On inefficiency

In the robotics and engineering class and app development courses I teach, there are a lot of group projects. I design the projects to be big enough that a single student cannot do everything.

That said, there are tasks though that a single person can do on his or her own. I always bring up the constraints of time and ask students to frequently reflect on whether the group’s time is being used effectively. Three people all building a cardboard prototype for a rectangular box screams inefficiency to me. So does writing a project app from scratch when I have provided starter code to make things easier. 

From an assessment perspective, I want every student to take on every aspect of a project at some point during the semester. All of them should have a chance to write code, wire sensors together, do some fabrication, and test and develop the entire system. For a single project, things don’t always work that way. We need opportunities to specialize too. 

I often need to step back within a single project and remind myself: knowing when to focus on one element, when to shift to a new one, and when to zoom out and look at the big picture – this is a skill. This skill develops over time and comes only from experience. Even adults need to be reminded (or forced) to change their perspective to effectively reflect on a process. We also need to be given opportunities to focus on a single task, leaving all others aside.

 Designing, learning, and making are inherently inefficient because the path to the endpoint is uncertain. Building something new and learning something new, are not about efficiency though. Even when we are following someone else’s instructions to build a project, we might not have completed that project before. Thinking about efficiency is a useful reminder to make deliberate choices about our time. 

I asked a student about one of the classes this week. He wisely said “Mr. Weinberg, you should take the amount of time you think the project should take, multiply it by two, and then just relax. Give us time.”

I often limit the time for projects because I want short design cycles. So far, the only thing that has accelerated progress is being up against a deadline. The learning that happens within that shortened time though is limited.  The rapid progress there is often because students have learned to use their materials.

Learning those materials requires inefficiency to come before it. I need to let that happen. I need to relax there.

What my dad taught me about learning.

The first time I saw the word ‘Calculus’, I was staring at the spines of several textbooks that sat on the bookshelf at home. I didn’t think much of them; I knew they were my parents’, and that they were from their college days, but had no other awareness of what the topic actually was. I did assume that the reason there were so many of them was because my parents must have liked them so much. After further investigation, I learned that they were mostly my dad’s books. His secret was out: he must have loved Calculus. I believed this for a while.

When my older brother took Calculus, these books came off the shelf occasionally as a resource, though I don’t know if this was his decision or my dad’s. From what I knew, my brother breezed through Calculus. I know he worked hard, but it also seemed to come fairly naturally to him. I remember conversations that my parents had about not knowing where my brother got this talent from. They admitted at this point that it couldn’t have been from either of them. My dad had taken Calculus multiple times and the collection of textbooks was the evidence that hung around for no particularly good reason.

This astounded my young brain for a couple of reasons. It was mind-boggling to me that my parents ever had trouble doing anything. They always seemed to know just what to do in different situations – how could they not do well in a class designed to teach them something? It was also the first time I ever remember learning that my dad was not successful in everything he tried to do. This conflicted deeply with what I understood his capabilities to be.

As I understood it, he just knew everything.

When I was nine and my parents had bought me a keyboard to learn to play piano for the first time, there was no AC adapter in the box I had unwrapped only moments before. My dad scrounged around among his junk boxes and drawers and found one with the correct tip, but the polarity was wrong. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to start jamming that night – it was late and a trip to the store wasn’t an option. He wasn’t going to submit to that as a possibility – he took the adapter downstairs to the basement and had me follow him. There was soldering involved, and electrical tape. I had no idea what he was doing. Moments later, however, he appeared with the same adapter and a white label that said ‘modified’. We plugged it in to the keyboard and it lit up, ready for me to play and drive my parents crazy with my rendition of . I now understand that he switched the wires around to change the polarity – I did it myself with some students recently in robotics. At the time though, it seemed like magic. I just knew I had the smartest dad in the world.

His mantra has always been that if it can be fixed, it should be fixed, no matter the hilarity of the process. I watched him countless times take in the cast-off computers of other people who asked him if he knew how to fix them. Thinking back, I don’t know that he ever specifically answered that question. His usual response was (and still is) “I’ll take a look.” So he would work long hours with a vacuum, various metal tools, and a gray multimeter (that I think he still has) laid out like a surgeon investigating a patient. I rarely had the patience to sit and watch. I would see the results of his work: sheets of yellow legal pad paper filled with notes and diagrams scrawled along the way. In the end, he would inevitably find a solution, though often at this point the person who had asked him to fix the item had gone and bought a new one. I don’t recall ever believing my dad thought it was a waste.

We also worked on things together to try to get closer in my early teens. We both took tests to get amateur radio licenses. I came to really enjoy learning Morse code and got the preparation books to climb the license ladder. He commented repeatedly as I zipped through the books about memorizing the books and not understanding the underlying theory of resonant circuits and antenna diagrams. That was true – at the time I just wanted to pass the tests. I didn’t understand that the process of learning was the valuable part, not the end point. I didn’t see that. I just continued to believe that the tests were a means to an end, just as I viewed through my thirteen year old brain that his herculean efforts to fix things was a means to getting things fixed., and nothing more.

My dad is one of the smartest people I know. As I’ve grown older, however, I have come to understand that it wasn’t that about knowing everything. He instead had been continuously demonstrating what real learning is supposed to be. It was never about knowing the answer; it was about finding it. It wasn’t about fixing a computer, it was about enjoying figuring out how it can be fixed, however much frustration was involved. It wasn’t just about saving money or avoiding a trip to the store to buy an electric adapter. It was about seeing that we can understand the tools we use on a regular basis well enough to make them work for us.

I have seen time and time again how he mentors people to make them better at what they do. I have seen it in the way he mentors FIRST robotics teams as a robot inspector at the Great Lakes regional competition in Cleveland. I have seen it in the way he has spent his time since selling the company he founded with partners years ago. He chooses to do work that matters and makes sure that others are right there to learn beside him. There were times growing up when, admittedly, I just wanted him to fix things that needed to be fixed. To his credit, he insisted on involving me in the process, even when I protested or became impatient.. I didn’t see it when I was younger. Knowing how to go about solving problems is among the most important skills that everyone needs. I was getting free lessons from someone that not only was really good at it, but cared enough about me to want me to learn the joy of figuring things out.

One of my students this year was really into electronic circuits and microcontrollers. He soldered 120 LEDs into a display and wanted to use an Arduino to program it to scroll text across it. The student’s program wasn’t working and he didn’t know why. I had only been tangentially paying attention to the issues he was having, and when he was visibly frustrated, I pulled up a chair and sat next to him, and then said ‘let’s take a look.” We went through lines of code and found some missing semicolons and incorrectly indexed arrays, and I asked him to tell me what each line did. I was only a couple steps ahead of him in identifying the problem, but we laughed and tried making changes while speaking out loud what we thought the results would be. At one point, he said to me “Mr. Weinberg, you’re so smart. You just know what to do to fix the program.”

I immediately corrected him. I didn’t know what was wrong. We were able to make progress by talking to each other and experimenting. It wasn’t about knowing just what to do. It was about figuring out what to try next and having strategies to analyze what was and was not working. I learned this from a master.

On this Father’s day (that also happens to be the day before my dad’s birthday), I celebrate this truth: much of what I do as a teacher comes from trying to channel my dad’s habits while confronting big challenges. I don’t want my students to memorize steps to pass tests; I want them to understand well enough to be able to solve any challenge set before them. I don’t want to fix my students’ problems – I want to help them learn to fix problems themselves. I don’t want my students to be afraid to fail; I want them to understand through example that failure leads to finding a better way.

I am grateful for all that I have learned from him., and I try to teach my students what he has taught me about learning at every opportunity. It would be fine by me if I ever need to do Calculus for him – I’d still be in the red.

Your students might not be cursing at you…

One of the students I had the pleasure of teaching in AP physics in the Bronx started with quite a reputation. As a student that spoke Chinese and little English in the 9th grade, he was placed in the entry level math class. It took only a short time for his teacher to notice that, given his background and obvious mathematical skills, this probably wasn’t the right place for him. He was quickly moved up the sequence of courses until he ended up in a Math B course that included trigonometry as I recall.

This was not just a case of this student having memorized mathematical concepts from his time in China, though he had seen a lot of math by the time he arrived at Lehman. In his junior and senior years, the quality of his insights and ability to predict, comprehend, and connect ideas in both math and physics were truly impressive and indicative of a strong talent. As his teacher in physics, the greatest challenge I had was not in teaching him how to solve a physics problem, but to write down his line of reasoning that scattered together with frightening speed in his head. My favorite teaching moments with him came on the rare occasion when he had an actual misunderstanding and I witnessed the exact moment of his realization of what he did not get; the physical change in his face was unforgettable.

I was brought back to a story I heard a while back from colleagues about his early times in the classroom. He had a tendency to mutter to himself during class. On an occasion when a student made a comment that was an oversimplification of a concept, this student started saying at a noticeable volume something that sounded like ‘bull-shit’.

The teacher, clearly shocked by this, reacted softly with a word after class. Given the student’s limited English ability, the message had little chance of making it across. The outburst happened again under more unlucky circumstances when the assistant principal and principal were both in the room observing the teacher – this time, the consequences were a bit more serious. The fact was that, given his personality and the directness associated with translation into a second language, it didn’t seem completely out of character for him to call out a teacher on glossing over a math concept. He saw past the simplification for the sake of his classmates. Calling a teacher out publicly like that, though clearly inappropriate to all of us, might have just been a side effect of being in a new place with new people.

If math was the only language he understood well, and he witnessed math being communicated in an way that was not fully clear to him, of course those moments would attract such a reaction. Over time, we learned to react constructively to these reactions and counsel him into more appropriate ways to ask questions or address his usually correct abstractions of the ideas presented in class.

Fast forward eight yearsto when I was with my ninth graders on our class trip to Shandong province a week ago. As a reward for a hike up thousands of stairs the day before, we spent the final night of the trip visiting a hot springs pool. While the students were splashing around, our tour guide was having a conversation with one of the other tourists in the pool. I was relaxing my eyes staring out at the rocks around the pool when I heard something strangely familiar in their conversation.

“Bu shi…Bu shi…”

I knew both of these words now with my limited experience, but had never thought of them together before. The character bu (不) negates whatever comes after it, and shi (是)is essentially the verb ‘to be’. Putting it together in my head while getting prune fingers at the time, I realized that the phrase bu shi must then mean ‘isn’t’. I confirmed my reasoning with the guide: she was saying that something the tourist was saying wasn’t true.

There I was, seven thousand miles away, realizing long after the fact that this student we all came to admire was probably not cursing at us. He was just saying he thought something he was being taught wasn’t entirely true. It’s the sort of thing we hope our students are thinking about during lessons, questioning their understanding of the content of a lesson. I’ve had students do this in English and never felt threatened by it.

There are many different lessons to take from this. I have been cursed at as a teacher, and I knew it was happening when it was happening because, well, it’s pretty hard to ignore it when it’s happening to you. The fact that this student was having a fairly normal reaction when something wasn’t making sense to him was overshadowed by our misunderstanding of what HE was saying. We assumed he was being out of line. He was innocently saying what was on his mind.

How often do we assume we know what our students are saying without really listening? I’m guilty of wanting to hear an answer that moves a lesson along, but it’s not right, especially when the understanding isn’t there. My students in the Chinese student’s physics class would say an answer they thought was right, and I would on occasion fill in the gaps and go on as if I had heard the correct answer I wanted to hear, even though what the students actually said wasn’t even close to what I wanted. Over the years since they called me out on that, I’ve worked to make that not happen.

In an international school like the one at which I am now teaching, there are languages on top of ideas on top of personalities in my classroom that mix together every day. It is incredibly important to make sure that with such a complex mix of factors, you really know what your students are saying to you and each other.

How China Keeps Me Learning: Part I

Ever since moving to Hangzhou, China in August of 2010, I’ve been amazed at the number of ways it has forced me to use my own problem solving and critical thinking skills. I’ve remarked inwards that talking about these experiences would help greatly in describing the sorts of experiences I want my own students to have, as well as the factors that have helped me be successful as I’ve explored. Now that I am taking the time to write about my experiences, I think this theme is a good one to return to from time to time to describe how these experiences I have relate to my classroom.

Hangzhou has a number of truly incredible places within its city limits. Some are incredibly beautiful. A few of them, however, are incredible for how they address my geeky-tinkerer side.

This building is one of two that sit on opposite sides of the road in the North-east section of Hangzhou. Inside are rows and rows of little booths that each sell electronic parts. Some specialize in motors or solar cells. Others have all different electronic components from resistors to circuit boards to jumper wires, all on display.

I’ve been to this place several times to get parts, other times just to wander around and gawk at the amazing quantity of raw materials there for projects not yet materialized. This week I returned for a different reason. My parents decided to take a big step and visit my wife (Josie) and I here in China, so they have been on numerous adventures with us for the past week. Another post on that is imminent, so stay tuned.

My dad is an engineer and was the first person I thought of when I walked into the building for the first time and saw what was there, so I knew I had to take my dad there for a visit. I also had a vague goal for what I wanted to get while I was there: sensors. Whether for robots or for upcoming units in physics, I knew it would be good to see what was available there so I had more available for experimentation in the classroom and to think ahead.

One other thing to be aware of: I don’t speak Mandarin. I know some basic greetings and scattered vocabulary, but don’t know ‘sensor’, ‘resistor’, or even ‘electric’ either in symbolic or spoken Mandarin. On every visit to the market, I have always had to resort to sketches and diagrams to communicate. This, however, is the most entertaining and enriching part of these trips to the market – figuring out how to say what I am looking for. This was my first visit to the market since my summer acquisition of an iPad, which together with Google Translate, tended to improve the quality of my communication with the dealers to an extent this time. It was, however, still a challenge.

After some wandering around and some awkward interactions with parts dealers that weren’t sure why we were there, my dad and I ended up in a booth with a pair of women intrigued by the site of us in their store. I get the impression on every visit that foreigners don’t enter the building with any regularity, so I’m used to it. I pulled out the iPad and entered ‘gas sensors’ , showing the translation to the women. They pointed to a column of plastic containers beneath a glass counter, gesturing and pointing while saying (in Mandarin) what each one was. Eventually with Translate’s help, they ended up identifying the various gases that they had sensors for, and I came to the conclusion that I needed to do more research before making any purchases. Bottom line – they had some great stuff, much of it exactly what I was looking for.

I went through a similar process in getting some platinum temperature sensors and aluminum blocks with strain gauges for measuring a cantilevered force.

Needless to say, the whole experience was a good one. We all left happy and having had a good time. Here’s just a start of what’s bouncing around in my head for how this experience connects to set up learning opportunities for my students:

I felt free to experiment and play in my learning environment.

I loosely defined goals for my time at the market, but there was no pressure for me to buy anything if I didn’t want to. If my attempts to communicate and find what I was looking for were unsuccessful, I would have other chances to figure it out later on. I wasn’t being evaluated on my time at the market – I was instead free to have fun and try my best to achieve the goals I set for myself.

How much time do we give our students to experiment and play with the material we want to teach them? How are we making the most of the tools we have available to let them do this?

I had the tools I needed to make up for my weaknesses.

The iPad translating capability really made it possible for me to communicate in the way I needed to communicate to achieve my goals. I do want to learn more Mandarin, but I don’t see it necessary that I learn Mandarin completely before I visit the market for my other learning goals. Since my goal had nothing to do with learning the language, but instead to use the tools I had (iPad, electronics market, seemingly amused dad looking on) to reach a desired outcome, I felt free to be creative in how I used the tools to have success.

I speak enough Spanish to be able to have been able to joke and shoot the breeze with cab drivers, store clerks, etc. in the Latin American countries that Josie and I have visited. I have really missed that ability here in China, though I am getting better. The technology lets me be comfortable and interact in a way that makes the entire process enjoyable rather than frustrating. Some frustration is to be expected when trying something new, but not so much to be uncomfortable throughout the process.

How much do the learning goals we set for our students require students have acquired previous skills? How do we address deficiencies in these skills when they arise? Do we give them the tools so they can reach the goals we set for them, or do we modify the goals themselves for these students?

I accepted that I was going to make mistakes, and felt comfortable changing my approach in response to these mistakes.

There were many times when even Google Translate failed to communicate exactly what I was saying (or what the parts dealers were saying) not to mention the challenges that arose in figuring out what I wanted to ask. There were times when I used the Mandarin I did have to confirm that I understood what they were saying, and many times they showed me that I did not. In either case, the dealers were incredibly patient and supportive in figuring out how to help me. It was clear that they were enjoying the process as much as I was, which made me appreciate the time they were willing to take to get me what I wanted. I knew instantly from their reactions to my translated questions whether I had communicated clearly to them, and we were both gesturing and checking that we understood each other as often as possible.

How do we encourage and acknowledge mistake-making as part of the learning process? How do our students feel about making mistakes? How do we develop an environment in which students feel comfortable experimenting and getting things wrong along the way to getting them right?

I love these trips to the market because the feeling of exhilaration and achievement I get when I succeed is worth every moment of frustration. The worst thing that can happen is I walk away empty handed. What usually happens is a scene like the one below:

Somewhere along the line in my classroom, however, students get the feeling that there’s a lot more at stake, that others (unfortunately including me) must be judging their abilities when they don’t get a question right the first time. Students get the feeling that they shouldn’t need to use the tools they have in front of them (graphing calculator, laptop, Geogebra, etc) to learn if they are smart enough. How do I show them that it isn’t about being smart, it is about working hard to get it right in the end? Is it enough to value the mistakes they make? Do I need to share my own mistakes in doing things? (This is part of my plan, at the moment, and is partly why I made the decision to commit time to blogging about what I do in the classroom.)

If I can turn my lessons into explorations and activities in which students feel safe experimenting with concepts, sharing their ideas and helping each other learn, it would make every other goal I have for what I want my students to achieve possible. I’m all ears if you have ideas on how to make this happen!