Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Now what? Part I

Learners who lose the ability to make decisions are disempowered.
Brain Cambourne

This quote comes from Cambourne's theory of learning as it relates to responsibility. I see this "disempowerment" in the secondary math classes that I observe and the college courses that I teach. Students are constantly waiting for someone else, usually the teacher, to tell them what to do. The time when this is most evident is when a student finishes an assigned task and sits back waiting for the teacher to answer the question, "Now what?"

Disempowerment has tremendous consequences. It removes from the student the responsibility to be a self-directed learner. Once a task is complete, they fail to consider what might come next which results in a loss of cognitive momentum - disengagement. Their need to be directed by others to explore beyond the assigned task is unsustainable. What happens when a teacher is not available to tell them what comes next? They sit and wait.

This is why I spend a great deal of time in my classes, especially those populated with teachers-in-training, encouraging them to ask the "Now what?" question to themselves and not wait for me to tell them what comes next. Granted, this is not easy at first since it runs counter to years of training, but with time I have found that I can gradually release the responsibility of identifying extensions to my learners. It usually starts with me explicitly identifying the disempowerment issue and modeling what self-directed learners might do with extra time on their hands. After modeling this behavior multiple times, I share with my learners the responsibility of coming up with ways to maintain our momentum. My goal is that eventually learners will develop their own approach to extending their learning and thus empowering themselves.

An example of sharing this responsibility comes from a probability and statistics course I have taught for preservice K-8 math teachers. The activity is based on an article from Ann Lawrence, "From The Giver to Twenty-One Balloons: Explorations with Probability." I like this article because it models several possible extensions students might consider to further their learning. For example, after working on several probability problems related to The Giver, the middle school students in the article are asked to write their own problems given the story's context. Here are the results of this extension:

Novice teachers are sometimes hesitant to turn over this responsibility of generating problems to students because they feel unprepared to deal with what might be messy stories. Therefore, I ask my preservice teachers to look at Mark's story and consider possible solution methods and then what comes next. With practice, these future teachers can become more adept at dealing with unpredictable situations. Also, I explicitly state that their "Now what?" question can focus on either pedagogy (responding to Mark) or content (exploring the math) - it's up to them. Empowerment!

Before I share the typical results, I want to provide you the opportunity to explore Mark's problem. A chance to ask and answer your own "Now what?" question. I hope you will share your learning in the comments.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What would Charlie Brown do?

Josh earned $1,962 over the summer. Hilary earned $129 more than Josh during the summer. How much money did Hilary earn over the summer?
When I taught middle school math in the 80s and 90s, this was the type of word "problem" that filled the curriculum my district used. Furthermore, the "problem" was typically at the end of a worksheet entitled Adding with Two Addends that was filled with 12 other addition exercises. Even back then I knew that these were not true problems for my 8th-graders, and that if I gave them a reading assessment they would have no idea who Josh and Hilary were and what they did over the summer. They had simply added the two numbers. And who could blame them?

It was during this time that I began to explore the idea of subtle shifts. At that point, I did not have the time nor the expertise to develop a whole new curriculum. Instead, I decided to rewrite these exercises in order to make them problematic for my learners. How? I received my inspiration from the Charlie Brown cartoons.

I replaced every syllable in the story with "wu" - as if the teacher in the cartoon were reading it aloud. It removed the real-world context but forced the 8th-graders to rely on their number sense. They had to decide which operation (addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division) made the most sense and why. Here are a few for you to try:
Wawa wa four wa wawawa.  Wa wawawa wa wa wa 150 wa.  Wa wa wa wa Wawa wa?
Wawa wawa $519 wa wa wawawa, Wawa wa $267 wa.  Wa wa wa wawa wa wawa wa wa wa wawawa?
Wa Wa Wawa, wa wa 936 wa wa Wawa Wawa wa 1,443 wa wa Wawawa.  Wa wa wawa wa wa wa Wawawa?
Wa wawa wa wa wa eight- wawawa wawawawa wa wa wawa 232 wawawa?
Unlike Peppermint Patty in the clip, my learners were much more engaged in these stories. Maybe it was the novelty of them. I suspect, however, that it had to do with the fact that they were more challenging, and therefore more interesting, than the originals. And the 8th-graders were usually fairly successful predicting the operation required in the original story.

Nearly 30 years later, I still use these Charlie Brown Word Problems with the preservice and inservice teachers that I work with. They help to represent the difference between exercises and problems. And they demonstrate how subtle shifts can enhance learners' mathematical experiences.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is it really about the money?

US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was a part of a panel discussion held at the University of Michigan School of Education recently (watch it here). Part way through, the discussion turned to teacher pay and Secretary Duncan again called for a substantial increase in starting teachers' salary. (To be fair, the issue was not raised by the Secretary - see around 46 minutes.) For some reason, the idea that paying teachers more is a solution to our educational issues rubs me the wrong way.

Don't misunderstand, I would accept a pay increase no questions asked. It would help me to get some things done around the house and might allow me to pay someone else to do my chores so I can focus on teaching issues - maybe. Here's the thing, though. I didn't get into education for the money. In fact, I got into education in spite of the money.

My first real job was as a computer programmer. It was only a paid internship but it was enough for me to know that it was not the kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my career regardless of the money. Contrast that with my internship as a teacher (what we call student teaching). Not only did I not get paid for that work but I had to pay to do it.

Still, I loved it! I got up early, stayed late, and volunteered for lunch duty. And I know I am not alone. Nowadays, I work with teachers doing various internship experiences and I see all the extra responsibility that they willingly take on at their placements. Many times they do this along with some other job that pays them so they can turn around and pay to do what they love - teach.

Because of this first teaching experience, I struggle attaching my paycheck to my teaching. Each time I get paid I am grateful for the support I receive. However, getting paid more or less would not change the way I go about my professional efforts. Most of the teachers I work with seem to have the same mentality.

The idea that more pay would get current teachers to work harder to improve their teaching or get better people into teaching is insulting. From my perspective, many of the best and brightest are already in education or training to be a teacher. Increasing teacher pay simply to attract someone attracted to more money does not seem wise.

Should teachers be better compensated for their commitment to our most precious national resource? Absolutely! Does our educational system need to be improved? Constantly! Let's pay teachers more and let's improve education. But these are two separate issues that seem to be getting confused.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What's TED?

I'm asked me this question a lot recently. Now I know that TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, but as I have written before I tend to relate everything to my practice. Therefore, I often think of TED as being Teaching, Education, and ... well, Design.

How does design relate to education? I was first introduced to the connection when Mickey McManus from MAYA (Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable) talked at TEDxGrandRapids about Innovating Education. In particular, he described how MAYA developed the LUMA (Looking, Understanding, Making, & Advancing) Institute as a sort of bootcamp for teaching Human-Centered Design. Based on LUMA's successes, they began considering whether design thinking is a basic literacy for everyone and how they might bring their curriculum to kids. This seemed to nibble around the edges of educational reform, however, as it treated design as an extracurricular activity and not a part of school.

Then at the College of Education start-up meeting a colleague asked me if I had ever heard of REDlab at Stanford University. I said that I hadn't and asked what it was. She said RED stood for Research in Education & Design - there's that word again and that connection. With the beginning of the semester at hand, I did not have the opportunity to find out much about REDlab but according to the website:
REDlab was founded in 2009 to study the impact of design thinking in education. It grew from the Taking Design Thinking to Schools Project, which was funded by Stanford’s K-12 Initiative. It sparked a partnership between the Stanford School of Education and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design ( The goal was to partner with local schools to explore the feasibility of design thinking as a new way to teach and learn.
All of this intrigued me, so when I had an opportunity to sit down for breakfast with an actual designer I grilled him for information. Unfortunately, Rob was unfamiliar with either Mickey McManus or the REDlab. Instead, he shared his own educational journey on his way to becoming a designer.

Rob went to a traditional university before transferring to a design school. As far as he was concerned, these two institutions offered him vastly different educational experiences. The university provided a structure while the design school offered guidance. I quickly interjected that this was understandable because the university would need to have a proven/vetted curriculum and a clear way to assign grades. He could see that and added that some design schools had done away with grades and focused on competencies instead. In fact, design-based businesses seemed less interested in grades than in authentic examples of the designers work.

I asked how this work was shared and Rob said through a portfolio. But the portfolio was not just samples of final products; it contained artifacts of the design process from start to finish. When I asked if this meant it had examples of where mistakes had been made, he hesitated. After some thought, he assured me that someone looking over the process would certainly see where his thinking had changed, but he did not seem to consider these mistakes - just part of the normal creative process.

Breakfast was served and I had taken enough of Rob's time, so we joined the rest of the group in their discussions. I keep thinking about our conversation, though. How can design thinking apply to education?

Friday, September 2, 2011

What do you want to know?

Grand Valley started this week. And, as usual, I began my Introduction to Learning and Assessment course with a workshop called "A Piece of Me" (handout). This involves an activity that was introduced to me over 14 years ago during an Integrated Thematic Instruction class. I wish I could remember the presenters so I could give them credit but that information has long since vanished from my memory and my files. If anyone knows the origin of this activity, please let me know so that I can give credit where it is due. Anyway, here is how I implement the activity.

Goal: The learner will ask questions in order to get to know the instructor/course.

Schema Activation: Whole Class Discussion
When you meet someone, What do you want to know about him or her?

Focus: Expectations - Small Group

  • Develop one personal and one professional question to ask the instructor.
  • During the activity, keep a record of each question that is asked.
Activity: Asking and Recording Questions
I begin this portion by saying something like, "I reserve the right to decline answering any question. I have been doing this for many years, in K12 and college classrooms, and I have never had to refuse answering a question. Now this is not a challenge for you to be the first group to come up with the unanswerable question. It is intended to demonstrate that this can be used at any level - even with middle schoolers who are known for their inappropriate questions."

We then move on to the groups asking their questions. I respond providing answers and other related information that I think they'd like or need to know. After all the groups have asked their questions, if time permits, I ask if there's anything else anyone would like to know about me or the course.

Reflection: Looking Back - Small Group Analysis
  • From your list of questions, pick one that you think was an effective question. What made it effective?
  • If you finish early, pick another effective question and describe what the two question have in common or consider an ineffective question and rewrite it or ... (What comes next for you?).
  • How engaged were you during this activity?
I end the workshop by getting some feedback from the participants. The consensus seems to be that this activity is much more engaging than what they imagine it would be like for me to talk at them for forty minutes about what I think they need to know. They appreciate that they control the activity with their questions. They acknowledge that they are much more interested in my points because I am responding to their questions.

Because they are teachers in training, I let them in on a few secrets behind the activity: 1) I am still in control of what I share and usually get to say what I think is important regardless of what they ask; 2) I use the questions they ask as a formative assessment that provides data on what they find interesting; and 3) The activity is much more engaging for me as well because I do not know what I will be asked. (One time it was what my favorite sandwich was.)

I follow this workshop up with a home workshop where they apply the same strategy of asking questions to reading the course syllabus (handout). This is another activity that I have decided I won't waste time doing in class. They post their questions on our course Blackboard site and I address them directly on the discussion board or during subsequent class meetings.


Now it is your turn. Any questions?