.  This has nothing to do with my blog, but I am thoroughly enjoying a bowl right now.  They are good and good for you!

In our last 504 class we had the opportunity to hear from and question a panel of former U of M Secondary MAC graduates.  The hour-and-a-half session was extremely informative.

The highlight for me was when we lighted on the question (loosely restated), “Is school supposed to mimic life?  Or is it supposed to be separate?”

Bring in the wine and cheese! (A French Bordeaux and a sharp cheddar if you please.)

Admittedly, we probably need to define a few things if we really want to have an intelligent discussion (i.e. what does “mimic life” really mean), but I have some general theoretical questions/postulates that might add to the discussion.

This is an enormous question with lots of facets that I cannot cover in one blog…but let’s start…

First, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that everything tends towards entropy, that is, disorder.  This disorder is ultimately inevitable, but it can be mitigated by intervention.  (You put butter in the fridge so it doesn’t melt.) 

Does this law apply to our cognitive function?  That is, if left unchecked, will our ability to think and reason tend to disorder?  I am not sure if proof exists for this, but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that it would.

If we agree that our natural human tendencies lead us to something we’ll call “disorder,” and if we agree that this “disorder” is something we do not desire (in general) then something must be done.

I would suggest that this “something that must be done” is the foundation for Education, going as far back as you want to in history, to the first group assemblages for the purpose of collective education.

Making a big jump (and feel free to question this jump) I would suggest that the purpose of education is to move kids (or adults) beyond something they already are.  That is, that their current state has the potential to be improved, for the betterment of themselves and society, and we seek to foster this “betterment.”

That is why I take issue with a recent New York Times article questioning the need for Algebra in high school. 

The question is not about Algebra itself, but what do we see as the purpose of education?  If we agree that the purpose of education is to move kids beyond what they naturally are capable of, then why wouldn’t we push them to learn new, and (gasp!) difficult things?

“Difficult” just means things that you can’t do it naturally.  It does not mean that it is something you are not capable of.  Push yourself!  And your students (appropriately).

I believe it is a mindset.  The SecMAC courses this summer has given a term to an idea I have had floating around in my head for many years.  The term, defined first for us by Ritchhart (still my favorite read of the year), is called “Intellectual Character.”

So while I agree we need to tap into student’s prior knowledge and schema, we do so only as it helps us to move them beyond this prior knowledge and schema to new, often difficult, places. 

Education is a lifelong process.  Grade school is a big part of this.  The purpose of grade school is to get kids out of their comfort zone in appropriate ways and move them to new places of cognitive and intellectual capacity, even if it is hard.

These are some of my initial thoughts.  A bit idealistic I will admit.  They might change in a year…who knows?

I welcome feedback and counter-arguments…please!!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Math, huh, yeah, what is it good for?

There was a New York Times article earlier this week questioning the use of algebra as part of a standard high school curriculum.

Education writer and blogger Daniel Willingham wrote a strong rebuttal.

Both sides made cogent arguments.  Both sides failed to cover everything contained within the other’s arguments.  Such is the nature of debate.

Where do I stand?  We’ll…I’m a math teacher (soon)…sooo…

Hopefully math teachers still exist when I graduate.  I jest (I hope).

Being a future math teacher, you would think I would naturally jump to the defense of mathematics, waving my flag and brandishing my sword. 

Not so fast. 

This is not the middle ages any more.  We shouldn’t behave like it.  Yet sometimes we still do (see the Chic-Fil-A nonsense going on…please quit for the luv’ of!).

When a rational human being makes an intelligent argument, we need to think about it.  We need to weigh it…and make sure our biases are not on the scale.  Weigh the idea for itself. 

It is these arguments challenging our beliefs that end up defining them.  We should welcome this kind of questioning.  See if it makes sense.  Our own beliefs will be better defined and more useful as a result.  We'll find holes and weak spots in our beliefs (this is a good thing!).  

And if we have to change some of our beliefs?  Gasp!  Change our beliefs?  In the United States?  Don’t we have a law against that?

Let’s be intelligent.  Hear the man out.  Foster good debate when good arguments arise.

For the record, after considering the arguments from both sides, I don’t believe algebra should be eliminated.  Math is the balance to English and History.  All are needed.  One is not better or more important that the others.  That’s a whole ‘nother blog.  

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sparky Anderson

When I was growing up, Sparky Anderson was the manager of the Detroit Tigers.  I loved the Tigers and baseball (still do…Joaquin Benoit is my Tiger).

[For trippy 80’s Tigers flashback, click on this link: Bless You Boys!...yes, people actually used to dress like that.  For the record I was only three when this happened.]

Sparky was the central figure of the success of the mid-eighties Tigers, and especially their 1984 World Series win.  Sure, Lance Parrish (my fav), Jack Morris, Alan Trammel, Tommy Brookens, and Sweet Lou all played critical roles, but Sparky had to do something that none of them had to do.

In an ideal setup in team sports, the individual players only have to worry about one thing: their own performance.  Sparky had to worry about all of their performances.  It is the manager’s job to essentially do two things: inspire his players to play at their top level and craft a game-plan that effectively utilizes these top level performances.

If the manager is only successful at one or the other, the team will fail.  Sports history is replete with examples.

I liken my position with regards to technology tools, to the managerial role of a baseball team.

In class on Friday we learned the basics of at least six relatively new technology tools.  It is up to us to manage these, and the myriad of other tools out there.

First, we have to form our roster.  We have to decide which tools we need to get the job done.  We have to decide which ones we can expect top performances out of.  Just as importantly, we have to decide which ones we do not want on our team right now.

We might not need DropBox.  We might need Evernote.  We might send Google Reader to the minor leagues till we need him.

Next we have to decide how to best utilize our roster. 

Excel is my leadoff hitter.  I’m a former engineer.  That should be enough explanation. 

Batting second is PowerPoint.  Always reliable for making contact.  Batting third for me is Evernote.  I’ve used this tool for a while now and am discovering new ways to use it (thanks to Friday’s class).

Batting clean-up is my iPhone.  Greatest capability to knock it out of the park.

You get my point…

Maybe you don’t think of Excel and PowerPoint as tools?  Yep, they are.  Just like Diigo and Skype.  Only difference is we’ve been using them for longer, so we know how to use them better and are less intimidated by them. 

Believe you can get there with these new tools too.  You did it once, you can do it again.

The trick (not easy) is to think of them as tools.  Be Sparky.  That’s never bad advice.