Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: May 2011 (page 1 of 3)

People who do evil things in the world

People who think they are doing evil things in the world.

It’s really important to remember that almost everyone thinks that what they are doing is for the greater good and that very few people will actually think of themselves as evil. So many people work really hard, and some of those people work hard in ways which are counter-productive to forming a sustainable global community, they just don’t see it.

How can you even tell that what you are doing is against the greater good? What warning signs should you heed that tell you that you are doing an evil act? Is it entirely obvious? I’m not sure that it is.

I’m not saying that we should cut anyone any slack for doing evil things, I’m saying that we need to act as though they don’t know they are doing evil.


Some problems with ebooks in schools

I’ve been doing some research into ebooks for our school during this year, and I’ve come to the conclusion that ebooks are not ready for schools.


  • No one-stop shopping:
    Each textbook and ebook publisher seems to want to use their own system for cataloging and sharing ebooks. Worse, some publishers are unwilling to share their books with other distribution methods, and at least one publisher has opted out of the ebook business completely citing “an inability to find a workable profit model.” What this means for schools is that you can’t subscribe to one service, and get all of the electronic books you might need for your school. Compare this to the print model where you can have tremendous choice in what you buy. Imagine if a traditional library was only able to share books from a single publisher.
  • Lack of standardization:
    There is no large scale agreement on what the form of an electronic book should be in. While ePub, HTML, and PDF seem to be the most popular forms, many publishers are expecting users to use their ereader, as each of them attempts to solve the problem of digital rights management independently. Some books will work on some devices, but not on others. Some books will work on any device, but require the user to have continuous Internet access.
  • Incomplete feature list:
    With a traditional paper book you can share it, annotate it, quote it, add comments, and add bookmarks. If an ebook does not contain at least these basic features, then you are trading the portability of the ebook for the quality of the interaction one has with a traditional book. Further, there are a lot of features which are not included in most ebooks at all. Given that websites allow for videos, simulations, games, and other interactivies to be included fairly easily, one wonders why most ebooks don’t include these features. How many ebooks are updated continuously as our knowledge base is improves? How many are instead just duplicates of the static textbook in digital form?
  • Terrible pricing models:
    Many publishers are using some pretty horrible pricing models for their ebooks. Many, for example, expect schools to pay individually for each copy of the ebook, requiring schools to purchase an ebook multiple times if they need to share it with multiple students simultaneously. Some publishers offer discounts on the books themselves, but many price the ebook at exactly the same as a regular print book. Some publishers even expect the ebook to expire after a certain number of uses, requiring school libraries to repurchase books. Given that the ebook doesn’t need to be printed, costs almost nothing to transport or store, and can be shipped to schools almost immediately after it is published, there needs to be better pricing of the ebooks, or publishers are gouging customers even more. Imagine what happens if you combine problem 1 with this problem? Now you have schools paying too much to too many different publishers just to maintain their current libraries. What about all of the books schools currently own? Why can’t we get digital versions of those?
  • Access to technology:
    Many students do not have access to the technology required to even use an ebook. While some schools are equipping their students with technology, in many school districts they do so at the cost of laying off teachers, libraries, and increasing student-teacher ratios. Teachers and librarians are still critical to the curation of knowledge, so that students are directed into valid and useful sources of information, rather than wandering aimlessly through the vast graveyards of information online (like Answers (dot) com for example). Wikipedia, while a useful source of information, is rarely written at a reading level useful for k to 12 students.
  • Increasing screen time:
    Teenagers already spend vast amounts of time online. It’s not totally clear what the effect of this will be for them, but if we compare it to the problems already found in kids who watch too much television, we may want to find ways to get kids to be more active, rather than giving them more reason to sit in an awkward position reading a screen. At younger ages especially, I’d like to see schools which encourage more physical activity by kids and less seat-work.
  • Not as eco-friendly as we might like:
    While a common argument for using ebooks is that they are more ecofriendly than paper books, it is worth noting that the computers which contain those ebooks use a tremendous amount of water to produce, and contain toxic chemicals which do not yet have adequate recycling mechanisms in place. In a lot of ways, we are trading one environmental problem (the destruction of forests for pulp) for another (the pollution of our ecosystems with heavy metals).
  • Maybe students don’t learn as much from them?
    While this small study suggests that students do read ebooks with similar levels of comprehension as related print resources, this other small study by some of the same authors says they do not. One of the authors, Heather Schugar, has co-authored or authored two other articles talking about the benefits of ebooks (in contrast to this article) so I recommending reading her articles as well. Heather also pointed out on Twitter that comparing the two small studies directly is probably inappropriate given how different the platforms used are.


Obviously there are advantages of ebooks which are worth noting, such as reduced loads in kids backpacks, the ability of the textbook to be more current (even if this isn’t being utilized effectively), eventual access to a wider range of materials, the ability to add more interactivity to the books (again, extremely underutilized), and the ability to customize the materials to the learning needs of the student (more benefits listed here).

Do these benefits overweigh the disadvantages associated with the current ebook industry?


Helping a friend in need

A long time friend of mine, whom I met when I worked in NYC many years ago, recently sent me, and all of her other teacher friends the following email.

Many of you know that I have been in the green card process now for about six years. It has been a long, expensive, and quite honestly, a grueling and anxiety filled six years during which I have not been able to see my family. Well, my lawyers now tell me that the INS is very close to my "priority number", which means that I would be receiving my green card in either June or July. I write "would be receiving", because I have to have a job to port the green card, and I do not at the moment. I was forced to leave my current teaching job in San Francisco and I am now unemployed. If I do not have a teaching job by the time the INS gets to my priority number I will have to leave the United States.

I have been applying for jobs full time, day and night, and I have been applying literally all over the world (in case I have to leave the U.S.), and I have not heard back from anywhere. I am beginning to panic and I do not know what to do.

I have even applied for tutoring jobs, because my job description must be at least 50% the same as the job that got me into the green card process, which was my teaching job in New York, teaching high school English Language Arts.

The reason I am writing you all is that I am running out of ideas, and welcome new and fresh ones. Any ideas on what I should do next?

Suggestions? She is willing to work anywhere in the US.

Google Maps!

I have to admit, I’m a huge fan of Google’s education products. In particular, I use Google maps all the time. First, as a map to find my way around, but also as an interactive mapping tool with students. Here’s an example from our 8th grade social studies unit.

View A Region in Turmoil in a larger map

The purpose of this project was to take news stories about the protests happening in the Middle East, and map them to a location in the world, so that the students could tie media, news, and other information to actual locations. This map has now been viewed over 6000 times and was recently included in the NY Times Learning blog.

Tom Barrett, has also curated a presentation on Google Maps in the classroom, which is worth sharing here. 

Here, the tool is important, since you can do things with it that you really can’t do with a traditional paper map. When we examine educational technologies with our students, the best tools to use are the ones which give us pedagogical affordances we wouldn’t otherwise have, and which allow for our students to collaborate easily, and share their work authentically.

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn

"The greatest thing, you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return." ~ eben ahbez

I want to challenge the notion that the best things we learn in schools are the academic and job preparation skills, but instead the "soft" skills, all of those skills we supposedly learned in kindergarten.

There are areas where our society is in turmoil because these lessons have not been learned by everyone. Love each other is a very important concept, and one where we, as a society, need a lot of work. From Tea Partiers who believe that we should not fund education for everyone, to Internet trolls who post cruel and disgusting things on a 13 year old’s work, we see a lot of evidence of a lack of love in the world. We see it in how we distribute our "wealth" amongst our citizens, and how we prioritize funding for different programs, both in the Western world, and for aid programs abroad. If we lived in a world where "love thy neighbour" was actually followed by everyone, would we even need aid programs for the "under-developed" world?

While I am grateful for all of the scientific knowledge that we have, it seems that our ability to solve scientific (requiring academic skills) is vastly superior to our ability to solve even the simplest of social problems. Perhaps it is time for our society to focus on solving the social problems for a while? Maybe one of the roles of school should be to develop "good" citizens?


In the video below (which was a flash mob performance from our school Stratford Hall, in support of glocal issues around water), the young man who starts the dance off also choreographed the dance, organized the student practices, helped organize the actual event itself (with a fair bit of teacher input) and then took a huge risk and started the dance himself. That’s leadership.

How do you think this video will look on his future resume?

Don’t Lecture Me

Some highlights from the video above (thanks to @smartinez for sharing it):

  • Hardly anyone who teaches actually applies the scientific method to their teaching.
  • Most students are stuck on the Aristolian perspective of how physics works, learning real physics is incredibly difficult.
  • Disagrees strongly with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  • Our old theories of learning haven’t been updated in 50 years. "We just accept them."
  • Lecture is the default teaching method at universities.
  • If you are going to do lecture, at least do it right. Increase the scale of the lecture, improve the skill of the lecturer. At least do it right.
  • If you have respect for the lecturer, your attention goes up, and your retention of what they say increases.
  • Hundreds of thousands of kids go through awful lectures each year.
  • Teachers ask too many pseudorhetorical questions, don’t give students enough time to respond, and students only ask an average of 2 questions a year.
  • Socrates often bullied his students into accepting his view of the world so the Socratic method is not all it is cracked up to be.
  • Lecture comes from "to read" as in reading a sacred text. "Preaching instead of teaching."
  • Feynman discovered that in Brazil students could learn from the book, but knew no physics. "Teaching through lectures is a hopeless task." ~ Feynman
  • "Data is not the plural of anecdote." ~ Eric Mazur
  • "Lecture is the transfer of the notes of the lecturer to the notebook of the student without passing through either." ~ Eric Mazur
  • Give the students the notes in advance. Seating arrangement matters. Lead your lectures through questions. Use feedback from your class to determine which way to go ahead. If majority of students are incorrect, have them discuss the ideas with each other.
  • "I’m just going to give it to you once, you have to get it right the first time." Lectures should be recorded since students will need multiple times to learn it.
  • What’s the point in recording lectures that were bad in the first place? Make sure the lectures are good.
  • Attendance at lectures is horrible.
  • Why don’t we worry about students not attending lectures? Why aren’t we doing something about it?
  • 25 minutes tops for attention span.

Here are ten fairly good points from his talk:

  1. Why are lectures 1 hour long?
    We based the length of lectures on scheduling, rather than on the attention span of the learner. 1 hour is itself based on the Babylonian time-system, and is extremely arbitrary as a result.
  2. Tyranny of time
    We have lots of ways of sharing our lectures whenever students want to access them, why do we force them to access them one time from a lecture hall?
  3. Tyranny of location
    Why do force people to attend something in person when they can’t interact anyway? If students could be involved in the discussion, then having them physically present makes sense, but otherwise, there is no particular reason they should have to come to the lecture hall itself.
  4. Psychological attention span
    People can’t focus for very long, particularly after a few days of lectures. We subject learners to class after class after class, when in fact their attention span cannot handle that much information to process.
  5. Cognitive overload
    Lecture crams too much information into a small amount of time. Students are forced to handle more information than they can handle, which is absolutely debilitating for learning.
  6. Episodic and semantic memory
    The mind doesn’t cope very well with the mixture of semantic (the processing of the content of the lecture) and episodic (from the processing of the visual) information you are receiving.
  7. Learn by doing
    Nothing in lecture gives students opportunity to engage with the material themselves. People learn loads from actually applying their knowledge.
  8. Spaced practice
    People need repeated practice over time, rather than one-off lectures. Lectures tend to give information and assume the learner will go and practice the information themselves, rather than allowing time for the learner to practice using the new knowledge immediately.
  9. Not collaborative
    Lecture isn’t at all collaborative. It’s probably not intended to be, but collaboration is an extremely effective way to learn, given the feedback you receive from your peers.
  10. Personality problems
    Teaching should not be the secondary job of a researcher. This is not a problem experienced in most K to 12 institutions, but is a serious problem at higher levels of education.

These are some pretty serious problems. What could you do to modify your practice? Should you lecture for an hour? I don’t think so. Instead, I recommend that you cut your lecture to only 10 minutes, on a small amount of material, and then give your students time to practice and engage with the material immediately.


Simulating transmission of knowledge in a classroom

I’ve created a simulation, which vastly over-simplifes classroom dynamics and information flow, in an attempt to look at some of the differences between a lecture style classroom and a cooperative learning classroom.

View this simulation here if you are having trouble seeing it above.

  • In a standard strict-lecture style classroom, the teacher does all of the talking, and the students listen. Each student independently tries to come to grips with the material, and there is a chance that they don’t understand it in the same way the teacher indends them. This corresponds to a student transmission level of 0 above, and any teacher transmission level.
  • In a mixed lecture and discussion setting, the teacher transmits most of the knowledge, but part of it is co-constructed with the kids in the form of a two way discussion about the material, wherein the students get clarification of what they don’t understand, and can ask questions. In this case, the students have a low transmission level, and the teacher transmission level is at any stage.
  • In a cooperative classroom, the students have a high transmission level, as they are free to mix and mingle with each other. What is not yet represented above (but will be as I work on this simulation) and I admit this is a problem, is the issue of students occasionally introducing misconceptions to each other, rather than the version of the truth that the teacher is hoping they will find. This corresponds to relatively high transmission rates for students and the teacher both (note: 50% is fairly high, given that this is intended to include a variety of factors).
  • The simulation also lets one choose a "flat" classroom where every student has the same ability, a normally distributed classroom, and either a skewed classroom toward a weaker or a stronger class. This choice affects both student transmission ability, and student "learning" ability.

Other than the obvious "you can’t simplify learning that much" comments, please give me some feedback on this system, and what other potential variables should be included. Please also play around with this simulation and explore the differences between the different classroom styles that you see.

Obama to students: You will need algebra

In his commencement speech ( story shared by @monsoon0 ) to a Memphis graduating class, President Obama said:

Through education, you can also better yourselves in other ways. You learn how to learn – how to think critically and find solutions to unexpected challenges. I remember we used to ask our teachers, “When am I going to need algebra?” Well, you may not have to solve for x to get a good job or be a good parent. That’s true. But you will need to think through tough problems. You will need to think on your feet. So, math teachers, you can tell your students that the President says they need algebra.

I really don’t get how solving for x in 3x + 17 = 5x + 2 will "help students think through tough problems [in life]" and "think on their feet." I see algebra skills as useful, but not out of context of the types of problems they help us solve. Instead of students learning an algorithm for which almost none of our students will ever get to see a real application; what if we taught students areas of mathematics which had direct application in their lives, and which actually helped them think?

I think that we do need some people who learn algebra in a really deep way, but the type of algebra that people use in their day to day lives is fairly simple, and doesn’t take very long to teach, especially if students see the value in what they are learning. Too long people have learned math because someone said they should. 

Well Mr. President, I don’t think that telling my students that just because you think it is useful will mean they will want to learn it. I’m going to keep focusing on presenting the mathematics I teach in the context of the lives of my students instead, thank you.

Newspapers have a purpose: They help us break free of “online filter bubbles.”

When I was watching Eli Pariser’s Beware Online Filter Bubbles TED talk, I wondered initially how one could work against this problem of the customization of the web. I thought to myself, wouldn’t be handy if there was a way to find an assortment of almost randomly aggregated content from a wide variety of interests.

I then remembered that newspapers are an aggregate of content from a wide variety of areas. Maybe they serve a purpose after all? Perhaps newspapers, at least some of them, should continue to focus on providing stories without bias that come from all over the world, from all walks of life. Not sure what the business model is, as most people seem to be content in their bubbles, but perhaps as Eli’s message is shared, they will be able to monetize their random access nature.