Often in history class, students are asked to rank causes or results of an event in order of importance; this kind of laddering causes the students to engage the material and aids understanding, retention, and helps develop their critical reasoning skills. Inevitability, when asked which is the most important reason or cause, the majority of answers posit why a particular reason is important, but rarely do they address why it is the most important? Why is it more important that the other reasons. This is a comparative question and much more complex; thus ignored! We have a very similar tendency with pedagogical strategies.
Every workshop i have ever gone to or book on teaching I have ever read has done 1 of 2 things. The work shop, like the grade 8 history student, explains all the advantages of their teaching strategy or outlook without ever arguing why it is better or advantageous over the approach that is currently being used. Because no comparison is ever presented, teachers are rarely convinced by the presentation; however, they are typically instructed to adopt the new approach anyways. Teacher’s don’t have to be convinced if they can be compelled…”progress” continues.
If this doesn’t happen, then the rare comparison is made; however, this is little better. A strawman of the current approach is typically used and, as expected, easy to dismiss as ineffective, by the presenter. Teachers, even if unconvinced, are given the vocabulary to pay lip service to a new approach, even if they remain unconvinced.
Since pedagogies are never compared, they are never permanently dismissed; they are free to be repackaged and presented at a later date in the name of student improvement (or profit…or promotion). Experienced teachers often complain about the cycles of change within the profession. They argue that they have seen approaches before, come and go, only to return again. The names change, the pedagogical approaches recycle. Because we never argue comparatively, concepts in education are free to come back; all offer some advantages; all have some degree of success and research behind them.
This cycle produces some obvious negative consequences. One of course is teacher’s buildup resentment to change in technique, but more importantly, our growth as a profession is hampered, and our ability to instruct students is stagnant.
About 7 years ago, our discussions in Ontario were around differentiation and teaching to student’s unique needs, styles, levels, etc. Taking students as they are and working from there-we called it student centered. It had a lot of advantages. Then, within Student Centered Learning, a concept called Inquiry Based Learning began to be developed. At first, it was a strategy to help deliver Student Centered Instruction-it was part of an overall strategy. It had many advantages. Over the last 5 years, our language has changed; Inquiry Based Instruction has taken over the discussion-it’s being presented as having many advantage; however, sadly, we haven’t convincingly argued why it is better than the more robust and divergent approach of Student Centered Learning.
I have argued in an earlier post (https://tuckerteacher.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/is-inquiry-based-learning-student-focused/) that inquiry can’t work for students like my son. I have hinted that this will impair our ability to follow an integration mandate for special education students. Even though my son may represent an extreme case, he represents the possibility that an Inquiry Instruction method might not work for all students. We must ask, “who else wont it work for?” “how many?” Not only will he, and very likely others, fail to achieve the curriculum in this model of instruction, it will make integration for him and his classmates unsuccessful. It will keep him from his neurologically typical peers.
It is time for us to stop the cycle of education reform. We must compare the relative advantages and disadvantages between pedagogical approaches. We must answer which is a better system; is it better to have inquiry as a possible option or part of a Student Centered Approach, or is Inquiry so powerful, it should be adopted beyond all other approaches? One day, we might go through the 182 teaching strategies found in the ministry document housed here: (http://faculty.nipissingu.ca/darleneb/Relevant_links_docs/telrsta2002.pdf) and order them by overall effectiveness. Then we can end the “cycle of change” and start a “cycle of improving” in its place.
To some, the title must seem a ridiculous question; “of course it is!” Bare with me…
I’d just like to present a quick moment of pause as we continue our industry wide rush into: inquiry process, 3 part lessons, 21 century learning, and student engagement as a focus. While I find these are all good things to consider or are good approaches to use in a classroom, I want to point out that we have shifted away from the more student focused differentiation and focus on individual student needs to an assumption about how all kids learn and what all kids want.
These are all good strategies and focuses, but we are leaving the individual analysis and response that is the hallmark of differentiation for the belief that these strategies are a miracle catch-all for everyone? Perhaps they are, but only if we infuse differentiation. Are we sure that these “new” strategies equally meet the needs of all our students? I am not convinced because I know someone who will fail to learn, grow, and achieve in these engaging, rich, inquiry focused and technology infused investigative pedagogies…that person is my son; he has autism.
My son’s autism is quite pronounced and a real barrier to these learning environments-the ones that involve social skills, discussions, compromise, social queues, and group coordination. He, and others like him, will not learn successfully in these styles; he needs one-on-one, transmissive, route learning. Granted, he may represent an extreme end of our educational spectrum, but assuming you agree and see how these strategies will be a barrier and a hindrance to him, we have to ask are selves, “who else?”
If it won’t work for my child, we cannot posit that it will work for everyone; once we have accepted that, we must work on who else, how many, and what to do about it. What about the introvert? What about ESL learner? What about marginalized groups that feel the power imbalance in society: visible minorities, TBLG youth, students with a non-verbal LD, and the like? What about the bully…sure we can work on his social skills, but what about his academics? How will his/her participation affect the learning of his/her peers? What other groups/individuals might not enjoy the benefits of these new pedagogies? The way we teach creates our LD’s; what we value, determines which students will be successful and which won’t. Why is this not part of our discussions—how can we modify these strategies…is it too early in the discussion?
I liked differentiation; I know no one is telling me I can’t do that within these strategies, but no one advocating the point anymore either. Are these new techniques truly student centered or have we shifted to a more standardized model while seemingly trying to address student needs? The discussion has been too general; people have assumed if they meet students’ needs, then they meet the
needs of all students. People have assumed equity in learning and success….why? Is it warranted?
Lots of questions in this post; they are honest and not rhetorical. I’m not sure what the answers are. I like these strategies that a couple of years ago we called 21st century learning skills. I just don’t know how to come to terms with their possible inequities.
The class I had last year was great in so many ways. Sure there were some behavior issues, but generally, they were an energetic and happy bunch. One thing that made them unique in my experience is they tended to shy away from class discussions. Though good workers, individually and in small groups, the large group discussion didn’t produce a lot of apparent engagement. I traditionally rely heavily on in class discussions; as such, we went a little faster than I’d normally go and a hole opened up in my long range plans. Not wanting to run poetry as my only unit in language block, and not yet ready to start up their final presentations that would end their yearlong research, I was looking for something to do.
I had an assignment based on Clay Shirky’s article “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus “ that can be found at: https://tuckerteacher.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/mini-unit-clay-shirky-and-social-surplus/ I had tried it before in June or in small doses like if half a split was on an extended trip or such. The results were always mixed, limited, and somewhat muddled. Whatever the reason, I decided to give it one more try. I modified the assignment a little bit and presented it to the class not really knowing what to expect. Well, they, by-in-large, took off with it. It was the highlight of the year for many; it has become one of my “flagship” assignments; students were so excited about it, that they showed up this year with their ideas ready (which created minor problems with the brainstorm section…).
It went so well last yea, that I let it run much longer than I intended. I feel students got a lot out of it. I am still finding ways to leverage it into better assessment and evaluation but it lead to so many mini-lessons on learning skills, specific content, social skills, problem solving and personal growth that I have come to really value it. This year, instead of one chunk in April/May, we are working through it part of every Friday.
Last year’s projects:
- A radio station: We bought a raspberry pi computer and a few other components. While one person (and I…and my brother-in-law) was working on the technical and software aspect, the others were developing their shows and the advertising/surveys/other that went along with it. There were a lot of problems to be solved with the tech (thanks Glen!!) but in the end, they (and I) learned a lot. What I liked most about this group was that the project met their diverse interests. The artistic student was interested in making their banner, posters, etc. One was interested in the Tech. 2 were interested in the programing. I’ve never seen a group work on so completely different aspects of a single goal
- Bird houses: I remember being a little disappointed with this group’s choice. They were very strong academically and had a strong social conscious. I was hoping for something a little more hard hitting. Well, I approved their plan; in truth, I thought they’d finish early and do another project. Instead they worked long and hard; I think this group got the most out of it. Researching, problem solving, team work, logistics, etc. There were a lot of obstacles and skills to learn. In the end, they made 13 bird houses (PS: if any of this group is reading this: I still have the bird houses….please put them up this winter so that birds can use them in the spring).
- The Art Club: One group ran an art club for primary students. They were the best planned group I had. Every time I had a question, they had thought of it already, and had a good workable answer. Students in this group got to show strengths (planning, organizing, creating) that I had a hard time seeing in more traditional class work. The primaries loved their club; they got to make a craft every week for 8 weeks. I think members of this group were very proud of their work and happy with the opportunity
- The Movie: though this group had some logistic problems, some focus problems, and the movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination, they had fun, worked on social and learning skills, were quit pleased with their work and success. The Group was likely a little large and had trouble finding specific tasks for everyone to do at times, but they all came together to make a product and everyone say it through to the end. I wish I could see their movie again
- The Youtube Channel: this group wanted to make a Youtube channel that would host Minecraft instructional and walkthrough videos. Technical problems, logistics, and even a little problem with focus made this project seem a little less successful than I hoped, but in truth, they still worked on planning, brainstorming, problem solving, and all the other skills associated with group work and projects. While their product never really took off, they had a lot of success in learning to compromise, learning the technology, and attempting to create. There are well positioned to be more successful next time
- Wilderness Survival club: another group wanted to learn about wild edibles and other wilderness survival skills. The first researched and learned some skills, found some opportunities to practice and eventually decided to apply their skills by running a club for other students to teach and share what they had learned. Eventually, we took a small group out into the woods Wednesdays after school to do: shelter building, fire starting and theory, and navigation. Everyone, even myself, had fun.
- Orienteering obstacle course: The final group learned orienteering skills and developed a course for their peers in a local green space. It was a very well organized and fun event for the class and a great day outside. Even undercover police came to check it outJ
This year, the groups are again working on a diverse group of activities: a cooking club; a group making art installations around the school; a movie; another attempt at a Youtube channel; buying, building, painting and engraving games on picnic tables for the school yard; a mural on the wall of the gym; an outdoor permaculture garden and classroom; and homemade T-shirts to raise money for a local animal shelter. It’s going to keep the kids (and me) busy….I’ll let you know how it goes.
I received an announcement about a board sponsored teacher work shop to increase teacher competency in teaching algebra; it prompted this little rant1.
I suspect the workshop is part of our system’s reaction to the PISA test scores and its mistreatment for political or economic concerns in the media (or just plan inadequate and incompetent) which has lead us to believe that math scores are falling compared to the rest of the world and that this is a problem. While I strongly disagree with those tenants, that’s not the issue I’m having. Algebra is part of the curriculum and sure, there are teachers who could stand to build competency in this area. Teachers who don’t know what they’re doing in math, as in any subject, are likely less effective and therefore waste the time and efforts of their students. The problem I am having is we are focusing our resources in the wrong stand of math; we are focusing on a strand that will have little impact on our student’s lives and we are neglecting a strand that teachers, as a group, need to build competency in.
Many people frustratingly argue or express dissatisfaction with math because they fail to see its relevance in their life. “When am I going to use this?” and the like, are questions we uncomfortably endure during the teaching of algebra. In Real Life, most situations can be done using the same sort of subtraction that identifies number families in primary without “let statements” or other algebraic strategies. True, algebra does get amazingly complicated where proper procedure is necessary, but not in real life. People can live their lives without algebra without disadvantage. One reason why they never solidify their understanding or that skills are allowed to degrade is there are so few practical applications. This is part of a problem with our school curriculum. Our system is a sort of pre-calculus model; we teach math focused on, and heading towards, calculus as a mathematical goal. The problem with that is, beyond some engineers, very few up us will end up learning/needing/applying calculus in our lives. It has been 21 years since I took calculus—I don’t remember how to do it, but I have never had an opportunity where I needed it; I have not suffered for want of calculus. Calculus may be a stunning example of human brilliance; it may be invaluable to engineers, but to the rest us, it is impractical and unnecessary.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Aristotle taught that education is both a good unto itself and what you can do with it. Esoteric knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it might be as it has a serious negative consequence. The math we need in life; the math we need daily to understand or solve our current problems is the math our system least values even though it is most relevant. The negative consequence is our studetns are short changed on relevant math when we, as a system, focus on pre-calculus. We should be focusing on Data-management and probability as a system. Understanding the importance of standard deviation would be so much more useful to people that calculating the area under a curve.
Many teachers and students think that these 2 units are easy and of little value; this is mainly the case because that’s how our curriculum teats them. Each year they make their surveys and walk around the school collecting data (and interrupting classes) so they can graph their “authentic experience” in whatever graphing style they are learning. In probability, students spin spinners, roll dice, and pull marbles from imaginary bags—boring and pointless. As a result, Psychology students struggle unprepared through their Stats course in first year university; teachers nod dutifully when Sir Ken Robinson tells them a test resulted in 98% of kindergarteners scoring at genius level, we fill in our school plans for continuous improvement without discussing significant difference, mean or standard deviation; we don’t understand in what ways the ambiguities of “average” and how it’s being used to mislead us; in short, we don’t know what we’re missing, ignoring and short changing our students on. I was lucky; I met a teacher that loved both…he taught me! I learned.
Hand out a diagnostic test and realize that by grade 7 and 8 everyone can make a bar graph—fix the odd problem with scale and move on!
Now you can:
1) Present David McCandless on TED.com and the artistic/beauty of graphing. Combine graphing to tell a different story…a picto-scatter graph, a three dimensional bar graph, a bar graph were the width of the bar displays other data, etc.
2) Present Chris Jordan…graphically display something that so large we can’t deal with intellectually—only emotionally.
3) Present Dan Ariely on TED.com and see the predictable mistakes we make with data everyday…advertisers know them…so should your kids
4) Watch Hans Rosling tell a story with data in “the river of myth” or “200 countries over 200 years.” Turn your data into stories.
5) Teach them graphic manipulation techniques. It’s not wrong when a magazine or politician starts their graph at 50 rather than 0…its strategic–learn the strategies. Stop telling them it’s wrong to not start at zero and start telling them when they might want to (remember, “there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics”…teach them how they are being lied to)
6) When should you use mean or mode or median….depends on the story you want to tell
7) How to use biases to your advantage…advertisers and politicians don’t avoid them…neither should you
8) Have them explain the math behind jokes (3 mathematicians go hunting; a duck flies by. The applied mathematician takes a shot but misses—2 feet too high. The Abstract mathematician takes a shot; he misses—2 feet too low. The statistician starts jumping…”we got him! We got him!)
Think it’s easy? Try this: if 72% of people prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate, what is the probability of at least 8 out of a random 10 people survived prefer milk chocolate? Probability is great, because, like data we’re not very good at it and it is often counter intuitive–we have lots to learn
1) Look up “Linda bank teller” on Google and explore the conjunction fallacy with your students. How many chose option 2…was it the standard 85% even though it’s wrong?
2) Have fun even…look up Donald Duck and Flipism
3) If 5 friends are drawing straws or picking numbers is it better to go first or last? Prove it (it doesn’t matter—a beautiful little pattern emerges)!
4) Have you explored the Monty Hall problem…I like it because so many mathematicians were wrong…Why?
5) Penny’s game: try it! Explain it!
6) Try using black jack
7) Explain the birthday problem—why in a room of 23 people is the chance of 2 sharing a birthday 50%
8) Go to NLVM.com and find the coin flipper…talk about the law of large numbers–more chance of being close to the mean but less chance of being exactly the mean…cool!
9) Probability has multiple modes to solve problems which create multiple points of entry for different learning styles. There’s diagrams like tree diagrams, some formulas and calculation techniques, tables and charts, and experimental. What is the chance of getting a value of 7 rolling 3 dice is a great question because people will approach it differently
10) Then, if you’re really adventurous, try Bayesian logic…if your doctor gives you 3 months to live why will you likely live much longer than that?
While we hardly use algebra, we are constantly running data management and probability software in our heads but it needs constant upgrades to remain useful as we grow into more complicated situations. Algebra is great; it is one of my favourite units because I like the symmetry—it’s beautiful; however, I’m not fooling myself. Algebra gets them ready for high school; data and probability get them ready for life.
1While I came about these conclusions on my own and in discussion with a colleague, we were both delighted to be vindicated by Arthur Benjamin: “Teach statistics before calculus!” on TED.com when we found it. Some of the phrasing in this post is inspired by his presentation.