Thursday, February 13, 2014

Educational Reform: Who Is Driving The Bus?

Buckle up, kids. This may be a long one.

As you know, I write when something sparks my interest. It has been a while since I put fingers to keys on this blog, but recently I have had the opportunity to discuss our chosen field with some differing interest groups. I can't spit without hitting a half dozen people who want to talk about education and what we are going to do to change our system. They find me at parties, after school, on email, twitter, or in the hallway.

And I love it!

What happens in our schools matters to everyone. In the short term, our individual students get the most benefit. They are the ones gaining knowledge, skills, and experiences that will shape their lives on a daily basis. We, the teachers, are also growing on a daily basis with the real experiences we are having with students, peers, administrators, and curriculum. Ultimately businesses are supposed to see benefits from these day to day happenings in a more viable work force. From this, our state and nation is supposed to see revenues from increased production and this a growing GDP.

We are all on a this bus riding towards our short term and long term goals. Who is behind the wheel? Who drives educational reform? I started brainstorming some candidates and the list got longer and longer. Everyone seems to know the best way to do things in a classroom.

1) The US Government:
This is probably the most publicized, as it doesn't matter where you live in the great USA, you can always complain about the government. But how much is "the man" bringing us down? It surprises me how hard it is for Washington to push real educational reform. They can tie incentives to dollars, but in reality most of a school's funding comes from the states. Probably the most controversial attempt at changing education came in the form of No Child Left Behind. In my educational circles, NCLB is treated like the kid who farts in church. We all know it is there, but if we feel that if we ignore and never bring it up to each other, it will eventually go away. Here is my take on NCLB. The only problem with the law is that teachers didn't think of it first! We took it for granted that we want every kid to succeed. The problem we have it that it came from politicians who negotiated it into nothing but a nuisance. I wonder, if given the premise of the law (which is a great goal) if teachers could do it right.

2) The Market

I read an interesting article the other day on how capitalism should drive our educational initiatives. It follows that if we are going to compete in a global economy, we are going to need a workforce that is prepared to work in it. After all, what is the world but a giant system of checks and balances, policies, and goods to be bartered. Our students, and we ourselves could be seen as just cogs in this wheel of consumerism and free capitalism. The market determines what type of workers it needs, what type of skill and knowledge they must have, and thus how we should teach. This is fine except for the fact that it is too slow. The market changes every day, people's lives change every year. It is almost impossible for us to train a fifth grader for what the global economy will need in fifteen years.

So we make projections, we look at data, and try to determine the best avenue. When you look at data for the economy, you are looking at aggregate data, with millions of data points, averages of consumer feedback and voter patterns. Some may say that even with all the statisticians we have looking at this data, it is never right. If it was true, and not subject to change, most of those morning talk-radio guys would be out of a job.

And how does this aggregate data compare to data taken in a classroom? Can I compare the 25 students sitting in front of me to the average across the nation? All of those factors that are brushed over with millions of data points are now staring me in the face. Fifteen of the kids come from single-parent homes, eight have learning disabilities, four can't afford breakfast, and one of them had a parent get arrested last night. Aggregate data means nothing to me when I have individuals in front of me.

3) Billionaires

Bill Gates is a humanitarian. There are a lot of billionaires who have cared about education and sought change. We appreciate the money, we appreciate the intentions, but many times we need to look at how much influence they are buying. It seems that a lot of the money from donors like the Walmart Waltons (see below) goes to special programs, charter schools, and reform institutes. All of this money is going outside our schools, to auxiliary programs that may or may not have our students' best interest in mind.

infographic showing nearly $6 million in Walton Family Foundation donations to StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, and Education Reform Now

Donors who have money made that money by being successful in business, or a trade that paid them dividends. They make these donations as tax incentives to help in their businesses. I can't blame them, and really do thank them for being so generous as to choose education to invest their money. However they are still businessmen trying to make money. Their belief system, their values, and their expectations are still in place. They support their goals, or their beliefs. Does the Goldman Sachs Corporation have the same values as the kid in the back row of my class who spent twenty five minutes trying to secretly glue a girl to her chair?

4) Data

Getting a bit closer to home, I can tell you that if you want to see eyes roll in unison, mention data in a staff meeting. Businesses love data. Target can tell how many bottle of Listerine they sold next week in the last three years in order to extrapolate how many to order. They are very good at it. It is efficient, cheap, and technology driven. Things don't work like that in schools.

I am a scientist. I love data! If I believe in its validity, I can make some amazing predictions with it. However it is so easy to disregard any educational data as weak, varied, and invalid. It is very unlikely I can link how my kids did on a test to what I did in class. Sample size is probably the biggest factor. 25 kids is not enough to negate the variety of incoming levels, socio-economic class, or a multitude of other factors that could affect how they preformed on that Friday. Besides apples and oranges, I change so many aspects of my class each year it is impossible to see which change helped and which one hurt. Did they do better/worse this year because of the iPad initiative, the altering of some of the test questions, the fact that we had a speaker on Thursday, or the three snow days in the middle of the unit? Longitudinal data is impossible because I do change, and I should change things every year. I teach to kids, for kids. When the kids change, I change to accommodate.

5) Parents

I am somewhat in awe of the power parents have in a school district. If you want to talk about local control, here is the real deal. I can complain about my class size, the amount of materials needed for a science lab, or the need for a gifted program in my district until my eyes bleed, but once a parent speaks up, people listen. Get a couple of parents on board and you can damn near get a revolution in a school system. I think some would be surprised how a comment at a party to a school board member can lead to new math curriculum, or revamped band programs. Parents have a lot of power, and they should. It is their kids we are working with. They know their kids, they love their kids, and they want the best for them. However, parents are never unified. Never does a parent speak for an entire district. Parents are looking from the outside in, judging based on their past schooling experience. Does how they learned 30 years ago still apply today? If education is broken today, it was definitely broken back then. Also, not all parents had a good educational experience. Some still see teachers and administrators as "the man". So which parents do we listen too?

5) Administrators

This is my boss, so I had better play nice. I believe, and correct me if I am wrong, but teachers lose their "street cred" with other teachers once they leave the classroom. Some of the administrators I know were great teachers, worked very well with kids, and knew their stuff. They do a great job as facilitators of our school and at times can enact some good changes to our school culture. However, even being out of a classroom for a year, other teachers begin to feel that they lose the feeling of what it is like to face kids in desks. In a better world, admin would be free to visit classrooms on a daily basis to see what is going on, interact with all students, and be involved with classrooms. In a perfect world I think administrator should teach a section during the day. How would other staff view them, how would students view them if they were teacher-administrators? Sadly their job drowns them in discipline, meetings, money shuffling, and fires that they can't seem to ever get put out.

6) Colleges

Why am I doing all these projects, individualized learning outcomes, inquiry based labs, collaborative writing projects, and technological innovations in high school when in college they will be asked to sit in a 3 hour lecture hall with 650 other students listening to a woman read through a power point presentation? Too often universities hire researchers, not teachers. Nuff said.

7) Teachers
I bet you all are thinking I saved the answer for last. If you have read this far you can probably tell that I am very pro-teacher. Well I am, however if you think teachers can solve our problems you haven't ever been at a staff meeting.I have a lot of friends in the 'bizz' of education and I we rarely agree on anything! With so many initiatives thrown at us, we have had to pick and choose what we believe works and what doesn't. Most of the time the success of a class has very little to do with teaching methods, curriculum, or content. It comes down to one thing, and one thing only. The relationship the teacher has to the student! You can't quantify that, you can't teach it, you can't test it, but it is real. Teachers can't change the world alone. We don't have time, resources, or enough left in us after a day in class to do the things that need to be done. What we do is personal, it's individual, it's full of motivation, compassion, and care. We may not be able to change the world, so we just change one kid at a time.

Bonus Answer: Students!!??

There is a big push for student-led investigations. These can be very good, in small doses. I can't believe that we can run a curriculum on just what the students are interested in. If that was the case, I would have never learned to read. My kindergarten world revolved around which girl to chase at recess, not how how well Dick and Jane could jump and bike. My parents and teachers knew what I needed to be a well rounded adult and I trusted them to sculpt me. There were times when they failed, but overall I am sure that if I had more of a say in what and how I learned, I would not have interests in a tenth of what I am interested in today.

So what is the answer? EVERYONE and thus NO ONE! We all have our interests, but there is no one out in the forefront of this thing. We do our best with a system that is based on money, politics, and historical tradition. What should drive our change?

Just my ramblings. Take them as you will but feel free to comment before. Please add to my list as I know it is not comprehensive.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Should Iowa Adopt the Next Generation Science Standards?

This last fall, I was given the opportunity to sit on an Iowa Department of Education task force looking at the question of whether my state should adopt the Next Generation Science Standards in place of our current Iowa Core Standards in Science. The committee consisted of about 20 people from across the state who represented various interest groups. There were some teachers, students, parents, professors, STEM coordinators, DE people, and even a congresswoman or two. After three meetings in Des Moines, I can tell you that the group of professionals called to action in this committee were at the top of their game. I have the utmost respect for each of them and their opinions (even those I disagreed with). They were passionate, without an agenda, and highly concerned about the direction Iowa should go in terms of it's science standards. In the end, the committee voted to recommend that Iowa does adopt these standards, but there was some hesitation in many members.

That being said, let me give you my thoughts, reservations, and hopes for our state.

I went into this thing a blank slate. Overall, I am not the biggest fan of standards in general. As I have said before, I believe that they stifle creativity for teachers, limit student choice as to elective classes, and rarely fit with what I think should be taught in high school. But.... as we are stuck with having to adopt something, I was willing to give them an ear and keep an open mind.

Spoiler alert: I voted that the state should adopt, but I had reservations. Let me explain my thoughts here.

Why the State should adopt:

In looking at a comparison between the Iowa Core and the NGSS, there were a few distinctions that stood out in my mind. First was the research they were based on. I am not a fan of educational research in general, (its all soft science) but am aware that there are many out there that know more about it than I do. Both of the standards documents are research based. The NGSS follows the Framework for Science Education published in 2012, which was based on the last decade's research in how science should be taught. The Iowa Core was based on the original National Science Standards document that came out in the mid 80's which means the research behind it was probably done in the late 70's. This was before we had computers! Score 1 NGSS.

The second interesting fact about the Iowa Core came when a panel of the actual writers sat before us. They were understandably proud of their document. They spent hours of their life in working through its intricacies, and themes. However, there really were only a handful of them, and they had other jobs. They consistently told us that if they had more time, money, and support, they would have developed something similar to the NGSS. I am proud of a lot of what I write, but I know that if I didn't have a day job and could devote my time to, say this blog, it probably be funnier, and make a lot more sense than it does.

Third was the PD piece. The Iowa Core, to me, was not implemented with fidelity. Our state had switched gears to many times, altered what they wanted, and finally failed to assess anything. 2013 was the year where science was supposed to comply with the standards placed in the core. Most of us teachers are completely surprised we made it this far. Many science teachers tried to put our heads in the sand and wait for it to go away. With the NGSS, you can't do that. It calls for a complete revamp in what is taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught. This scares the hell out of me.

In the end, it is my hope that the State of Iowa does adopt these standards in their entirety. The NGSS is not designed to be a document that you can not take apart and use pieces and parts. It is a full curriculum of standards that demand integration of the disciplines traditionally held apart. To do this, however, calls for a strenuous change to the current status quo in science teaching. Are the teachers, administrators, and state officials in Iowa ready or willing to make this change? Is the political climate that surrounds these kinds of decisions too charges for our legislators?

Please comment on your thoughts below.


Monday, November 18, 2013

What I Don't Know...and Some of What I Do

I was recently asked to post to a blog we are using in my building. I thought I would share it with anyone reading this blog as well. 

For more posts from teachers at Bettendorf High, click here.


What I Don't Know...and Some of What I Do

Confession time…..

I don’t know where I stand on climate change. There I said it, what a relief! I have read a lot of scientific articles, looked at a lot of graphs, know quite a bit about scientific principles that govern such things, but even with all of this background I am still unable to make any kind of firm stand. What is even more interesting though, is that it doesn't bother me. Let me clarify that.  If the glaciers are going to melt and drown all of Florida, I do care. (#Disneytripplanned) What I am content with is my ability to say that I haven’t developed an opinion. As it turns out, I am completely undecided about a great many things. I don’t have firm stands on ethanol production, string theory, or if Snookie should have been kicked off of Dancing with the Stars (#neededtogo). On these examples, I am comfortable saying that I don’t know the full story on the environmental impacts surrounding ethanol plants, the mathematics for a universe with 13 dimensions, or why it is important to keep your toes pointed when performing an Argentine tango. It is not that I don’t care about these topics, in fact I do a great deal. Its just that right now I do not feel that I have the background on these subjects to make an informed decision… and THAT’S OKAY. I refuse to feign a belief in an idea if I am not educated about it (#notapolitician).

Ignorance is bliss.

It truly is. I am not talking about stupidity, or a blatant disrespect of basic facts. I am a firm believer than in order to develop an opinion, one has to do the research. Content is an integral part of schooling and learning. I am talking about the unknown. I am referring to being ignorant of the unexplored, the unimagined, or the mystifying. This is what interests me; this is why I learn… and given enough interest, there is nothing I can’t learn. I believe our students also crave mystery more than rote learning. The unknown is a crucial part of schooling that I think doesn't get enough attention. So often, we as teachers fall into the trap of treating our profession as a delivery system. The kids sit in plastic seats and we feed them information. At this, we are experts. We add garnish to our lessons with flashy technology, code it with pedagogical jargon, and celebrate any tiny upward variance in standardized test scores.

Where does the unknown fit in? There is still a lot of the world that we are truly in the dark about (Yeah, I am looking at you gravity.) When a bunch of physics teachers get together to chat, we don’t discuss Newton’s Laws, we talk about what we DON’T know. Give me quantum gravity, neutrino fluctuations, or the rules regarding an Oxford Comma and watch the cognitive party start! Last night my son and I spent 30 minutes discussing why mayonnaise sales have grossly outnumbered salsa in the US. Who knew? (#ketchup3rd #getinthegameheinz) Discussions about what you already know doesn't yield anything. I am constantly focused on what I don’t know. Now think about topics kids are truly ignorant about.

Lucky for us, most students are truly ignorant about a great many things. (#quoteme)

Finding ignorance is not a problem for teachers. The problem we face as teachers of all levels is at some point in time, their natural curiosity about the world was diminished. They don’t even care that they are ignorant. That’s the problem. I want to learn, I want to grow, I want to hear your point of view. When or why are our students losing this drive? Why are they so complacent in their development?

How this has happened, or why it happens can be argued. As I have the keyboard here, I will give you some of my take on the matter (#feelfreetodisagree). I think that this push for standards, state and federal control of curriculum, and the external pressures placed on teachers are strangling our system. Teaching is, by its nature, creative. To be effective, curriculum needs to be adaptive, based on teachers’ strengths, and as individualize to students’ needs as it can be. While trying to corral curriculum into state or national standards may look good to a politician or administrator, it looks completely different from someone on my side of the desk. I teach to a student, not a standard. It is a human endeavor, not mechanical. Jane isn't just taking Physics, she is taking Like’s Physics. There is no best way to teach, there is no silver bullet for learning, no utopia that we can achieve that will reach all students. At no point in our future will we “figure education out” so that it works like a well oiled machine and never has  to be looked at again. What we have are good people running against the wind in an uphill job.

So what could this look like? We hear a lot about how we are failing our students nationally and how things need to change. Rarely does anyone tell us how to do this. Today is the day, friends. As I have a captive audience (#youreadthisfar), I will give you some of my ideas. Again, these are my thoughts on a Wednesday afternoon, and may change by Monday.

1) Don’t be afraid of a good argument with students. Often times we shy away from these kinds of things as they can get heated or tiresome. I find that these situations can lead to my most memorable lessons. Remember though, that there are different ways to argue. The classic argument involves a war model: you yell out your side to the high hills until you either win or concede. But there are other ways to argue. Why does there have to be a winner to an argument? In math and science we argue differently; we argue for proof.  For example, I have been altering many of my labs in physics towards what we call a “modelling” approach. Last Monday, my students took data on variables that affect the period of a pendulum (#classiclab #stilladisaster). Before we drew conclusions, I made them whiteboard their results and share their theories with the class. At this time, I basically argued with them over their data. How reliable was it? Are you sure you can back that claim up with evidence? I don’t care what you feel about what should happen, what does your data say? I am not being belligerent, I am being a scientist. At this point in the semester, it brings me the greatest joy when they start to hold each other accountable and argue amongst themselves.

2) Don’t be afraid of alternative points of view. When talking about evolution, how can you leave out intelligent design or catastrophism? Why broom these under a rug? Why don’t we look at data and let the students draw their own conclusion. If 99% of scientists have reached the same decision, shouldn't your students reach it as well judging the data? It baffles me how you language arts teachers deal with poetry, or art teachers with interpreting Picasso? Sometimes there is no right answer.  I think there is a lesson to learn for us teachers as well. A very bright young teacher I know brought up over lunch one day (#bestplaceforPD) that things like blogs, twitter chats, and FOX News are really creating a dichotomy in our society. If all I watch are the same news shows, or read the same blogs (present blog excepted), I am only reinforcing my beliefs, not challenging them. Try posting a diverging comment to a blog or chat. They will crucify you! The people who read these blog are usually of a like mind and don’t want to hear views that are not supported by their peers. They have been preaching to the choir for so long, that their beliefs are cemented in their minds as a dogma, instead of a conceived fluid idea. This gets compounded when you realize that search engines and news feeds run algorithms that only show you articles that are similar to what you have already read. Google perpetuates this! Teachers take heed and diversify your PLN. Invite differing opinions and don’t be afraid to share yours. (#I’mnot #soapbox)

3) Ignorant people ask questions. This is good. Push them to ask why things happen, why are you teaching them this, or why is it important. As I said before, I am ignorant about a great many things, but my ignorance breeds a drive to question. It seems that the more you know, the more you don’t know (#Yoda?). PhD’s do research; we pay them a lot of money to find questions that have never been asked before. If you think that doctoral diploma means they have it all figured out, you probably have not worked with too many of them. If our goal as teachers is to impart the knowledge students are going to need to be successful, we are fighting a losing battle. When I went through high school we didn't have the Internet! How could my teachers prepare me for today’s world? We need to train kids on how to question effectively and back up their claims with evidence, even if we disagree with their conclusions.

I am a teacher. Of all the professions that I could have chosen, both then and now, I still believe my place is in front of kids. It may be close to the hardest job in the world; one of the most scrutinized, underpaid, and underappreciated, but it is what I have devoted almost two decades of my life too.  I know a lot of teachers and I can tell you that I have never met a single one that did not give it his/her all, in school and out, for his/her students. I have the utmost appreciation and respect for everything that you do, from the papers you publish in journals, to the small comments you leave on the margins of your students’ term paper. Please, if there is anything I can help you with, let me know. Also, if there is anything above that sparks your interest, please leave a comment below. Feel free to agree with me, but especially feel free to challenge me. 


Friday, October 18, 2013

#Iaedchat on Gamification

#iaedchat Gamification in Education

(Note to self: make a better face when starting your video if you are going publish it for others to see)

The following are links to pages on this blog if you are interested in developing your own game. If you have intentions of going down this path, please hit me on twitter or email. I am more than willing to consult with districts on their games. I have worked with several districts who have begun to develop their own games.

Gamification Intro

Mission Possible: Our Professional Development Game

Mission Possible Overview

Crowdsourcing Your Professional Development

The Back End of Mission Possible

Mission Possible: Behind the Curtain (Video)

Link to our Mission Possible Site

Galaxy Fleet- Gamifying a classroom

Gamification with Students: Galaxy Fleet

Galaxy Fleet 

Galaxy Fleet T-1 day.. This then goes on for several posts dealing with how the model worked in the classroom.

Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help. Good luck!


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Today's Fix for Education!

So yesterday I was sitting through a meeting of the Governor's Task Force on the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards. We spent the day being brought up to speed on the current Iowa Core Science Standards... their inception, intention, and development. I listened for many hours to the reasons that the standards were made, continued to refine my opinions of the feasibility of the standards, and their merit with respect to the NGSS. 

It was during a panel discussion with some of the writers of the standards that something occurred to me. It was a simple idea, common sense really, but so foreign to today's thinking that it was almost incomprehensible. 

The panel was discussing the elementary standards (something I am fairly well versed in even though I teach high school). They mentioned that they banded them to grade bands, and made them a progression, but limited in content due to the fact that elementary teachers have so many other things to worry about on top of science. For a moment I thoughtfully placed myself in the shoes of one of these elementary teachers. These are a group of people who work very hard with challenging kids, teaching them to read, add, think, spell, write, and grow into young adults. They are being pulled in so many ways that if I were them, there would be no way I would be able to keep anything straight, let along try to adopt new standards every few years. 

Why do we have separate standards in elementary for literacy, math, science, social studies, and all the others. Why don't we just have one set of standards that encompass all of these. For middle school and high school it makes sense to break standards into disciplines because we teach specific content areas. Why do we throw all of these different documents at our elementary teachers when they only have like 15 minutes of prep at a time. I believe that learning could be much more integrated in the younger levels if someone took the time to COMPLETELY ALIGN their standards. My son came home with a math problem the other day where he was supposed to read a histogram of kid's heights in a mystical class from his math book. Why could he have not done an experiment to take that data himself, plotted it, and tried to draw conclusions about age and height? I will tell you why... that is science and he was learning math!

I am not saying that teachers do not try to integrate this as much as they can; I think they do. I just think that if we write the documents for the standards in one form, they will not tend to split them off. I would hate to try to master all of those documents. Why not just have one?

Maybe I am completely out of my area here, but I think it is possible. I realize that different committees made each of the common core standards for each discipline, but why can't they talk to each other? Make the standards seamless, easy to use, and adaptable. Then let teachers find creative ways to meet them.

What do you think? I am off here?


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mission Possible 2.0

I recently published an article in Learning and Leading with Technology outlining my work on Mission Possible. Let me tell you that my emailbox/twitter/blogger has been full ever since. I can not thank all of you enough for your support of my model, or express the delight I have in hearing all of the innovations that have come from this simple linking of ideas.

If you follow this blog, you will probably noticed that I have not posted much in a long time. Right now, I am in the middle of golf season, trying to teach an overfull schedule including biology (not my fave), and keep up with the enthusiasm surrounding the globalization of Mission Possible.

With that, I am always willing to help all of you in any way I can. With the volume of requests I am getting it is making it hard for me to put in the effort I believe you need from me in beginning this process. When confronted with this kind of problem, I face it down like a heavyweight.

I have decided to kick the help I offer up a notch. If you are serious about starting a game, I believe whole-heartedly that I have experience to offer. I am willing to work with you virtually, as I have been, but truly believe that I could do more help working with your people face to face. I have been approached, and am willing to work as a consultant on beginning this process. If you have a small amount of funds to get me there, I can find time to work with your people; be it teachers, tech staff, or administration. As you all know, I am giving my model, my files, and my ideas away for free. I will never charge you to use the idea, but I do want you to succeed and think I can help.

As for Mission Possible 2.0, I have some new items on my agenda.

  1.  I am working with some programmers to make the back end files more self-serving, using advanced formulas and trying to get the points to add up easier.
  2. I am also working with programmers to try to find a way to upscale the model for larger districts. I am looking at Microsoft Access for the database, infused with google sites or wordpress.
  3. I am beginning to implement "Achievements" as a new reward system in the game
  4. I am looking at the upper levels and expanding them to include more choices for teachers. 
  5. I am finding new ways to reward teachers for their accomplishments. 
  6. I am working on trying to incorporate social media as a more integral part of the game.
If you follow our site, you will see some of these changes as they are being made. This kind of thing is never finished, it is only made better. If you would like to discuss my ideas, please respond here as always, hit me on twitter, or chuck me an email. 



Friday, August 23, 2013

(Video:) Mission Possible- Behind the Curtain

I know it has been a while since I have contributed anything to this blog, but I thought it was time. I recently was fortunate enough to get an article published in Learning & Leading with Technology. Since then, I have gotten several emails and calls about how I run the back end of the program and thought it may be nice to put my thoughts to Youtube and try to answer any questions that come up.

When I did this, it was using free software and knowing very little programming language. If anyone who knows more about computer programming than me (which is probably all of you) and wants to help out on this project, I would love to find a way to better keep track of these totals.

That being said, here is a quick and dirty run through my model.

If you have any questions, or would like me to go further into any part of the model, please let me know and I will try another screen-cast. I have also meet several times on Google hangouts or Skype with interested parties.



Friday, June 28, 2013

Next Gen Science Standards, a Need Unfilled

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Steven Pruitt speak at Iowa's kick off of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) this spring. Now, those of you who know me, or have read any of my earlier posts, should know that I am both the theorist (the talker) and the engineer (the doer). I seek out innovative approaches to teaching by lurching blogs and twitter like a squirrel in a bush hunting nuts. But like the squirrel, I am finicky. I won't eat anything. I also don't like to be force fed. Right now I am trying to decide if these standards, were tossed before me by Cinderella, or laced in poison.

Enough with the rodent analogies.

I am by no means an expert in these standards, but from my cursory study of them, along with my visit with Dr. Pruitt, I have come up with some opinions. 

1. Dr. Pruitt surprisingly makes a lot of sense! He stood before us for eight hours on a cold Iowa spring day giving more than 200 educators an overview of the history and purpose of the standards. He spoke of the need for commonality, the research background underlying then standards, and the intricate politics (or lack of) that went into the decisions made in their development. All in all, he made very good arguments, had research and reality to back up his claims, and was not afraid to tell us the shortcomings involved with their development. I left there trusting that the guy knew what he was talking about.

2. Dr. Pruitt made a lot of sense to 200 educators. I can tell you that, even with my BS glasses on, I came out of that day sipping the Kool Aide. If his goal was to get Iowa's educators excited about the standards, mission accomplished... if Iowa only had 200 educators. My biggest worry on the long drive back to Bettendorf, was how I was going to spread my enthusiasm for what was coming down the pipe. When I got home, I quickly realized that this was going to take some time.

3. Science is not Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Earth/Space science. This was the brightest epiphany for me since that day. It was not Dr. Pruitt, but a particle physicist I know from Coe College that happened to be at the kick off that drew me to this realization. I had worked with Dr. Ugur Ukgun for several years, where he has led me though the intricacies of quantum theory and experimentation. That day, however, he wore a teacher hat. He had been engrossed in laboratory work at the University of Iowa for over a decade while getting his doctorate. Now he was looking for the brightest minds for his own labs. It hit me that this is the guy I am preparing my students for! I needed to pay attention. He said two things that strung a chord with me. He talked about scientific research as being non-denominational. He didn't consider himself a particle physicist, or even a physicist. He was a scientist. In his work, he needed very high level chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, and three other scientific disciplines I had never heard of. Science was not a set of classes, but a way of thinking about nature that is cross-discipline at its very nature.

4. Math is a language, science is a method. The other point that Dr. Ukgun made was that if a student was weak in science, he could work with them. If a student was not proficient in the language of math, he couldn't even talk to the student. Math is the language of science. He believed that if high schools focused more on math (and with that computer programming) they could pick up the science concepts later. This was rather humbling to me as I have devoted many hours to teaching kids science, but his point had some validity.

5. Performance expectations are not the same as standards. They don't just tell us what students should learn, they dictate what students should be able to do. They have the odd feel of Hogwart's potion making class. I am working on my contempt glare ala Professor Snape when a student's potion blows up in their face. I am joking of course, but there is an element of performance assessment that is inherent in them. My problem with performance assessment is that I am not ever sure how to ride the line between pass/fail and giving students too many points for "trying". I guess I will have to look into this. When I figure something out, look for a post:)

6. Lastly is the "Need Unfulilled" aspect of this post. Dr. Pruitt made it exceptionally clear that these performance expectations are not curriculum. They are not intended to be "how to teach", just end results. This is where the teacher comes in. I applaud his committee for giving us reign here to play to our strengths and devise what we feel effectively matches our strengths and individual student's learning styles. However, the amount of work needed to make this change is daunting.

Thus I call to you all again. I am going to be fighting through this for the next few years. So are many of you. Join me in the conversation about how this these standards are interpreted into daily work. I am "phoning a friend" so to say so that we can talk this over, hash it out, and do it the right way. I believe this has to come from teachers, not politicians. We need to take the initiative, something we didn't do with No Child Left Behind. The biggest problem with that legislature is that politicians thought it up and ruined it. Lets have this come from us. We have the guidelines, we just devise the game.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Wrapping up gamification in Astronomy

Many of you have been following the implementation of Galaxy Fleet in my astronomy class. This experiment was conceived after the development of Mission Possible, it professional development model for technology PD. The process of applying gamification to my classroom had very distinct differences to applying it to our staff.

Most notibly, I was alone. In developing Mission Possible, I was fortunate in that I was surrounded with people who were excited about the idea. Leanne Wanger, our teacher-librarian was instrumental in the implementation of Mission Possible, and my principal Matt Degner's trust and leadership was essential. With Galaxy Fleet, I was alone in the development of the structure, the activities, the exams, and the back-end bookkeeping. 

Student Reaction:
In keeping updates on this blog, I was focused on the student reaction the process as we went along. I made adjustments on the fly if things were not going well, always kept upbeat about advancement through levels, and made Bead Ceremonies as public and special for everyone. It was nice to start a day by saying "Please join me in congratulating Joe Smith on earning his silver Ensign Rank!" The kid would come forward, be presented with the bauble, and shake my hand. The class liked the individual recognition of their peers.

Today I looked over the end survey for the class.
The comments spoke a very similar story. When asked if they enjoyed the gamifiaction model or they think I should throw it out, a vast majority said they would like to see it stay. Most of the comments revolved around it being fun, a great way to motivate students, and helped them learn the material. Many of them liked the testing procedure where they took several smaller tests instead of one large chapter exam. Even if I decide to not do Galaxy Fleet, I am going to give serious thought to keeping aspects of the testing procedure.

Some students mentioned how competition was a great motivator for them, and that this transition was easy because many of them play video games based on the same principles. They enjoyed trying to reach a level and gaining the recognition as they went.

That is not to say that every student bought into the idea. As you can see from the above graph, four of them were not interested in the game at all. In the comments, one wrote that if he/she wanted to be enlisted in ranking exercises, they would join the army, not take an astronomy class. One mentioned that there was a lot of things to remember in the labs, exams, and homework that was assigned. They had a hard time remembering to do all of it. They also felt frustrated in not reaching levels, wanting to drop the class because they felt they couldn't get anything right. These kind of comments concern me, and can not be fluffed off as outliers in the average.

Grade-wise, the students probably did better under this system, however, it is hard for me to attribute that to the game, or the fact that I took several more days to teach the material. I would say that the game motivated several kids in a way that I didn't have to personally keep them on task. However, if I took the same amount of time in my traditional learning cycle structure, I may have had similar results.

Overall, I am at the point in the process where I look at next year. Do I do this again? What changes would I make? I believe I have learned a lot about what motivates kids, how to tap into their competitive nature, and keep them focused. I am going to definitely keep some aspects of the game, if not the entire system.

I will keep you all updated.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Classroom Gamification Update

I realize that it has been a while since I have posted an update on the Galaxy Fleet game I am running in my class. I have few excuses except to say that keeping up with the game is very time consuming. Choosing to do this from scratch, with little back end support in place has proven to eat time quicker than a Sarlacc eats a bounty hunter. 

I have found that in order for the game to run smoothly, the students need to feel success periodically. This means that I need to be up to date on grading and awarding of points. The thing would not work if they did a lab activity and it took me three days to grade it, this forcing them to wait that time for their commendations, and therefore slow down the frequency of bar exams. I have to keep things graded everyday. Who knew this game would force me to be a better teacher! 

So where are we now? Of the 25 students in the class three of them have not reached Ensign status. That means that most of the class has passed the cadet bar exams with no less than a 70%. Granted, they could retake exams, but in my normal tests, there was no way 22/25 would have gotten a C or better. 

Of those who reached Ensign status, I have about half who have silver (extra work) status and one that got gold. This one girl who made gold passed all three of the exams on her first attempt and did the extension activity. I can tell already that there are a lot of Ensigns who want a gold bead when they hit their commander status. Since they can all get a gold bead, they truly are not competing against each other, only against themselves. They see her with her shiny gold bead and want that recognition. The game is putting wind in the higher achieving student's sails. 

What about the lower three who have not gotten there? I had a serious talk with them yesterday about their grades and the importance of putting in effort in class. Their stalled movement through the game has given me an avenue to breach the topic of not handing in work. Before this system, I found myself waiting until the summative exam before finding out they were not going to turn work in. Then they coming in after the fact to finish their labs. They failed exams because they didn't do the labs, then did the labs late for credit, turning them into busywork instead of their intended purpose. The game system forces those activities to be in before the exams which keeps them as a learning tool instead of empty points. 

After going through about half of the game, I am still on the fence as to whether it is a good idea or not. I truly believe the students enjoy the game and are more engaged. It is hard to tell if they are retaining the material as they are able to retake the exams, which they were not able to do before. A post-game survey of the class will probably reveal a lot. 

I will try to keep you updated better than I have.