Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: June 2011 (page 2 of 4)

Rocky start to ISTE11

I’m finally in Philadelphia and able to relax a bit, but the trip to get here was something else.

It start on Friday morning, when I was woken up especially early by an exuberant little boy who wanted to play with his daddy. We played for a bit, and then I got ready for work. Next, I head to work and have two meetings before presenting to my colleagues on 30 tech tools in 30 minutes. We then had our final staff meeting, had lunch, and I finished up some last minute work for the year, and finally I headed home.

Once home, I spent about 4 hours cleaning and packing as we are moving next week. Exhausted, my wife, son and I drove to the airport where we said our good-byes. With my son nearly in tears, I headed off for the obligatory 2 hour transfer from the check-in counter to the gate, through security. At 11pm, the flight took off.

After 3 hours where I sat in a cramped chair and struggled to sleep, I arrived in Chicago. Looking at my itinerary, I realized I had an hour to try and get to the next flight, so I sprinted to customs, and then ran to catch a train to the right terminal, which unfortunately I just missed. I waited around for what felt like 15 minutes, and finally got on a train from terminal 5 allll the way to terminal 1. Arriving in Terminal 1, I found out that I had to go through security again, which took 35 minutes. Not entirely sure of the time, once I left security, I sprinted in my socks to my gate, to see the doors of the departure gate were already closed and no one left to board the plane. Sigh.

I was fortunate to be rerouted to a 7:30am flight, which of course was on the other side of the airport. I took a shuttle bus, racing between moving airplanes and wondering if I could be accidentally squished. I got to the flight, got a chance to sit down, discovered I would have to pay for Wifi so I could update the EdubloggerCon people that I would be unable to present due to the flight delay. Finally, I got to board the flight, about 15 minutes delayed, at which time I was forced to endure another hour delay.

Landing in Philadelphia 2.5 hours later than expected, and disappointed to be missing EdubloggerCon already, I found out that my bag hadn’t arrived in Philadelphia with me. I wandered from Delta to United to US Airways until I found someone helpful who told me that my bag would be on the 1pm plane from Chicago. I gave her the address of my hotel, and took a taxi to #TEDxPhiladelphiaED, stopping to get a hot dog on the way, the only food I’ve had at this stage in the past 15 hours.

So now I’m sitting in the #TEDxPhiladelphia theatre, listening to a wonderful story from Barbara Allen, hungry, a bit smelly, and very, very tired, but also very grateful that I’m finally here for the International Society for Technology in Education conference.

Is there only one way?

One way sign
(image credit: dionnehartnett)


One basic assumption we often have about life is that there is only way to get things done. We struggle to see paths other than the one before us. Sometimes we are so blind to the alternate views of reality that we construct arguments against why they are possible, rather than accepting the evidence in front of our eyes.

I recently discovered that there are at least 2 other ways of tying one’s shoes, for example, a fact I did not know for nearly 30 years. I have almost certainly witnessed literally thousands of different people tying their shoes over the years but have never noticed these other methods before now. I only noticed because I’ve been helping my son learn how to tie his own shoes, I’ve been reflecting on how shoes are tied, and then suddenly noticed that there are people who’s shoes are tied using completely different methods than what I’m familiar.

If I can be wrong about something simple like shoes being tied, what else could I be wrong about? Maybe one reason why education reform is such a struggle right now is that the many sides of the debate can only see the direction with which they are familiar? I don’t think that my vision of what education reform should be is wrong, but am I being myopic?


Fork in path
(image credit: bertiemabootoo)


Every path has a fork. Sometimes you can double-back and try a different path, but you are never stuck on the one you’ve chosen. No path is one way. One thing is clear though, it is rare that two forks of a path lead to the same place. Let us remember that while we may not like the path that is being chosen for us in education reform, when the pendulum swings again, we can retrace our steps, and hopefully undo a lot of the damage that is being done.

I’d like to help the people in charge of the reform see that they are on what I think is the wrong path, but I also need to keep my eyes open and look for the evidence they see that convinces them that they are on the right path. Without understanding why they are so sure of their direction, I cannot expect to be able to convince them of the error of their ways. Similarly, I must be open to the possibility that it is me who is on the wrong path.

I don’t think that’s true though. I just think I have a different destination in mind.

Separate process of work from the product of work

When I started working at my current school, I realized that they do something in assessment which is very rare. Our school separates the behaviours and all of the types of things which are part of the process of work from the summative grades which come from the assessments which are the product of work. We end up with an "Approaches to Learning" rubric, which we use to provide feedback to students about the learning habits they’ve developed. Our current rubric has a quality of work column which I think we are planning on deleting for next year, so here is the rubric we will (hopefully) use.


  Quality of effort Reflection Remediation Application to next situation
7 An appropriate level of effort was evident throughout the term. Assignments were done on time. Student is an example to the rest of the class. Student thinks about the tasks and the results. Accepts responsibility for learning, and looks for ways to improve. Always makes corrections. Student clarified expectations and did follow-up with teacher when needed. If needed, appropriate steps were taken to fix any difficulties. Is successful in making changes to approaches to learning to ensure ongoing success. Develops a variety of strategies. Seeks to improve and is successful.
6 An appropriate level of effort was evident, although there was an occasional letup. Student often reflects on work and quality, and takes responsibility for learning. Usually makes corrections. Student clarified expectations and did follow-up with teacher when needed. Makes good effort in improving approaches to learning.
5 Effort was evident, but not always at the level it needed to be at. Occasionally (but rarely), deadlines were missed. Student is developing a sense of understanding of the ways he or she learns best, and is making effort to improve learning. Student readily asks for assistance, in class, but does not make much out of class effort to seek help. Cares about performance and makes effort, sometimes unsuccessful, to improve work.
4 Effort level is inconsistent. Student sometimes misses deadlines, but always gets work in eventually. Student reflection is only evident when teacher prods. When that occurs, student demonstrates awareness of learning issues. Makes corrections only when required. Student only seeks help when teacher requires it. However, student takes a positive approach. Occasionally, student makes purposeful changes in approaches to learning.
3 Student needs constant prodding to get work in, often after the deadline. Most work is handed in. Student is able, but often unwilling, to be reflective about work. Seldom takes pride in corrections. Student only seeks help when the teacher requires it, and is not positive about the experience. Makes limited adjustments to learning, even when faced with poor initial work.
2 Work is seldom handed in, even after much prodding by teacher. Student does not seem to be able to reflect on learning. Corrections seldom done, and only when pushed by teacher. Student resists invitations for extra help. There is limited attempt to make any adjustments, even when initial work is poorly done.
1 Work is not handed in. Student does not seem to be able to reflect on learning. Corrections never done. Student never seeks extra help, especially when needed. Student does not learn from mistakes.


There are some things I like less about this rubric. For example, while I think giving students feedback on their learning habits is useful, I don’t like the number associated with it. The 1 to 7 scale comes from the International Baccalaureate program, and is a mapping from descriptors like "very poor" and "good" to a number system. The temptation to find the average of the numbers from each column in the rubric above is too great, and the result of the average is a too brief summary of the learning habits of students. They often need the whole picture, not the summary.

Somethings I do like about this system a lot is that we often have students self-assess themselves on this rubric, and then we have a conversation about their self-assessment. I also really like that it means that all of those types of assignments which in the past I would have carefully graded and included as part of an average mark for students are now more formative tools. I don’t need to include a student’s marks on quizzes, homework, or small projects in their final grade. I can give them feedback on the assignment, and then keep track of their general learning habits using this rubric. The final summative grade reflects the rigorous assessments of learning I’ve given the students.

In the act of separating the learning habits from the summative grades, we learn a lot about students as well. A student who has strong work habits, but struggles to demonstrate mastery of material is now more obvious, and can receive the support they need. A student who has weak work habits, but is able to produce excellent summative work now gets feedback about their learning processes.

When I assessed students during my time in New York, at our school we were required to give students 20% of their grade for "work habits" (we weren’t allowed to call it participation), 20% for homework, and 60%  for the assessments from class (included tests, quizzes, exit slips, whatever). The result was that students with "good" work habits were virtually certain to get a passing grade, even with horrible understanding of the material. The system was designed to pass students along to the next person, rather than verify that they understood what they were learning.

On the summative end of our assessment, for each course we have different criteria we assess. For example, math teacher assess using "Knowledge and Understanding", "Investigating Patterns", "Communication in Mathematics", and "Reflection in Mathematics." To be perfectly honest, it can get complicated for students to understand all of the assessment criteria, given that each is different for each course. In some respect this is similar to what happens when each teacher decides on how they want their work formated, and how it will be graded. However, the advantage of this system is that students get more feedback about what areas they need to improve, rather than just an overall grade. One aspect of this system I really like is that the final grade in each criterion is not an average of the marks the student has received, it is supposed to instead be a snapshot of what we think the kids are capable of doing on a good day, given their previous performance, and we discuss what we mean by snapshot so that there is some consistency across the school.

As much as is possible, I believe we should separate the learning habits students have from their performance on their summative assessments. Giving 0s for missed work, late penalties, etc… all dilute the meaning of a grade so that it doesn’t reflect the learning the student has done. Given that we still work in a system which expects student and teacher accountability through grades, at the very least these grades should have some meaning. A performance grade diluted by aspects of student behaviour just leads to questions like, "What can I do better?" Either it hides poor performance but good work habits, or it hides poor work habits with students who are good at summatize assessments.

Is our k to 12 education system successful?

If we want to discuss whether or not our k to 12 education system is successful, we must first examine its possible purposes.

Suppose the purpose of our education system is to produce kids who are ready for college. Given that only 61.9% of students (in Canada) even attend college, and that not all of those people complete college, then our system is failing at least 40% of its youth by this measure of its success.

What if instead the purpose of our education system is to produce kids who participate actively in democracy? At the very least, voting in an election should demonstrate an active participation in democracy. Given that in the year 2000 only 22.4% of youth aged 18 to 20 voted, and that this number has been decreasing steadily since the 1970s, it should be obvious that in this possible purpose of education, we are failing dismally. 

Another possible purpose of our education system could be to produce students who are literate and numerate. According to government statistics, 46% of Canadians are not literate enough and 55% of Canadians lack sufficient numeracy to be successful in society. Clearly we are failing many people in this respect.

Perhaps our education system is designed to produce people who are critical thinkers, or alternatively, life-long learners. Without literacy and numeracy skills (see previous paragraph), one could easily argue that it is extremely difficult to be a critical thinker, or a life-long learner, so we are likely failing many people with these other two possible purposes of education as well.

Other possible purposes for our education system could be to indoctrinate our youth with our societal values, create compliant citizens for a factory model of work, or to act as child-care for families where both parents work. Finding statistics to verify that the first two of these purposes are being met is difficult, given that it is rare that anyone admits that they could even be purposes of education. As for the successfulness of our system in acting as child-care, it seems that it is an awfully expensive way to provide child-care, but it is true that our education system does provide many hours of supervision each day.

Personally, I don’t think that the last three purposes of education, which might be the only ones in which we are being successful, are sufficient purposes of education. We must do more than merely train our youth to be compliant, teach them how to be nice people, and provide child-care for parents.

I’m a strong supporter of our current system, and I wouldn’t recommend that we tear it down. However, I don’t think we can pretend that it is working as it should, under any definition of success. Something needs to change.

Year round schools

Kid swinging into a river
(Image credit: Question_Everything)


After reading this Global and Mail article shared by Chris Wejr, I realized I had a serious objection to the phrase "learning loss that happens over the summer months" as suggested in the article.

The problem is that kids learn lots of things during the summer, they just aren’t generally learning academic skills during those summer months, except for those unfortunate souls enrolled in summer school.

I remember learning how to swim, how to ride a bicycle, how to complete the computer game Might and Magic II, how to organize times to meet up with my friends and many other fun things. I was a reader, so I also spent much of my summer reading. However, I challenge the notion that kids are learning nothing during the summer; they just aren’t learning the skills schools consider valuable.

If we find that there are kids who are not able to engage in these kinds of unstructured learning activities, we should make these types of summer-time activities more accessible, not take away the summer.

The Hidden Danger of Google

Reprinted with permission from my school’s magazine, the Imprint

I watched an interesting, but disturbing, video about a recent phenomena in the online world. You can watch the same video here.

In the video, Eli Pariser makes the point that the recent trend of search engines, like Google (and Facebook) to present information for us based on our past searches and who our friends are, is resulting in our society being divided into “Internet search bubbles.” For example, let’s suppose I do a search on “Canadian education” from inside Canada, and outside Canada. Even an innocuous search like this leads to different results.

In Canada:
Canadian search results

In the United States:
US search for Canadian education

Apparently Google thinks that US citizens who search for Canadian education want to study here, and Canadian citizens want to do research.

What the video points out is that for more politically charged searches, the search results themselves can be radically different, rather than just a bit different, as these two screen-shots show. Two people searching for the same information will be shown very different perspectives. The situation is even worse if you use Facebook to find out about the news, as only news that your friends think is important and which you click on more often will be shown to you.

In the video, Eli describes how he had a good mixture of liberal and conservative friends in his Facebook stream, but he noticed that as he tended to click more on the links in stories of his liberal friends that over time his conservative friends began to disappear from his stream. In other words, Facebook figured out that Eli was a liberal, and decided for him what information would be relevant to him.

What is going on is that Google, Facebook, and other search engines are using a friend recommendation and personal history system to decide what your perspective is, and to deliver you the content that they feel is more relevant to your perspective. This is the same recommendation engine that is part of Netflix. As a result, you are less likely to become exposed to ideas from outside of your friend and family groups. You are now less likely to learn that there are perspectives on the world other than your own.

This speaks to the need to discuss media literacy, as someone who does not know the perspectives of others is less equipped to deal with the challenges of the world. Imagine if you grew up not knowing that there were multiple perspectives on any issue: How would that change your worldview?

While we have always had our worldviews limited by who our friends are, we currently have easy access to resources like newspapers and television to help us find out about alternative perspectives. As television stations and newspapers fail, our students will be facing a world where their primary source of information is filtered. Already more people get their news online than through traditional media, so the failure of television and newspapers is imminent.

The leaders in information literacy at Stratford Hall are aware of this issue, and will introduce students to this issue as we develop their information literacy skills. It is critical that our students know that they are being subtly given a distorted view of the world through their web browsers, and that they must seek out other sources of information.

Regular #BCed chat?

I’m conducting a poll to find out what night would be the best for a regular #BCed chat. Vote below (and see the results). This chat would be open to all interested in chatting about education in British Columbia. I think it would be held about every two weeks at this stage. @MrWejr has volunteered to co-moderate the chat with me. If you are interested in helping moderate the chat, please contact me.

I’ve created a separate wiki to keep track of the chat archives instead of my blog. We will also post suggestions for future topics, and useful information for getting started with Twitter.

Wikipedia & the Magic School bus

Magic school bus
(Image credit: XKCD)


In many ways this comic from XKCD describes to me the dichotomy between the neo-Liberal 21st century personalized learning model, and the constructivist learning model.

The Magic Bus uses an constructivist approach to learning. In each episode, Ms. Frizzle leads the students through investigations of different scientific ideas through magical field trips. The students lead the process, and Ms. Frizzle uses her questions to draw out their thinking, and to help students decide on the direction of the bus. Often she leads the students through the scientific principles, but she lets them come to their own understanding of the science, while helping to correct their misconceptions.

In the neo-Liberal model, students absorb content through online courses, and the personalization comes in through what pace they are learning the material, and what resources they need to be indoctrinated. One of the primary purposes of technology in this mindset seems to be to reduce the role of the teacher in leading the child through learning, both for a cost-savings effect, but also to reduce the natural tendencies of teachers to indoctrinate children with their own moral values.

Personally, I’d hate to see the Magic School bus model of learning derailed to meet a corporate need for compliant citizens. Videos used to help explain concepts, or as part of a pedagogical approach of individual teachers is okay with me, but as a vehicle for dehumanizing education is entirely inappropriate. If we are going to use technology in our schools, I think it behoves us to recognize both of these arguments for what they are, a fundamentally different approach to education.