The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

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Month: February 2010

Why don’t all students react the same to feedback from their teachers?

There is lots of research which shows that human beings are complex.  In fact, although we can be modeled as groups of people mathematically in many circumstances, individual humans are too complex for mathematical analysis to much use in exactly predicting our behaviour.  However humans do follow patterns of behaviour, and we can predict what a possible range of behaviours are we expect to see.  Obviously this is why our social structures work because this predictive ability is easy enough that one can do it without the aid of a computer.

However this behaviour does follow the mathematical rules of a chaotic system.  Chaotic systems are systems which typically follow fairly predictable patterns, but for which small differences in input can lead to widely different outputs.  If you want to learn more about this I recommend reading some of Keith Devlin’s work in this area, he explains it in an easy to follow way.  Humans are chaotic systems because they take input from the outside world, process it, and modify their own behaviour, which leads to changes in their environment to which they again react, etc… This leads to what we call a feedback loop.  Often these feedback loops stabilize, which leads to predictable behaviour, but occasionally they can destabilize and chaos erupts.

We have all seen this as educators.  Johnny is a perfect angel every day, and then one day he comes into school and gets into a fight in his first period class.  I think sometimes we blame ourselves when these things happen, and we wonder why they happened.  Assuming you treat all students very similarly, and they come to school with pretty much the same kinds of things happening in their lives, you might wonder why some students are bright and cheerful despite their possible misfortunes, and others are a bad mood.  I think if you look at it from the perspective that they are chaotic systems, you can assign a lot less of the blame onto yourself.

I think that this boils down to, not all students, even ones who seem very similar on the surface, are going to react to you in the same way.  Even a minor variation in what is going in their lives can lead to very different attitudes from students, and you have to accept that.

There is some recent research though that shows that a lot of chaotic systems have large areas of stability.  The implication of this fact to educators is that if we moderate our own behaviour and feedback to guide students into these areas of stability, we can encourage students to behave in a more predictable manner.  I think it is well established that a good teacher respects their students, treats them fairly, cares for their students in such a way as to make them feel comfortable in the classroom.  These types of behaviours from the teacher are reinforcing the stability that our students need so much in their sometimes chaotic lives.  

Making school feel more like the real world

Here’s my observation.  What we have students do during school does not at all resemble what they will do when they finish university.  In fact there is literally no relationship at all, and our students can see that and of course, they rebel.  I’ve talked about an alternate school structure before, this post is really an extension of that post.

The real life workplace does involve repetitive tasks (like school) but is also coupled with problem solving.  Actually almost all of the interesting parts of anyone’s job are when one is required to problem solve or at least learn a new skill.  We can actually be given some problems in the workplace which have no immediate solution, in fact they may have no perfect solution at all.  Solving a problem in the workplace is extremely rewarding in itself and probably leads to greatest job satisfaction for most people.  Failure, disappointment, success, creativity are all parts of the modern workplace. 

School on the other hand involves very repetitive tasks, and very little creativity.  Students are isolated from true failure through things like social promotion and minimum grade boundaries, disappointment is temporary, and the rewards for success on any one individual project are very small.  One could argue that working hard all the way through school can lead to big rewards in the form of scholarships for entrance to university, but in terms of hours worked, this can actually be considered a fairly small reward.  One of the only areas schools are like the workplace is that students get lots of opportunities to experience success.  Unfortunately these individual events are often to contrived and unlike the real-world as to lack meaning.

So what if, as soon as kids had some basic skills (like reading, writing, simple arithmetic) under their belts, they were exposed to a more realistic school where students were involved in solving real life problems and their solutions (where appropriate) were actually implemented?  There are lots of schools which implement this in various ways, and as long as the programs are structured appropriately, they seem to be successful.  I’m thinking of automotive schools, culinary schools, etc…. for middle and high school students.  So in other words, lots of schools actually do this already in various ways and are experiencing success.  All I’m suggesting is that we expand these types of programs, especially into the academic areas.

Here are some examples off the top of my head.  

Suppose, as part of learning about biology, students were involving in collecting and analyzing data from their local ecosystems.  One of the great difficulties biologists have is in collecting enough worthwhile data from a wide enough variety of places to be useful.  If students collected this data carefully and correctly, this could save an enormous amount of time for biologists and greatly expand the number of geographic environments that could be analyzed.

Students who need to learn about literature could collaboratively write a book (such a collection of short stories for kids), which they would be expected to market and sell themselves.  They would learn valuable lessons about the importance of editing one’s work, the difficulty in getting work published, and how one can successfully complete a lengthy piece of writing.  Obviously very similar ideas could be implemented by substituting book for movie, radio station, magazine, newspaper, etc…

Want students to practice their arithmetic?  Have them work together to run a store (perhaps where the products created by the students themselves are sold?) and keep track of inventory, manage their budget, and run a cash register (perhaps without the technical assistance that makes this all too easy to do?).

I think that most areas of the curriculum could be turned into more job-like projects but there might be some areas which would not lend themselves well to being ‘job like’.  Of course there are lots of other ways of approaching these topics which would be more meaningful and engaging for the students.   Learning about some topics through formal debates (and the associated research skills), write letters as if one was participating in a historical event, these are a couple of ways to increase student involvement especially in the social sciences.

In order for this type of school to work, one would really need to take a careful look at the curriculum and ask yourself, what of this curriculum is vital for the students to know, and what of it is intended to be used as a vehicle to teach skills?  Personally I think so much of what we teach is really irrelevant for students and could easily be trimmed down a fair bit.  These kinds of schools would be great for encouraging depth of knowledge and specialization of individual students instead of the generic cookie-cutter model of education.


Why we need to change schools

So I was struck by an interesting analogy today after reading part of a post about flipping curriculum.  The problem with current education, the post claims, is that we are focusing on cramming content into courses, rather than working fundamentally on critical thinking skills.  I thought, Yes, I totally agree, and then it came into focus, the reason WHY I agree.

Here’s the argument that ran through my head.

First, the amount of information that is available to be learned in our world is increasing at an exponential rate (Actually it might be increasing at an exponential TO an exponential rate, but that’s another story).  We are currently attempting to decide on which of this new information is most important to be taught to students, but unfortunately we can only operate at a linear rate, which is really a fancy way of saying that each of us can only do so much work.  

The process is, some experienced teachers decide on what needs to be taught during curriculum reviews which take place on the order of a few years, then this information is included in the prescribed learning outcomes for our particular part of the world.  Every 5 or 6 years the curriculum gets updated.  The problem becomes abundantly clear if you look at the following graph.

The blue line indicates the amount of knowledge we are able to process over the years as educators building curriculum (assuming the number of educators remains roughly constant, which in industrialized countries is approximately true) and the red line indicates the growth of knowledge over time.  You may notice a huge problem is looming, very soon we will have no possible way of forcing the content based curriculum we are building match what is actually known as a species.

An analogy to this that occurred to me as a response to a Twitter post by Joe Bower, a great educator living in Alberta.  He said, "How do people function properly when they follow hundreds or thousands of people on Twitter? Am I missing something?"  I thought of a quick response and decided that there really isn’t a quick response and decided to write this post.

The answer is of course that you can’t possibly follow all of the information, it’s too much, so you have to rely on your ability to analyze information quickly and set limits on how long you are going to try and process information.  Anyone who has followed more than a few hundred people has some trick they use to filter through the information.  Some people create lists to keep track of specific users, others listen to the Twitter stream for 20 minutes at a time and rely on the fact that really useful and important information will be reTweeted.  Essentially all of these people are using some sort of critical analysis of their stream to make the flow of information more manageable.

This is the critical skill we need to teach our students.  It will not be possible for an individual stuck in a linear mode to be able to muster the required processing to engage meaningfully with the exponential increase of information available.  Therefore in the future, everyone who wants to be successful will need to have the ability to filter information, choose reliable and useful sources of information, and build networks of people to distribute the processing of information over their personal learning network.  Each person acts as a node processing part of the information, and collectively we have a chance of being able to select the most valuable information from our incredibly messy information streams.

Inappropriate CTV Coverage during the Olympics

My wife and I have never been so horrified of watching televised coverage of a major sporting event in our lives.

Your Much Music news broadcast, sent slightly before 5pm today was absolutely beyond the limits of what we consider decent for viewing before 10pm.  We are worried that we will not be able to watch the Olympic coverage with our son.

First you showed video footage of a young adult male in a hot tub with what were obviously underage girls in bikinis, which is an extremely inappropriate sexualization of those poor teenage girls.

Second you showed some video footage of some people doing body shots in a bar.  The impression we get is that the Olympics are going to be one gigantic party and this is a very poor impression of the Olympics to be passing along to other countries.

In terms of what we consider appropriate footage during televised coverage during the late afternoon we found your story to be quite disgusting and in poor taste.  We were not anticipating being exposed to an a MTV style wild party during coverage of the largest sporting event in the world.

You have tarnished Canada’s reputation in mere minutes that we as a nation have been attempting to build for many decades.

Remember that you are the sole source of information on the Olympics and as such have a great responsibility to represent Canada in an appropriate way.

If you insist on showing footage of a small minority of Canadians partying like wild in bars, you can expect us to stop watching your network, and to encourage our friends to do the same.

Thank you for taking our concerns seriously,

David Wees
Vasilia Wees