Category Archives: reflection

Maintaining Sanity, Reviewing Priorities

I've had a really busy year. I've always said at the start of the school year that I'm going to say 'no' more frequently in as politely a way as possible. I've said I'd be more honest about priorities. Instead of spending time writing code for something that might be really cool as part of a lesson next week, I need to get tests graded today. I've had more preps this year than ever before. I have big scale planning to do relative to my IB classes and their two year sequence of lessons, labs, and assessments. In a small school like ours, it's difficult to avoid being on multiple committees that all want to meet on the same day.

Probably the hardest part has been figuring out what my true classroom priorities are. I'd love to look at every student's homework, but I don't have time. I'd love to make videos of all of my direct instruction, but I don't have time. I'd love to curate a full collection of existing resources for every learning standard in my courses, but despite designing my own system to do this, I haven't had time.

Over the course of the year, however, I've found that the set of goals I have for every class can be boiled down to three big ones:

Give short SBG assessments as frequently as possible.

These need to be looked at and given back in the course of a class period, or they lose their effectiveness for students and for my own course correction when needed.

Provide more time for students to work during class. Use the remaining time to give direct instruction only as needed, and only to those that really need it.

Time I spend talking is unnecessary for the students who get concepts, and doesn't help the students that do not. If I'm going to spend time doing this, it needs to be worth it. This also means that I may not know what we need to review until during the class, so forget having full detailed lesson plans created a week at a time. I think I've accepted that I'm better at correcting errors along the way than I am at creating a solid, clear presentation of material from start to finish, at least given time constraints.

It has been more efficient for me to give students a set of problems and see how they approach them than tell them what to do from the start. There are all sorts of reasons why this is also educationally better for everyone involved.

Focus planning time on creating or finding interesting mathematical tasks, not on presentation.

I've always thought this, but a tweet from Michael Pershan made it really clear:

What I teach comes from the learning standards that I either create or am given. Maximizing opportunities for students to do the heavy cognitive lifting also maximizes the time these ideas spend simmering in their heads. This rarely occurs as a result of a solid presentation of material. It doesn't necessarily (or even usually) happen by watching a perfect video crafted by an expert. When you have a variety of mental situations in which to place your students and see how they react, you understand their needs and can provide support only when necessary. Anything can be turned into a puzzle. Finding the way to do that pays significant dividends over spending an extra ten minutes perfecting a video.


Going back to these three questions has helped me move forward when I am overwhelmed. How might I assess students working independently? What do I really need to show them how to do? What can I have my students think about today that will build a need for content, allow them to engage in mathematical practice, or be genuinely interesting for them to ponder?

What are your priorities?

A Small Change: Solving Equations with Logarithms

In my Math 10 class, did my lesson today involving solving exponential equations that cannot be solved using knowledge of integral powers. My start was the same as it has been for that lesson over many years:

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I have students start with an iterative guess-and-check method since it's something that will pretty much always work. This was no big deal to the students. When one student said her TI calculator gave the exact answer, I asked if she really thought that was the exact answer. She said no, but I used Python to rub it in a bit.

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This was another opportunity to show the difference between exact and approximate answers - always something I try to teach implicitly whenever it comes up. As with many of the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, I think this (MP6 - Attend to Precision) is always an idea that comes with context.

The big shift in this lesson came when we started solving the equation algebraically. I always do a bit of hand-waving at this point saying 'isn't it great that these logarithm properties let us do this?', while getting a class full of students giving me just enough of a sarcastic head nod to make me feel bad about it.

Instead, I made reference to the process of switching back and forth from logarithmic and exponential form.

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The students are pretty skilled at doing this. I wrote it up in the notes myself because most students wrote it faster than I could get anyone to explain the process.

The key here was that when I asked students to calculate these values on the calculator, nobody could do it. One found the LOGBASE command on their TI, but for the most part, this stayed as an abstract number. It made sense to them that they ended up with 'x =' in the end, but that didn't make a big difference in terms of being able to talk about what that meant. They did a couple of these on their own.

Only then did I show them the logarithm property trick that lets us get the answer in a different form:
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I admittedly connected some dots here, but I didn't do so in a formal way of introducing change of base. A couple of them figured out that this was a form that they could calculate using the common logarithm button on their calculators.

I'm not emphasizing log properties this year outside of what they allow us to do in solving equations. This is something that we will devote more time to next year in IB Mathematics year 1 class. I will mention this change of base property as a nice tool to use for confirming graphical and iterative solutions, but probably won't assess them knowing how to apply change of base directly.

Any time I can get rid of hand-waving and showing mathematics as a list of tricks to be memorized, it's a win.

Before a Break: CCSS Math, Bogram Problems, and Peer Feedback

I spent the day in a room full of my colleagues as part of our school's official transition to using the Common Core standards for mathematics. While I've kept up to date with the development of CCSS and the roll-out from here in China, it was helpful to have some in-person explanation of the details from some experts who have been part of it in the US. Our guests were Dr. Patrick Callahan from the Illustrative Mathematics group and Jessica Balli, who is currently teaching and consulting in Northern California.

The presentation focused on three key areas. The first focused on modeling and Fermi problems. I've written previously about my experiences with the modeling cycle as part of the mathematical practice standards, so this element of the presentation was mainly review. Needless to say, however, SMP4 (Model with mathematics) is my favorite, so I love anything that generates conversation about it.

That said, one element of Jessica's modeling practice struck me by surprise, particularly given my enthusiasm for Dan Meyer's three-act framework. She writes about the details on her blog here, so go there for the long form. When she begins her school year with modeling activities, she leaves out Act 3.. Why?

Here's Jessica talking about the end of the modeling task:

Before excusing them for the day, I had a student raise their hand and ask, "So, what's the answer?" With all eyes on me, a quick shrug of my shoulders communicated to them that that was not my priority, and I was sticking to it (and, oh, by the way, I have no idea what time it will be fully charged). Some students left irritated, but overall, I think the students understood that this was not going to be a typical math class.
Mission accomplished.

Her whole goal is to break students of the 'answer-getting' mentality and focus on process. This is something we all try to do, but perhaps pay it more lip-service than we think by filling that need for Act 3. Something to consider for the future.

The other two elements, also mostly based in Jessica's teaching, went even further in developing other student skills.

I had never head of Bongard problems before Jessica introduced us to them. This involves looking at well defined sets of six examples and non-examples, and then writing a rule that describes each one.

Here's an example: Bongard Problem, #1:
p001

You can find the rest of Bongard's original problems here.

In Jessica's class, students share their written rules with classmates, get feedback, and then revise their rules based only on that feedback. Before today's session, if I were to do this, I would eventually get the class together and write an example rule with the whole class as an example. I'm probably doing my students the disservice by taking that short-cut, however, because Jessica doesn't do this. She relies on students to do the work of piecing together a solid rule that works in the end. She has a nicely scaffolded template to help students with this process, and spends a solid amount of time helping students understand what good feedback looks like. Though she helps them with vocabulary from time to time, she leaves it to the students to help each other.

Dr. Callahan also pointed out the importance of explicitly requiring students to write down their rules, not just talk about them. In his words, this forces students to focus on clarity to communicate that understanding.

You can check out Jessica's post about how she uses these problems here:
Building Definitions, Bongard Style

The final piece took the idea of peer feedback to the next level with another template for helping students workshop their explanations of process. This should not be a series of sentences about procedure, but instead mathematical reasoning. The full post deserves a read to find out the details, because it sounds engaging and effective:

"Where Do I Put P?" An Introduction to Peer Feedback

I want to focus on one highlight of the post that notes the student centered nature of this process:

I returned the papers to their original authors to read through the feedback and revise their arguments. Because I only had one paper per pair receive feedback, I had students work as pairs to brainstorm the best way to revise the original argument. Then, as individuals, students filled in the last part of the template on their own paper. Even if their argument did not receive any feedback, I thought that students had seen enough examples that would help them revise what they had originally written.

I've written about this fact before, but I have trouble staying out of student conversations. Making this written might be an effective way for me to provide verbal mathematical details (as Jessica said she needs to do periodically) but otherwise keep the focus on students going through the revision process themselves.

Overall, it was a great set of activities to get us thinking about SMP3 (Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others) and attending to precision of ideas through use of mathematics. I'm glad to have a few days of rest ahead to let this all sink in before planning the last couple of months of the school year.

Seniors and the Ten Dot Challenge

I am now in the second semester of teaching a senior research project course. The first semester consisted of students identifying a research question and thesis, and then putting together a fully developed and referenced research paper. In the past, the second semester was devoted to putting together presentations on the same topic. I've been encouraged to modify this sequence as I see fit this year.

If there's one thing I want students to care about in terms of the presentations, it's that awareness of design principles can help their ideas come across clearly. As a result, I've pieced together some activities that center on learning design principles as a way to communicate meaning.

I started this semester's first class with an exercise from p. 47 of the Design Basics Index. Here's the basic idea:

Draw ten circles of the same size and uniform color on your paper in an arrangement that shows each of the following words:

  • unity
  • celebration
  • isolation
  • escape
  • intimidation
  • logic
  • anarchy
  • leadership
  • victory

I then collected their drawings using my submitMe application so that we could see them all together.

The results were really fun to look at and discuss. Here's a selection:

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One really nice result was that students pointed out the commonalities between some of the drawings and discussed them without my bringing it up. When does unity cause intimidation? When does unity cause isolation?

This was a blast. Definitely a good way to start a lot of conversation without needing to say too much.

You Don't Know Your Impact Until You Do.

There comes a time, often at the end of the semester, when you look around your classroom once the students have left, and let out a big sigh.

Am I doing the right things?

Am I helping students grow in ways that are best for them?

Then you get an email from a former student that says things like this:

I got selected to be a part of a research group in the department of PHYSICS! Can you believe it? The one subject I did not like at all is the first research opportunity for me!
...
All these great opportunities wouldn’t have happened to me if you didn’t have patience to make me understand physics. I now understand why you wanted me to figure out how to approach a problem all by myself instead of telling me what to do step by step.

I never realized how important it is to be able to do more than calculations until recently because I have been helping out a friend with her chemistry homework. However, I feel like that is all I do - help her finish her homework instead of helping her understand how to analyze a problem before jumping to equations.

I don’t want her to jump to equations because, at the end of the day, chemistry is a science, not math. We use math to help us, but a calculated answer means nothing by itself. It is the ability to analyze and interpret numbers than differentiates us from computers. Going to back to my friend and her chemistry homework, I noticed a lot of things that she says that reminded me of myself and physics.

For example, she would say “I don’t get it, it seems so easy, but I just don’t know which equation to use.” Then when I try to guide her to figure out which equations to use, she just interrupts me with “Just tell me which equation to use, and I can do the math.”

Doesn’t that sound like me in physics class? It frustrates me how she takes such a mathematical approach to a scientific problem. I mean it’s great that she can do math, but so can the computer.

I am telling you about my experience because I want to first let you know how much I appreciate your patience with me, and second, I want to apologize for that things I said about physics. It must not have been very pleasant to hear someone talk about something you are obviously interested in in such an aggressive tone.

I am sorry for complaining about physics the way I did last year, and if you students in the future complain about a subject feel free to relate my experience with physics to them. Also, I am very happy that you made me struggle with physics last year because now when I don’t see how to solve a problem immediately I know how to use the tools available to me to experiment to find the right answer.

Moreover, do continue to do explorations with your students because they are so helpful when it comes to critical thinking....

...I know you always take the opinions of your students seriously, and I know that you have stepped away from doing explorations because our class had such a negative attitude towards them; however, knowing how to use a different program can help student develop their problem solving skills, which makes them a more competitive student.

If you know me at all, you know that this hits many of the questions I have about my own teaching. One perspective is certainly not every perspective. I'm certainly not going to stop questioning. That said, this message made me grin with pride. It means a lot to hear that something you do in the classroom enables students to make opportunities for themselves.

With the student's permission, I was eager to share the email as a way to help others remember why we do this job. You might never know the impact you have as a teacher until you do.

Keep this in mind as you approach the last teaching days of the year, everyone.

Revising My Thinking: Repetition

Traveling with students has always been one of the most rewarding parts of the teaching job. Seeing students out of their normal classroom setting draws out their character much more than content alone can. One particular experience on a trip last week forced me to rethink aspects of my classroom as I never could have predicted it would.

On our second day of the trip, students experienced the lives of Chinese farmers. For breakfast, we paced a series of stalls cookies of sizzling noodles, Chinese pancakes, and tea eggs - students could spend no more than ten Yuan on their breakfast. After leaving the market and driving for an hour, we arrived at a village surrounded by tea hills. Here, the farmer experience began. The students were divided into three groups and set out to compete for first, second, and third place in a series of tasks; their place determined how much the group would be paid in order to purchase dinner that night.

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Students tilled the ground with hand tools to plant vegetables, with a seasoned farmer showing them what to do, and then judging them on their efforts. The farmer's wife gave a dumpling making lesson, and then had students make their lunch of dumplings according to her example. The third task involved collecting corn from a nearby field and putting it into a woven sack. Teams were judged by both quantity and quality. Many students tossed out corn that had shriveled kernels and silk from beetle larvae around the stalks. Students at this point guarded their yellow post-it notes (where the guide recorded their earnings) carefully, chasing them down when they flew away in the wind.

In the final task, students were to earn money by assembling plastic pens. For every one hundred pens put together, the group would earn 1 Yuan, or about 16 cents. Our guide said we would work on this for three hours. I prepared her for the likelihood that the students might not last that long. Such a simple task would surely result in disinterest, especially in a group that was already distressed by our insistence that their mobile devices stay put away for the majority of the day. To myself, I questioned whether an investment of three hours into the task was really necessary to get students to appreciate the meaning of a day of hard work or to understand the required input of human energy to create a cheap plastic item. They were already exhibiting signs of fatigue before this, and a repetitive task like this couldn't make things any better, right?

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The first pattern I noticed was that students quickly saw the need for cooperation. Each student felt the inefficiency of building one complete pen, one at a time. Without any input from adults, the students organized themselves into an assembly line. They helped each other with the tricks they discovered to shave off seconds of the process. They defined their own vocabulary for the different parts and stages of assembly. Out of the tedium, they saw a need for innovation, and then proceeded to find better ways on their own. While they worked, they sang songs, told jokes, and made the most of the fact that they could socialize while they worked.

The students were brutally honest with our guide about the value of the work they were doing. They expressed disbelief that they couldn't be paid more for their time. The guide responded by reminding the students of the real costs of things: 17 Yuan for a chicken, 2 Yuan for bottles of clean water at dinner. The students responded by asking for the price of the pens at the market ("0.8 yuan each" said our guide) and said that without the people working, the pens wouldn't be made. By the end, students had assembled 3,880 pens, and had smiles on their faces even at that point.

The other outcome of this activity was that each student was permitted to keep one pen as a keepsake of the day. For a group of students that routinely leaves things everywhere, these pens were guarded and treasured as closely as their mobile devices. A couple of them were so attached that they insisted on bringing their pens with them for pre-dinner free time at the creek.

There were so many lessons that came out of the repetitive nature of this task. As I said, I underestimated the level to which students would be engaged by this activity. They took pride in their work. They tested their pens carefully before counting and bundling them together with a rubber band. They took time to understand what they were doing in order to find better ways.

I routinely look for students to have similar discoveries in my class. There is repetition. There is a need for careful reflection on the quality of an answer or clarity of explanation.

I do, however, try to hasten this process because I underestimate the value of repetition during my class period. I've argued before that class time should be spent making the most of the social aspect of the classroom for learning. Repetitive drills don't tend to make the cut by that standard. This is, after all,one of the points I frequently make about the role of computers and computational thinking. I do introduce students to tedious processes, but usually cut out the middle part of students feeling that tedium themselves, because I figure they get it without needing to actually experience it. I do this to save time, but I now think I might be spoiling the punchline of every lesson in which I take this approach.

After seeing the students themselves invent and create on their own and as a group (and with no adult intervention), I now feel the need to rethink this. Perhaps I'm undervaluing the social aspect of repetitive tasks and their potential for building student buy-in. Maybe class time with meaningful repetition is valuable if it results in the community seeking what I have to share from my mathematical bag of tricks. Maybe the students don't fully believe that my methods are worth their time because I tell them what they should feel instead of let them feel it themselves.

Perhaps I'm also reading too much into what I observed on the trip. I am , however, quite surprised how off the mark I was in predicting the level of engagement and enjoyment the students would have in spending three hours assembling pens. I'm willing to admit my intuition could also be off on the rest.

Rambling about Desmos, Meteor, and the Math-Twitter-Blogosphere

By my last week in the states this summer, I had made it to San Francisco. Before getting to the hard work of eating sourdough and tinkering my way through the Exploratorium, I made two stops that were really special.

The first was a chance to meet the Desmos team at their office, arranged by Dan Meyer, who was planning to be at the office. I walked into the office while the team, not two days from the successful release of their newest activity Central Park, was on a conference call discussing the next project. As my time with them went on, I periodically felt a wave of giddiness at the fact that I was sitting with some of the people responsible for making Desmos what it is.

The four people that I met there, two thirds of the entire team, had their hands in making a difference in hundreds (if not thousands) of classrooms around the world. Jason shared that his changes to some code had resulted in a substantial increase in the code speed. Jenny showed her prototypes for a beautiful new user interface. Eric repeatedly referred to the guiding principles of Desmos as they made decisions about moving forward. The careful, deliberate work done by this group of passionate people is the reason Desmos is able to create the collaborative learning experiences for which they are known.

At one point, David Reiman, one of the team members and a former teacher himself, asked me what they could do for me. Honestly, all I could muster was that it was an honor to learn from them and see their workflow. They put a lot of energy into making sure their tools are useful for reaching objectives in the classroom, not for the sake of merely being used in the general category of technology. I really appreciate Dan, Eric, Eli, and the rest of the team for arranging to spend time with me.

The next day involved a visit to Meteor headquarters for their monthly Devshop. This is a meeting that gets Meteor coders and entrepreneurs in one room with the goal of everyone helping each other. It was impressive to meet in person some people that I had really seen only as Twitter handles. They were all incredibly genuine, humble people that worked really hard on work that mattered to them. I gave a lightning talk on coding for the classroom (posted here on YouTube) and using code to make my life as a teacher easier. Mine was one of a series of such talks. They were streamed live on the internet, but it seemed much more intimate in the actual room. Each person had three minutes to talk about an idea that mattered to them. It was also a treat that people that came up to me to chat afterwards - some of them teachers themselves - to talk about teaching, coding, and the challenges of teaching effectively with technology.

The theme that struck me after both days, a theme that I think resonates strongly with the beauty of the existence of the Math-Twitter-Blog-o-sphere, is not just that individuals (and teams) are doing interesting, thought-provoking work. That has been true for a long time.

The people at Desmos and Meteor are designing tools that enable others to not just explore their ideas, but develop, build, and share them. Just as these tools are created iteratively (Meteor released version 0.9 today) they encourage others to make the most of what is out there to put ideas in front of an audience and make them better over time. That audience might be a classroom of students. It might be an audience craving a useful online tool that targets their unique niche. Everyone at these companies (and in classrooms) is hoping that the next idea they try is one that gets more people excited than the last. Teachers work in a similar vein hoping that their next idea for tweaking a lesson gets more students engaged and making connections than the last.

I've spent the past three academic years interacting with people through this blog, Twitter, and other online channels. I've shared ideas here and have gotten feedback on them from a number of different perspectives. All of us are working hard. We have ideas and share them because ideas sprout new ideas. This process is addictive. We all have our pet projects and obsessions, and need to be brought back to reality from time to time about what will really work most effectively. We listen to each other and value the conversations that happen.

As this year is getting underway, I'm going to work to keep something in mind this year. We all have governing principles that help us decide what work to tackle at a given point in time. We often wait to share ideas until they are fully formed, but that's not really when we need the most feedback. I hope to share more ideas when they are raw and still forming. Bad days, especially when they are still smarting from an unsuccessful lesson, are revealing. It's in these situations that we stand to grow the most. What makes innovative companies like Meteor and Desmos successful isn't that they have the best ideas from the beginning. It's that they know how to cultivate ideas from beginning to end, and aren't afraid to make mistakes along the way. They acknowledge that there are lots of starts and stops and hiccups before ending up on the idea that will make a difference to people.

Have a great school year, everybody!

Picasso's Bull - Not Just for Design Thinking

I came across the New York Times article on the Apple's training program and its use in describing their design process. I hadn't seen it before, but saw it also as a pretty good approximation for mathematical abstraction.

I used the lithographs 1 - 11 from http://artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/animals_in_art/pablo_picasso.htm and put them together like this:

Picasso - The Bull Lithographs 1 - 10
We have shortened classes tomorrow (20 minutes) and I think it might be good material for a way to introduce the philosophy of the IB Mathematics and Math 10 courses. Some potential questions floating in my head now:

  • How does this series of images relate to thinking mathematically?
  • What does the last representation have that the first representation does not? How is this similar to using math to model the world around us?
  • Can you do a similar series of drawings that show a similar progression of abstraction from your previous math classes?

This seems to be a really interesting line of thinking that connects well to the theory of knowledge component of the IB curriculum. I see this as a pretty compelling story line that relates to written representation of numbers, approximations, and the idea of creating mathematical models. Do you have other ideas for how this might be used with students?

Standards Based Grading, Year Two (Year-In-Review)

This was my second year using standards based grading with my classes. I wrote last year about how my first iteration went, and made some adjustments this year.

What did I do?

  • I continued using my 1-5 standard scale and scale rubric that I developed last year. This is also described in the post above.
  • As I wrote about in a previous post, I created an online reassessment organization tool that made it easier to have students sign up and organize their reassessments.
  • The new requirement for students signing up for reassessments involved credits, which students earned through doing homework, seeing me for tutoring
  • I included a number of projects that were assessed as project standards using the same 1-5 scale. the rubric for this scale was given to students along with the project description. Each project, like the regular course learning standards, could be resubmitted and reassessed after getting feedback and revising.

What worked:

  • My rate of reassessment was substantially better in the second semester. I tweeted out this graph of my reassessments over the course of the semester:Reassessment plot EOYBqAGuNKCAAAUZjW.png-large There was a huge rush at the end of the semester to reassess - that was nothing new - but the rate was significantly more consistent throughout. The volume of reassessments was substantially higher. There were also fewer students than in the first semester that did not take advantage of reassessment opportunities. Certain students did make up a large proportion of the total set of reassessments, but this was nowhere near as skewed a distribution as in the first semester.
  • Students took advantage of the project standards to revise and resubmit their work. I gave a living proof project that required students to make a video in which they went through a geometric proof and explained the steps. Many students responded to my feedback about mathematical correctness, quality of their video, and re-recorded their video to receive a higher grade.
  • Student attitude about SBG was positive at the end of the year. Students knew that they could do to improve their grade. While I did have blank questions on some unit assessments, students seemed to be more likely to try and solve questions more frequently than in the past. This is purely a qualitative observation, so take that for what it is.

What needs work:

  • Students hoarded their reassessment credits. This is part of the reason the reassessment rush was so severe at the end of the semester. Students didn't want to use their credits until they were sure they were ready, which meant that a number were unused by the end of the year. Even by the end of the year, more than a quarter of credits that had been earned weren't used for reassessments. <p\> I don't know if this means I need to make them expire, or that I need to be more aggressive in pursuing students to use the credits that they earned. I'm wrestling a lot with this as I reflect this summer.
  • I need to improve the system for assessing during the class period. I had students sign up for reassessments knowing that the last 15 - 20 minutes of the class period would be available for it, but not many took advantage of this. Some preferred to do this before or after school, but some students couldn't reassess then because of transportation issues. I don't want to unfairly advantage those who live near the school by the system.
  • I need to continue to improve my workflow for selecting and assigning reassessments. There is still some inefficiency in the time between seeing what students are assessing on and selecting a set of questions. I think part of this can be improved by asking students to report their current grade for a given standard when signing up. Some students want to demonstrate basic proficiency, while others are shooting for a 4 or 5, requiring questions that are a bit higher level. I also might combine my reassessment sign up web application and the quiz application so that I'm not switching between two browser windows in the process.
  • Students want to be able to sign up to meet with me to review a specific standard, not just be assessed on it. If students know specifically what they want to go over, and want some one-on-one time on it since they know that works well for them, I'm all for making that happen. This is an easy change to my current system.
  • Students should be able to provide feedback to me on how things are going for them. I want to create a simple system that lets students rate their comprehension on a scale of 1 - 5 for each class period. This lets students assess me and my teaching on a similar scale to what I use to assess them, and might yield good information to help me know how to plan for the next class.

I've had some great conversations with colleagues about the ways that standards based grading has changed my teaching for the better. I'm looking forward to continuing to refine my model next year. The hard part is deciding exactly what refinements to make. That's what summer reflection and conversations with other teachers is all about, so let's keep that going, folks.

Making Experts - A Project Proposal

tl;dr A Project Proposal:

I'd like to see expert 'knowers' in different fields each record a 2-4 minute video (uploaded to YouTube) in which they respond to one of the following prompts:

  • Describe a situation in which a simple change to what you knew made something that was previously impossible, possible.
  • Describe a moment when you had to unlearn what was known so that you could construct new ideas.
  • What misconception in your field did you need to overcome in yourself to become successful?

I think that teachers model knowledge creation by devoting time to exploring it in their classes. I think we can show them that this process isn't just something you do until you've made it - it is a way of life, especially for the most successful people in the world. I think a peek behind the curtain would be an exciting and meaningful way for students to see how the most knowledgeable in our society got that way.

Long form:

One thing we do as teachers that makes students roll their eyes in response is this frequent follow up to a final answer: How do you know?

This is a testament to our commitment to being unsatisfied with an answer being merely right or wrong. We are intensely committed to understanding and emphasizing process as teachers because that's where we add the most value. Process knowledge is valuable. An engineering company can release detailed manufacturing plans of a product design and know they will remain profitable because their value is often stored within the process of building the product, not the design itself. This is, as I understand it, much if the power of companies dealing in open source technologies.

In a field like ours, however, students often get a warped sense of the value of process. They don't hear experts talking about their process of learning to be experts, which inevitably involves a lot of failure, learning, unlearning, and re-learning. In some of the most rapidly changing fields - medicine, technology, science for example - it is knowledge itself that is changing.

An important element of the IB program is the course in Theory of Knowledge (abbreviated TOK). In this course, students explore the nature of knowledge, how it represents truth, how truth may be relative, and other concepts crucial to understanding what it means to 'know' something to be true. From what I have heard from experienced IB educators, it can be a really satisfying course for both teachers and students. Elements of TOK are included as essential parts of all of the core courses that students take.

I can certainly find lots of specific ways to bring these concepts up in mathematics and science. Creating definitions and exploring the consequences of those definitions is fundamental to mathematics. Newton 'knew' that space was relative, but time was absolute. Einstein reasoned through a different set of rules that neither was absolute. These people, however, are characters in the world of science. Their processes of arriving at what they knew to be true don't get much airtime.

What if we could get experts in fields talking about their process of knowing what they know? What if students could see these practitioners themselves describing how they struggled with unlearning what they previously believed to be absolutely true? I see only good things coming of this.

What do you think? Any takers?