Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Tag: education reform (page 2 of 2)

Why mass teacher evaluation systems are flawed

There are lots of enormous flaws at the root of the current effort to evaluate teachers across the US. We could talk about how each teacher serves a much different population, or how the resources which are provided to each teacher are different because of the wealth of their educational community, or how a poor administrator can influence teacher evaluations, but there is a deeper flaw, one based on a more mathematical argument.

Imagine we ranked all of the teachers according to how much material they covered (which is essentially what grading them using standardized assessment scores from their students do), much like the current SAT system ranks students, and then graphed how many teachers were at each rank.  The graph would look very much like the following.

Normal Distribution - Credit: Wikipedia

This is called the normal distribution in statistics. The function written at the top doesn’t matter very much. What matters is that μ is the mean (average) of the distribution and σ is what is known the standard deviation (read this explanation if you are confused). μ is measure of where the center of the data is, and σ measures how spread out the data is.

A couple of important facts to know about this graph is that about 68% of the teachers will be within one standard deviation of the mean and that just over 95% of teachers will be within two standard deviations of the mean. This means that the vast majority of teachers will be ranked near the middle of the graph. Teachers within one standard deviation of the mean could be considered average, and teachers ranked below two standard deviations of the mean would be in the bottom 2.3% of the teaching profession. These are the people that typical reform efforts like to target and were recently "exposed" in the LA Times value-added assessment project.

Now let’s suppose we managed to improve the education system in the US a whole bunch. In fact we manage to improve it so that instead of each student learning one years worth of material in a year, they learn two years worth of material! Wow! Good for us! What would happen to the picture above then?

Well it turns out nothing would happen at all. The reason is because the picture above represents a relative ranking between teachers and there will always be teachers who rank lower than other teachers. No matter how much we improve education, the picture above will always remain the same, with one exception. If every teacher was ranked equally, then the picture above would look more like a very thin bar sitting above the mean. I don’t think that will ever happen though and it would certainly be a pretty boring education system. Imagine if students never had a favourite teacher; who would want to join the profession then?

The other point to bring up is that if we supposed that the teachers at the mean of the distribution teach what we call a "year’s worth of material" then as we improved teacher quality and this mean rose, then so would what we defined to be a "year’s worth of material." We’d always be stuck bemoaning the fact that there are teachers who can somehow only cover half a year’s worth of material and other teachers who can cover two year’s worth of material. The amount of material to cover would just rise.

The flaw is that the more material we try to cover each year, the less room there would be for the individuality and creativity which is so important to the teaching profession and to education in general. I’d like to see a slightly different way of assessing teachers. Let’s assess teachers based on their professional relationships with each other, based on the rapport they develop with students, on how willing they are to share their expertise, on the quality of the research they have done, and a host of other factors which cannot be measured by a test, or conveniently broken down into a normal distribution.

Let’s assess each teacher individually.


Revamping Mathematics Curriculum

What if we revamped the mathematics curriculum to match the style of teaching Dan Meyer recommends? What would that look like? Watch the @ddmeyer video below from his TED talk, and then let’s look at how we can make specific changes to our own teaching practice, and talk about whether or not these are changes worth making.

I’m sure we are all guilty of creating problems for our students which are too well defined. I know I have. I’m trying to change how I do my own teaching practice, but it is always helpful to do this with a team of other people. Does anyone want to jump in and help take a set of math curriculum and turn it into something which is more useful for our students’ learning? Let’s create a problem forming curriculum instead of a strict problem solving curriculum?

I’m putting the call out to collaborators here (or for anyone to point me at a similar project with which I can join efforts). Please check out and ask for an invite to the wiki if you are interested in helping with the mathematics curriculum revamp.

Working on a new podcast for educational reform

A Conversation With EducatorsThis afternoon I had a great conversation with David Miles and Fred Mindlin. David works as an Academic Coordinator in a private school in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Fred works as an educational consultant for the Central California Writing Project.

Both of them are extremely articulate and intelligent people who have a lot to say about education. I’ve known David for about 5 years now ever since we worked together in London, and I met Fred for the first time this afternoon.

I asked David through Skype, and I invited Fred through Twitter, and we all met in a Skype group chat.  We decided to continue the conversation from #edchat and talk about educational reform.

This idea for a Conversation With Educators is from the podcast @betchaboy does, The Virtual Staffroom and is something I hope more teachers do. Talking with educators from around the world about what we do is a terrific experience. I hope to chat with more of you next week.

For now you can listen to this podcast episode below, or subscribe to this podcast in iTunes here.  This podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license so please feel free to remix it and share it, so long as you give proper attribution to the original work.

Listen here: here

For those of you who are curious about the production of this podcast, it was recorded using a program called Skype Call Recorder on Windows, and slightly edited using Audacity.

What would work to improve education?

Here’s an issue which has been cropping up over and over again.  Whenever we discuss issues on Twitter, through #edchat or #iste10, or whatever educational channel we choose, we are by and large, preaching to the converted.  We don’t need to prosthelytize to these people, because quite simply, they agree with us.  It’s not a complete waste of time because we have the opportunity to hash out issues, look at some finer points of the issues, but I don’t think it has an enormous positive effect on the overall quality of education.

Why not?  Well, the people on Twitter represent a tiny fraction of all of the teachers in the world.  A tiny, tiny fraction, who for the most part have some skill set which sets them apart from their peers.  Many of us are techies, which is seen as this impossible skill that only a select few of us can obtain.  So as a result of this tiny size and this separation from our peers, we have very little influence.  So not only are we spending time chatting away only to each other, we can’t even share what we are talking about with our peers because they think that since it is coming in our voice, that it must be the domain of the unmasterable, except by the all-knowing technology expert.

So I have some ideas about how we can actually change education.  Some simple ideas, and ways to actually get them implemented.

1.  We need to advertise what we do widely and to the right audience. I’m thinking national ad campaigns in our individual countries, specifically about effective educational practices and what they look like.  They can be sponsored by educational technology companies, as long as the message comes across, THIS is what works, not this is the tool that works.  If we show that the educational practices work, the educational technology companies will make their money.  These types of ads should be targeted at both parents and politicians.  The really cool thing is that the media we’d like to use already exists all over the place on Twitter.  We share among ourselves daily, but it has yet to see a wide enough audience.

2.  We need to collectively hire a spokesperson whom we trust and who can bridge the gap between us, and our top level education ministers, whomever they may be in our respective countries.  A lobbyist if you will, who lobbies specifically for the use of effective and proven education techniques and against standardized testing.  This lobbyist should stand apart from the educational technology companies so that he or she has her own voice, but so they can also act as a funnel for a wide variety of effective techniques and best practices in education.  We would really like someone who is a known celebrity to step up and join our cause.  For some reason celebrities have more pull than we do, and can effect more change than we can.

3.  We need to continue to work at the grass roots level and improve education in our own schools, one student, one teacher, one parent, and one administrator at a time.  Without effective practices to feed into the ad campaign and to our spokes-person, our effects to demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach will fail.

Any other suggestions for concrete things we can do to improve our various education systems?

Teaching compassion to our students

How do we teach our students to be compassionate? I’m thinking about this idea this morning because of something that happened to me that I want to share.

I arrived in San Antonio last night as I am attending the ASCD 2010 conference.  I’m pretty stoked about this conference, it is great to have a chance to meet up with a bunch of educators from all over the world.  Although I am connected to teachers globally through Twitter, long conversations there tend to be sporadic and hard to follow.  To have a really in depth conversation with a few people, you really need to meet in person.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of #edchat, but sometimes it feel a lot like having a conversation in a gigantic room with everyone shouting, and when someone retweets someone else in the conversation, it feels like an echo.

My hotel is located right on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, which is fabulous, I highly recommend checking it out if you are ever in the area.  I went for a walk in the morning today to look for some breakfast.  After trying some searches on Yelp and Google maps, I settled on a nice Mexican restaurant and wandered over there, only to discover it was closed.  Grumbling, I looked around a bit and noticed that pretty much all of the good looking restaurants were closed.  Feeling extremely hungry at this stage, I settled for MacDonald’s.  Sigh.

As I stood in line, I noticed a man behind me was mumbling under his breath, looking at the menu, and fondling a well worn 1 dollar bill.  I glanced up at the menu, and could quickly tell that his $1 wasn’t going to buy very much, even at MacDonald’s.  I looked back at the man, and his clothing seemed like it was in okay shape, but he looked a little bit unclean, and his face looked like he was in distress.

I asked him if I could help, not specifying how I could help out of respect for his dignity, but thinking in my head that if I added $2 to his $1, he could have a meal.  He responded in a meekish voice, "Oh no, it’s okay, I’m just looking to see what I can get."  I felt bad, but having offered help and not wanting to push the issue, ordered my food.

As I waited for my food, the man slowly, and uncomfortably approached the cashier.  The cashier gave him a disapproving look and asked him in an abrupt voice, "Yeah. What do YOU want?"  The man with the $1 bill responded, almost shyly, "I’d like a lemonade please."  The cashier took the man’s dollar bill and a quarter that I hadn’t seen before and brought him a lemonade.  I felt embarrassed for the man, the cashier’s attitude was wholly unnecessary.

When I left the MacDonald’s the man was sitting on the steps looking lonely and discouraged.  I felt the same way, alone in this new city, and discouraged about human nature.

Our school systems are failing our children if they aren’t teaching the simple value of compassion.  It is so important that we respect everyone, especially people in need, while recognizing that may not want our help at that moment.  Why don’t more people see this? What can we do as educators to encourage our students to be compassionate.  I think most teachers are compassionate people, it kind of goes with the territory, but somehow this attribute isn’t always impressed upon our students.  I know that most schools are trying, all sorts of schools have community service built into their programs, but still we struggle to be a compassionate society, and I worry for our future

Making school feel more like the real world

Here’s my observation.  What we have students do during school does not at all resemble what they will do when they finish university.  In fact there is literally no relationship at all, and our students can see that and of course, they rebel.  I’ve talked about an alternate school structure before, this post is really an extension of that post.

The real life workplace does involve repetitive tasks (like school) but is also coupled with problem solving.  Actually almost all of the interesting parts of anyone’s job are when one is required to problem solve or at least learn a new skill.  We can actually be given some problems in the workplace which have no immediate solution, in fact they may have no perfect solution at all.  Solving a problem in the workplace is extremely rewarding in itself and probably leads to greatest job satisfaction for most people.  Failure, disappointment, success, creativity are all parts of the modern workplace. 

School on the other hand involves very repetitive tasks, and very little creativity.  Students are isolated from true failure through things like social promotion and minimum grade boundaries, disappointment is temporary, and the rewards for success on any one individual project are very small.  One could argue that working hard all the way through school can lead to big rewards in the form of scholarships for entrance to university, but in terms of hours worked, this can actually be considered a fairly small reward.  One of the only areas schools are like the workplace is that students get lots of opportunities to experience success.  Unfortunately these individual events are often to contrived and unlike the real-world as to lack meaning.

So what if, as soon as kids had some basic skills (like reading, writing, simple arithmetic) under their belts, they were exposed to a more realistic school where students were involved in solving real life problems and their solutions (where appropriate) were actually implemented?  There are lots of schools which implement this in various ways, and as long as the programs are structured appropriately, they seem to be successful.  I’m thinking of automotive schools, culinary schools, etc…. for middle and high school students.  So in other words, lots of schools actually do this already in various ways and are experiencing success.  All I’m suggesting is that we expand these types of programs, especially into the academic areas.

Here are some examples off the top of my head.  

Suppose, as part of learning about biology, students were involving in collecting and analyzing data from their local ecosystems.  One of the great difficulties biologists have is in collecting enough worthwhile data from a wide enough variety of places to be useful.  If students collected this data carefully and correctly, this could save an enormous amount of time for biologists and greatly expand the number of geographic environments that could be analyzed.

Students who need to learn about literature could collaboratively write a book (such a collection of short stories for kids), which they would be expected to market and sell themselves.  They would learn valuable lessons about the importance of editing one’s work, the difficulty in getting work published, and how one can successfully complete a lengthy piece of writing.  Obviously very similar ideas could be implemented by substituting book for movie, radio station, magazine, newspaper, etc…

Want students to practice their arithmetic?  Have them work together to run a store (perhaps where the products created by the students themselves are sold?) and keep track of inventory, manage their budget, and run a cash register (perhaps without the technical assistance that makes this all too easy to do?).

I think that most areas of the curriculum could be turned into more job-like projects but there might be some areas which would not lend themselves well to being ‘job like’.  Of course there are lots of other ways of approaching these topics which would be more meaningful and engaging for the students.   Learning about some topics through formal debates (and the associated research skills), write letters as if one was participating in a historical event, these are a couple of ways to increase student involvement especially in the social sciences.

In order for this type of school to work, one would really need to take a careful look at the curriculum and ask yourself, what of this curriculum is vital for the students to know, and what of it is intended to be used as a vehicle to teach skills?  Personally I think so much of what we teach is really irrelevant for students and could easily be trimmed down a fair bit.  These kinds of schools would be great for encouraging depth of knowledge and specialization of individual students instead of the generic cookie-cutter model of education.


Why we need to change schools

So I was struck by an interesting analogy today after reading part of a post about flipping curriculum.  The problem with current education, the post claims, is that we are focusing on cramming content into courses, rather than working fundamentally on critical thinking skills.  I thought, Yes, I totally agree, and then it came into focus, the reason WHY I agree.

Here’s the argument that ran through my head.

First, the amount of information that is available to be learned in our world is increasing at an exponential rate (Actually it might be increasing at an exponential TO an exponential rate, but that’s another story).  We are currently attempting to decide on which of this new information is most important to be taught to students, but unfortunately we can only operate at a linear rate, which is really a fancy way of saying that each of us can only do so much work.  

The process is, some experienced teachers decide on what needs to be taught during curriculum reviews which take place on the order of a few years, then this information is included in the prescribed learning outcomes for our particular part of the world.  Every 5 or 6 years the curriculum gets updated.  The problem becomes abundantly clear if you look at the following graph.

The blue line indicates the amount of knowledge we are able to process over the years as educators building curriculum (assuming the number of educators remains roughly constant, which in industrialized countries is approximately true) and the red line indicates the growth of knowledge over time.  You may notice a huge problem is looming, very soon we will have no possible way of forcing the content based curriculum we are building match what is actually known as a species.

An analogy to this that occurred to me as a response to a Twitter post by Joe Bower, a great educator living in Alberta.  He said, "How do people function properly when they follow hundreds or thousands of people on Twitter? Am I missing something?"  I thought of a quick response and decided that there really isn’t a quick response and decided to write this post.

The answer is of course that you can’t possibly follow all of the information, it’s too much, so you have to rely on your ability to analyze information quickly and set limits on how long you are going to try and process information.  Anyone who has followed more than a few hundred people has some trick they use to filter through the information.  Some people create lists to keep track of specific users, others listen to the Twitter stream for 20 minutes at a time and rely on the fact that really useful and important information will be reTweeted.  Essentially all of these people are using some sort of critical analysis of their stream to make the flow of information more manageable.

This is the critical skill we need to teach our students.  It will not be possible for an individual stuck in a linear mode to be able to muster the required processing to engage meaningfully with the exponential increase of information available.  Therefore in the future, everyone who wants to be successful will need to have the ability to filter information, choose reliable and useful sources of information, and build networks of people to distribute the processing of information over their personal learning network.  Each person acts as a node processing part of the information, and collectively we have a chance of being able to select the most valuable information from our incredibly messy information streams.