Monthly Archives: May 2017

Assumptions About the Basics

"I'm just going to teach it again from the basics."

This approach makes some assumptions:

  • Students that didn't understand the topic on a first exposure will benefit from just seeing the topic be developed again.
  • Students that did understand the first time will get confirmation of what they remember.
  • Colleagues that taught this in the past didn't necessarily cover everything, so this ensures students see a complete presentation of the topic.

All of these are assumptions that serve a teacher-centered classroom model. No teacher wants to be to blame when a student forgets an essential component of knowledge for a given topic, I get that. I have a hard time seeing the presentation of a complete topic as anything other than a checklist of items for a teacher to present.

What does a student do in this context? Why does the student that remembers everything have to sit through tasks that they demonstrably know how to complete? Why would we expect a student that struggled after a first exposure to benefit from seeing the same sequence of topics, but made "harder" by some arbitrary measure associated with course or grade?

I prefer the idea that we instead present students with a task that demands the knowledge and skills that are outcomes of the course. Tasks like open middle and 3-Act problems let us see where students are in the continuum of knowledge and problem solving. There are plenty of resources we can use to fill in the gaps for students where they exist - this is where online resources and activities shine. As teachers, we truly add value when we can build intellectual need for what we teach and foster discussion about interesting challenges and thought process. Most importantly, we can provide feedback that is focused and personal.

If I had to identify one fundamental change to my teaching philosophy over the last several years, it would be the acknowledgement that students are not blank slates. Assuming they are doesn't serve any of them well. Teaching compliance and patience to the strongest students is a pretty low level goal. Teaching what we say are the basics to those that never understood the basics in the first place disrespects these students as well.

Let's stop assuming we need to give our own overview of a topic. We aren't as good at it as we think we are. This only reinforces the idea that students are hungry and waiting for us to give them the knowledge they can't obtain any other way.

We must aim much higher than that.

Scaling in Education

From today's New York Times article, The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools.

"Ultimately, there just are not enough good schools to go around. And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control — like where they live and how much money their families have."

The structures of education do not scale well. This is because good lessons, good classrooms, and good schools are all sourced from people, and people do not scale well. People cannot be copied. The human mind is exceedingly, beautifully complex - a fact that underlies the wonderful challenge of teaching. The talents, ideas, and experience of people that understand this reality are essential to making a school what it can be.

The work that must be done centers on building a culture that acknowledges and values the human basis of our profession. It takes energy and time from human beings to turn an empty room into a learning space. Budgeting for all of the costs of the inputs, financial or otherwise, is necessary to do this work.

Ideas scale easily because it costs virtually nothing to share them. Cultivating the relationships that are necessary to use those ideas to make opportunities for children needs to be our focus.

People matter. We should be skeptical of anyone that seeks to minimize this reality.

Probability, Spreadsheets, and the Citizen Database

I've grown tired of the standard probability questions involving numbers of red, blue, and green marbles. Decks of cards are culturally biased and require a lot of background information to get in the game, as I wrote about a while ago. It seems that if there's any place where computational thinking should come into play, it's with probability and statistics. There are lots of open data sets out there, but few of them are (1) easy to parse for what a student might be looking for and (2) are in a form that allows students to easily make queries.

If you know of some that you've used successfully with classes, by all means let me know.

A couple of years ago, I built a web programming exercise to use to teach students about database queries. Spreadsheets are a lot more accessible though, so I re-wrote it to generate a giant spreadsheet of data for my Precalculus students to dig into as part of a unit on counting principle, probability, and statistics. I call it the Citizen Database, and you can access it here.

I wanted a set of data that could prompt all sorts of questions that could only be answered easily with a spreadsheet counting command. The citizens in the database can be described as follows:

  • Each citizen belongs to one of twelve districts, numbered 1 - 12.
  • Citizens are male or female.
  • Citizens have their ages recorded in the database. Citizens 18 and below are considered minors. Citizens older than 18 and younger than 70 are adults. All citizens aged 70 and above are called seniors.
  • Citizens each prefer one of the two sports teams: the Crusaders or the Orbiters.
  • If a citizen is above the age of 18, they can vote for Mayor. There are two families that always run for mayor: the Crenshaw family and the Trymenaark family.
  • Each citizen lives in either a home, apartment, villa, or mansion.
  • A citizen above the age of 18 also uses some type of vehicle for transportation. They may rent a car, own a car, have a limousine, or take a helicopter.

I wrote another document showing how to do queries on a spreadsheet of data using some commands here. My students asked for some more help on creating queries using the COUNTIFS command on Google Sheets, so I also created the video below.

The fun thing has been seeing students acknowledge the fact that answering these questions would be a really poor use of the human brain, particularly given how quickly the computer comes up with an answer. One student went so far as to call this side-trip into spreadsheet usage "really actually useful", a comment which I decided only to appreciate.

Programming in Javascript, Python, Swift, whatever is great, but it takes a while to get to the point where you can do something that is actually impressive. Spreadsheets are an easy way in to computational thinking, and they are already installed on most student (and teacher) computers. We should be using them more frequently than we probably are in our practice.

If you are interested in how I generated the database, you can check out the code here at CodePen:

See the Pen CitizenDatabaseCreator by Evan Weinberg (@emwdx) on CodePen.