Monthly Archives: September 2013
The short version: New York state schools (the SUNY system) are requiring potential teachers to have a 3.0 GPA before applying to their teacher training programs.
I was initially against this. I thought, “We need more teachers! If someone wants to teach, let them at least try!” But taking a longer-term view, I think this is the right choice.
Teaching is a low-prestige job in the USA. The pay varies, but is often low. The hours are long, and most teachers work over the summer. Everyone respects someone who became a doctor or an engineer; not so much for someone who became a teacher. Everyone thinks it’s hard, but few people think they couldn’t do it themselves. “Those who can’t, teach.”
It’s easy to forget that here in the northeastern USA. Most of my friends have a healthy respect for teaching, and the pay for teachers (especially if you live in New York or Pennsylvania) is generally better than elsewhere in the country. Across most of the USA, however, teachers are respected individually rather than as a group.
If there’s one thing that unites the best school systems in the world, it’s that teachers and education are respected in that country. China, Korea, Finland, all of them have cultures where education is held in high esteem. Finland in particular has very high standards for its teachers, and actually turns away the majority of people who want to teach. If we want the US education system to get better, we need to work towards that sort of esteem. It’s a cultural matter as much as anything else, and this is a step toward that.
I’m interested to see what the short-term impact will be as well. I’m more than a little nervous about that. If there’s a big drop in applications, this initiative might fail. My guess is that someone has already run the numbers on it and, I’m just speculating, maybe only 25% of the applicants would fall under the 3.0 GPA minimum. In the long term, though, having people know that teachers need high scores to get in helps to raise their esteem of the program, and of the people who get through it.
Machine learning techniques (including such things as Bayesian knowledge tracing and its successors) are a big deal in online education these days. You might not see it implemented right now, but unless things go very wrong, you’ll see it in the next five years. It will definitely show up behind the scenes; hopefully it will also show up as a major explicit feature.
The typical goal is personalization of learning, with the assumption (which seems fairly warranted to me) that such personalization can improve the learning process.
If you aren’t quite sure what could be done with machine learning and personalization in a course, let me give a few examples.
- If Student S got the last three problems of this type right on the first attempt, don’t give S any more of this type of problem for a week.
- If S hasn’t seen a problem of a particular type for three weeks, add one to the next assignment. If they get it right, mark them for mastery in that topic.
- If S has mastery of a topic for which the current topic is considered a prerequisite, give S half the number of problems of this topic. If they get some wrong, give them the full set of problems and weaken the “prerequisite” connection between the topics.
- If the average score on assignment A1 is too low, add assignment A2 to the course.
- Randomize the order of resources R1 through R4 and see whether one particular order works better in terms of later performance.
- Feed each student problems P1 through P5, but randomize who gets P6 through P10 so we can see which ones are most effective at helping students learn. Then fix up their grades afterwards so we aren’t costing anyone points.
- If the successful guess rate is high for a problem, remove it.
- Find out which categories of students are helped most by which sorts of exercises.
- Adjust the wording of your resources to match the reading level of your students, or to push them toward higher reading levels.
All of these are fairly simple rules. You can work with individual students, with groups, with sections, with whole classes or even cohorts. You can recommend problems, book chapters, group member changes, even tell people which courses they’re likely to pass. Hell, some schools do that already.
The major barrier to including things like these in existing online education systems is that most people don’t know about them yet. Education researchers generally do, and people in AI research, but not the folks who program online education systems. There’s also a “just get it working” ethic that is fairly common in online education right now. That makes this a second- or third-generation technology – but a hell of a promising one.
Two weeks ago, in my “Make your own online course” post, I mentioned a site named Pathwright. Over the weekend I got the chance to talk with Mark Johnson, one of the folks who created the site. He was interested in integrating some components from edX into their system. I, having worked with edX, was making some suggestions as to what components might be useful. Mark had some good ideas right off the bat, going for the pieces that made edX more modular and expandable.
It was also interesting to hear about their particular strategy. Pathwright definitely has a specific niche in mind. Let the big players gather their tens of thousands of students – these folks have a different approach. They’re specifically after the custom-learning market in a way that would be difficult to reach with automated learning systems.
Mark’s example for me was how he and his brother (also on the team) were both homeschooled, and how their mother saw them really getting into HTML at age 12 or so. She recognized that they were interested in it, saw that it might be useful in their futures, and let them do it as part of their science curriculum.
That’s the sort of decision that is very, very hard to automate. That’s like a Strong AI kind of decision right there, not the simpler machine learning that people are talking about incorporating into learning systems in the next 10 years. Don’t get me wrong, machine learning has the potential to absolutely revolutionize online learning, and I should talk about that some more on another day. But saying “Hey, let’s change up the curriculum because of what you’re interested in” is a whole other level. That takes not only a bit of courage, but a bit of foresight as well, and a willingness to take risks. I don’t know of anyone who is trying to build risk-taking into their machine learning.
Pathwright’s approach is to make every course adjustable, at the level of giving different assignments to individual students. It’s incredibly time-consuming compared to running a MOOC, so you can’t scale it easily, but scaling isn’t what they’re going for. It’s nice to see folks who are really going after a particular niche.
A quote from a friend of mine, who would prefer to remain anonymous:
This common core vocabulary book is literally ruining my classes.
Normally, the study of vocabulary is integrated into the books we are reading, so I don’t have to interrupt the study of the book we’re on to do vocab exercises. Also the exercises are decidedly NOT based on sound classroom practice. They require students to primarily fill in the blanks, rather than think about and use the words. Their quizzes reflect this deficiency: they use the words in an overly literal way related to the definitions, that are frequently awkward, incorrect, and not sound usage of the words. Moreover, as I’m sure we all remember from our vocab exercises growing up, we rarely remembered any of those words after the quiz. It encourages the “fill and dump” rote memorization. What we should be doing is having students read hard words, try to figure out the sentences, and then use the words in new ways. Using something sticks.
Anyway, the end result is that they’re not using the words, I’m wasting 1 and a half days per week on this, and not making any progress on the stories we’re reading, or the units we’re in the middle of. I can’t teach the way I want to, like by actually engaging them, because I’m sitting there with the book out drilling them on fill-in-the-blanks like I’m in a pre-1900’s schoolhouse with a grammar book.
Given the Common Core’s design considerations for ELA, I’m not sure why there even is a vocab book associated with it. It seems to almost run counter to their stated goals. I’m not saying that I’m surprised by such an implementation, just disappointed. More reasons why I wouldn’t want to teach in a public school.
Most of my teaching experience has been at the high school and college levels. I taught middle-schoolers for a month or so one summer, and I’ve never taught high school. I’ve also done teacher training, tutor training, and radio station operator training for adults.
I’m looking at a few positions right now that are more adult-oriented, and so I wanted to check up on the best practices for adult education. After all, if I believe in the effectiveness of research, I should really see what it has to say.
A lot of places cite Malcolm Knowles‘ work from the ’70s, and talk about andragogy (as contrasted with pedagogy). To boil some of this down, there are a few principles that are generally agreed upon when it comes to adult learning. Things like, “Adults respond better to internal motivation,” and, “Adults appreciate being involved in the planning of their education,” and, “Adults want to know the relevance of the things they learn.” They want practical projects. They want respect in the classroom and outside it. They bring a set of experiences to bear on their learning.
In reading this, I have become frankly somewhat terrified about what we must think about children as learners.
Do people honestly believe that children, be they in grade 2 or grade 12, do not desire respect? Are there educators out there who think that high-schoolers don’t care about the relevance of what they learn? That they are better motivated by external forces than by internal interests and desires? Reading this stuff was painful, not because I found that any of it seemed wrong to me (it seems quite accurate), but because of what it implied about how children’s learning was, and probably still is, viewed.
Try teaching high school without addressing the relevance of the material you teach. Try doing it without a respect for your students. Try teaching things with no practical benefit, with no regard for the students’ prior knowledge, with no care for their own motivations. On second thought, don’t try any of that, because it would make you an awful teacher and your students would hate you.
I have no doubt that there are differences between primary school education, high school education, and adult education. This list of adult learner attributes? They’re not it. I’m still looking. If anyone has some good research-based suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them.