Blog Archives

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.!

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.

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.

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’m 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.

If you send your kids to private school, you are not a bad person.

A friend sent me this:

…you can get the gist from the URL, really. And then this:

So I wanted to think about it a little. Clearly I’m on the pro-private-school side, but I’m not anti-public-school. Those of you who have read this blog a lot know that I’m pro-lots-of-different-kinds-of-school.

One of the more common arguments against private school is that it “skims the cream off the top”, so to speak, recruiting the highest-performing students and thus making public schools worse on average. I don’t think that holds any weight. There are high-end private schools, certainly, but there are also very high-end public schools. In fact, private schools don’t like to compare things like SAT scores with public schools in part because there exist such high-end public schools that they blow the private schools out of the water. Between charters (which are public) and magnet schools (also public) and just plain high-powered schools, there are plenty of places where the students could get into private schools, but they don’t, because the public school is academically better.

The article also argues that people who send their kids to private school don’t get involved in fixing public schools. I can see some weight to that. They certainly do get involved in their kids’ private schools, but tend not to have as much stake in the public schools in the short term. The argument has holes, though. The hidden implication is that the people who would, or could, or could afford, to send their kids to private school are the only types to get involved with fixing the local public school. You’re not going to win me over with that sort of argument.

I get that the writer seems to be saying, “Get back in the trenches and help fight the good fight to improve public schools.” I can empathize with that. The way the message is delivered, however, is nothing but polemic. We have better things to be doing than attacking each other over what kind of school we send our kids to.

In fact, I do believe we have an education system to improve. Work towards that at any level and you’re a good person.

Turning Students into Teachers, Online

I want to talk today about what I consider one of the major failings of our online course. Other people probably won’t consider it that way, because this wasn’t an agreed-on goal for our course (or even a discussed goal), but I was always hoping that it would happen.

(By the way, this is what happens when your “design” for something it “I sure hope it happens.”)

What I was hoping would happen was that, as the term went on, our students would help each other out more. I was hoping that our course staff – both on-campus and volunteer – would be able to pull back on our involvement in the forums, and that we would have students from the course who talked about physics, discussed concepts and problems with each other, and generally helped each other out.

This did not, as a whole, happen. Certainly there are some folks who helped one another, but for the most part our discussion board was hierarchy-driven and expert-reliant.

Part of this was the fact that we intentionally recruited Community TAs (see my previous discussion of the course staff), and they were seen as part of the staff. They weren’t viewed by the majority of forum-goers as regular students who were just friendly and helpful, these students became elevated in the eyes of others. Suddenly they had a green border around their posts, while others did not. They had a little tag that practically announced, “I KNOW PHYSICS so you should LISTEN TO ME!” I would have loved to change some students’ epistemologies from “receive knowledge from experts” to “learn and help to learn skills as part of a group.” I don’t think this happened at more than a background level.

Part of it was also the size of the group. There were about 300 people who introduced themselves in the forums, maybe 1200 who got certificates (we’ll know an exact number in two weeks), and 15000+ who registered for the course. In a group that size, you’re almost guaranteeing that most people don’t get a chance to shine. The folks who really are experts are likely to hand out answers when asked. The folks who aren’t experts (yet) are likely to receive and use them. That gets them points, which is what they want, so everything continues in that manner.

We didn’t create a system that encouraged expertise, collaboration, and mastery to the extent that I would have liked. I think that our pedagogy within the course materials has a better-than-background chance of pointing people towards expertise, but the way the students were able to interact didn’t reinforce that.

I think it’s a neat course design challenge.  As I mentioned, we didn’t intentionally design for it this time – the closest that happened was some encouragement I sent out to our volunteers, and that was only once or twice. I think it would be worth trying some intentional design in this area. We know that student interaction works as a teaching method. Bringing it to the online arena is clearly not just a matter of letting students interact. If we want to be more effective, we need to be more intentional.

Learning in Games

I write roleplaying games when I get bored. Right now I’m working on one called Sufficiently Advanced; it’s a sci-fi game. I want to talk about how people learn it, because it’s not about learning the rules system. It’s about learning the setting, and it’s a very different sort of learning.

For those unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, you can check out the wikipedia entry (which is accurate but bland) or this essay by Monte Cook, or any number of “what is roleplaying?” sections in nearly any RPG.

One can broadly split the content of any game book into “system” and “setting.” The setting is the atlas/story/travelogue that describes the game world. The system describes how your characters are defined and how they interact with each other and the world. In the best games these two things support each other – things that are described as being possible in the setting are supported mechanically in the system, and things your character can do with the system are described appropriately in the setting.

One learns most RPGs by reading the book, playing some, reading the book, playing some more, etc. Some folks are happy learning by the seat of their pants and playing first; others want to know the system in great detail before even creating their characters. Inherent in that statement is the idea that “learning” means “learning the system.” How do I roll the dice? How do I spend points to create my character? How do I make it so my character casts a spell or makes the jump to lightspeed? All of those are mechanical questions, part of the game system.

Sufficiently Advanced is a little different. The system is very simple; it deals with the outcome of a conflict, not the details, and it does so quickly. The setting in SA, however, is extensive. The game examines technology in many forms, used for a myriad of purposes, in different ways, by over a dozen civilizations. What your character can or cannot do is shaped far more extensively by the game’s setting than by its system.

Sudden flash of comprehension: SA is almost the opposite of chess. The system in chess is everything; the setting is merely painting. You could play it with coins instead of nicely carved pieces. Knowledge of the supposed setting is almost harmful. In SA the setting is king – changes in the system are not nearly as big a deal as changes in the setting. Knowing the system isn’t harmful, but relying on it for everything is. 

I won’t claim that SA has the same depth as chess, but its setting take a lot of work to master, and that mastery pays off in spades. You can see this as players become more familiar with the game. As they become more familiar with future technology and what sorts of things are possible in the setting, they take advantage of it more and more. Meanwhile, there’s not much mechanical mastery to be had. You can’t really build a character that breaks the system, and it’s genuinely hard to build a useless character. You can’t take advantage of loopholes and exploits in the system – you have to find them in the game world. Mastery of the setting is rewarded.

To tie this back into subject-based learning (because I could easily talk about this all day), consider science. I can learn the “setting” of science – current events, historical information, interconnections between fields, personalities, etc. I can also learn the “system” of science – best practices, scientific writing, underlying mathematics, etc. The latter lets me do science, the former lets me appreciate it.

If I want to really understand, both the system and the setting are necessary.

In some fields these may be a little more closely connected, but even in English one can easily separate the technical aspects of the field (grammar, spelling, language change over time) from the context (various authors and their books, historical perspectives). 

I’m not directly going anywhere with this at the moment; I just wanted to bring up some interesting comparisons and parallels. Comments welcome.

Reflections on MIT

In two days I leave MIT.

I wanted to take a little time to reflect on what the place is like. There’s a lot of mythology and legend built up around the place – you can tell from the fact that we have tourist groups from around the world here every day or two. I wanted to give a little insight into the Institute beyond the “we number everything” and “LOL hacks” level.

MIT is a highly “siloed” institution. When you’re working in your group, it’s common to not hear about other groups. Who are doing the same thing. In the next building over. Part of this is due to workload. You spend a lot of time working rather than making connections, which is fairly understandable. Unfortunately, it’s endemic to the culture of the institute. For instance, the network on my floor is run by the same group that runs the network on half of the 2nd floor, but the other half of the 2nd floor and the 1st floor are run by a different group. I think it’s only in the last year that the various education research groups have taken notice of each other. I sort of worry that when I go, one of the big links between our group and the Bio Education group will disappear.

The “not made here” ethic is also big at MIT. People would rather create something of their own than use existing materials. I can’t say that we end up with shoddy products because of it – instead, we end up with products that lack functionality.

It was stunning to see how technologically conservative the school is. Only last year did they start using online course registration, something that RPI implemented when I was an undergrad and UMass implemented when I was a grad student. Naturally, the “not made here” problem was present in that as well. I was also surprised that when I got here, I, who just came from teaching high school for four years, was the tech guy in my group. The stereotype that everyone at MIT is a technological wizard is a little overblown. (There are tech wizards here, just not everyone.)

On the more positive side, it’s very encouraging to see the motivations of the people who work here. Sure, there are curmudgeons who are only in it for their own fame, but the majority – the vast majority – of professors and staff at MIT do what they do because they want to improve the world. These are people motivated by compassion, by their conscience, and by consideration for others. I appreciate their pursuit of the truth, but more than that I admire their humanitarian goals.

MIT is most definitely filled with smart people. It’s also filled with very hard-working people, and the latter who get more respect. Smart people are a dime a dozen around here; you can’t swing a cat (why would you swing a cat?) without hitting one. Most folks are also hard-working, but there are some who really stand head-and-shoulders above when it comes to work ethic.

MIT definitely gets a high level of performance out of its students. The Institute’s basic method for this is as follows:

  1. Recruit the best
  2. Work them like dogs
  3. Provide safety nets

Most people wouldn’t expect the third one. MIT provides a lot of safety nets for its students, from summer programs for underprepared students to “recovery” courses to tutoring groups to special-interest dorms and affinity groups. If someone claims that the institute ignored them, they probably didn’t reach out. There’s no doubt that the workload is intentionally overwhelming, but there is support – free support! – for people who are willing to make the time for it.

When I was a high-school student, I wanted to go to MIT for college. It wasn’t my greatest dream or anything, but it was an aspiration. I ended up at RPI instead, which was a good school for me (at least as an undergraduate – I shouldn’t have stayed for graduate school). In the end I was ok that I hadn’t gone to MIT, because I heard about the level of competition and stress that pervades the institute, and I had enough difficulty dealing with stress as it was. I think I could have handled it here, but I don’t think I would have been happy. I’m glad when I see students who are happy here, because I know that the dream of making the world a better place is alive in them as well.

Demographic Divide

Physics has a few issues in terms of demographics. Look at any college department and you’ll see it.

  • There are almost no poor students.
  • There are very few women, either as students or as faculty.
  • Most students and faculty are white, asian, or indian. Other ethnicities are much less common.

Online education is often touted as “education for everyone” or “education for the masses.” Unfortunately, the demographic divide remains.

  • Every student could afford an internet connection, which in many countries is a dear expense.
  • Our course had only 17% female students. The percentage was fairly constant across countries. Women are being repelled from physics in droves, everywhere people speak English (and likely elsewhere). I won’t speculate on why; there’s plenty of solid research on that.
  • The edX intro survey asks about race and ethnic group,  but no one has analyzed it for minority status yet. The fact that we reach other countries does not mean that we reach minorities in those countries. Let’s say “not enough data” here.

It seems that simply providing education online (or in any other forum) isn’t enough to break down barriers. It’s clear that online education is not “education for everyone” yet, but it also seems that many of the barriers are put in place at younger ages. If an online physics course attracts roughly the same low percentage of women as an on-campus physics course, we must be doing something wrong before students even get to that point.