Thursday, April 28, 2016
Last week I was working with some high school students who were working on some test review problems. As an aside, what is with these people who are writing horrible test and test review questions? Do they have to go through some special training to learn how to write questions that only reinforce students' belief that math has no relevance to their lives? Okay, I'm stepping away from the rant.
Anyway, I was working with students who were working on some math problems. They sighed as they read the first problem. Yes, it was a stupid question so they were immediately frustrated by the stupidity of the question. So I told them, "Yes, the problem is stupid but the math is not, so let's break it down." Computational thinking.
Sure, this is a skill we try to teach all students. How to figure how what is relevant and what is not. How to read between the lines to figure out what is being asked of them. How to figure out when to add, subtract, multiple, or divide. How to make connections between the domain-specific language and other vocabulary. Yea, this is a lot.
So we backed up to review the table and the words in the problem. That's when I had an "Aha!" moment. They didn't know how to read the table. They didn't understand the relationship between the rows and the columns or what each represented. So we backed up a bit more.
Then I drew bad pictures to represent what the problem was asking them to do. Then they started drawing pictures because they were still struggling to figure out the very simple math they were being asked to do. And then, as we working on the second row, one student noticed the pattern. That fast she saw it and filled out the rest of the table without doing the math. She was exasperated when I asked her to explain how she knew what to do, but then she saw how excited I was that she'd discovered this thing and I wanted her to explain it to her friends, in Spanish if that was easier. Heads nodded.
Okay, back to the table so we can figure out the next part of the problem. "Miss, what's the point?"
"What happens if the store orders too many green shirts when people really wanted blue ones?"
"The store has to put those green shirts on sale."
"Right. Which means they might not make back the money they spent which means they might not make a profit or which means they might not have enough money to pay you."
Now I had their attention and now we could talk about how creating a table to graph actual sales is important. If only the math test prep people created questions that connected to what kids are doing and learning in real life and the hard way. Maybe then the kids would see how math matters.
But let's get back to when math is more than math because math is more than math because, as I said, it's reading, critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving, and more. And it makes me laugh and annoyed when many of us say we're not "math people." I'm guilty of it myself but the reality is that math is part of much of what I do, in work or otherwise. Every. Single. Day.
I like math. I don't love math and I have no desire to understand higher level mathematics like trigonometry and such but I know it has a purpose and I'm grateful for those who like it, love it, do it.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
You thought it was pretty cool, or pretty creepy, when Amazon could make recommendations for purchases based on what you'd just bought. Or enticed you by telling you what other people bought when they bought whatever you'd just added to your cart. Peer pressure in shopping. What do they know that I don't?
What's behind those two very straightforward examples? Big data. Lots and lots and LOTS of data. Floods of data. All being crunched and analyzed by algorithms, and then further crunched and analyzed by the people who decide will appeal most to your data profile. Cool, and creepy.
The more we know about big data and its ongoing influences, the better. That's true. In spite of, or perhaps because of how uncomfortable it might make some of us. However, the fact that big data is not going anywhere underscores even more the importance of computational thinking.
You can figure out the gist of computational thinking by breaking down its name: computational + thinking. Maybe it makes you think people are expecting kids to learn how to think like computers. Hmmm, not exactly because, after all, computers are being trained to think like humans. However, without getting too weird, yes, in some ways, computational thinking is streamlined thinking and may seem a little too concrete for some. I think, however, perspective has a lot to do with it.
There are some who believe that computational thinking is the skill of the 21st century, and it could be. The folks at Queen Mary, University of London define computational thinking this way:
. . . a collection of diverse skills to do with problem solving that result from studying the nature of computation. It includes some obviously important skills that most subjects help develop, like creativity, ability to explain, and team work. It also consists of some very specific problem solving skills such as the ability to think logically, algorithmically, and recursively. It is also about understanding people.Some time ago I was asked if I knew anyone who might help with a data analysis project. I took a deep breath because this sounded boring to me, but then I was told the project was to analyze data for what wasn't there. Say what? In other words, not looking for specific patterns and trends in the data, but looking for what wasn't in the data. I found that immensely interesting though I couldn't imagine being the one to do the work. Still, the question of what don't you see stayed with me.
But let's get back to computational thinking.
Perhaps it might also remind us how interconnected our learning can be. That what we learn in science or math can often contribute to what we are able to do in ELA and social studies.
My friend Lori Feldman is a special needs educator and she's been talking about computational thinking for several years now. This chart from a Google class on computational thinking shows the relationship of computational thinking and subject areas that are not computer science. I've no doubt we could come up with lots of examples for each of the concepts and many related in the same subject area. For example, analyzing a character could be "recognize and find patterns or trends." I've no doubt musicians, dancers, architects, graphic designers, poets, gardeners, and many others could find applications for each of these computational thinking concepts, too.
The point is computational thinking is not new and, most importantly, it's relevant in areas other than computer science.
Even more importantly, computational thinking is a skill we have to integrate in our teaching as teachers and one we have to help our students develop and refine.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
I had to check my smartphone to make sure I hadn't embarked on some sort of weird time travel. I shook my head a little thinking maybe the fumes were getting to me.
But no, the conversation was on-going. Finally I could no longer keep quiet, which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I asked, gently and respectfully, what grade the teacher taught. 6th grade.
I nodded and then asked, still gently and respectfully, if she was able to use any technology in her classroom.
This 30-something teacher lit up, though not entirely in a good way as this question started another mini-rant. Yes, she has a classroom cart of Google Chromebooks. Yes, the administration provided some training for her and they're easy enough to use but she just didn't understand the big deal over using technology in the classroom. She thought they did just fine with their textbooks though occasionally she took them to the computer lab to do "some stuff."
I must have managed to keep a straight face because she looked at me as though she thought I might or did agree. I took a deep breath. I asked her if she knew what kind of technology her students might be using in the middle school. She looked puzzled and a little perplexed. "Why would I need to know that?"
I nodded. Sagely, I hope. Taking another calming breath. "Well," says I, "it might be helpful to know the technology expectations for 7th grade so your students are ready. I mean, if they're not prepared that could reflect badly on you or your school."
She raised an eyebrow; her stylist paused. They just stared for several seconds. Then the client turned back to the mirror, looked at her stylist's reflection, and said, "Anyway. . . ".
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I wish I could say we were at a crossroads or on the cusp of something wonderful as teachers embrace technology in the classroom, as parents support and encourage technology in the classroom, but I know that is not true. Clearly. I wish I could say someone might be able to change this teacher's mind, and maybe someone can. I don't know what's at the root of her clinging tenaciously to her textbooks.
There's a video circulating on Facebook: If the World Were 100 People. Some of that data is here; more detailed statistics and sources are here. It suggests that 75% of the world's population has access to a cell phone. According to Internet Live Statistics, roughly 46% of the world's population has access to the internet.
Because if people can read, even a little bit, they can learn. What this suggests to me is that the potential for virtual learning becomes globally explosive. Which means that teachers who find comfort in textbooks--and I'm not saying textbooks are terrible and have no place--need to rethink their perspectives about teaching and learning. Fast.
All technology in the classroom is not and does not have to be "high tech," but teachers who shun technology are doing their students a huge disservice. In fact, I'd go so far to say they are doing their students harm.
Technology as an integral part of learning is not an option.
Friday, April 1, 2016
I’m not trying to be philosophically difficult here. I’m really not. We know, we know, that what constitutes success for one individual does not constitute success for another. With all of our emphasis on differentiation and personalization, we know, we know, that not every student learns the same way, has the same passions and interests and abilities, has the same drive. So why, WHY do we insist on trying to measure students’ learning and success by a standardized test?
It makes no sense.
NCLB initiated a quick march to pacing guides and uniform practices. We all had to be on page 72 by Tuesday, or else. In theory, ESSA intends to “break the old all-or-nothing cycle of centralization or decentralization” observes Michael V. McGill in “Making the Most of ESSA” in the March 9, 2016 issue of Education Week.
He further notes that Washington has to promote equity and provide resources beyond states’ capacities and that “they” must foster a dialogue. Yes, well, maybe. I’m guessing “they” represents the Department of Education, but, in my opinion, the DOE is far too removed from understanding what equity and appropriate resources look like in most cities, towns, and villages in the United States. What works in some parts of Houston won’t work in others. What works in Wichita, KS won’t work in Hiawatha, KS. What works in some parts of CPS won’t work in others. Not so much “won’t” work, but won’t be the best solution. In other words, what promotes equity and satisfies resource needs in one school in one part of any place may not be the same solution for any other school.
And that makes the jobs of local and state education officials and administrators even more complex.
As McGill also notes, “This dialogue must start with the understanding that there is no single education problem in America. What works depends heavily on what is at the local level. . . The very policies will enhance the distinctiveness and originality of every school and its surrounding communities.” While the DOE might be able to help facilitate a conversation, I’m not convinced they will help in too many ways.
What is good about the ESSA is the amount of latitude it gives states to meet their respective educational needs. What’s bad about the ESSA is the same thing if the thinking and the actions at the state level do not change. The education officials at the state level need to recognize the potential gift in the ESSA and take a giant step back.
What I think needs to happen starting now is this.
State education officials need to encourage local school boards and school administrators to do conduct a no-holds-barred audit of all of their initiatives. They need to be ruthless, even with any administrators pet project. With a clear-cut rubric (I have one), they need to assess if an initiative has been implemented with any fidelity and if it is making or has made any difference. If not, it goes. It should go without saying that classroom teachers need to be represented on this audit team as they’re the ones who have to implement every scheme and initiative. This kind of an audit should be conducting at the end of every school year because just as there is such a thing as project creep, there is such a thing as initiative creep. Stuff just keeps getting added without thinking through unintended consequences.
Policies and Processes Audit
Every school has a binder of policies and processes and I have no doubt that some of them conflict. A different team of administrators and teachers needs to review all of the policies and processes with a powerful magnifying glass and make recommendations that benefit the entire school and with a view towards the next two or three years. This audit should be conducted every two years, at least.
Get the IT “team,” the media specialist, and some teachers who like to use technology and want to use technology on this team to take a close and objective look at what the school has and what the school needs for the upcoming school year and with a view towards the next two or three years. Is the infrastructure sufficient? Does this team have any recommendations for the Policies and Processes Audit team? What kind of funding is needed to upgrade technology? What kind of funding is needed to get any additional necessary technology? What kind of funding is needed to get any additional technology that would help students succeed at another level? The technology audit should be completed at the end of every school year. If nothing else, it helps provide insight into loss and breakage trends but can also provide insight into usage trends.
If there aren’t many community partnerships, figure out why not. These partnerships can include local businesses as well as local community colleges and universities. Building these partnerships benefits teachers and students. Perhaps there will be opportunities for internships or apprenticeships. Perhaps there will be opportunities for guest lecturers, from businesses or from colleges and universities. Perhaps there will be opportunities for dual credit, for extended learning the school can’t offer, for scholarships. This should be on-going. I’d have an assistant principal and a couple of teachers, maybe not the “obvious” choices, as part of the team that meets quarterly to do a status check on the community partnerships and see what else they could be doing to retain and build partnerships. By the way, not all partnerships have to be immediately local. And, these partnerships may help contribute to finding a way to some degree of equity.
We have become content to rely on governments to provide for us, but schools need to take some control over their own futures. They need to be able to articulate their needs clearly and specifically. The state officials need to be able to facilitate and coordinate cooperation locally and federally; that’s no small task if local and state agencies are honestly going to try to meet the needs of individual schools.
At the end of the day, it’s not about federal, state, or local governments. It’s not about local school boards or teachers’ unions. It’s not about PTOs. It’s about the kids. It’s always about the kids. Or should be.
One of my favorite quotes about success was given to me by a former student. Booker T. Washington said,
Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.Some of our kids have a lot of obstacles to overcome. Some of our kids have different, less obvious obstacles to overcome. The solutions for our high-poverty schools are different from the high-achieving and often wealthier schools.
As we think about what it means for every kid to succeed, let’s not try to apply a single solution or set of policies or assessment method or funding calculus to our schools. Let’s do the very hard work of individualizing what it means to provide equity and resources to our schools, and enabling our teachers to do what they do best: focus on the kids.