Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: September 2011 (page 2 of 2)

What 9/11 means to me

Like most people, I will never forget where I was the morning of September 11th, 2001.

It was my second week of training to become a teacher, and I arrived early at the library to see everyone glued to the screen and watching CNN. As I walked into the library, the second plane crashed into the tower. It was a difficult day for all of us, and we knew that our day was nothing compared to the poor people in the tower. I remember people crying, and all of us felt numb.

A year later, I was in NYC teaching in Brooklyn, and the school year had just started. The first anniversary of 9/11 came up, and I realized that my students had all lived through the experience in a much more personal way than I had. We talked about it. We shared stories. It was the most intimate day of the year for us, and one of the only days that my students were quiet and contemplative.

Over the years, I grew concerned as I watched our liberties erode and the culture of surveillance grow. Boarding a flight turned from being something enjoyable, sometimes even exciting, to something I dreaded. When I learned about the Patriot Act, and all that it entailed, and how it even affected me as a Canadian living in England, I became worried. How could we let one act of violence change our world so much? No one who is content with their life resorts to violence to communicate.

In 2006, on the 5 year anniversary of 9/11, everything changed, at least for my wife and I. Our son was born at 4:03pm. 9/11 changed for us forever, from being a day we mourn, to a day we celebrate. While I will not forget the events that happened on that fateful day, the joy of the birth of my son outweighs all of the negative emotions I have attached to 9/11.

Our son knows nothing about 9/11. He is too young. His life is filled with playing and learning about the universe through the lens of a small child. He does not need to know about the ugliness of the world yet.

In the birth of my son, I learned that even a day of great destruction can become one of hope. Through my son’s eyes, I am reminded that the world is full of wondrous things. I see hope for our future in him, and other children like him who were born into the post-9/11 world.

Each year that we celebrate our son’s birth, I am reminded again that we have not lost celebrations and other reasons for living. I am reminded that our lives should be about building communities and families. I am reminded again of why I want to raise my son to be a good person, a critical thinker, and someone not bound by prejudice. I am reminded that on a day of great trajedy and sorrow, I received the greatest gift of my life.

Global #edchat tweetup

Here’s the basic idea, which someone (and who that someone is, I’ve forgotten) suggested on Twitter; we should all host local #edchat tweetups, ideally at about the same time. One suggested time period would be during the GlobalEd conference ( dates suggested by @iEARNUSA ) which would mean the tweetups would be scheduled during the week of November 14th through the 18th. These are not the firm dates though as I do not want to interfere in anyway with the GlobalEd conference. It might be better to host these in the week prior to this for example…  See below.

Each local organizer will fill out the form linked below and indicate the date, time, local venue, and geographic location of their tweetup. The local organizer would be responsible for advertising to their local Twitter community, and for keeping some sort of record of the #edchat tweetup. This would encourage more of our network of teachers on Twitter to meet each other. I will also take the information from the form and turn it into a Google map of all of the various tweetups occurring.

As an organizer, you could also:


Submit the details of your tweetup here:


Update: It looks like it will be too much of a conflict with November 14th through 18th and the Global Ed conference, so I’m moving the dates of the Tweetups to the week of November 21st through November 25th.

Questions about Edcamp & professional development

If you’ve not heard about Edcamp, I recommend first reading this blog post by Mary Beth Hertz on what Edcamp is. I absolutely think that educator centred professional development, like the Edcamp model, is a necessary part of our future professional practice.

The descriptions of edcamps, according to the foundation statement of the Edcamp foundation is:

  • free
  • non-commercial and with a vendor-free presence
  • hosted by any organization interested in furthering the edcamp mission
  • made up of sessions that are determined on the day of the event
  • events where anyone who attends can be a presenter
  • reliant on the “law of two feet” that encourages participants to find a session that meets their needs

These are all great attributes of the Edcamp model, but I have some questions, and wonder if we can push the Edcamp model to be a more robust replacement for traditional professional development.

  • How can we encourage follow-up and continued conversations after the Edcamp conference day? One common complaint of traditional professional development is that it’s like a drive-through at a fast food restaurant. It tastes great, fills you up, but leaves you hungry for more in a few hours. Traditional one-off professional development is equally ineffective, except when it inspires educators, and makes them want more.
  • The traditional presentation style of workshops is itself problematic. How can the edcamp model support a more learner centred model? In a traditional professional development model, the learner is expected to sit and passively absorb knowledge from the presenter, and while the edcamp model addresses this to some degree (in their "law of two feet" & Twitter backchannel chats), under the existing guidelines, an Edcamp could end up looking very much like a more traditional conference. At Edcamp Vancouver, we at least partially addressed this last April by forcing presentations to be limited in length, and opening up more time for a discussion about the presentation.
  • How do we address feedback to the learner in the Edcamp model? In the learning process, getting feedback about your own perspective is critical. Discussions are one way to get feedback, but not everyone is comfortable jumping into discussions, but every learner requires some feedback on their learning.

The Edcamp planning commitee for Edcamp Vancouver will be meeting in a couple of weeks, and I plan on bringing these questions to them. If you have suggestions on how we can address these questions using the Edcamp model, I’d love to hear them.

New York Times article misses the point

Matt Richtel, of the New York Times, has recently written a piece on the use of technology in schools which should be read carefully. He writes:

Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene [emphasis mine], even as statewide scores have risen.

To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

He has assumed that the purpose of education is to improve test scores, or at the very least that these are a good measure of learning. He has also generalized about the use of technology in classrooms across the US from two examples; a single school district, and the state of Maine. He is right that many schools are spending money unwisely on unproven technologies, and have not put into place practices to either support these technologies, or examine their effectiveness.

Aviva Dunsiger has written a response to this article based on the results of a direct reading assessment (DRA) she’s done during the course of the year. She doesn’t attribute the phenomenal gains on the DRAs to the use of technology in her classroom, she attributes it to the change in her teaching practices that resulted from the technology being available in her classroom.

This is my reason for promoting the use of technologies in schools. The introduction of computers in the classroom has the ability to be a disruptive force, and transform the pedagogy that is used in the classroom. This doesn’t mean that it will transform pedagogy, it just has the possibility to do so. In 50 years of attempts to change the classroom, nothing has come as close as this current driving force from technology.

In 1993, Seymour Papert wrote,

"Video games teach children what computers are beginning to teach adults–that some forms of learning are fast-paced, immensely compelling, and rewarding. The fact that they are enormously demanding of one’s time and require new ways of thinking remains a small price to pay (and is perhaps even an advantage) to be vaulted into the future. Not surprisingly, by comparison School strikes many young people as slow, boring, and frankly out of touch."

While it is possible to teach in ways which are compelling and rewarding, many schools do not do so. Technology in the classroom can be a lever through which we effect real change in our schools in a positive and fundamental way.

Fixing Math Education

I’m in the middle of researching different proposed solutions to "fix math education." I’ve started classifying these proposed solutions and am hoping I can get some help to look for more possible solutions, and to flesh out the arguments supporting each of these various solutions. I’ve also added some resources into this document (like videos & essays about math education) and would love it if people could add more videos in particular as well as pivotal essays discussing math education.

Access & edit this document here.

I’ve embedded the document below if you’d like to read it without editing it. Please feel free to add comments to the document if you don’t feel comfortable editing it.

Questions about the flipped model of instruction

I’ve been reading a lot about the flipped model of classroom instruction, where students watch instructional videos for homework, and then do the practice and problem solving during class time. Here’s a video of the process being explained by Aaron Sams.


Some of the questions I have are pretty much the same as the ones posted as responses to the YouTube video so I’ll just quote them:

I’m curious as to what you do with kids who don’t have the internet or a computer at home? I see someone else asked this question below, but I don’t see where that was answered. This seems to be just another way to divide classroom success socioeconomically. Rubyfreckles78 

What if you don’t believe in homework? What if you believe a child’s time outside of school should be their own, to explore the other adventures life has to offer outside the formal academic arena?katiramom 

"What to learn, how to learn it, when to learn it and how to prove to me that they learned it". I can see that the times of learning has changed but is it not still teacher-cetred in this respect? Yes, a different modality – online and video (great!) but what underlying structural changes in terms of power and student-centredness? "We’ve changed the place in which content is delivered". In what ways are the pupils negotiating content?audhilly

This is great, Aaron. Unfortunately, some school districts–like that one I work in–do not allow their teachers to access Youtube.l2spanishteacher

It seems to me that there is no good answer to the first question. Students without parents at home, who are homeless, or who do not have access to technology at home to view these videos are out of luck. They’ll have to stay at school to watch the videos in the library.

As for the question about homework, this to me is the biggest question I have about the flipped model. It assumes that the time kids spend outside of the classroom should be taken up watching videos. In essence, the flipped classroom model assumes that the instructional time schools are given is insufficient for kids to learn the material. Perhaps we there is simply too much content for kids to learn effectively?

The third question is mostly about pedagogy. Should kids learn in a teacher-centred way, or a student-centred way? While our curriculum is bloated and filled with content, it seems impossible to switch to a more constructivist model, particularly in the upper grades. Constructivist teaching methods take more time than more traditional methods of teaching (but hopefully lead to deeper understanding). 

The fourth question is similar to the first question as that both of them are about access. Clearly the solution here is for the school to self-host the videos, but if this becomes a common instructional strategy at your school, the costs incurred to host what could be thousands of videos is enormous. Now we have an issue that the schools with the money to afford the hosting (or at least the policies in place to allow YouTube and other video hosting sites) are a further advantage to the poorer schools.

Some more questions I have are:

  • What does this approach look like for someone who is a novice to teaching?

    One of the valuable pieces of feedback a novice teacher gets about their instruction is the questions students ask during class. Students will often share misconceptions they have about whatever is being taught, which helps improve the teacher’s delivery for the next time. While I think an emphasis on lecture based instruction is not the best possible pedagogy, it certainly is an easy place for novice teachers to start during their career. Flipping the classroom could reduce the feedback the teachers get on their instruction, but see my next question.

  • How do students ask questions?

    Students need feedback during learning as well. One of the points of practice problems, and of problem based instruction, is to maximize the number of opportunities for feedback during learning for students. Lecture based instruction typically fails in this regard, and so many instructors have switched over to discussion based instruction. The flipped classroom model, without a way for students to actively ask questions, moves instruction back to a purely lecture based format. One way to counteract this a bit would be to provide space for students to ask (& answer) questions underneath the video lecture as comments, but then the job of the teacher will be to moderate and join into these discussions. While students can obviously record the questions they have (which is a useful learning strategy), this requires organizational skills and self-management skills not every student possesses.

  • How much time does it take for teachers to make these instructional resources?

    Preparing for classes and assessing students are the two tasks, other than administrative paperwork, that take the most time for teachers during the course of their day. Preparing high quality instructional videos has certainly become much easier for teachers to do, but it is also time-consuming. Sal Khan might be able to create 8 videos a day, but teachers do not have their entire day available to devote to making videos, and would like to produce videos which include images and animations to clarify some concepts. We could rely on the videos from sources like the Khan Academy rather than making our own videos, but we’d need to search for and preview all of the resources we use, which in itself is time-consuming. There is also the additional time spent during our evenings responding to questions students might have about the videos.

  • Will class time be used more productively?

    Aaron’s video above shows some great examples of what I think should be happening in more science classes. The students look like they are getting more chances to experiment, and more chances to interact with and actually do science. Is this what happens in every flipped classroom? If students really understand the concepts being taught by the end of a unit, how can we tell if it was the instructional video, or the time spent actively experimenting that made the biggest impact on their learning? One comment I had from a student was that although his teacher assigned videos for homework, he rarely watched them, but made sure to actively participate and learn during class time. He loved the flipped model because "it meant [he] had less homework."

Although I have these questions, there are some things which I really like about the flipped model of instruction.

  • It forces teachers to really think about their instructional strategies and the potential questions students might have.

    You can’t create these videos without putting some serious thought about what you will be teaching for that lesson. This particular type of teaching is much more difficult than turning to page 27 in the textbook and selecting some questions for students to do.

  • Students can potentially access a variety of different explanations for different concepts from teachers all over the world.

    Not every student has access to a specialist in their subject area. In British Columbia, for example, there are many teachers teaching math outside of their specialty. I can remember tutoring math when I was in grade 11 in the PE teacher’s classroom (who was not a math specialist, or trained to teach math) and frequently helping the teacher understand the math he was "teaching".

  • It provides more class time for more student centred instructional strategies.

    This is the best reason to implement the flipped classroom model since many teachers aren’t ready to give up on teacher led instruction. Students need more time processing the concepts to which they are being exposed. If they do this at home, as is unfortunately too typical in many classrooms, they struggle. In the flipped classroom model, that struggle can happen with their peers and an expert facilitator.
  • Students can now more easily opt out of rote memorization.

    Richard Feynmann, one of the best physics lecturers of all time, investigated Brazilian science education, which was heavily dominated by memorization, and discovered that almost no one from this system actually understood science. Since students do not learn well from memorizing information, one can conclude that lecturing is not sufficient to produce students who understand concepts at a deep level.

Does anyone have any answers to these questions?


Improve math education with rote learning?

Priyamvada Natarajan has written an article on the Huffingtonpost about how she thinks we should improve math education. She says:

We are failing to teach our children the fundamentals of mathematics and quantitative reasoning skills. These skills form the foundation upon which future technical education is based. Children do not attain adequate proficiency, develop math phobia and as a result we lose a vast talent pool of potential engineers and scientists. Most of the high-paying jobs of the future will require mathematical fluency — a skill that most American students leaving school do not come close to possessing.

Finally, it’s time to return to old-fashioned rote learning. My work now involves complicated and abstract math, but I started where everyone can: with the multiplication tables. Here are two truths: 7 x 5 = 35 and developing dexterity with mental arithmetic leads to comfort with quantitative reasoning.

I responded:

As an alternative to this article, see:

The issue, in my opinion, is not that students are not learning computations, it’s that they are rarely learning these computations in useful contexts. The "fake" textbook word problems that are presented to students are an attempt to develop some sense of context for students, but most of these fail to address the cultural and socio-economic differences in students.

Keith Devlin talks about this issue in his book, "The Math Instinct", which I consider to be part of the required reading for all who are interested in math education reform. Further, I would add "A Mathematician’s Lament" by Paul Lockhart and " The Four Pillars Upon Which the Failure of Math Education Rest" by Matthew A. Brenner (see

Another useful video to watch  (created by Gord Hamilton of has another perspective on this issue. Watch it here:

As for the utility of the Khan Academy videos, see Derek Muller’s video where he demolishes the notion that kids learn effectively from standard video lectures:

The issue in math education is complicated. You can’t just say, "increase rote memorization and everything will be better" because the world has changed since that was necessary. We don’t live in a world where memorizing everything (note: memorizing some things is still useful) is necessary. We don’t need to carry rote memorization in our heads as much, so long as we understand how and why we can access the information.


Another issue (which I did not include because I ran out of words) is that people, who are well-meaning but not knowledgeable on the issue of math education, keep suggesting rote learning as an alternative to our current system. "More of the same" is not a solution to the problem. I’m fine with people presenting alternatives to our current system, but if you are going to post in a high profile location, I strongly recommend you do your research first…

Standardization is impossible

Stop light
(Image credit: photoburst)


Stop lights are a rule. They are a standard system used worldwide as a solution to the problem of people getting into accidents at intersections.

However, what most people don’t know (unless you have travelled a lot, or lived abroad) is that different cultures treat stop lights differently, particularly for pedestrians. In New York City, the red light means "walk across unless someone is driving through right now" on a cross town street, and "don’t walk" on a uptown/downtown street. In Vancouver, the red light means "be careful crossing the street" if it is a quiet street, and "don’t cross" (unless you are a rebel) for a busy street. In London, a red light means "stay the hell away from the road" because cars will run you down if you try and cross, but a crosswalk means, "expect traffic to slam on their brakes to let you cross". In Bangkok, you don’t cross at intersections, you use the overhead walkways. In Hamburg, the red light means, do not cross under any circumstances, even if you can’t see traffic in either direction for miles. In Rio de Janeiro, at night time, the red light means, honk and drive on through, as no one wants to stop in case they are carjacked (anyone who walks around Rio at night time is crazy).

The point is, this seemingly universal symbol still has a local meaning, even though effort has been made to adopt the same system all over the world. Rules are culturally situated.

Our society’s push to standardize education needs to recognize that even in a standardized system, there will be local variance. Schools, just like municipalities adopting traffic lights, need to work the external system into their local framework, and the expectation that every school should come up with the same solution is flawed. In fact, some schools may have very different approaches to applying the standardized framework to their local community.

Some municipalities have nearly abandoned the traffic light as a form of managing traffic at intersections. 

Round about


What is the parallel to the round-about in education? Is this completely different than standardization? Should our system have the flexibility to allow more schools to choose different solutions to education?