Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: June 2012 (page 2 of 2)

What it feels like to learn to read

Where is My Bat? – Marathi


I’m in the middle of reading John Holt’s "How Children Learn" and almost hidden in one section of the book is a fabulous professional development activity for teachers.

"One day I took a sheet of printing in some Indian language, and tried to find the words that occurred most often on the page. It was amazingly difficult. At first the page looked like nothing but a jumble of strange shapes. Even when I was concentrating on one short, common word, it took a long time before I could recognize that word at sight and pick it out of the others. Often I would go right by it without noticing it." ~ John Holt, How Children Learn (1982), p136

I think that every teacher (or parent) who teaches children how to read should have this experience. In fact, if I could find a way to translate this experience into all of the other subject areas, I certainly would. The experience of feeling what it is like to be a complete novice learning something is incredibly valuable. We too often think that because we said something, our students will remember it, or will have learned it.

"We are so used to the feeling of knowing what we know, or think we know, that we forget what it is like to learn something new and strange. We tend to divide up the world of facts and ideas into two classes, things we know and things we don’t know, and assume that any particular fact moves instantly from "unknown" to "known." ~ John Holt, How Children Learn (1982), p136

I’ve embedded a children’s book (licenced under a Creative Commons license from a very interesting organization). I recommend taking the time to try and figure out what the story is, and what some of the words might mean. You can try this activity out alone, with a friend, or as a professional development activity with your staff. If you find a way to create a similar activity for science, math, or any other subject area, please let me know.

Try reading this book yourself so you get the experience of what it is to learn something challenging and new. I’ll try it as well, and let’s compare notes.

Why people often do not accept the research

Via the @BCAMT email list-serve:

"[T]here is an interesting (and disturbing) literature on situations in which information does not change prior biases or decisions. The word I have seen is ‘motivated reasoning’.

Interestingly, I ran into a problem of ‘motivated reasoning’ with a class of future teachers. The question is: when would research about the teaching and learning of mathematics change their classroom practices. A common response to articles, given some practice in critiquing research, was:\

– if I agree with the conclusion, the article was reliable;
– if I disagree with the conclusion, then here are x reasons why the article was not reliable and I should not change my practices!" 

Dr. Walter Whiteley

Dr. Whiteley works with pre-service teachers, and would like me to point out that they are still in the middle of articulating their own personal theories of how learning and education work, thus they lack experience in schools from the other side of the desk. It is therefore possible that this is an issue isolated to pre-service teachers.

On the other hand, I have seen people vehemently defending a position that has no merit simply because they are unwilling (or unable) to see that the evidence is mounted against them. I have also noticed many times that months later, this person has changed their perspective, sometimes claiming that the opposite to what they had previously believed was their belief the whole time, so maybe that argument influences their thinking later, and they are more willing to change on their own.

It takes enormous strength of will to remind ourselves of our cognitive biases, and act against our instinct to defend our mistakes. I can’t say I’ve succeeded at this all that much. Does anyone?


Imagine something different

See this piece of paper?

Piece of lined paper
(Image credit: D Sharon Pruitt)


Throw it away.

Imagine the limitations of the piece of paper shown above do not influence how you share the record of learning your students have done, with their parents, and the wider community.

Now remember the history of grading, which started with one William Farish (in Western culture – Chinese culture has been apparently giving grades to students for many centuries for the purpose of sorting their children into social classes.). William Farish (re)invented grades as a way to increase the number of students he could "teach’ for the purposes of lining his pockets (at the time, more students meant more money).

What would you do differently to share your student’s evidence of learning, if the limitations of the paper above did not exist, and if your purpose was neither to sort students into social classes or line your pockets by being able to teach more students? 

Looking for feedback on this puzzle game

I’m working on a block puzzle game. The objective is to cover the entire puzzle area with blocks of various sizes. So far I’ve got the basic structure up (it will only run in web browsers that support the Canvas HTML element, so Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome, and maybe Opera). Scoring for the game depends on what types of blocks are used (you’ll notice those little 1 by 1 squares are worth no points).

I’m looking for feedback on how to improve the puzzles.

Some ideas I’ve had are:

  • Restrict what playing pieces the players can use.
  • Randomize the playing pieces to which the players have access.
  • Allow more access to different kinds of shapes, such as triangles, pentiminoes, heximinoes, etc…



Here is some feedback I’ve received as well from other sources.

  • Change the images that turn into the blocks into pictures of the blocks. @joshgiesbrecht
  • Change from scoring blocks to a par system (like golf) where players get scored on the number of blocks used. @joshgiesbrecht
  • Make the point that one gets a higher score from using larger pieces more obvious. @joshgiesbrecht

An Unfamiliar Revolution in Learning

This video, shared via the Good blog is a must watch. Find six and a half minutes to watch this video, and ask yourself what changes would be necessary in your school to make it more like this one.


The work that this school does on teaching empathy, and understanding what it feels like to be another person, is an incredibly valuable life-skill. The abstract reasoning that one gains as one learns empathy has to have side-benefits for academic reasoning as well. If I know what it feels like to be you, and what you likely feel like, I may be able to better make predictions about other types of objects in the world as well.

I particularly like the five habits of mind the school has used for their conceptual framework:

  • Evidence – How do you know?
  • Conjecture – What if things were different?
  • Connections – What does it remind you of?
  • Relevance – Is it important? Does it matter?
  • Viewpoint – What would someone else say? How would someone else feel?


Nobody remembers names

Almost everyone I meet tells me when I first introduce myself that they are horrible at remembering names. I am patient with them and am happy to repeat my name for this person several times.

Why should we expect someone to remember our name the first time? It’s essentially a random piece of information which has no relationship to who we are as people. We learn names by immersion (other people around use the name), by repetition, in context, and by using the name ourselves.

So why would we expect our students to remember disconnected facts without immersion, repetition, context, or use?