Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: February 2011 (page 1 of 2)

The value of storing your lesson plans online

A colleague asked me today if I could find a documentary we watched last year in Science. She has students working in her Global Challenges elective course, and they told her about the video we watched in Science last year. I told her sure, and started Googling for the documentary. About 20 minutes later, I’m about to give up because I can’t find it. I remember then that I probably linked to the documentary on my lesson plan website from last year, and sure enough, I find it in a substitute lesson plan. Total search time on my lesson plan website? About 2 minutes.

Keeping track of your lesson plans and ideas in a searchable format is a must. At the very least you should have folders organized by topic and grade level. However, if you are looking for a resource and you remember something about the resource but not how it was organized, this type of organization can be cumbersome. If you’ve ever tried to use Windows search to find something on your computer, you’ll know how awful it really is. I’ve tested the Mac OS’s search function, and it is far superior, but neither search function is completely satisfactory.

Storing your lesson plans and resources you’ve created online instead of on your personal computer has a number of benefits.

  • Your lesson plans can be easily shared with students, colleagues, parents, substitute teachers, administrators, and teachers from elsewhere in the world.
  • Virtually all web hosts include backups of your data, which means that your work will never be lost. Still, it is worth keeping multiple backups of everything, but information stored in 3rd party systems is far safer than on your likely-to-fail-eventually hard drive or USB stick.
  • Your lesson plans and resources are become easily searchable, especially if you are storing them as text & media in webpages, rather than uploading them in some other file format.
  • You can get feedback on what you’ve done from sources other than your students. Feedback is what helps us improve, and professional feedback from our peers is more valuable than informal feedback from our students. We normally get much more feedback from our students and so it feels more valuable, but try talking about one of your lesson plan ideas with your colleagues and you’ll notice the difference.
  • More altruistically, your resources and lesson plans help other teachers improve. While I don’t think that actually using another teacher’s lesson plans verbatim is all that useful, one can get ideas on improving their own lesson plans and learn from how another teacher constructs lesson plans.
  • You have a chance to have your work noticed by others and be offered other opportunities. Self-publishing your work leads to personal benefits in your career as well.
  • Your work becomes part of a professional portfolio. In a world of digital media, what you have already published online, and the online reputation you have built, says a lot more about you than what you can cram into your résumé. 50% of companies do Google searches and check Facebook profiles. What do you want them to find?

The Myth of Exponential Time?

George Haines has constructed an interesting argument refuting the idea that because we live in exponential times that we need to change how our schools operate.

George says:

Last year Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a big splash by telling us that more information is created every two days than was created from the dawn of time until 2003. This is an alarming find, even if the numbers are fudged quite a bit. The quote wasn’t aimed at educators, but many in the EdTech community took this quote and ran with it. The message Schmidt delivered fit very neatly into the narrative many radical educators subscribe to– that teaching specific factual knowledge is "20th century" and we should be teaching "how to find knowledge" in real time or whatever.

It doesn’t take an expert critical thinker to see the huge hole in this line of reasoning. The reason this is a somewhat meaningless factoid is that there has always been more knowledge in the world than we could possibly teach to students. I can remember sitting in the library on SUNY Stony Brook’s campus and looking around at the over-stuffed shelves of books on just one bookshelf on one floor and thinking "I will never be able to read even a respectable fraction of the books in here."

My response was:

George, I do have one observation that I would like to make and we’ll see if it pokes a hole in your argument or not.

Things we agree upon:

There has always been more knowledge available to know than what can possibly be taught to kids in schools.

Someone needs to select a subset of the available knowledge to show to kids. Kids cannot possibly become completely self-directed. I would like to see much more self-direction than currently occurs, but I don’t see kids as being able to learn how to read, or even adopt most critical thinking skills without a lot of interaction and support from adults.

Things that we do not agree upon:

It will always be possible for a small team of educators to choose the best possible subset of skills or content for our students to learn, using our current systems of determining curriculum goals. 

The process of curriculum construction is linear. A bunch of people get together, they look at what is available to be known, they might examine market trends, read some research about future predictions, and then they carefully select a subset of that total knowledge to share with kids. The rate of change of the subset of knowledge is directly dependent on how many people are examining the curriculum. Mathematically, it is a linear function. While much of this base knowledge remains constant, some of it must change.

If you buy the argument that the total amount of knowledge is increasing exponentially, then you must see that there is a serious problem here. An exponential amount of knowledge cannot be effectively processed using a linear method! 

This has already resulted, in my opinion, of some of what we are teaching kids, particularly in math and science, to be largely irrelevant. Why do we spend so much time teaching algebra when even professional mathematicians hardly do any algebra at all? If our objective is to teach logical thinking skills, that could be just as effectively done using computer programming skills which are vastly more important in even today’s economy and society than algebra is.



Long lasting change

You can’t produce long-lasting solutions to problems by alienating the people who would have the biggest impact in effecting change. Want to see what happens when you try?

Scott Walker is an idiot

(Thanks to @ProgresivTeacher for sharing this)

This is the lesson of the protests in Egypt, the protests in Madison, and the unravelling of the changes Michelle Rhee made in DC. If your change involves repressing a large group of people, you might be able to make some faux headway, but as soon as you are gone, all of your changes will revert.

Want to really change education? Listen to educators.

If you don’t ask, it can’t happen

So I’m finally able to share an interesting story which has developed over the past 3 months. It started with TEDxVancouver, which I saw Nazanin Afshin-Jam speak about her work as an activist.

Nazanin Afshin-Jam at TEDxVancouver

(photo credit: Rick Chung)

By a strange coincidence, we had a student at our school who was working on a film project about the stonings that were happening in Iran, and trying to understand the situation. Since I had just heard Nazanin talk about the same issue, I decided to look her up on Facebook. Turns out she has a public Facebook page, and she had enabled messages from anyone in her privacy settings. So I sent her a message.

Message to Nazanin on Facebook

She responded! Well, actually one of the volunteers who helps her organize and manage her Facebook responded, but he did so with Nazanin’s blessing. After several communications back and forth, and one miscommunication, we finally managed to arrange a telephone interview for today between Nazanin and my student. It took a few months, largely because Nazanin is an incredibly busy person, and travels a lot in her activist work so finding time to meet was challenging. Eventually Nazanin herself handled the last minute timing of the interview.

She called the school and I said hello, and thanked her for her time, and for the opportunity she was giving our student. I then passed the phone over to our student, because as I said, "this was her show."  We didn’t turn on the speaker phone even though we were dying to hear what she had to say, we just sat and listened to the questions our student asked, and I have to say that they were hard questions, and I really was curious to know what the responses were.

"What is the background of stoning," our student asked, after exchanging pleasantries, jumping right into the heart of what she wanted to know. Twenty minutes and 10 questions later, we had a very satisfied student in front of us, one who seemed really impressed by the conversation. My colleague, who sat in on the interview out of curiousity, said to me after our student left, "we’ll never know what Nazanin said." I agreed, "It doesn’t matter though, she obviously learned a huge amount from it. You saw her face."

You can’t help your students have experiences like this unless you ask.

Things I (almost) never use anymore

Here are some things that I either don’t use anymore, or almost never use anymore. I can remember using all of these things often, but they just don’t seem useful anymore.

The last time I burned a DVD was for a colleague at work. I think the time before that was at least a year ago.



I have a calculator on my smartphone or on my computer. I do use a graphing calculator, but only at school. Why would I want a single use device?



I don’t mail things anymore, or at least not often enough that I can remember the last time I did it.



I don’t use pencils (and I’ve never used mechanical pencils), except for attendance, or to write a quick note when my phone is out of reach.

Pencil Case


This particular Yellow pages came to our apartment unrequested a couple of months ago, and we still haven’t removed the wrapper… 

Phone book


My paper address book is totally useless to me, now that all of my contacts are online.

Address book


The only reason I listen to CDs anymore is because we take car rides, and our son likes to listen to his music. Otherwise, music I listen to is on Youtube, or on my iPhone.

Music CDs


What’s your list of things that you’ve stopped using?

Students are like plants

My colleague just shared an interesting analogy to describe the relationship between students and teachers. I’ve heard this analogy before, but she said it so eloquently, I just thought I’d share.

"Our students are like seeds we’ve planted. We water them, we give them fertilizer, we make sure they have the right amount of sunlight, but at some point you just have to sit back and watch them grow."

So true.

Mathematics and Multimedia Blog Carnival

The Mathematics and Multimedia Blog Carnival is now accepting articles for the next issue which I will be hosting at the end of February. Although any math article might be accepted, below are the revised criteria for blog carnival selection. The following will be the characteristics of the articles that will be prioritized.


1. Connection between and among different mathematical concepts

2. Connections between math and real life; use of real-life contexts to explain mathematical concepts

3. Clear and intuitive explanation of topics not discussed intextbooks, hard to understand, or  difficult to teach

4. Proofs of mathematical theorems in which the difficulty of the explanation is accessible to high school students

5. Intuitive explanation of higher math topics, in which the difficulty is accessible to high school students

6. Software introduction, review or tutorials

7. Integration of technology (Web 2.0, Teaching 2.0, Classroom 2.0), in teaching mathematics



To submit an article to the Math and Multimedia Blog Carnival, click here.

The Math Teachers at Play Carnival and Carnival of Mathematics are also accepting math articles for their carnivals. Please do not duplicate submissions.


Why textbooks should be open source

In the past few years, there has been a push for open source content, and enough resources have been created so that schools can completely do away with the traditional textbook. However, adoption of open source content has been low, and the vast majority of schools are still relying on tradtional textbooks.

Here are some reasons besides "they will cost less" that school districts (and educators) should be pushing for open source content for schools.

  • Reduced cost for transportation if in digital form
    Schools can download the textbook and (if necessary) print it out on campus as they need it, which means they can pay for bandwidth, which most schools already do, instead of paying for shipping.
  • Authors paid for hours worked, not for uncertain future sales
    I’m an author of a textbook. It has not seen wide adoption, partially because it is a 1st edition, and partially because the market for the textbook I co-authored is pretty much saturated with a competitors product. I spent many hours writing this textbook, and have worked out that my wage for writing the textbook works out to about $2 an hour. In an open source model, you can release the book once it is published, and just pay the author for the time they’ve worked. Given the enormous savings to school districts after the restrictive license has been removed, this actually makes fiscal sense too.
  • Easier to keep updated since anyone can legally make revisions
    Textbooks can be immediately updated as soon as our knowledge of an area increases, or if an error is found in a textbook. Compare this to the speed it takes to update a typical textbook where the only incentive to update the textbook is to increase sales.
  • Can be provided easily in any format
    Most textbook are provided in one or two formats, meaning that once you buy a textbook, you are locked to the mode the textbook is available in, whether that is paper, or a pdf. When the textbook has an open source license, it can be legally reformated for any device.
  • You can be altruistic and provide curriculum to those who really need it
    There are lots of places in the world which can not afford to create their own resources for their schools. Although there are cultural implications to sending them our Westernized resources, the open source license means they can customize the content for their needs. The creation of open source content is therefore also a charitable activity.
  • Pick and choose what you want/remixable
    If the resource doesn’t work for you, you can fix it. You can mix multiple resources, and you can customize the content to whatever your needs are. Try doing that with a traditional textbook. This gives teachers more autonomy over the materials they use.
  • Redistribute resources
    Even if you print an open source textbook, the total cost of the textbook is maybe $10. You don’t really care as much what happens to the textbook if it only costs $10. You can take all of the people and resources that were involved in the storing, shipping, and tracking textbooks and use them more efficiently elsewhere.
  • Doesn’t need to be just paper
    A digital "textbook" could be so much more than just paper…
  • Collaborate between countries
    As someone who doesn’t live in the US, I certainly know how much licensing gets in the way of sharing resources across the border. So often we have to wait ages for resources available elsewhere in the world to become licensed for us in Canada. With an open source license, which much more easily be transfered from one country to another, this access barrier is dropped. Now we can collaborate across cultures and across borders much more easily than ever before. This will also allow for cross-cultural exchange. Imagine being able to download chapters about the American Revolution from the US and UK perspectives.
  • Less work for each district
    School districts can share the work for creating content. While some of these resources will be specific to a particular part of the world, much of what we teach in different parts of the world is almost exactly the same. Each school district can therefore do a little bit less work and focus on maintaining their own regional specific content.


Wheel of Fortune Game

My colleague asked me if I could find a Wheel of Fortune game he could use with his 1st grade students. I looked around for a while and found something which sort of worked here. The problem was, the code was kind of broken and needed a lot of repair. However it was the best thing I could find, so I spent a few hours and tidied it up.

You can check out what the Wheel of Fortune game looks like here:

There is a "back-end" where you can add/edit the list of words, but I’m going to keep the location of it secret since my colleague is going to be using the demo version of the game with his class.

If you want to customize it further, you can download my version of the code here (note that you’ll need access to a server which runs PHP and a MYSQL database).