Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Students, Parents, Privacy, and the Social Media World

My wife has started a blog and put up a really good post about privacy and social media. Then, my wife invited her students to comment on the issues in the post. There were many good comments and thoughts but the ones that struck me were about the role of parents in educating young people about issues of privacy and protection while using social media.

Student thoughts included the idea that this material should NOT be the subject of a new, compulsory course, that workshops and presentations in school could inform students about the dangers and solutions, and that parents could teach their children how to be safe on the Internet. One particularly good point was that, while schools could try and teach Internet safety, young students might not understand the importance and so would not follow the advice they had been given. This puts the onus back on the parents to be monitoring their children's Internet and social media use. However, I think it is safe to say that only a small percentage of parents are truly savvy about the Internet and social media. For example, I consider myself pretty tech-savvy, but I don't have a Facebook account so my understanding of the dangers and the solutions is only second-hand at best.

So perhaps the solution is to teach the parents, as one student suggested. The question is, how do we teach the parents? Maybe one way is to have Town Hall type meetings like the one at my wife's school that prompted her post. But Town Hall meetings will not reach every parent, so what else can be done? At the moment, I am not sure. Any thoughts, suggestions, or comments would be appreciated.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

School Connections of the future

Back in September 2009 I wrote a post about the difficulties of getting enough computer access for students. Since then, the continuing rise of the smartphone has made me wonder whether a solution is possible if we focus on portable connectivity rather than desktop computers.

Most initiatives in schools come down to money. If there is funding for it, it happens. No funding, dead initiative. So I started thinking about where money could come from for devices that provide network and internet connectivity as well as the computational power to run applications. The first idea I had was textbooks. Every year there is money being put into the school system to buy, repair, or replace textbooks. At some point, I bet it will become cheaper for the school boards or the Ministry of Education to just give a student a device and a license for the textbooks rather than buying, maintaining, and storing thousands of textbooks.

Already some universities are experimenting with devices like iPads. Clearly, there are still issues, but given the amount of money being spent on textbooks ($539.2 million in 2000-2001 according to StatsCan and probably 10 times that in the United States), I am sure that textbook publishers and device manufacturers will both be trying to get as much of the textbook market as possible.

There are so many advantages to etextbooks and the disadvantages that currently exist can be reduced or eliminated by changing the software and hardware being used to read the electronic versions. I imagine that it is only a matter of time before the use of paper textbooks becomes much diminished.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Thinking like a ....

Various educational learning that I have done in the past suggested that as teachers we want to teach our students to think like experts. This sounds great when you are in the middle of an upgrade course in Math or Science, but an article that I read a few months ago twigged me to the problems.

First, most of the students in any given class are not going to become experts in that field. So, is it really of any value to the students to "think like an expert" in a field they will not enter? The second problem is that if EVERY course is trying to teach students to think like experts then students will be likely overwhelmed by the fact that we are trying to get them to think like scientists, mathematicians, historians, writers, etc. all at the same time.

So maybe we do not want to try and teach all of our students to think like experts. Obviously we should leave the path to expertise open for students who are interested, but what should we do with/about the students who are less interested?

I am going to suggest that we try to teach students to "think like citizens". In our technological and democratic society, citizens need to have at least a basic understanding of fields of expertise such as math, science, history, writing to be able to make good decisions on policy that involves those fields. An excellent example was this summer's controversy over the proposed changes to the long-form census. To make a reasonable decision on the question, citizens needed a basic understanding of statistics and sampling. There was no need for them to be experts, just to know enough to see whether the government was making a sound decision. Similarly in the evolution/creation debate, there is no need for citizens to be steeped in the evidence and arguments for both sides. A sound knowledge of the scientific method and the way in which science works will allow people to decide whether the fact that evolution is "just a theory" means that it is uncertain.

As teachers, if we want to do right by our students, I think that we need to make sure that those students are getting good solid grounding in the basic principles that underlie our disciplines. And by principles I don't mean basic skills like multiplication in mathematics or spelling for writers, I mean the underlying attitudes and methods that allow us to say things like how likely a scientific theory is to be true (evolution, global warming) or whether a new idea will produce an accurate census. Part of those attitudes is the habit of being informed and up to date. New ideas, evidence, technologies, thoughts and theories are always occurring in all areas of knowledge. No one can stay on top of everything, but it is possible to be aware of any big changes in a wide range of fields, especially with the prevalence and ease of access of information on the Internet.

If our students can stay informed about important developments in various fields and then make good judgements about policy, our country will do just fine, no matter what the challenges. As a teacher, I really want to help make that happen.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Teaching like a champion

I did get Doug Lemov's book Teach Like a Champion and I was very impressed. Before I read trhe book, I had thought that I would already be doing many of the 49 techniques that Lemov was going to describe. As it turns out, I was doing perhaps 6 of the 49.

The bad news is that I have a lot left to learn. The good news is that Lemov has done a great job of spelling out his techniques and showing how to do them in a classroom. The book also includes a DVD of examples of the techniques in use. I have not yet had a chance to look at the DVD, but I will see if I can get to it over the summer.

The interesting thing about the techniques listed in the book is that many of them are very small techniques that might save a few minutes a day. But, as Lemov points out, a few minutes here, a few minutes there, times about 200 days in a school year starts to add up to dozens of hours of extra teaching. And that extra time can easily be the difference maker for your students.

I would recommend Teach Like a Champion to any teacher who wants to improve their ability to reach their students.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

How to improve teaching?

I just watched a video called Teached that touched on how important good teaching is in a public education system. In particular, teaching quality has a huge effect on underprivileged students.

The video got me wondering, what can be done to improve teaching? The first problem I thought of is how little teachers communicate about their jobs. We are all so busy, we rarely about how to do the job better. And we almost never talk consistently about how to do the job better.

So here is the challenge I am setting for myself. I challenge myself to schedule 15 minutes a week to talk to at least one other teacher about how to do our jobs better.

Here are the big keys:

1. The time is scheduled. All teachers involved have agreed to use this time for the purpose of improving.

2. We use the time to try and improve. To focus on how we could be better, what we could do better, how we can better serve our students. Anything else, specifically problem-focused, excuse-seeking talk is off topic and needs to be shut down.

So, that is my challenge to myself. If it seems to work, maybe I can convince other teachers to do it too.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Can teachers be trained?

My wife showed me a great article from the New York Times called Building a Better Teacher. The article looks at some attempts to figure out what knowledge and skills are important to teachers, and, more importantly, how to teach that knowledge and those skills to teachers.

The good news is that some people are having success both in terms of determining the required skills and knowledge and also in the teaching of those. Unfortunately, the list of skills is not short. One teaching taxonomy mentioned in the article contains 49 points. It is hard enough getting most teachers I know to think about one new thing. Trying to get them to think about 49 potentially new things is going to be close to impossible. Now, once a teacher looks carefully at the list, he or she is going to immediately see a lot of points and say "Oh, I do that!". The problem is getting a teacher, who is already busy and usually feels overworked and under appreciated, to even look at the 49 point list in the first place.

Still, it is good news to me that people are getting a handle on the skills and knowledge that are truly, provably relevant to teaching.

I will probably buy the book with the 49 point list, called Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. If it's good, I'll be sure to post about it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Predicting Teacher Success

Fantastic article in The Atlantic about teacher evaluation and predicting teacher success.

I wonder if and when the ideas and principles found by Teach for America will come to Canada. One would hope that every Board of Education across the continent would be jumping at the chance to hire better teachers. However, there is so much junk entrenched in the bureaucracy of education and the union-board relationships that it will be years, probably decades before any of this gets applied.

Here's hoping that it will be sooner rather than later.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Teaching Risk Assessment

The Ottawa Citizen today published this editorial calling for more teaching of the math of risk assessment in classrooms. The article even recognized that some other material would need to be removed from the currciulum to allow room for risk assessment.

I must say that I completely agree with this article. I would love to see more math in the classroom that deals with the reality of statistics and probability. The more literate our citizens are about statistics, the better will be the decisions that get made in every arena.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Do we need to memorize anything?

This blog entry by Steven Anderson says "no".

Now, looking at the comments posted in reply, it is clear that there is a big distinction between the question of "do you need to remember anything?" versus "do you need to memorize anything?". Obviously, we all need to remember many facts, skills, and other pieces of information. The question is: should we let that remembering happen naturally, or should we force everyone (at least every student) to memorize key facts.

I have to admit, I tend to agree with Anderson. My belief is that you will remember information if you use it and find it important. If you don't think it is important and you aren't using the information, then I think that it is probably a waste of time to memorize it.

Going back to the argument I made in this post, I think we need to find better ways to teach children in North America than stuffing them full of facts that "they will need later". Sticking with the usual way of doing things is just going to create a world where our children get buried by the massive number of Asians willing to do fact-based work more cheaply.

Teacher Merit Pay and Teacher Merit.

The Globe and Mail had an article about teacher merit pay in their Saturday edition this weekend. The article was similar in many respects to Malcolm Gladwell's article "Most Likely to Succeed", minus the football comparison.

The Globe article highlighted many problems with merit pay, and I won't repeat them here, since I have already blogged on that topic.

One point that I felt that the Globe article missed was that teacher merit is, in the end, about teacher merit. Which teachers are truly helping the majority of students learn and succeed? Those teachers need to be encouraged and rewarded (although not necessarily with money). Which teachers are failing to help and teach the majority of their students? Those teachers need to be helped so that they can improve, or, if they cannot improve enough, they should be gently removed from the profession.

The problem with the idea of teacher merit is that I don't think that a good definition of teacher merit in terms of measurable quantities currently exists. Gladwell and the Globe article discuss the idea of evaluating teacher performance by looking at standardized test results over several years, but there are no specifics. Between the lack of specifics, human inertia, and teacher union resistance, I suspect that a good definition of teacher merit through measurable values is several decades away.

So, until we have that definition, I fear that we are stuck with the status quo. Too bad. I, for one, would be happy to know whether I am actually doing a good job of teaching or whether I just think that I am doing a good job.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Acting without thinking

In late 2009 I read a book called Lost at School by Ross Greene. Greene espouses a management/discipline approach called Collaborative Problem solving. One of the points he makes is that standard discipline practices tend to revolve around the idea that "maybe Johnny will think twice before he does this again". However, our best evidence shows that students are not thinking when they act out, they are reacting to emotional and psychological triggers that they do not know how to handle in an acceptable manner.

Well, I added some evidence to support Greene's idea two weeks ago. Frustrated by events at school and home, I did something stupid and ended up with a broken hand. The thing is, I knew it was stupid before I did it, and I sure knew it was stupid after I did it, but in that moment my emotions were so piled up and tangled up that I could not stop myself from acting out. The good news is that I only hurt myself. The bad news is that the hand will be in a cast for another six weeks, drastically limiting my employability for that time.

And I'm an adult, turning 40 later this year, with all that experience and wisdom(?). Imagine how hard it is for a 15-year-old to do better.

So, when dealing with students or your children, remember that they do not have full control over their actions. It is better to keep an eye out for trigger situations and to try and disarm those triggers rather than punishing in the aftermath.