Blog Archives

Teaching Children vs. Training Adults

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.

Games in Education

This summer I attended not only LINC (as mentioned on Wednesday) but also the AAPT/PERC conference in Portland, OR. I could spend quite a while talking about things that I saw there, but I want to focus on one particular item: games in education.

The last session, on the last day, included a roundtable discussion entitled “Learning in computer games, learning in the classroom: Making important connections.” David Brookes of FIU and Ian Beatty of UNCG were the moderators.

The discussion was primarily focused on the question, “What can we learn about learning from the way that video games teach people to play?” Imagine that we had all taken the standard teacher complaint about “If only I could get my students to spend as much time on their homework as on video games” and followed it up with, “No, seriously, how do I actually go about doing that?” Topics ranged from the way Super Metroid teaches you how to play, to the nature of flow, to why Diablo III is less addictive than Diablo II, to the need for immediate feedback and failure tolerance. Beatty shared a framework for describing games and other phenomena, which he also discussed at his MIT talk earlier this year.

Gamification in online courses is often extremely shallow. You can get badges for doing certain things – big deal. Gold stars are nice, but they’re not serious motivation for me. I care much more about the approval from my teacher than about the gold star that signifies it. That’s gamification on the same level as Achievement Unlocked. It’s not even on the same level as Math Blaster (gah – what happened to Math Blaster?), though I suppose I do prefer it to “edutainment.” What about gamification on the same level as Magicians, a roleplaying game that helps you learn Korean – because the magical language in the game is actually Korean? What about Rocky’s Boots, which was a coding exercise disguised as a kid’s game? Where are the attempts at the Mind Game? Where are there some really deep uses of games in education, or games that teach real-world skills?

In the same spirit as the original roundtable, I’m not just making conversation here. I’d love to get a big pile of links from my readers.

I love these kinds of discussions. Cross-pollination is good for every academic discipline.

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.

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:


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”.

National Teacher Appreciation Week

I’ve heard it said many times that teaching is not a respected profession in the US, which is one of the reasons we’re falling behind in terms of education.

Here’s your chance to change that.

This week is National Teacher Appreciation Week (I know, the link is about yesterday, but it’s the whole week).

It’s half over, but there’s still plenty of time – the internet is fast. Thank a teacher.


To Bob Cooley, who believed in the power of The Odyssey,

To Lisa Schmitt, who didn’t tell us what we were trying was impossible,

To Wayne Roberge, whose humility continues to inspire me,

To too many others to name.

Thank you.


Here are a few posts from around the web:–from-socrates-to-lady-gaga/2012/05/08/gIQA9uEi9T_blog.html

Don’t Study for Tests

Every once in a while I find something that says exactly what I wanted to say, but better:

I’ve mentioned things like this before when talking about cheating the system, and possibly a few other places, but that article really takes some things and brings them to a logical conclusion that will seem irrational to many people but seem wonderful to me.

I realize that I must seem a little schizophrenic. On one side, I’m pushing articles like this one, which argue that higher education should be about learning for the sake of learning. On the other side, I’m arguing for more useful and more purposeful and possibly even more corporate education. Here is the knife edge on which the two can meet and balance:

Without learning, there is no purpose.

We do need more purposeful education, and we do need more learning-for-the-sake-of-learning, and we need them together. If you’re learning-for-the-sake-of-grades, well… let me try an analogy: Do you want a nurse who worked hard to get A’s so that she could get a good job, or do you want a nurse who worked hard to understand her course material so that she could help others?

I’m not saying that people who study for grades are bad folks (though a lot of TAs and professors I know bad-mouth pre-med majors for this exact behavior). I’m saying that studying for grades is lousy, and grading on knowledge that you can pick up the night before is lousy, and giving people jobs based on their ability to pick up knowledge the night before… well, some jobs need that, I suppose, but probably not all of them.

All of this ties into authentic education and authentic assessment and real-world tasks so tightly that I’m not sure they’re separable.

Changing this behavior is exceptionally tough because it’s baked in at so many levels. If we start changing the students in middle school, their college professors will need to be ready to handle them in six years, and I’m not sure that higher education moves that quickly. Online education could, but right now people are more interested in recreating the existing systems in electronic form. It’s a shame.

Like so many educational improvements, this is a cultural issue, and those are the hardest places to gain traction.

Morality in Heirarchy

If you are in any level of school administration, you need to read this article, passed on to me by a friend:

It boils down this lengthy report of the UC Davis pepper spray incident.

The key message is, over and over again, “failed to communicate.” To quote George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” The UC Davis administration and the police that they called in were both permeated with that illusion, for weeks, and the pepper spray assault was the result. Here’s an excerpt:

Chancellor Katehi, on her part, “thought she made it clear” that when police ordered the students to leave, they were (a) not to wear riot gear into the camp, (b) not to carry weapons of any kind into the camp, (c) were not to use force of any kind against the students, and (d) were not to make any arrests. But all that anybody else on that conference call heard her say out loud was “I don’t want another situation like they just had at Berkeley,” and Chief Spicuzza interpreted that as “no swinging of clubs.”

This sort of situation is constant throughout the report. When you have to say “I thought I made it clear,” you didn’t. When you have to say, “I thought I understood,” that’s a sign that you didn’t know what the hell was going on and you weren’t about to admit it.

Because you’d rather see other people harmed than have yourself look stupid.

If you have trouble looking stupid, if it really scares you to the point where you’d rather have someone else rub capsaicin in their eyes than admit your temporary, changeable shortcomings, then I’m sorry but the world needs you to not be in charge of anyone. If you need to gather your courage first, that’s understandable – but gather it quickly, and act. For me, it helps to consider it as setting an example to the students I work with: that anyone can admit their faults and work to correct them. That, to me, is a lesson worth embodying.

Separately, there is also the issue that several people had been given directives, or even orders, that were either impossible or illegal. From the chancellor to the police chief to the officers at the scene, these people attempted to complete those tasks.

If you are in a position of power, it can be very jarring when someone underneath you says, “What you’re asking us to do is wrong and I won’t be a part of it.” It should be more than just jarring. It should be a show-stopper, an instant halt to operations. People do not stand up and say such things easily or lightly. I’ve been on both ends in such situations, and I wish that I had listened more often, and listened better, when someone under me told me that what I was doing was wrong. I’ve also been the whistle-blower. Sometimes people listened. Other times they just took the whistle out of my mouth and patted me on the head like a dog.

Any one person involved in the chain could have stopped this. From the chancellor saying precisely what was or was not allowed, to the police chief refusing to allow riot gear and weapons, to the lieutenant, to the officers themselves. Someone should have stepped up and been the moral compass. Even one officer, even one, should have taken another officer by the shoulder and said, “Holy shit, stop spraying them.”

It would have been so simple.

This, to me, is one of the great failures of our educational system: that when human beings are given illegal or immoral orders, they do not immediately refuse. We do not truly think and speak for ourselves often enough; we want to have someone with us. We want to rebel en masse or conform and keep our heads down, as if by doing so we can avoid the moral consequences of our actions and the actions of our leaders.

We as human beings turn acts of moral fiber into acts of social or professional suicide.

There will always be people who make immoral decisions, sometimes intentionally, more often not. If we do not teach our students, and train our teachers, to stand against such decisions, we will be ruled by them.

Automated Grading

It’s not just for Scantrons any more.

First, a few recent news items along these lines:

The last link is a little different – it’s about predicting how well students will do in courses based on their past performance. Just consider that a little automated student advising.

I think that every English teacher in the world would like to have some sort of automated paper-grading machine, which takes in student papers and spits out corrections. Now that the world is getting closer and closer to that, we’re suddenly frightened of it.

I understand the concerns. First, as teachers and professors we want to believe that our feedback and input is important, which it is. If we let a machine take that job from us, it feels bad – we feel inadequate and easily replaced – but in my mind that’s just a misunderstanding of what’s happening. More on that in a second.

Second, as someone who gives questions that say things like “derive,” it seems like it might be difficult to do well. As things become less formulaic, in fields like English and History, it feels like it would be harder and harder to get a computer to “correctly” grade papers. Certainly we can train TAs to grade derivation problems faster than we can train a computer to do it. As evidence, I present the past hundred years of education, where TAs graded derivation problems and computers did not. Developing computer grading systems is hard.

Testing such systems, however, is really easy. It works like this:

  1. Have a bunch of human graders mark up a set of papers, rating them on a set of criteria as one would with a rubric.
  2. Create the “inter-rater reliability” score: how well did human graders agree as to the quality of such papers on the chosen criteria?
  3. Have a couple computer grading programs rate the same papers on the same criteria.
  4. Create the inter-rater reliability score for the set of computer and human graders together. If your reliability increased when you added in the computers, then your computers not only agree on what the scores should be, but they can find those scores more reliably than human beings.

If you want to say that the computers might calculate numbers but can’t give nuanced and helpful feedback, you first need to convince me that your students read your feedback.

Here’s when the misunderstanding comes in: when educators confuse writing comments with connecting to students. I’ll believe that, until real AI comes around, students will need a human being with whom they can connect. However, you’re not doing that with your red pen. (Or even a green one.) You do that in the classroom, in your office hours, in the lunchroom or the dorm, in the gym, in passing interactions and long sit-down talks. Teachers and even college professors can connect meaningfully with their students. I absolutely believe that it can be beneficial for both parties; formative, even. But that’s not what giving grades is for.

Most importantly, in order to reject computer grading, I would have to accept the importance of grading in general – which I don’t.

Putting numbers on papers was never our job. Educating other human beings is our job, has always been our job.

I’ll be glad to shuffle this massive stack of papers into the grade-o-matic and let it spit out pointless numbers, while I work on inspiring my students. At least the grade-o-matic will be more reliable than having me score student work when I’m low on sleep.

The day will come when we can get computers to reliably read in papers and spit out important and useful information about them. Information that lets us as teachers talk to the students one-on-one in an informed manner about how to improve their work. That day will be awesome. That day is not yet here, but the day of automated grading is apparently very close.

Edited to add: 

Just yesterday an article came out in the Times with Les Perlman of MIT trying to find a good way to cheat  auto-graders. Here’s a great line from the article:

“He wants to show why it doesn’t work,” said Peter Foltz, a Pearson vice president.

“Yes, I’m a skeptic,” Mr. Perelman said. “That’s exactly why I should be given access.”

As one would expect, the automated graders don’t understand things like context and factual accuracy yet. They do, however, understand grammar and sentence structure. Some of it comes down to whether you’re intentionally trying to fool them, which of course many students will.

It would be interesting to see a two-grader setup, with an expert checking for facts and sensibility, and then handing the paper off to a computer to assign numbers.

200% Completion

(It’s a video game reference.)

Today I wanted to look at college completion and drop-out rates. This was brought on by seeing this site, which I was linked to by an old co-worker:

After you see the stats on the main page, just type in your favorite university at the top and take a look around. Not every feature works on every browser, but it’s fairly good overall.

It’s a rule of thumb right now that one third of the U.S. has a college diploma, one third has a high school diploma, and one third does not. I find that somewhat terrifying – the high school dropout rate in particular.

The dropout rate in my broad field, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), is even higher. Check out the PCAST Engage to Excel report (click here for a .pdf download), which I was lucky enough to see presented by one of its writers. Only about 40% of students who start off in STEM in college end up getting a degree there. We lose more STEM students to college courses than to high school courses.

Let me repeat that: We lose more scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technology folks in general… in college. Not in standardized high school courses that teach to the SATs and AP exams, but in college-level courses where there is greater freedom to innovate and more fascinating topics to explore. We lose most of them in the first year or two.

That is shameful. Downright shameful.

The reason, I think (and this is just opinion here), is inspiration. I’ve been in more high school courses where the teachers come in with a love for the material and an enthusiastic presentation, seeking to inspire their kids. Intro-level college courses are often boring and dry, with the promise of more methodical and boring stuff afterwards.

I admit that there may be something to say for the effect of the difficulty level gradient – I’ve never heard people say that they left the humanities or a business program because it was too hard, but I do hear that about science and mathematics. I also hear people say that they thought science would be interesting, but it turned into boring mush, whereas business was up-front about what business does.

Luckily, we all know how to teach better – we only need the desire to pull it off.

It’s odd to see colleges needing to pull inspiration from high schools – and even middle or grade schools – when it comes to keeping kids in STEM fields, but that’s what we need right now. We need inspiration, and so do our students.