Blog Archives


Nice. Simple. Effective. Probably legal.

“Only someone with a gun can stop someone with a gun. Or I guess a locked metal door, that might do it. Have we tried that? No? Hmm.”


How Not To Be Principal

If you’re the assistant principal, and you’re looking to never ever become principal, here is how to accomplish that goal:

The equivalent situation in the analog world would be you finding out that two kids are walking around school with masks of you, saying dumb things, and you react by calling the cops. Moreover, you react by somehow genuinely expecting the kids to be dragged away to jail.

I can understand being upset or insulted. I can understand wanting to do something. What I don’t get is how that escalated into the event that actually happened. At some point, someone involved with the affronted assistant principal should have said, “You know what, maybe this is going a little overboard.”

As a teacher, I learned that being able to laugh at myself – and to laugh at people who are making fun of me – is somewhere between mindblowingly vital and utterly essential to my job. There’s a great line from Hyde that says, “Take your job seriously, not yourself.” After seeing this, I think I’d have to add, “Any time you think someone’s belittling your job, they’re probably just not taking you seriously.”

As teachers we owe it to our students to open our lives and minds to them. We can’t afford to get defensive about ourselves.

College Ratings

It’s a linkstravaganza!

In case you hadn’t heard, every college except Harvard (and this year, Princeton) tells people to ignore the US News and World Reports ranking of universities and graduate schools. Prep schools tell people to ignore their high school rankings. Educational organizations are, in general, terrified of being compared to each other, because they know that someone will come out on top. Part of the rationale typically given is that each school is a unique and special snowflake that should be considered on the merits of how it fits with the individual student. Having seen a lot of schools, most of them are not. Don’t get me wrong, there are some unique schools out there (Sudbury, Hyde, Crane Union), and I love them for it, but most of them are not. Schools are indeed comparable entities.

Folks seem likewise terrified of a new initiative from Obama to rate schools and make financial aid dependent on that rating. I suspect this will not be a numerical ranking, the way USNWR does things – my guess is that they’ll give out A-F grades (because, ha ha, school joke, get it? so funny amirite?), but I could be wrong.

I’m of two minds about this. First I think that it could be a useful thing to do, and might encourage colleges to step things up. Then I remember that every system can be gamed, and that teachers and administrators are no better than students when it comes to gaming the system. I guess it’s another try-and-see sort of thing; I’m just worried as to whether a trial period and further reflection are actually built into the plan.

I sort of wish that things like the NEASC accreditation ratings could be used instead. They’re less a “how good is your school” rating and more of a “does your school actually do what you say you do” rating. They’re in individual categories rather than one overall score, and it’s quite a detailed report.!

The Student Loan Business

There is an interesting phenomenon that happens in the for-profit college business. As soon as a school qualifies for Pell grants, its tuition goes up… by the average amount of a Pell grant.

It will be interesting to see if there is a reverse effect when student loans become harder to come by. I sort of doubt it, but we might find out.

Adjuncts and Teaching

An interesting new study:

This would not be unexpected. What’s interesting is that this actually contradicts previous research on the topic, in which there is typically no relationship found between research obligations and teaching performance:

The older studies tend to focus more on student evaluations, which may explain part of the difference. The newer one focuses on learning as measured by grades in that and future courses.

The newer study also focuses on just one institution, Northwestern. This may actually be a strength for the paper, as it may be possible to create an intervention study elsewhere. If there’s a school where the relationship has been shown to be null, then that school could adopt Northwestern’s practices and see if they can get a positive shift.


This also brings up the issue of adjunct pay, which is typically atrocious, and benefits, which are typically nonexistent. I imagine that a school could recruit teaching faculty much more effectively if they were willing to pay them what they’re worth. That’s the idea behind the Teaching Fellow positions in the UK, and one of the reasons the UK is so attractive to me right now.

Adjunct Infographic


Crowdsourced Grading

The beautiful dream of every teacher: never having to grade. After many years of course design, I think that’s one of my main concerns when I create a new course. I say to myself, “I know I can teach the students well, but how can I do it with the minimum amount of grading?”

Grading is a pain. Grading is why a teacher’s day does not end when school ends. Grading is what makes it feel like your days just. Do. Not. End. Oh, classroom management can be a pain, and there’s a lot to be said for teaching students who genuinely want to learn, but six hours of grading on a Sunday can wear you down just as bad as a non-compliant classroom. I’ll look at basically any way to decrease that load.

The Crowdgrader tool mentioned in the above link is fairly simple – teachers create “assignments” (which means they write some instructions), and students upload their completed submissions, and then grade each other’s work, and then rate each other’s feedback. A nice touch is the ability to do group submissions.

I’ve done a few peer grading activities in the past, all of them in the classroom. The less structured these activities were, the worse they came out. When I set up a clear rubric, peer grading generally went very well. Students especially seem to appreciate rubric-based activities when they know that you’ll be using a similar rubric to grade exams. It’s always nice to open up the black box of the classroom so that students know how things work. In more technical or creative fields it can also be nice to see how your classmates approached their work.

In fact, I think that might be the most useful thing about all of this. Forget using it for courses where most things can be boiled down to right and wrong answers. That’s just as big a waste of student time as it is a waste of teacher time. Let’s push for this in more creative, more demanding courses where the approach can be just as important as the final answer. Let’s use this when there are multiple paths to the right answer, or when we’re in that fruitful area between purely objective and purely subjective, where justification and rational argument really count.

Using this in a MOOC would be another thing entirely. The ratio of participants to lurkers in MOOCs is so low that if you assigned everyone’s work to five other people during the first week of class, you’d get 1/2 of a person responding. However, later in the course, or with courses that have better “attendance” rates, there’s a lot of potential in this tool.

edX and Google

Coming right on the heels of my course-creation review:

An excerpt:

Google will work on the core platform development with leading experts from many edX partner institutions, including MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Stanford, University of Western Australia, University of Queensland, and Tsinghua University. In addition, edX and Google will collaborate on research into how students learn and how technology can transform learning and teaching on campus and beyond.

The international setup is nice to see. When I ran Mechanics Review we certainly had the majority of our students coming from outside the US.

NYT on Research in Education

It was really, really hard to read this article. Not because it’s bad, or because it challenged my sense of self, but because it says something very important and true in such an uninformed way that my nit-picking brain just wants to tear into it.

The reason I’mĀ not going to launch into attacking the many details that are off in this article is that the core of it – the idea that there is actually hard evidence that can be found for and against various educational techniques – is completely correct. Ms. Kolata is completely right that most people still don’t know that hard evidence can be found, or even believe that it could be, or even care when it’s shown right to their face. More people should.

The article points towards the What Works Clearinghouse, which I knew about at some point but had forgotten in the intervening years. It’s worth a look. It’s missing vast swaths of physics education research, and it’s pretty narrowly focused without being specific enough about what it means, but at least it’s a start, goddammit.

Folks in physics or related fields might also check out ComPADRE and the PER User’s Guide for greater, broader, and better-defined interventions specific to physics/chem/math.

I’ve been saying for a few years now that our main issue in physics education research is not that we don’t know how to teach better – we absolutely do. We’ve known with hard evidence for over 25 years. Our issue is one of adoption. Most courses are still taught in an inherently less effective manner. If this Times article helps change that, I’m 100% behind it.

Still more game/ed links

And this time, someone else aggregated them for me!