Friday, December 25, 2009
Personally, I'm a fan of performance-based pay for teachers IF it truly reflects the performance of the individual teacher. If students took a test at the beginning of the term and at the end, and the teacher's performance was based on students' mastery of material, gained during the time they were taught by that teacher, then okay. According to an article by Malcolm Gladwell, "Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material." However it is that Hanushek is figuring it out, if we used that measure and it's accurate, that sounds good to me.
The negative reaction I got was mystifying.
First, I was challenged on whether it is possible to actually judge performance. It is true, we don't currently have instruments that judge student performance in all disciplines, only in the ones that are currently part of the "core". However, tests could be developed that would measure what we say we're teaching. Standardized tests that test the curriculum aren't always bad - teachers should be teaching the curriculum, and if they shouldn't then the curriculum should be changed. (I'm not discussing school-based bonuses where all teachers are paid based on student performance on core standardized tests, I'm arguing individual performance.)
The example given? PE. Apparently it's impossible to test how far or fast a student can run at the beginning of the term and test it again at the end of the term to see if there's a difference. Or if it's possible then it isn't fair because, apparently, motivating students to perform or otherwise getting them to do the curriculum is more than a teacher should be responsible for.
I suggested that good teachers are able to get their students to learn the material. Period. That's what makes someone a good teacher.
I was told that I'm unrealistic, because I work in a private school. I don't understand what it's like to have a classroom of 40 kids (largely true) who have varying ability and interest (untrue). It's not possible to support the low kids and help them rise while at the same time boosting the ones who are already above grade level. (You know, like by differentiating instruction and assignments.) A teacher should not be held equally responsible for a kid who is low and truly unable to grasp the material and for one who is low but highly capable.
I am venting here, because Christmas is so not the time to get into a huge fight with a close family member who is being... um... argumentative, but to say I was dismayed is an understatement.
I kept thinking about a master teacher I know. The thing that makes this teacher great is that he believes that every student can master the material. For some kids it's easy, for others it's a challenge, but he knows that every kid can do it. He doesn't teach easy stuff either, and I've never seen him dumb down material - he has high expectations. But he is willing to go the extra mile, help students who need it, and believe in them. He lives growth mindset.
I don't think teachers should be held responsible for students' prior knowledge nor should they be held responsible for what happens to a kid outside of school, and both those things do impact the student who shows up in class. But a teacher should be held responsible for how much knowledge they impart to students in their class. All students, not just the polite ones, not just the likeable ones, not just the ones who are at grade level. It does a disservice to the rest to ignore them and refuse to be responsible for teaching them too. Why would a teacher be okay with leaving some children behind?
Sunday, November 22, 2009
This is really good for the students. It's part of our unit on digitizing data, so it's good for them to understand how real-life objects get mapped into and modeled by the computer. But even better, it's good for them to practice spacial skills. Spacial skills are the one area (of math) where girls really do fall behind boys in brain development, so practicing is good for their brains. Yay for neurogenesis!
Not surprisingly, many of them find this task difficult. The task is unlike most they've performed before, so understanding it is a challenge. Then keeping the x, y, and z dimensions straight is a challenge. Keeping track of the points is a challenge, especially for the ones with messy handwriting and other organizational challenges. And the class has been battered by swine flu and other absences; even with me posting video of the classes they miss, it isn't the same as being there.
However, I had two conversations last week that made me laugh - and made me wonder how often students psych themselves out about tasks they shouldn't be so worried about. I explained the task to two students who had been absent and were confused. I had them practice creating points and quads so I would be sure they understood what to do. The first one looked at me and said, "That's ALL?" She'd expected it to be so much harder. I think it was harder when I first introduced it a couple of weeks ago, but even with the absence, her brain is more ready now.
The second conversation was more troublesome. It was with a smart student who is insecure about her knowledge and occasionally very disorganized. I went through the material and she showed me she could do the task. We talked for a couple of minutes about the assignment. Then she said, "but I still don't get it." I asked what she didn't get, and she described general confusion with the task.
I asked, "do you know how to figure out a point like you did a couple of minutes ago?"
"Do you understand how to make a quad out of four points like you did a couple of minutes ago?"
"That's it. That's all there is to the assignment. Get the points, make the quads, and type it into the computer."
"But I'm confused!"
At that point the light bulb went on. So I looked at her and said, "No, you're not. You think this is supposed to be hard. So you're worried that you don't understand it because it doesn't seem as hard as you think it's supposed to be. Stop worrying and get to work."
Thursday, November 19, 2009
I fall squarely on the side of the capitalist teachers. As long as they're not violating their contracts, I don't think they have any moral obligation to go unpaid for their work.
I have written curriculum for pay before, and I consider it to be owned by whoever paid for it - be it via contract for an outside group or through a summer curriculum development grant at my school. Curriculum I develop on my own for use in my classes is a different story.
I can see an argument that developing curriculum is a part of a teachers' job, akin to being in the classroom teaching and assessing student work. In my case, my administration has made it clear that they don't really care if I change the curriculum; if I want to do so, it's on me to do it on my own time. Work I do on my own time appears to be my own, not of shared ownership with my employer. This is complex and revolves around a reasonable workday, summers off, and all kinds of "what is a teachers' own time?" questions. Hopefully few reasonable people truly believe that every moment of a teacher's life from September to June is owned by the school.
Like copyright protection, if capitalism is leading to improved curriculum, then that's good. If making money on it is motivational and teachers refuse to write new curriculum and stick with the crummy old thing just because it's easy, that's not good for the students.
I should note here that while I have substantially revised my curriculum this year, I have no plans to sell it. I simply think it's acceptable for teachers to do so.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
After a first quarter that went at breakneck speed and after finally turning in grades midway through last week, I'm really tired. I also have a towering list of projects to finish. So while I'd like to give my all to teaching game programming, there's just not a lot of 'all' to give. Also, it isn't assessed and I'd like to save more of my all for my real classes.
So I'm being a lazy teacher. I always tell my students that the best programmers are lazy programmers - they look for ways to program that don't require a lot of effort. Thus, things like efficiency are important. Recursion is just an excuse to be lazy - do the least work possible and hand off the rest.
In this case, I gave them an overview of Scratch yesterday in about 90 minutes and I've handed them lots of resources to use in making their games (like the Scratch reference guide and Scratch cards). They know what games are, they have lots of ideas, and mostly what I'm doing is getting out of their way.
It's fascinating to watch them. First, they hate listening to me, so me not doing a lot of direct teaching is working for all of us very nicely. They're all engaged in what they're doing. And their styles are completely different. One is going methodically through all the handouts, following instructions and listening. One couldn't pay attention for the whole 90 minutes yesterday - by 10 minutes in she was taking the game and pushing it to the limits of her imagination. One student couldn't wait to get started on the game she'd thought up (Halo. For Scratch. By a girl.) Another one is spending huge amounts of time working with sounds.
I love camp because I don't care much about the outcomes. No standards, just lots of time for the kids to explore and learn what they like. And they're learning tons, all of it individualized. It isn't a good replacement for regular school, but it's a pretty nice change from the daily grind. And I'm glad to be reminded that when I'm lazy, the students rise to the challenge.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Two things happened in the last couple of days that made me feel great.
One, it feels good to know where to find what you need. A friend of mine is doing some teacher professional development. He's been looking for examples of great technology use across the curriculum, specifically looking for a high return on the time invested. I brainstormed a few ideas with him, but it's been a couple of years since I've really thought about this topic, so while I still find it fun to think about, I don't have a lot of great fresh ideas.
Last night I decided to invest an hour to see what I could find. I started with twitter, and thankfully, @dougpete had just posted the link to his daily links blog post. Even if I didn't already adore Doug, he's now my short-term personal hero because his blog, Off The Record, is a treasure trove of resources. I was able to compile a bunch of ideas for my friends just by stealing from Doug. (Thanks Doug!)
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
A new scientific understanding of perception has emerged in the past few decades, and it has overturned classical, centuries-long beliefs about how our brains work—though it has apparently not penetrated the medical world yet. The old understanding of perception is what neuroscientists call “the naïve view,” and it is the view that most people, in or out of medicine, still have. We’re inclined to think that people normally perceive things in the world directly. We believe that the hardness of a rock, the coldness of an ice cube, the itchiness of a sweater are picked up by our nerve endings, transmitted through the spinal cord like a message through a wire, and decoded by the brain.
In a 1710 “Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge,” the Irish philosopher George Berkeley objected to this view. We do not know the world of objects, he argued; we know only our mental ideas of objects. “Light and colours, heat and cold, extension and figures—in a word, the things we see and feel—what are they but so many sensations, notions, ideas?” Indeed, he concluded, the objects of the world are likely just inventions of the mind...Although the article goes on to make it clear that this isn't complete, doesn't it sound like perception is just based on mental models?
The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor—a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals...
The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. We see a friendly yellow Labrador bounding behind a picket fence not because that is the transmission we receive but because this is the perception our weaver-brain assembles as its best hypothesis of what is out there from the slivers of information we get. Perception is inference.
Researchers at the University of Manchester, in England, have gone a step beyond mirrors and fashioned an immersive virtual-reality system for treating patients with phantom-limb pain. Detectors transpose movement of real limbs into a virtual world where patients feel they are actually moving, stretching, even playing a ballgame. So far, five patients have tried the system, and they have all experienced a reduction in pain. Whether those results will last has yet to be established. But the approach raises the possibility of designing similar systems to help patients with other sensor syndromes. How, one wonders, would someone with chronic back pain fare in a virtual world? The Manchester study suggests that there may be many ways to fight our phantoms.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
So as I said, Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday were okay. I was kind of learning some things, but I was also getting frustrated because I didn’t feel like I understood what was going on. I take excellent, copious notes, but I felt like I was being given plug-and-chug code. They’d give code examples in lecture, pointing at parts and saying, “this part does this thing” and then we’d go to the lab and face a very similar question. Simple substitution, figure out what operator to put where, and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got working code. I kept trying to say (mostly to my peers, not to the teacher) that I didn’t feel like I understood the big picture, but I didn’t know what to ask and I had working code, so what’s the problem? I did ask the teacher some questions, but they were usually pretty specific and definitely not of the “I don’t think I understand anything that’s going on” variety. Especially since I clearly DID understand some of what was going on, I just couldn’t generalize it. I felt like I didn’t ‘get it’ but other than saying that I felt like I had no context, I couldn’t articulate what I meant.
OBJECT LESSON 5: Your students won’t necessarily come to you for help, even when they should.
OBJECT LESSON 6: Some of your students are inductive learners and some are deductive learners. It’s a good idea to try to present material in multiple ways, since some of them probably won’t understand what you’re talking about the first way you say it.
Thursday morning, we started working on stuff where a lot of people in the room had significant prior experience, while I have almost none. So we went from “you’re all experienced programmers” to “you all know this” when for me, that was completely false. Now, I wasn’t alone, and some people were asking questions, but mostly I just wrote everything down and figured when I got to lab, I could plug-and-chug the code like I’d been doing, since that seemed to be how this all works.
The key with plug-and-chug is that you either need some idea of what you’re plugging or you have to have truly perfect notes. I had neither. I had typos, I had things I’d missed copying. Syntax error after error after error, none of which mean anything to me. Also, the TAs for the course were largely busy, and instead of needing an occasional pointer, I needed someone to sit next to me and debug my code. Even going and asking my friend only made things worse – he was really nice about explaining it, but the overwhelm had shut me down again.
Indeed, I figured out much later that I actually DO have some experience with what we were being asked to do, but in my panic, I forgot all of it, or that I even should know it.
OBJECT LESSON 7: Just because your students have successfully done something in the past doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to do it right now, without extra support. (Note: sometimes they’re being lazy – in the bad way – so choose your response with care.)
Example: I talked to the parents of an 8-month-old who recently learned to sit up. The problem is, when she learned to sit up, she forgot that she knew how to lie down, so she would sit up, want to not sit up anymore, and start wailing because she didn’t know what else to do. They’re hoping she re-learns how to lie down again before they lose their minds from lack of sleep.
After lunch on Thursday, my friend and I ended up in some conversation about the material and my understanding or lack thereof. Suffice it to say that he finally figured out that I had absolutely no conceptual understanding of the material. The conversation was mockable. He wanted me to describe linguistically how to solve some of the programs I’d coded. I would say, “well, in [language]…” and he’d respond, “not in [language]. How would you DO it?” I had no idea how to describe what I’d programmed.
OBJECT LESSON 8: Just because your students can do something, it doesn’t mean they understand what they’re doing. I’ve had lots of students say, “I don’t understand” and my response was, “but look, you can DO it!” Doing isn’t the important part, understanding is. Doing is important in the workplace. Understanding is important in school. If they understand, then likely they’ll be able to do at some point.
In 15 minutes, my friend explained the big picture, the most fundamental concept relating to everything we’d learned, using quasi-programming examples. It was concrete, it was clear, and I got it.
In 15 minutes, my friend explained the big picture, the most fundamental concept relating to everything we’d learned, using quasi-programming examples. It was concrete, it was clear, and I got it.
OBJECT LESSON 9: It’s important to explain the big picture and talk about why some of the language constructs are the way they are. Hopefully you’ve chosen the language you have because it does the things you’re trying to do well. Why is that? How should students be thinking about the problems they’re trying to solve with their code? What’s the context for the code?
My friend, consummate teacher he is, kept quizzing me for the rest of the workshop, even on things that were hard, and once I got it, I was able to keep getting it. I started going back to re-do the exercises, understanding what’s happening without fear. I still probably won’t switch languages, but I’m willing to try some things and continue giving it a chance.
My friend would want me to give you the final object lesson:
OBJECT LESSON 10: Stop thinking it’s hard. My friend is convinced that a major barrier to my understanding is I’d been told how hard these concepts are and what a hard time I’d have understanding them. He’s convinced that my fear got in the way of learning. How often do we transmit to students that things are hard and they’ll probably have trouble? Self-fulfilling prophecies can be profound barriers to learning.
One thing I’m going to do is describe this experience to my students at the beginning of the year. I know that some of them get overwhelmed like I did, I know some of them end up feeling much more stupid than they are, and I suspect some of them end up feeling bad about CS when really they’re just not ready or I’m not teaching it the right way to them. If nothing else, I hope that telling them this story will let them know how much empathy I have for them.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
I’ve spent the week at a workshop, learning a programming language. It’s been quite an instructive experience, full of object lessons on what computer science is like for some of my students. (I want to note that the workshop teachers and organizers were lovely and in general I do not blame them for what happened.)
The first day was great. This language has some terrific features, particularly for thinking about math. I could see how it would be a better fit for certain applications than anything else I’ve seen. I could feel my brain starting to think in interesting new ways that will make me a better programmer in any language. I felt really optimistic.
The first night, I got in a huge fight with my husband. This is relevant because it meant that I started Tuesday in a not-good place emotionally, which had nothing to do with the workshop. Think your student’s personal lives don’t affect their performance in your class? HA.
OBJECT LESSON 1: Students bring their lives into the room with them. Their experience can vary dramatically from day to day for reasons that have nothing to do with you, but will affect their performance and behavior when they’re with you.
Tuesday started okay. The material was getting more complex, but I was keeping up. There was a little recursion, but they don’t call it recursion, the instructor just said “you’re experienced programmers, you know what that is” and I wondered what it was, until someone else called it recursion and I could see it. Oh, okay. I’ve never actually programmed recursion, but I was still feeling like I could figure it out.
Then she used a construct she had used the day before, in a way that the mental model I’d created of what that construct meant didn’t work. And everyone nodded. And I didn’t know what it meant. And for a minute or two, that was okay, because hey, I was sure I could figure that out too. Only she kept using it. First, I was distracted, because I kept trying to figure out what the code meant. Second, you can’t do recursion without this thing. And I was still not figuring out what it means. I started realizing that if her use of this thing makes sense (and I trust it does) and I can’t fit it into my mental model of this construct, then my mental model must be wrong. Which means I didn’t actually understand anything yesterday, and in fact haven’t understood anything after the first hour.
At which point my brain completely shut down. Oh, I kept taking notes, in between trying hard not to cry, because oh my god, I really am as dumb as I have ever feared.
OBJECT LESSON 2: A student who gets upset stops thinking. The more upset they are, the less thinking they can do. While they’re coping with all these overwhelming emotions, if you’re moving on, they might as well be absent.
THOUGHT EXERCISE 1: On students walking out of class. This is only the second time in my life that I’ve almost walked out of a class because what was happening in the room was so terrible for me that I couldn’t cope. I don’t leave because I find it unacceptably rude to the lecturer. I know some teachers who disagree and freely allow students to come and go when they need a break.
At the break I went and asked the teacher about my original point of confusion, and we worked out an explanation I could accept. Why didn’t I ask during the lecture? Because everyone else seemed to get it and no one else was asking any questions. I usually ask even in those situations, but it was compounded by the fact that she kept telling us how experienced we were, and I kept feeling like a fraud because I don’t consider myself an experienced programmer at all. (Can you say “imposter syndrome”?)
OBJECT LESSON 3: Just because many students appear to understand the material, doesn’t mean they all do. Make sure your class culture encourages student questions and not just student answers. Imagine how much faster I would have recovered if I had just asked what that word meant right away.
OBJECT LESSON 4: What you think is a complement (“you’re an experienced programmer”) isn’t necessarily heard positively. The best complements are direct, specific, and personal. In this case, I think she was using “you’re experienced programmers” to mean “I’m not going to teach you something important here” which would have been easier for me to hear.
At lunch, I spent a while talking to a friend who further clarified the material, while carefully standing far enough away that if I started crying he wouldn’t get wet. (It isn’t an object lesson, but if a colleague is on the verge of tears, it is okay to give them a hug. Or maybe that’s only true at the hippy-dippy school where I work, but I’ve literally provided a shoulder to cry on more than once.)
By the end of lunch, I felt better. Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday went back to being okay. I felt pretty confident that the storm had passed, though things weren’t quite sunny yet.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
why not turn the tables around. Issue students a textbook if you must, on the first day of school and have them take it home and leave it there. Change the day so that homework is done at school and students do their reading for the next day at home. In terms of technology, that way you could even the playing field with everyone having access to the same level of access. More importantly, the students would have access to each other for collaboration and for work.
- They're used to my voice and my style, and they didn't like being taught by someone else
- When I teach them, I reinforce only the things I want them to know. The Atomic Learning screencasts where more hit and miss. They include information I consider irrelevant and don't always include information I consider important
- They found them dry and boring, because it's very hard to be as enthusiastic while recording a screencast as it is in person, and a person provides extra visuals to overcome the periods where they're not talking because they're concentrating on clicking or whatever.
- Some topics aren't covered by Atomic Learning at all. There's no Flash section. Many of the Flash topics I cover are too advanced.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
Friday, May 22, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Monday, March 23, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Monday, February 16, 2009
"We now have all this data," [Houston Rockets' owner, Leslie] Alexander told me, "And we have computers that can analyze that data. And I wanted to use that data in a progressive way..."The virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the use of statistics to find new and better ways to value players and strategies, has found its way into every major sport. Not just basketball and football, but also soccer and cricket and rugby and, for all I know, snooker and darts - each one now supports a subculture of smart people who view it not just as a game to be played but as a problem to be solved.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Human beings, by their nature, tend to think of themselves as, how can I put this politely, a bit more wonderful than they really are. All of your B performers think they are A performers. The C performers think they are B performers. (A couple of your A performers think they are F performers, because they are crazy perfectionists or just clinically depressed. But they are the exceptions.)
On a related tangent, I heard a thought-provoking story last week. A group at a high tech company had a meeting. The engineers were talking about a Spolsky article. The manager had never heard of Joel Spolsky. "Who is this Joel guy?" One of the engineers actually looked at the manager in disbelief and said, "You've never heard of Joel Spolsky??" The engineers reportedly felt this was further proof that their manager is out of touch. (The manager did rise through the technical ranks, not that it's relevant.)
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
This seems to be heresy for most teachers. It is true that my school supports some really weird practices - project-based learning, no grades (narrative reports - which is what I should be working on right now!), and groupwork to name a few. So not using textbooks fits right in here. But I think (like the other practices, really) that it's fully justifiable.
I have a double-whammy: there are no texts that both cover what I want to cover and are appropriate for middle school. Most middle school "computer science" textbooks are heavy on applications and light on the things I'd like to cover. The books that cover the actual topics I'd like to cover are far, far above the reading level of my students. This year I tried an experiment (covered under educational fair use): I photocopied an exercise out of a Flash book I have. It was 20 steps, clearly explained. Half of the students were able to complete it at all, fewer than half of them were able to successfully follow the directions to get a working product. The language was above them, the writing was small, it didn't explain itself in a way they could understand... it was awful.
So I am left creating handouts, making podcasts (another thing I should be doing rather than posting!), and demoing while the students follow along and take notes. I am hoping to write the textbook I would want to use, one of these days.
I will say that I have a few favorite books I use. For Python, I rely heavily on Zelle's Python Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science and Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner. I use Zelle's graphics library rather than the built-in turtle graphics because they're easy to use and high-impact. In fact, the hangman game the students will make as their first big project is built with Zelle's graphics. I love that PPftAB has a game in each chapter - so much fun! I am hoping to move fast enough to have the students make the Mad Libs project as their second big project. It's OO and uses GUI windows. In Flash, I like the Lynda books a lot and this year I got the Missing Manual book which I like. But mostly I've got the Flash stuff down and really don't use a book. Someday I have to pull all my stuff into a website so other people can steal it if they need it.
Monday, January 19, 2009
- The imperative approach I used last year
- Objects almost-first, the approach I used this summer with a mixed group of AP-graduates and novices
- The media computation approach
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Friday, January 16, 2009
- Create complex computer animations utilizing multiple objects, creating methods, and changing parameters
- Plan and implement projects that correctly sequence instructions for the computer to follow