Statistics For All!

As a good introduction to this post, watch the following three-minute snippet from TED, featuring Arthur Benjamin.

In that short clip, Dr. Benjamin (yes, he really is a Ph.D., I looked it up this time) suggests that we wouldn’t be in the economic mess we’re in now if more American adults had a basic understanding of statistics.  Then, this article came out recently asking if algebra is necessary, which struck a nerve with many, many people from all walks of life.  One commenter on the article stated something (in an angrier tone than I will) that I agreed with: how can students appreciate statistics without a basic understanding of algebra?  And then, I’ll add a word: linear.

What this is really about is the lack of differentiation we offer to students.  Math is a notoriously cookie-cutter subject, with teachers, parents, and politicians chanting that all students must have calculus by their senior year in high school.  My question is: Why?

To back up a bit, let’s look at a little bit of general history. Keep in mind, the public education system has historically educated our people to the extent of the technological needs. For example, in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was only necessary to learn the basic arithmetic that would help a farmer geometrically plan and maintain crops, be able to deduce and predict output from what he planted or grew, and be able to calculate in terms of decimals and money. In other words, the mathematical needs for the average 18th and 19th century citizen were, at most, roughly equivalent to the middle-level math we teach today.

As the Industrial Revolution began transforming our country (and the world), there was an obvious need for a more mathematical society. With the growing technological needs of the nation, the education system found a need to educate its citizens up to a (current) high school level. Engineering and manufacturing proficiencies became the new standards by which to match math education. Therefore, the studies of motion and forces—and therefore algebra and eventually calculus—became the pedagogical goal of the public school systems.

Calculus!

CALCULUS!!

The Cold War boosted this need even further, as America strived to maintain competitiveness within an increasingly technological and scientific rival. It was calculus that got us to the Moon, the planets, and beyond (and created methods for launching fiery death around the globe). Thank goodness for calculus!

But it wasn’t for everyone. Not everyone had a hand in the travels among the stars or the planned annihilation of enemies, and those who didn’t still typically only achieved a 9th or 10th grade math education. In order to be part of an economy based on financial growth for the middle class, the skills needed were vastly differentiated, but they didn’t include calculus for much of the population. Those who did use algebra and calculus became proficient in using prescribed algorithms to reach a desired solution to a problem (or creating new ones for Wall Street hedge funds companies).

Which brings us to the present. We no longer live in a manufacturing or industrial world—to clarify, most citizens will not be working in the manufacturing or industry sectors. Calculus is still widely used in the scientific, engineering, and financial sectors. But most citizens in the 21st century now live in what the researchers call a “knowledge economy,” where a citizen’s worth is based on what that citizen can understand, analyze, predict, and conclude about a problem—and then solve that problem. This set of skills is becoming increasingly reliant on the tools and processes that citizens should learn in their K-12 and postsecondary education.  Included in that skill set, as Dr. Benjamin asserts, is the ability to think digitally.

The digital world runs on data.  Data is analyzed using probability and statistics.  Every citizen should know how this works and, vastly more important, how to make sense of it.  So the culminating event in a typical high school senior’s mathematical career should not be calculus; it should be a deep understanding of statistics.  If a student is on track to enter a STEM field requiring calculus, then by all means, offer that student high school AP courses in calculus.  For the rest of us, it’s essential that we not waste time (or students) on trying to force something that cannot be and should not be forced.

However, I also believe that basic linear algebra is essential.  Understanding how data behaves against a line of regression and calculating changes in that data is important.  If we teach Algebra I (or its equivalent) by 9th grade, then there is no reason our 21st century goals can’t be met.

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Teachers Are Unsupported Consumers of Technology Learning

The following is a response to Dr. Tom Whitby’s recent blog post, “Teachers Are Poor Consumers of Learning.”  I enjoyed the post and, at first, totally agreed.  Then, I slept on it.  Check out Dr. Whitby’s blog here!

A while ago, I wrote a piece about the utility of the SMART Board in classrooms and, more specifically, the fact that teachers were given shiny new toys, told to use them, and left with no training or explanation.  The public relations effort seemed to trump any professional development priorities that may have existed.  Perhaps there was no money left to pay for training.  Perhaps there was no desire.  Hopefully, the reason for the absence of PD wasn’t lack of knowledge among district staff, although I have seen that too.

Either way, many teachers were left to their own devices when it came to using interactive whiteboards effectively.  Some were up to the challenge and developed amazing things.  Some were equal to the task, but got stuck along the way.  Many still use the high-tech board as a low-tech board (Post-Its, anyone?).  And a few have chosen to ignore that they have those boards in their classrooms at all.

Learning how to use technology is not that difficult, and is often really fun.  As blogger Tom Whitby points out, there really is no excuse for teachers to put off learning how to use technology when we all know that it makes huge differences in student engagement, performance assessment, project-based learning, connecting globally–the list goes on and on.  I’ve also (in agreement with Dr. Whitby) advocated that teachers be the learners that they want their students to be.  We should be learning.  All the time.

However, I have issues with some of the ideas in Dr. Whitby’s article for a variety of reasons.  In italics, you will find statements from Dr. Whitby’s post.  Underneath will be my rebuttal.  I have great respect for Dr. Whitby, although he doesn’t know me from Adam, so I hope that my rebuttals show him that due respect and professionalism.

“The problem is that the customer more often than not cannot articulate what the real objection is.”

Teachers don’t generally have this problem, especially if everything else is in place.  If a teacher is well-trained in instructional practices and can comfortably consider himself a specialist of learning and content, then that teacher will be able to articulate what their objections are.  I, too, have heard the “I have no time” excuse.  But one objection I hear even more often is, “I’m not quite sure how to integrate this into my practice.”  This is an important difference.

While being too busy is understandable, it may not be valid if the priority of tech integration is obvious. Being untrained or unsure how to use technology as an instructional aid, however, is valid.  From the stories that I’ve heard and the people I’ve talked to, this is a serious problem and the blame is not on the teacher.  Districts have long had a habit of showing the public that technology is here.  Make it visible.  What the public doesn’t usually see is the teacher who is left to his own devices when integrating it.

“…all along the reason for the objection is that they don’t understand how to use the product. The product is too complicated and they fear that they will fail at learning how to use it effectively, as well as looking foolish for all to see.”

I think that Dr. Whitby and I agree here.  When the teacher evaluations look for technology use, as well as effective teaching practices, and student achievement, this is scary.  I have had teachers come to me in near panic, asking me to show them how to run a lesson on an IWB, a document camera, Prezi–anything–that will help them look accomplished in the eyes of an administrator.  I don’t think of these teachers as those who should’ve been using their time to learn these things, mostly because they have!  They’ve tried to learn it, and may have even mastered the platform, they just don’t know how to launch it.  There are no models, there is no training, there is no systematic professional development.  Teachers do fear the idea of looking foolish and failing.

And when they do fail, Dr. Whitby suggests that they do what other tech customers do: they set the tech aside and ignore it.  The difference, of course, is that private consumers have access to tech support when they need it.  Do all teachers have this?

“As educators, do we throw up our hands and say that this is all too much, and there is not enough time for our students to learn all of the stuff that is out there? I think not!”

Again, Dr. Whitby and I agree one-hundred percent!  Of course we don’t behave this way.  However, students have an important asset that most educators don’t: teachers.  They have teachers who model the skills they need to learn, who mentor them, who offer advice, who track progress, who train them in the use of tools and resources necessary for their success.  This is a luxury for teachers–one which most don’t have.  There are still too few school districts who have mentorships for even their new teachers, much less teachers who are exposed to new technology.

I maintain that every time a new piece of educational technology is put into classrooms, there should be a team of mentors responsible (and accountable) for making sure that all teachers are accomplished in using that technology.  I’ve seen building technology committees put together for this purpose, with very limited success.  Perhaps this is because asking already busy teachers to account for the development of several other teachers is unrealistic.  The district (or building) needs to find effective, sustainable ways to make this work.

“Why don’t educators learn from their own teaching? Break things down into small bites of information.”

I think most of us do.  I also think that this is only the beginning.  There is a wealth of information out there about how to use technology.  There is relatively little (but increasingly more) information about using technology in our own classrooms.  And, as I pointed out above, the availability of ongoing training is almost non-existent.  I don’t think that breaking things into smaller bites is the real issue, or the overall fix.  I think this problem will endure until teachers feel supported and trained.

“As a teacher’s knowledge of technology increases, so do the skills of learning more, as well as the ability to teach more.”

Exactly!  Which is why the training, development, and mentoring I described is such an important, long-term investment that promises great returns.  Once teachers have become comfortable with the basics of the technology (platforms, devices, apps) and the basics of educational integration (research, collaboration, global communication, etc.), they will become the independent researchers and learners that Dr. Whitby describes.

Dr. Whitby is asking teachers to learn from their own teaching, which will lead them to success.  I agree, but for a different reason.  We teach our students to learn from each other and to collaborate with the assistance of a facilitator (their teacher).  Teachers must be supported and aided along the way, too.  This new century is about sharing and collaborating–isn’t that what we tell our students?

Can You Teach Anything?

I remember working through my third year of teaching school at New Mexico Highlands University when I encountered a philosophy, which haunts me to this day.  After running a lesson for a middle school math class, with my supervisor and the regular teacher observing, I had a short feedback conference with both.  After our short conversation, the regular math teacher offered her background.  Out of nowhere.

She explained that she was actually qualified in science and computers, but taught math because this class–the one I had just taught–was an extra class that no one else wanted.  She said that even though she wasn’t qualified in math, she strongly believed that “any good teacher can teach any subject, even one that you know nothing about.”

“So you can teach advanced photonics, too?”

A little shaken up, I went to class that evening (I don’t remember which one) and asked my instructor about this.  She said, “Sure, you can teach anything with a textbook, worksheets, some videos…you know what I mean?”  I guessed I did.  It still smelled funny to me, though.  For instance, I hate Shakespeare.  I really do.  I’ve never made it through reading any of his work without falling asleep, and I find it all dreadfully outdated and totally unnecessary*.  Yet, according to the logic put forth that day, I could totally teach a whole semester of Shakespeare!  All I would I need are a bunch of Shakespeare books and to borrow some worksheets and tests from teachers who actually like that stuff.

Right?

*Maybe he just needs a little bit of modern flair.

So, anyway, I didn’t buy it.  And as I’ve gone through the school years teaching and learning, I’ve decided that there is a balance that must be met to be successful at making your students successful.  I’m assuming that by “good teacher,” my colleagues actually meant that if you are a “learning specialist,” you can get kids to learn just about anything.  I’m also assuming that they were trying to say that being a “content specialist” is mostly meaningless.  Needless to say, I disagree with what they said.

A couple of years ago, I was chosen from a candidate pool of middle school math teachers that was 83 people strong.  I was the only one chosen for the position because of one thing (and I quote my principal): I “showed great passion for making math accessible and fun and achievable.”  I think you have to be both a learning specialist and a content specialist to be able to accomplish fun, accessible, and achievable lessons.

My interview attire

To be a learning specialist, you have to have more than the materials necessary to learn–you have to understand how your students learn.  If my colleagues believe (and practice) what they said, then they were, by no means, learning specialists.  Middle school students are social animals.  Most of them (but not all) hate sitting alone and learning stuff from an adult (or textbook, worksheet, or video).  Give them the choice to learn from each other, and almost all of them will pick that over loner-learning any day of the week–and it will work, too!  They will learn, and most of the time, they’ll be happy about it!  Textbooks, worksheets, videos, and individual practice don’t work for these kids.  They want to collaborate and they want to do it all the time.

It’s important to be a content specialist, too.  Without the deep knowledge of the subject, how can you possibly tell when your students are reaching their achievement goals?  How can you possibly tell when they’re learning?  Besides, sometimes, it’s just fun to show off how smart you are in front of them.  It’s fun for me and mind-boggling for them.  There’s nothing wrong with showing off once in a while.  I do it to show them that the really hard and confusing stuff is fun for me, and more often than you’d think, they tell me later that they can’t wait to be able to do that stuff.

No, a “good teacher” can’t teach any subject.  In my individually-formed definition, a good teacher is a true learning specialist, who knows how his students learn and use new information, as well as a content specialist, who has deep knowledge and love for the subject.

I’ll never teach a Shakespeare course, because I’m not a content specialist.  Personally, I’d rather undergo an appendectomy a day.  The important thing is to recognize that I could never teach Shakespeare, not because of the pain it would cause me, but because of the pain it would cause my students.

“Friends, countrymen, etc., etc., lend me your ears, for parting is such sweet sorrow. Was that the bell?”

I sincerely hope that the colleges and universities around this nation aren’t spreading this terrible idea anymore.  For the sake of the kids.

Here’s to the New Year! (A Little Planning Break)

Wow!

I’ve been spending so much time keeping up with reform talk, political issues, writing a book, and watching my amazing grandson grow that I almost lost track of the time!  It’s already July 19, which means that I will be officially reporting for duties in less than a month and will be setting up a brand new classroom in two weeks.  If you’re new here, you may not have heard that I just transferred from one district in North Carolina to a neighboring district.  Now I work in the district in which I live and where my daughter goes to school.  Good move.  But that’s not all.

Go Eagles!

The best part is that I’ve moved from a huge district that is experiencing some pretty wild growing pains and is going to be adjusting to a new superintendent after not having one for a whole year.  Technology is scattered at best and teachers are having a very hard time adjusting to the increasing amounts of testing that the district is subscribing to.

My new district is considerably smaller, more closely knit, and is in its third year of 1:1 technology implementation.  I’ve spent the past two years planning (dreaming?) of how I would use 1:1, but was always missing one thing: the technology.  This year, it’s coming to fruition and I’m just a little overjoyed about it!  My building administrators are the courageous types that believe that teachers know best how to teach, and will take the risks associated with letting teachers take risks.  It only makes sense–when you roll out a new initiative like 1:1, there’s plenty of PD that can be done (and this district does deliver), but the rest is up to the creative and innovative teaching in the classrooms.

Only one more statement about the comparison between the two districts: the change is refreshing.  It’s like walking out of a dark, smoky room into a wide-open, sunny field.  I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, I love science!  I’m a die-hard STEM teacher who truly believes that our next generation must be scientifically and mathematically literate.  (Don’t worry, ELA and SS teachers, that totally means that they should be able to communicate legibly and deeply in the English language, and that global understanding of history and culture are very important.)  I also love project-based learning, inquiry and discovery, and creativity and innovation.  I’ve taken the buzzwords of the past five years and made them my passion.

So, again, wow!  What a great year this is gearing up to be!  I can’t wait to share my ideas, my successes, my trials, my mistakes, and my reflections.

 

P.S. Seriously, if you aren’t blogging right now, get started!  This feels great!

You Talk Too Much (A Lesson in Tact)

In the classroom, we tend to take over the pace, the goal, and every little piece of the lesson—we planned it and we want it to go exactly as planned.  Again, that’s how we were trained.  My last school took part in a video pilot program, where we voluntarily collected videos of our lessons and used them to open discussions in PLC meetings.  This is the sort of thing I discuss in the preface of the book I’m writing, which takes an incredible amount of trust and courage—and an immense understanding of the concept of constructive criticism, and a willingness to accept it.

We watched a video of a teacher (who was in the meeting at the time) who had taught a well-planned and well-aligned lesson.  Blocks were about 80 minutes long, so to save time, we watched the lesson launch, the middle portion, and then the wrap-up.  When it was over, she asked for feedback; and she wanted honest feedback only, since she recorded her class in order to better her teaching.  I volunteered some constructive criticism, perhaps too quickly: “The short version is, you talk too much.”

She asked what I meant.

I said, “YOU TALK TOO MUCH!”

I answered, “There’s too much teacher talking.  I only heard a few kids answer low-level questions,” followed by a smile as charming as I could muster.  She wasn’t amused.  (In her defense, there hadn’t been any trust built into our professional environment. More on that later.)

The point I had made was that the students spent 70 minutes listening to their incredibly smart teacher explain things, let them work in groups, and then take over again, several times.  That’s exactly the way we were taught to do this job in teacher school, remember?  The problem is it’s not working.  Even in the low-quality video, you could see student after student disengaging and finding something more interesting to think or talk about.  You can almost hear the voices in their heads: “Well, she’s got this.  She doesn’t need me anymore.”

I could’ve been more tactful, I suppose.  My sense of humor(?) isn’t always appreciated.

Anyway, I defer to this blog article that says it way better than I can:

http://www.smartclassroommanagement.com/2012/07/14/why-your-students-need-breathing-room/

Enjoy!

They Need Us to Prepare Them

This last section is a little different from the others, for a couple of reasons.  The first is that the previous sections are nothing particularly new, but maybe have the need to be REnewed.  This last section, though, is at the heart of what this book is intended for: thinking about our preparation for the unknown and mostly unpredictable movement into the 21st century.  The second reason is that our students can tell you that they expect their teachers to perform the other sections as part of their jobs.  Most students, however, have no idea what’s in store for them in the next ten years, so it will be our place to make sure they are prepared.  This part, unfortunately, is not going to be simple, everyday teaching.  Fortunately, as I’ve said before, we will not be doing it alone.

We’ve heard it over and over again: our current curricula and methods are mirrored closely to those that were created to educate a 19th century agrarian society; and we have only seen major changes to fit a 20th century industrial society.  It’s true!  Nothing much has changed since then, but we can’t say that things flat lined over that time period.  There were some times when truly revolutionary practices and designs were put into play and things looked totally different in classrooms.  Those revolutionary educators—and those before them—tend to suggest that the climate of standardized testing and the accountability measures that come with it are suffocating the creativity of students and the innovation of teachers.  There are still many teachers who are moving their classes in new directions using their creativity, innovation, and the collaboration with people they work with to create truly effective practices.  The problem is that we all aren’t doing this and, seriously, we all need to be doing this.

It’s very difficult to predict what the world will look like 20, 30, or 100 years from now.  We can look backwards at the changes that have happened over the past 20 years and realize that the next 20 will be very different.  That means using a 19th century model of teaching would be the most harmful thing that we can collectively do at this point.  The old model attempted to move kids from one prescribed level to the next with the necessary skills that were deemed appropriate.  We’re still doing this; we call the program of the decade the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS).

The architects of the CCSS tout the standards as being revolutionary in preparing students for the workforce of the future.  I think parts of the CCSS are very good, using the literacy standards across content areas as an example.  Using the math standards as another example, I think we’re seeing more of what didn’t work previously—one-size-fits-all knowledge and skills standards, building on top of each other, with very little idea of how they are useful in the future lives of our students.  Even worse, they have opened the floodgates for a slew of new testing methods and scenarios.  In a climate where student testing has become problematically often and intense, this is the last thing we need to be striving for.

Look at the math standards for K-8: The ultimate goal of reaching calculus in high school is still present, with an emphasis on Algebra I in 8th grade.  All of this was pretty important during the middle of the 20th century, since we had to have lots of scientists with solid math and science backgrounds to build rockets, probes, and weapons during the Cold War, using little more than slide rules and program-on-the-fly computers.

It’s still important to have scientists, but now, in the 21st century, it’s much more important to have a literate society—and more importantly, a mathematically and scientifically literate society.  Therein lays the difference between then and now: The current model (based on the 20th century) seeks to prepare walking libraries of scientific knowledge, facts, vocabulary, and formulas so they can solve problems on the spot using their brains; the next model we use needs to prepare students to find and understand many types of information, analyze statistical data, work collaboratively to achieve a desired result, and communicate that result across a global audience.

In the 20th century, we had the luxury of guessing what our students would (or could) be when they grew up.  Now, we have no idea.  That’s because a growing number of jobs that our kids may hold don’t yet exist.  Tell that little snippet to a room of 8th or 9th graders.  You will hear an audible gasp and lots of looks of confusion.  What they’re thinking is, “then how will I know what to do to get ready?”  Tell that snippet to a group of veteran teachers, and I hope you hear the same thing.  Unfortunately, there is no real consensus, with one side saying, “More skills, more homework, more practice!” and the other side saying, “More technology, more inquiry, more critical thinking!”  There is, of course, a majority in the middle ground saying, “Both, but how?”

Right now, there is a movement happening from state to state to reduce the weight of standardized tests on school performance and student achievement measures.  Over a dozen states have opted-out from the NCLB requirements as of this writing, and several more have applied to be opted out.  But, when you read about the victory of opting out, you also see something else: just because those states are free of NCLB, doesn’t mean they’re all now moving in a totally new direction.  In fact, the Department of Education is allowing these waivers with the understanding that the states will be able to show the exact same data using different measures.  We are breaking free of NCLB in order to be trapped again by Race to the Top (RttT).  Different name; same beast.

Our students need us, the teachers and principals, to prepare them for their futures (and the future of their country as a continued player in the global economy).  The politics at the national and state levels are not going to do it.  The boards of education are not going to do it.  The president and his education secretary are not going to do it.  The for-profit test development companies are certainly not going to do it.  This is our job.  We need to speak and advocate for these kids and prepare them for their real futures.  And we must do it together.

They Need Us to Remember Why We’re Here

The following post is actually the introduction to the first chapter of my project, so it is a little shorter.  But, I feel that it belongs in this series and lends weight to the other posts.  The final post in the series, “They Need Us to Prepare Them,” will come along soon.

Let’s go back in time a little bit, to when we were all brand new teachers.  (If you are a brand new teacher, or a pre-service teacher, this applies to you as well.)  When we started, when we graduated and walked into this journey fresh and ready to use our skills, there was one thing on our minds: making a difference.  Those three words may have meant many different things for many different teachers, but the sentiment was the same: we wanted to make a difference in the lives of our students.  That passion will never die because it’s what we all believe in.  But how many times does a teacher now get sidetracked from that mission to make time for meeting deadlines, keeping up with district mandates, learning new standards, and making sure that her students are geared up, practiced, and in solid form for the upcoming high-stakes state assessments?  How does this prepare our students for their futures and, more importantly, how is this making a difference in our students’ lives?

Our students need us to be leaders and advocates for their futures.  This sounds automatic and relatively easy, but anyone who’s spent any amount of time in the job knows that there are challenges today that never existed before.  These challenges seriously impact the way our students learn and the way that the future will be laid in front of them.  They need us to do what we do best.  These challenges have also changed the way we need to teach in order to help them make the most of their potential.  This is going to take commitment and courage and dedication and hard work.  Most importantly, we have to do this together and we have to do it now.

The main driving force in education these days—other than politics—is data.  In order for any movement or program to gain attention, we have to be able to show that what we’re doing is working.  When we know something is working, it’s one thing to brag about it, but the power comes from being able to show it.  If we are to be the force behind true middle school reform, we have to be ready to show that what we’re doing is helping our students achieve, perform, and master.  That doesn’t always have to involve cold, hard, numerical data either.  In fact, several teachers will attest to the idea that the qualitative data is better than the quantitative.

Paradoxically, it’s been shown by brave educators all over the country (both qualitatively and quantitatively) that “opting-out” of the types of instruction that are prescribed by their districts to pass standardized tests eventually leads to successful performance on those tests.  In other words, putting the end-of-year tests out of mind and out of the playbook for the year will end up resulting in acceptable performances on those tests anyway, and has the added benefit of leading to real learning, engagement, and achievement in our students.

So, maybe we can start by simply forgetting that high-stakes assessments even exist.  Period.

Then, we can start making that difference that we all signed up for.

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