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Thursday, January 31, 2013

How Success if Measured

A few days ago I heard this grant-sponsored academic PhD researcher gush about a teacher profiled in some of his research, roughly as such:
Let me tell you about this amazing science teacher. Some of his students were having trouble with the class module on 'The Scientific Method.' They were failing tests and papers about it. This science teacher went to meet with these students after school, and found them all playing World of Warcraft. These students had charts they had made about discoveries in WOW all over the wall. This science teacher made an incredible discovery. These World of Warcraft playing-students were actually applying the scientific method without knowing it. What he did then was to explain to the students the links between their methodology and the scientific method. From that point on, the students aced that part of the curricula.
To me, this was not a success story - it was a cautionary tale. Here is the Unschooling Rules break down.
  1. Most importantly, the scenario is about students who taught themselves the material on their own better than their teacher, who failed utterly.
  2. The teacher applied a testing methodology that didn't pick up the fact that these students had a working knowledge of the target skill set. The system could easily have failed the students who had the best understanding in the class of the material.
  3. The teacher's goal and success metrics were for the students to do well in the test and papers, not master the material.
  4. The school wrapper around the students' self-learning probably cost about two thousand dollars in total costs of resources including teacher time, all to justify a failed instructional methodology and testing methodology.
Centuries ago, in some cultures, the happy ending of a fictional story (specifically "comedies") was one in which every protagonist got married. Through our modern perspective we rightfully challenge that definition of success. Today, most school success stories (at least told in academic, political, and foundation cultures) end when students are back on track to consume more education hours.  This may be the happy ending for schools, but not necessarily everyone else.

See also: Right and Wrong Questions

Monday, January 21, 2013

Authentic Value Chains: Maple Syrup

Unschooling Rules: 
15. If you care about learning, start with food. 
11. Use microcosms as much as possible in learning programs.

New England roads now are dotted with pails, this year put out earlier because of the warm winter.
Text books, lectures, worksheets, videos, and tests all have their place in teaching science and physics.  But real conviction and curiosity tend to come out of real experiences.  While the natural diversity of the real world engaged at an individual level confounds an industrial education system (which prefers the scale and consistency of precanned and prefabricated content), it seems necessary to create the next generation of passionate scientists and engineers.  Here is an example around maple syrup.

Make sure the hole angled downward.
For sap to flow, the temperature has to be above freezing during the day but drop below freezing during the night.
One Drip at a Time
It is hard to cram syrup production.

This has not been a bountiful year!

Adding to the Supply
Straining Out Some Debris
Since the stove is going anyway (or use an outdoor setup)...
....evaporate away most of the water.
Now just add the requisite Richard or David Attenborough monologue.
Here is our recipe for Whole Wheat Pancakes:
  • 1 cup organic whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup unprocessed wheat bran
  • 4 Tablespoons raw wheat germ
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon Turbinado sugar
  • 1 3/4 cups whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
As well as our local maple syrup, we use raw milk from a local dairy farm and our own organic, free range eggs. Then, we just put a small amount of butter a hot pan before each scoop of pancake batter goes in.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Big Cost of Little Vision in Education

There is a very large school industry in the United States.  (One genius of the industry is making everyone who owns property pay dearly to fund it.)

But despite the enormous shared burden, there is very little shared vision for the goals of the school industry. There is no collective mandate for change or even agreement on managing metrics. (Without oversight, the school industry has generously provided their metrics, primarily around more students consuming more school hours.)  There are few articulated vision for how education should or even could look in a few years.  People are often more united in what they want to move from than what they want to move towards.

There are, apparently instead, four pockets where there are mini-visions.
  • Top Students (a very different group than smartest students or most productive students, btw).
  • S.T.E.M.
  • Special Needs
  • At Risk
("Sports" may be a fifth targeted group in many schools.)

These groups cover, roughly, 30% of all students, but get a disproportionate amount of attention.  That then leaves most students feeling like middle children, the Jan and Peter Brady's of the system (against the Greg and Marcia's Top Students and STEM and the Cindy and Bobby's Special Needs and At Risk).  Many of today's homeschoolers likely draw from that lost and ignored 70%.  (Moreover, the irony should be lost on no one that, while Obama's vision of education is as a "pathway to the middle class"  the middle class of students is mostly treated as a pool from which to prop up the success of those at the top and subsidize the blunting of the liability of those at the bottom.  

Where there are no visions, people default to (and argue passionately over) management strategies.  As much as schools have no consensus on vision, there are a tremendous amount of belief in the concept of "rigor".  It doesn't matter what we are doing or towards what end, but let's do it with a greater focus on adherence to statistical norms with the goal of reducing variability.  So yes, in the era of automobiles, the horse and buggy vendors want to be six sigma black belts.

It is with this context that I listened to this archive Slate Magazine Political Gabfest.

First, I am a huge fan of the Political Gabfest and would hate to miss an episode.  On the other hand, listening to Slate Magazine discuss education is cringe-worthy (it is as painful as hearing the equally great and unmissable Culture Gabfest talk about clothing and fashion).  Where the Political Gabfest team is so sure-footed and intellectually robust around issues of politics and law, masterfully tying tactics to strategies, they represent the deer-in-the-headlights groping-in-the-dark responses when it comes to education.  If education does evolve, the types of statements regularly made by this team will seem incredibly dated (for example, presenting polling numbers that reflexively conflate well-educated with time spent in school programs

So, grab the current Gabfest here: http://ec.libsyn.com/p/1/0/a/10acc2782eec16f5/SPG12091401_Gabfest.mp3?d13a76d516d9dec20c3d276ce028ed5089ab1ce3dae902ea1d01cc8031d2ca5efe48&c_id=4942034

The story, on the strike in Chicago, starts at 25:50.  Most Gabfest conversations attempt to discuss the reality of the situation, and then the optics.  Here instead, during the ten minutes, the conversation rambles from Obama vs. unions, to the hiring of laid-off teacher in charter schools, to the evolution of unions in general, to the bland critics of bad teachers as the reasons school under-perform and the equally bland praise for generic good teachers as people who "close performance gaps and improve test scores."  It is finally around time 32:58 where there is an attempt to put the conversation into some less-permeable context with a broad challenge of the influence of standardized tests, which is soon cut off and spun into the meh-ish "I can see both sides".

Again, I don't mean to pick on The Political Gabfest.  But if the same level of flailing about was evident on any other subject, I suspect someone would get fired.  Instead, this all appears to be par for the course.

This lack of vision is so prevalent that it is not even recognized as the problem it is.  Perhaps schools themselves have been so successful as scuttling any new big ideas that we all are first trying to figure out if we can change schools at all.   But I disagree with that tactic.  Until we can be clear about the what schools are supposed to accomplish (FYI, my vision is here), we cannot reward real leadership.  We can only to continue to promote management.