Blog Archives

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.


AP Changes Afoot

Some good news (in my mind) for the AP curriculum:

For someone like me, who is not a huge fan of AP courses in general, this is a good change. More focus on research, and exams with optional parts so that teachers can Voltron a class together without worrying about screwing over their students when they skip a topic. Naturally, I’d like to see a bigger and faster change than a few schools having a three-year pilot program.

This also reminds me that I should do a more thorough post about the IB curriculum some day.

Corporate Education

(As a counterpoint to the Business Education post I had a while ago…)

Hey there, Educational Institutions. It’s us, Major Corporations. A few of us got together for a bull session, and decided we wanted to bring you to the table and talk some business. Short version, we want a change, and we’re willing to put something on the table for it. Let us set the scene.

We’ve hired a lot of your graduates in the past. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. And part of that is just how things go. Bad fits, mismatched expectations, people who really want to do something else at a different company, those things happen. It’s life.

But some of the problems are bigger. We hire these kids – we shouldn’t call them kids, they’re 21 plus – we hire these college graduates, and within a week it’s obvious they’re going to need training. A lot of training. We put them on a project and…

  • They aren’t professional.
  • They have no teamwork. Can’t lead, can’t follow.
  • They lack initiative – they don’t know how to start a project themselves.
  • They can’t communicate. Can’t write, can’t present.

What’s more, everything they do, it’s like they’ve barely seen it before. It’s, “Oh yeah, I did that once… I can’t remember how, though…” We’d rather have someone with half the number of skills and twice the polish, you know? And so we spend more time finding people with those skills, because every couple hours we spend on hiring, throwing out people without those skills, can save us months of expensive on-the-job and off-the-job training. And let’s face it, no business wants to train people any more.

So we’d like a change.

Here’s the deal. On your end, you cut back on the number of different things you’re trying to jam into the day, and teach your kids the things we talked about above instead – communication, initiative, teamwork, professionalism. Give them the skills we’re really looking for. We want people who can write well, think carefully, and work together.

We know as well as you that there are only so many hours in the day, so many days in a year. Less in the school year. We respect that fact. And we know that you’d really like to teach less stuff and hit the important points. We know that you genuinely do care about preparing people for the Real World, and we, as the Real World for so many people, want that too. So let’s do what we both want to do: get some people with better Real World skills and less random facts crammed into their heads.

We know this is a big ask here. It’s going to take a lot of work to redesign so many courses, even if it’s something you want to do already. So here’s the payoff:

In return for your work, we give your students extra consideration in hiring for the next twenty years. We bump them up the list just because they graduated from your school.

And look, if you don’t want to be part of this, you can walk away from the table, no harm, no foul. Not everyone wants to work for us, and we respect folks who want to go into the military, the peace corps, or teaching. But here in Major Corporation land, we’ll be looking for the graduates of the schools who sign up with this. Think about the recruitment possibilities. Think about internships, co-ops, joint research… new facilities? Who knows?

What do you say?

Call us.


Be Careful What You Ask For…

I’ve seen a lot of articles recently on Virginia’s removal of state science tests, and on the House education committee’s upcoming debate about standardized science tests. Links are below.

It almost makes me want to shake people and shout: Do not keep asking for standardized science tests! You might get them! With all the teachers trying to get out from under the thumb of “teaching to the state tests,” with overpacked curricula aimed at overpacked exams given too often, please, please, please, think before you demand yet more testing. People are reacting to the removal of standardized testing as if it were dangerous; it is not. It is freeing.

I realize that people are doing this because they want to make science a priority. Me too. I can see the point that people make about how schools are getting focused around tests to the extent that anything not tested will not be taught. I get where they see that. I do not get giving into it. Demanding that science have its own standardized test locks us into a painful and joyless system. Let’s find another way, one that doesn’t suck the remaining life and spirit out of a beautiful discipline that taught us how to cure disease and sent us to the stars.



Games and Schools

Oh man, the confluence of two of my favorite things and biggest influences…

Turning things into games is a big deal these days. Looking up “gamification” on Google gets over three million hits. Games are no doubt a bigger deal than they’ve ever been in the past, mostly due to ubiquitous game consoles, cell phone games, and oddities like elderly folks using Game Boys to stay mentally sharp. Some folks are looking to make such oddities become more and more regular.

The Quest to Learn school, and probably a few others, seeks to educate its students primarily through games. A pair of links are at the bottom of this article.

I think it’s a fascinating idea. On the one hand, I’m worried that people trained and educated in a game-heavy manner will have trouble when the game ends. On the other hand, it’s already true that people who are trained and educated in the current system have trouble when they can’t five-paragraph-essay and problem-set their way through life or work. Kind of a toss-up there.

I know that personally, my mind has a massive capacity for useless game-related facts. I can run original D&D without notes. I still remember which weapon and armor types are best from games I haven’t played through in fifteen years. I remember the names of bad guys from Crystal Quest… from the Apple IIGS. If you don’t remember that computer, it’s probably older than you. I also remember currencies because of Carmen Sandiego, and I learned about AND, OR, and NOT gates from Rocky’s Boots.

On the down side, education is not about random facts. Some things you can absorb well from games and generalize to other arenas. If you want to learn strategy, Chess, Go, poker, and various RPGs are known to help. (Anecdotally, at least.) I’ve seen someone who knows economics destroy people in Monopoly. There are the memory games I mentioned before and their positive effects on the elderly. There are absolutely good things about games. I’m just saying that it’s not a magic pill – you can do it well, or you can do it poorly. Rocky’s Boots was slow as hell, but it taught me the basics of how logic gates work and how computers work at age 10. Carmen Sandiego was interesting and fun, but all I got out of it was random facts. I already knew how to use an almanac.

Game-oriented learning, regardless of its level of potential (high or low), is going to be very difficult to do well. As I’ve gotten older (and I’m only 33), my tolerance for new tabletop RPG rules and such has decreased. I’ve seen this in my gamer friends as well, many of whom just aren’t interested in learning any new systems at age 30. Even good ones. People can sniff out a crappy game from a single look at the box or the title screen. If you want to educate, you don’t necessarily have to entertain at every second, but you do have to engage people and capture their interest. It’s not trivial to do that.

Wait, I just had a brainstorm. (No, seriously, like, as I’m writing.)

We have a hard problem. If we can get together a bunch of good coders, educators, and game designers, with this level of difficulty, we can get them into a flow state. So if we can make a game that’s about making education games…



Teachers Can’t Stop Bullies

Bullying has been a big-ticket item this past year, from grade school through high school and even hazing and abuse at the college level. I wanted to put my two cents in, because I think that the reaction we usually see is ineffective.

Most of the reaction I’ve heard of from schools and parents involves two ideas:

  1. Schools creating anti-bullying policies, and/or
  2. Teachers needing to be more active in stopping bullying.

I just don’t think those work. I think there are good things that can be done, but those aren’t them. Let’s start with what we can’t do, because I want to get the chaff out of the way before we get to the wheat.

  • Policies cannot stop bullies. This is partly because bullies do not read them or care about them, but mostly because accomplishing things is not what policies generally do. What a policy does is give a school administrator or PR representative something to point at when talking to outside press and officials. A policy is something to show that you’re trying to address the problem. Policy does nothing about the actual problem, it’s just a talking point. You don’t need a policy in order to act.
  • Zero-tolerance policies just make the issue worse. That’s how we’ll end up with kids who aren’t really bullies getting suspended for a few angry words, the way kids with Swiss Army Knives get suspended under no-weapons rules or second-graders get suspended for “sexual harassment” while kissing on the playground. It shows a lack of understanding and a lack of compassion. Zero-tolerance policies create the sort of reaction you expect from a badly programmed science fiction robot, not from a school full of intelligent, caring adults.
  • Teachers can’t stop bullies just by being more vigilant and reactive. Having been the target of bullies when I was a student, let me tell you – they’re fairly bright when it comes to simply not doing what they do in front of teachers. It can happen after school, on the walk home or in the dorms. It can happen literally behind teachers’ backs. It can clearly happen online, and people genuinely care about the online arena much more now than they did when I was in college.
  • I’ve also been a teacher myself. Living at schools with such a tight-knit communities, I know that catching bullies and telling them to stop is like… it’s like mowing the weeds instead of pulling them out. It’s like stomping the mushrooms when the actual fungus lives underground. It’s like cutting off the top of an iceberg and expecting the remaining 90% of it to sink. If a simple “hey, stop being a bully” or even a sit-down conversation is sufficient, you’re dealing with a very rare and lucky case. (Important note: bullying was not a major issue at either school I worked at, but it did happen from time to time. They’re teenagers, after all.)

So let me talk about what I think does work.

When I was bullied myself, back in the 7th and 8th grades, the one thing that worked best was another student. I had a table full of kids picking on me on a semi-regular basis. If any teacher had told them, they would have stopped for five minutes and then gone back to giving me grief as soon as the teacher’s back was turned. However, one of my friends from grade school was one of the “cool kids” in middle school.

He told them to knock it off. They did. Simple as that.

Students are our best allies when it comes to shaping school culture, and school culture is a powerful way to reduce bullying.

The schools I worked at had relatively little bullying because it was less acceptable there. Bullying was just flat-out not ok. This is a commendable attitude among teachers, but the important part is that the attitude extended to the students. When bullies came into the school they generally didn’t find a clique of like-minded thugs to hang out with, or if they did, they found out that said group was most definitely not the “popular” group. Again, I’m not saying there was no bullying where I worked – there certainly was some – but it was less common and less severe than at most other schools. The two schools have very different cultures, but the idea that bullying was unacceptable was a common element.

As teachers, we can act against bullying, but we can’t do it alone. Playing whack-a-mole or cops-and-robbers is a waste of our time. The fight against societal issues happens at a societal level, and we need to engage our students in creating the sort of society that stands together. We need to make it unacceptable to be a bully within the social fabric of the school. This does not mean that we can stand by and watch things happen, because some things need to be addressed immediately. It does mean that we can’t stop with “hey, knock it off” and imagine that we made a long-term difference.

There are a lot of good ways to do this. It’s one thing that many religious schools get right, in my mind. That’s not how I’d choose to go about it, but I’ve never heard of bullying happening at (for instance) a Quaker school. Another option is to get genuine discussion going throughout the school about the topic, perhaps in all English or History classes. Talking about bullying in class takes time away from the curriculum, but, to be frank, so does a funeral. I know which one I’d rather have on my conscience. Ask a class full of students to really talk about bullying and you’ll find that most of them find it despicable. We need to get that response out in the open more often. Another approach with some potential for success is pulling a group of influential students into the office of the head of school (or principal, or what have you) and asking them how they intend to fight the problem, and what you can do to help.

We as teachers need to have the guts to truly connect with students and their lives.

There are many ways to improve a community and build a better school culture. There are many ways that we can help – as teachers, as administrators, or just plain as adults. We cannot solve this problem ourselves, but we can be part of the solution.

They’re not all there (nor should they be)

First, a link to one of my favorite teaching poems. Not that I have a lot of them.

Did I Miss Anything?

(The FAQs linked to at the bottom of that page are also worth reading.)

I was at a talk by MIT’s Dean of Engineering and (because it’s 2011) one of the hot topics was distance education. He had this wonderful statement that was something to the effect of, “Our students are great at distance learning. They’re already doing it right now – some of them from their dorm rooms.” A somewhat uneasy and embarrassed chuckle went around the room.

I personally had a great attendance record in college. I think there was only one class session that I intentionally skipped. I think my girlfriend had something to do with it. I know other folks who considered the class sessions optional, and I know of courses (especially in Computer Science) where class sessions were genuinely were designed to be optional.

I’m divided. On one side is piles of research on the educational worth of interacting with teachers and interacting with one’s classmates. On the other side, we are confronted with the crappy way we teach. Despite mountains of evidence that the “stand and deliver” lecture is ineffective, we seem disinclined to change. Peer instruction and interactive teaching methods do work, verifiably better than traditional lecture, and people just ignore them.

Students miss class because they can. They didn’t miss anything important; nothing that they can’t just make up later or take a point or two off their grade for.

Distance and blended education are taking off primarily because many professors and students would, at this point, love to give up on face-to-face. Cheaper and easier? Let’s do it!

Of course, if it’s cheaper and easier and no worse, then hell yes, let’s do it, and do it ASAP. Today I’m wondering whether we might as well just take that final step and chuck the face-to-face classroom altogether…

…except that I know personally just how much impact a good teacher can have in a face-to-face interaction.

I have no answers today; I’m just writing about the questions.

Motivation for a Gradeless School

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a familiar sight to most folks in education. It describes processes and skills that are broad and fairly universal, from the simplest to the most difficult or complex. Here is the “revised” version of the cognitive taxonomy, from 2000:


Most evaluations target the bottom three levels: Remembering, Understanding, and Applying. The SAT is an excellent example. If you can recall a great number of facts and see the ways they apply to a given situation, you can do well on the SATs. The SATs are also easy to grade; so easy that a machine can do it.

As we go higher up the taxonomy, it becomes more difficult to assign scores. The processes become more subjective, more idiosyncratic. Many “creating” tasks fall into the realm of artistic work, which is notoriously difficult to critique well. Many art class rubrics rely heavily on completion, effort, and the use of design elements. Work that is an “A” for a gifted student will be noticeably superior to work that is an “A” for a student without much artistic talent. I’m not saying that effort doesn’t deserve credit, far from it. I’m merely highlighting the difference between grading a creative task and grading one that requires only memorization.

So if that “A” grade isn’t the same for everyone in the same class (let alone for students in different classes, different subjects, different schools), how does that leave us feeling about the validity of our students’ grades? Ego comes in, of course. We all want to be able to say, “Of course my grades are valid. I’m a good teacher.” I hear where you’re coming from, but for this topic we’ll take you being a good teacher as given. The validity of grades has nothing to do with whether you personally are a good teacher. It depends on every teacher being a good teacher in the exact same way, and not only is that the kind of educational straightjacket that I’ll never want to participate in, it’s just unreasonable.

So if grades aren’t valid, what next? How do we create something that is?

Just by asking the question you get horrible backlash. As with most serious changes in our practice, the idea of removing grades meets a lot of resistance, much of it internal. We flounder for what we could possibly do, how we could hold students to a standard, what their parents will think, how will colleges react, etc. etc. Relax. It’s not as if it hasn’t been done before. Compass Rose Academy, Jefferson County Open School, Evergreen State College, Fairhaven College, Yale Law School, and more, have all done something other than traditional grades. They use pass-fail scores, narrative evaluations, portfolios, or even score their students’ work on multiple standards without creating an overall grade. There are good sources to draw on, and a world of possibilities that haven’t even been explored yet. It’s an area ripe for innovation.

It’s not as if doing without grades will be easier. We may well spend more time on things like narrative evaluations than we would on scoring tests. Personally, however, I would prefer to take two hours of my time doing something that I believe shows a student’s true mix of talent and effort rather than spend one hour giving someone a number without true meaning. Hopefully, some day, I’ll get the chance.

Authenticity in the Classroom

“I’ll never use this in the real world.” As a teacher you get used to hearing that phrase, especially in mathematics or science. “I’ll never be a scientist, why do I have to take Physics?” “Since when do people do Geometry proofs in real life?” “Why does it matter what Alexander the Great did if everything he did is gone now?” It’s a common refrain.

I could go on about the need to develop particular mindsets, and the benefits of the ability to switch between them, but I’ll save that for another day. Today I have another answer in mind, namely: “You’re right.”

Honestly, they’re right. I’ve never used Geometry proofs outside of an academic setting. I never even learned what Alexander the Great did beyond conquering some lands I don’t remember and cutting a knot with a sword. Most teachers will have to admit, though perhaps not out loud, that their topic has little to do with what most of their students will be doing for the rest of their life.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t suddenly turned against an academic education. Removing all topics other than English and Home Economics is not the answer, nor is returning to an apprenticeship system (interesting though that might be to consider). Listen more carefully to the complaint: “I’ll never use this in the real world.” Students stress the “never” and the “real,” but the “I” is the key. The refrain is not the result of students’ carefully thought-out consideration of their own dreams and goals, it’s plain old boredom. Our students can’t get away with saying what they really feel: “I’ll never want to do anything this boring for a job.”

And what can we expect? We give them boring tasks. Repetitive acts of mathematics that require them to look up arbitrary facts and figures. Essays written to a five-paragraph standard that’s easy to grade and grating to write. Questions to answer that show how well they’ve memorized the book. So-called “science experiments” with the results already known and the methodology straight out of Betty Crocker. Is this what chemists do all day? Count me out of chemistry! They’ll never use these things in their job even if their job does end up being in the right field.

Most of our classroom activities are quite simply inauthentic. Once they get out of school, Engineers solve problems. Scientists analyze the world around them. Writers weave threads of truth into the tapestry of a story. Historians delve into events to uncover human motivation and paint a picture of those who came before us. As teachers we all know this, and then we somehow teach the most boring things we can find, because that’s how we were taught, or because it’s easy to grade. Sometimes we need to not only teach things that fascinate us, we need to give students the same sort of discovery process that gave us that fascination, that passion.

I’m not entirely against repetition. There are some things that people really do need to learn for quick mental access, especially basic mathematics and grammar. Once we have the tools, though, we need to do more than just build further tools. We can come up with better ways for our students to learn critical thinking, practice precision, and hone their observation skills. We need to do something real.

Imagine history classes focused around original documents. Imagine chemistry classes that actually analyze chemicals without knowing what the results will be. Give geometry students a chance to map their school, and the ones studying trigonometry a chance to check their work.

At least then, if students say, “I don’t want to do this for a living,” we can know that they’ve genuinely seen what it’s good for.

Vermont’s School Voucher System

I want to talk for a moment about a fairly interesting and unique scenario in education, and the difficulty of applying the same kind of educational policy everywhere.

Let’s start here: my hometown has no high school.

The population of Vernon, Vermont is just over 2000 people. Fifty years ago it was only 850. We have a fairly good k-6 school, but there’s not much point in building a high school in a town that size. Two towns adjacent to Vernon have schools that take our students (Brattleboro Union High School, and Pioneer Valley in Northfield MA). Students from Vernon can attend either one, and Vernon’s property tax pays for those students’ public school tuitions. This is not uncommon across Vermont, and Maine has a similar program. It’s called a “tuitioning” program, or occasionally an “academy” system.

In fact, as a matter of Vermont state law, students’ tuition money may even go to a private school rather than a public one. That should be familiar for folks who work in education: these days the tuitioning idea falls under the umbrella of “school vouchers.” It’s a little ironic that something which originally came from a lack of choice (students who couldn’t go to school in their hometowns if they wanted to) is now in the same category as something whose entire goal is choice. Still, it’s not an inaccurate description of the system.

Vermont’s tuitioning system may be school vouchers in all but name, but it’s a very different environment from what one would see in an urban center. Check out a map of high schools in Washington DC; they seem to be maybe five blocks apart on average. School choice in that arena is very different from school choice in Vermont, where the map looks quite different. You might want to check the scale on that map if you don’t live in the northeast; people can get pretty sparse up here. Arguments about some schools drawing more students (or the “best” students, or even just drawing “all the math kids”) and other schools being left with few students become quite relevant in densely populated areas. I can see why school vouchers are a controversial educational program.

However – and I want to be very clear on this point, because it’s my main point today – an argument for or against an educational program in one region is not necessarily valid in another region. The best education system for one person, or for one city, or even an entire state, is not necessarily going to work well in other circumstances. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying; I think it may be very worthwhile to try it out, because that’s the only way we learn what works. All the political and economic rhetoric in the world is just wind. Without experiment, we have no evidence, no true understanding of the situation, and certainly no proof of our beliefs. Education is not like Physics; the same laws do not apply in all situations. Education is like Biology, where everything has its exceptions and the more we niches we look in the more we see it happening.

I understand being afraid of failure, being wary of its consequences. As teachers, principals, superintendents, state representatives, we must understand: we will not screw up someone’s education for life. Take a breath and relax. They will have other schools and other teachers. Vernon had a one-room schoolhouse once, and it wasn’t that long ago. My grandfather went there, and learned enough of the “three R’s” (god what a dumb term) to start a business that outlived him. We educators and policy-makers are important, but we’re not that important, ok?

If we don’t try new things and see what works, we will simply never find anything better than what we have.