Monthly Archives: June 2012

Teacher training

It’s a linkstravaganza!

The topic is teacher training, one that is near and dear to my heart. I could easily have pulled half of these from the Times and the other half from the Telegraph, but I tried to be fairly broad and representative.

Standardized Art

From Nancy Flanagan at Education Week:

There’s a wonderful quote from near the bottom:

…music educators need to ask, “Why should students care about this?”

If the answer is “so they can pass the test,” we’re not describing first-rate music curriculum or instruction.

I’ll gladly generalize that to every discipline, but I think most of you know by now that I’m against test-oriented education and against standardizing just about anything. I think that if there was some test that genuinely fairly tested everything we wanted students to be able to do in a particular subject, then teaching to that test would be incredibly sensible. I haven’t seen such a test yet, nor even heard anyone in education honestly suggest that creating one is possible. Even when I took my qualifying exam in Physics, a comprehensive doctoral-level exam spread across eight hours and two days, there was a lot of physics and a lot of procedure, creativity, knowledge, planning, etc. that wasn’t on that test.

Art teachers will probably never agree on whether creativity is teachable. My opinion is that anything teachable is testable (because otherwise, how the hell do you know you taught it?), but that doesn’t necessarily mean modern-style classroom tests, and so an entirely separate debate will continue about whether creativity is testable. It is highly unfortunate that the people having that debate are mostly art teachers, and art teachers are not the people making the decisions about whether their discipline will be next to be standardized or marginalized.

They could be, though.

These are the people with the greatest ability to raise their voices in song and protest, to paint the town with fliers and murals, to move hearts and drive emotions. These are people with friends in high places, with allies across music and advertising and computer game design. Every singer/songwriter, every computer graphics expert, every painter and designer, knows an art or music teacher who made a difference in their lives. These are incredibly impactful teachers, with a comparatively small number of hugely visible students.

If art teachers got organized, this could be a national issue within the week. You wouldn’t be able to turn on the TV without hearing pop stars talk about their favorite teachers and the freedom they need. You wouldn’t be able to go to any website without seeing the designer thank their inspirations for their individualized attentions. If art teachers wanted to stand up and fight against standardization, it would be a huge deal. There would be no question of standardization; it would be off the table.

They aren’t winning this battle solely because they have not yet begun to fight it.

Scientific literacy

Derek Lowe (of “Things I Won’t Work With” fame) had a good post the other day about scientific literacy:

He references this article from Slate:

…which got me thinking about the topic as well.

My concern about any sort of citizen involvement in policy has not been that we as the public don’t know enough to be able to spot the bad policies (which we often don’t), or that we aren’t versed enough in the scientific method to understand experimentation and evidence (which we like to ignore). My concern is that we just don’t have the time.

Right now there are 19 bills and resolutions in Congress (so sayeth Govtrack). Of them, I can see five that are fairly trivial, ten that I either don’t care much about or don’t know enough about to care about, and four that would be interesting to me. One of them is 2 uninformative pages, one is 4 pages, one is 91 pages, and one is 126 pages.

That’s just the current dockett. Here are the 290 bills and resolutions that passed either the house or the senate and need a vote from the other side.

Seriously, being a congressman is a more-than-full-time job. This doesn’t even look at state bills. If there were even one fifty-page bill per day, I wouldn’t have time to read it and understand it. I’d still be relying on outside sources to tell me what’s going on with the bill, and trying to find sources that I trust – how, I’m not sure. It’s like trusting your plumber, I guess – you don’t know what the hell the guy does, but if your pipes stop leaking afterwards, he must be worth the money

If I wanted to teach children (from grade school through high school) about what they need to know in order to be an informed citizen, I think I’d concentrate on having them encourage congress to pass fewer laws, so that we have time to pay attention to them. We can teach children to think all we want (and I’m serious, we really can, we know how), but government does not always want citizens butting in. The more complex it is, the less the chance that someone will get involved and make a difference.

Wherein I create an echo chamber

Recently I was talking about the importance of inspiration in science education. As often happens, someone else says it better:

I know that posting opinion articles that back up what I’ve said puts me more on the pundit side and less on the research-and-evidence side. I’ll see what I can find for some harder evidence here; there must be something good from the CLASS survey.

The Heart of Educational Research

Today’s link is from Teach.Brian.Teach., a great introspective teaching blog. It also makes reference to my alma mater, RPI.

The post is fairly heavy with Physics Education Research terminology. For those not familiar with it, the FCI is the Force Concept Inventory, a multiple-choice concept-based exam in Newtonian physics. “T” courses are “traditional-style” focused around lectures where professors transmit content to students. The “g” in brackets is “normalized gain,” a measure of how much students gained on the exam as a fraction of the maximum amount they could have gained.

What really struck me, though was this quotation, which requires no jargon to understand:

This work, for better or worse, treads on a sensitive arena–a close examination of ourself.  The fact that this work is being carried out by students, I think, could be perceived as making this endeavor even more sensitive, but in an odd way it makes it authentic. All of these students are really interested in improving instruction here, doing research that is valid but also relevant to local stakeholders. They have no axe to grind or hidden agenda. We are also just genuinely intrigued by the puzzle, and curious to pursue its potential solutions.

And that is what educational research is all about.

Censorship and education

I have never heard, nor would I ever imagine, that censorship would be good for education. I have enough trouble with it on the “parental browser settings” level, where any child with the desire to do so can override the settings. On the level of national governments, I find it shameful, and a sign of corruption and weakness.

People talk about “citizenship” as an important skill for the next hundred years. A citizenry that is never exposed to certain ideas is necessarily weakened and undereducated, and a government that intentionally weakens its citizens should not expect to do well.

Education at its most basic requires exposure to a wide variety of ideas. Guided, perhaps – but not censored.

Chinese students, US Schools

Just a link for today.

It’s bizarre to have U.S. education pundits talking about how private schools don’t measure up in terms of their education, and to also know how U.S. schools are falling compared to international schools, and then to see an article like this one.

On the importance of inspiration

I’ve recently found myself defending the role of teachers (and professors) as sources of inspiration. This is a little bizarre to me; it’s something that I really took for granted that everyone believed in and accepted.

The pushback is actually  coming from some of my colleagues in the educational research field. I think the reasoning goes like this: “If we have good methods, shown to reliably improve student learning, then teachers who properly implement those methods are good teachers.”

And let me tell you, we do have good methods, shown with exceptionally strong evidence to improve student learning. Anyone who tells you otherwise is welcome to debate me with counter-evidence. I will crush them in the debate. But I don’t think that that’s all that matters.

Excellent methods definitely help people do well once those people are committed – or even just vaguely interested. But they won’t get people hooked. Bill Nye got people of my generation hooked on science (I got hooked by 3-2-1 Contact). Carl Sagan got my dad hooked on science. The Life and Planet Earth miniseries will be inspirational for a whole generation of biologists, as will next year’s update to Cosmos. And while people can fall off the hook, we have no chance of reeling them in if they’re never hooked.

As researchers, we want to believe that our methods are both necessary and sufficient. In reality, they are necessary if we want to reach more people and teach better – but good methods are not sufficient on their own.

One of the things we hear about other countries’ education systems, once we get past the number-of-hours and amount-of-funding questions, is that education is more highly valued in the countries that are doing best or improving most. China, Korea, Norway, all of them have a serious culture of education among both teachers and parents. When parents genuinely care about how good the schools are, when they respect teachers and teaching as a profession, when they’re willing to put their money where their mouths are with their taxes and put in time working with their kids, that’s a big deal. Parents are absolutely part of the core of inspiration that kids need. Teachers (and professors, and coaches, and adult role models in general) are also a big part of that core.

When we show students how much we absolutely love our topics, when our enthusiasm shines through, students pick up on that. Even if they never go on to learn science in college, if they never pick up a single scientific book in their lives, we can still teach our students to care about science. Hook ’em with inspiration, teach ’em with methodology. One or the other alone is good, but it’s not great.

Of course, now the question comes up: how do teachers and professors learn to be inspirations? How can we encourage – and teach – teachers to be inspirational?


A few inspiration/engagement links:

From the Pipeline

I read the chemistry blog In The Pipeline, (the home of Things I Won’t Work With), and he had a great article the other day in my field:

Just food for thought.


Richard Feynman is one of the few scientists that ordinary folks might recognize by name, along with Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Sagan, and Bill Nye. (Neil deGrasse Tyson is headed for that list.) Part of this is because Richard Feynman was the closest non-fictional approximation to Buckaroo Banzai.

Compare excerpts from their Wikipedia entries:

Dissatisfied with a life devoted exclusively to medicine, Buckaroo Banzai perfected a wide range of skills. He designed and drove high-powered automobiles. He studied bujutsu and particle physics. His skill with a sixgun was reputed to eclipse that of Wyatt Earp. He spoke a dozen languages and wrote songs in all of them. His band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, was one of the most popular, hard-rocking bar bands in east New Jersey (Buckaroo plays electric guitar and pocket trumpet), though its members (bearing names like Rawhide, Reno, the Swede, Perfect Tommy, Big Norse, and Pecos Bill) were not professional musicians at all, but rather cartographers and botanists, linguists and propellant engineers, an entomologist and an epidemiologist.

Before entering college, (Feynman) was experimenting with and re-creating mathematical topics, such as the half-derivative, using his own notation. In high school, he was developing the mathematical intuition behind his Taylor series of mathematical operators. … On occasion, Feynman would find an isolated section of the mesa to drum in the style of American natives; “and maybe I would dance and chant, a little”. These antics did not go unnoticed, and rumors spread about a mysterious Indian drummer called “Injun Joe”. … Bored, he indulged his curiosity by learning to pick the combination locks on cabinets and desks used to secure papers. In one case he found the combination to a locked filing cabinet by trying the numbers a physicist would use (it proved to be 27–18–28 after the base of natural logarithms, e = 2.71828…), and found that the three filing cabinets where a colleague kept a set of atomic bomb research notes all had the same combination. … Responding to Hubert Humphrey’s congratulation for his Nobel Prize, Feynman admitted to a long admiration for the then vice president. In a letter to an MIT professor dated December 6, 1966, Feynman expressed interest in running for the governor of California.

Enthusiasm for life is good stuff.

I bring this up because Feynman’s FBI files have recently been released under the wonderful Freedom of Information Act.

The next time I have a really bright but tough-to-reach student in physics or mathematics, I have to remember to buy them a copy of “Surely you’re joking”.