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Posts Tagged ‘education’

Math Games: Simulators and Instruments

Posted by Patrick on September 6, 2012

I’m in the process of changing my mind about a topic I don’t know much about: the gamification of learning, in particular, the gamification of mathematics learning.

Here’s my preconceived idea about math games: it’s sugar coating.  There’s something you have to practice; it’s hard, and you’re not very interested. So to make it less painful, we’ll add points you can earn for each correct answer (or better yet, monsters you can defeat by factoring polynomials, with cool graphics and stuff).  Hopefully, you’ll want to sit in front of your computer 10 minutes longer than with your textbook to practice your math.  In my opinion:

  • The math in these games has nothing to do with the context of the game (which is often true of textbook questions too mind you [2]).
  • These games do nothing to foster internal motivation and appreciation of mathematics.
  • They focus on skills, not mathematical and conceptual thinking.
  • They are really just fancy worksheets with blinking lights and noise to keep you awake.

I’m realizing now that that idea is a bit of a Straw Man.  In a Webinar [1] he presented back in January, Keith Devlin (@profkeithdevlin) clarifies what math games have been, are, and can be.  He uses the analogy of a flight simulator, or a music instrument to convince us that well designed math games could be invaluable tools to help students investigate abstract ideas in a world that makes them more concrete.  He doesn’t want math games to replace instructions, instead he wants them to be a complimentary tool of discovery, where students can think mathematically without having to worry about the notation.

In one of his previous books, Devlin argues that what makes math hard is its level of abstraction.  The logic is often simpler than that of a soap opera. [3] Now to extrapolate a little bit from Devlin’s presentation, it seems to me that a good  way to teach mathematics would be to:

  1. Use well designed games to explore mathematical thinking and logic in a context that is intuitive and non-symbolic.
  2. Slowly introduce symbols and layers of abstraction.
  3. Practice on synthesizing these two aspects.
  4. Repeat with new concepts…

There’s a catch though, which Devlin mentions briefly: It makes no sense to test students on the second part if they are still on the first part.  Can you imagine if part of the assessment process was to have students play a game so we could see what they struggle with?

Links

  1. Keith Devlin, Game-Based Learning Webinar Recording
    <http://www.instantpresenter.com/WebConference/RecordingDefault.aspx?c_psrid=E955DD80854D>
  2. Dan Meyer, [PS] Critical Thinking,
    <http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=12582>
  3. Keith Devlin, The Math Gene,
    <http://www.amazon.com/The-Math-Gene-Mathematical-Thinking/dp/0465016197>

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Can iBooks do … ?

Posted by Patrick on January 28, 2012

Since the iBooks app [1] came out a few days ago, it’s been hard not to read about it. One thing is for sure, there’s a lot of varied opinions about it, particularly, about the impact (or lack-there-of) that it could have on education if used to its full potential. Personally, I didn’t get a chance to see it first hand until yesterday when one of my colleagues showed me a physics textbook she had bought, and a book she started writing to experiment with it. I have to admit, I thought it was pretty cool. The idea that students could finally ditch bulky textbooks and carry gigabytes of information with them in their tablet, or that teachers could customize and make media rich textbooks for their students, is very exciting. In some geeky way, at least for me, it taps into the utopian ideals of the treky universe: “Computer, what is …?” Now, I know that in the end, books are just books; they don’t (in themselves) revolutionize education (at least, that’s my opinion). I have a few questions, though, about the iBooks app that I think are important (for education).

Looking at the book my colleague is writing, the first string of questions that popped to my mind was : can this be exported as a website? Can students read this on their laptop or their phone? Can I read it on my Android tablet? Or is this just for iPads. In other words : is the format platform agnostic or does it bind us (or worse: our students) into a “vendor lock-in” [2] relationship with Apple? There are different degrees to this question.

At one extreme, programs like Apple’s iWork office suite (Keynote, Pages, etc), produce files that are completely incompatible with other office suites. Documents can be exported as PDFs or other more open file formats, but at the cost of loss of functionality or formatting. In the middle, programs like Apple’s iWeb produce work files that can only be edited with iWeb, but the “publishable” output they produce can be viewed by any web browser on any computer or mobile device. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) like LibreOffice [3] or NeoOffice [4], which use open file formats [5] that any program (no matter the operating system) can fully support.

In the past, I have argued that as educational institutions, we have an ethical responsibility to use the latter kind of software [6] with our students. For computers, this isn’t so hard anymore since there’s a lot of very good (and arguably better) FOSS out there. For tablet, though, the selection is a little slimmer, which is why I think we should at least regect apps that use closed file formats in favour of those that use open file formats that are platform agnostic. My question about the iBooks app is: where does it fall on this continuum?

I am not a software developer, so please correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems that something like the iBooks app could easily produce a “book” that any web browser (or modern e-Book app) could read without loss of formatting. Maybe it already does (I don’t know). But I guess to me, the whole point of producing a book is that anyone can read it, no matter what kind of device they use.

The second string of questions that later came up in my mind was: Could iBooks be used by students to produce work collaboratively? At the most basic level, could students easily share their files with each other (like an office document for example)? But to take it one step further, what would it take for a group of students to work on the same project at the same time a la Wikipedia or Google Doc? How difficult would it be to have a wiki-like editor that would allow groups of people to write a book collectively?

But maybe that’s not what iBooks is about in the first place. Maybe it’s about the publishing industry clumbsily trying to survive in the new landscape of digital media. Or maybe, it’s another step closer to the big brother state [7]. Maybe, it’s not about openness and education.

Links

  1. Apple, iBooks,
    <http://www.apple.com/ipad/built-in-apps/ibooks.html>
  2. Wikipedia: Vendor Lock-in,
    <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vendor_lock-in>
  3. LibreOffice,
    <http://www.libreoffice.org>
  4. NeoOffice,
    <http://www.neooffice.org>
  5. Wikipedia: Open File Format,
    <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_format>
  6. Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 2: In schools),
    <https://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2008/05/24/free-software-part-2-in-schools>
  7. Copyfight, Stallman on E-book Evils and Privacy,
    <http://copyfight.corante.com/archives/2012/01/19/stallman_on_ebook_evils_privacy.php>

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Going one-to-one

Posted by Patrick on September 10, 2011

At the beginning of my second year of teaching in Taiwan, we started implementing a one-to-one Apple laptop program.  In hindsight, I’m realizing now that we moved incredibly fast–maybe too fast–but we were a small school (a dozen teachers with about 70 students in the secondary department), so we tried to adapt quickly.  Since I moved back to Canada more than a year ago, I’ve been meaning to reflect on what we did well and what we could have done differently with this program. This summer, I learned that my new school is thinking of rolling out a similar program next year.  I think it’s time to crystallize all those thoughts together and share them.

I’ll start with by describing the issues that arose with the hardware we chose, and follow with a brief explanation of the philosophy that guided our selection of software.  These are just the nuts and bolts but getting them assembled well is very important.  Finally, I’ll address the (open ended) question of how to foster appropriate use of this technology by the students (and teachers).

Acknowledgement

Right out front, I’d like to thank three former colleagues of mine with whom I had the great pleasure to work with in Taiwan. Their helping me on an early draft of this post via Google Doc felt just like old times!  Thank you so much for all your insightful comments.

Hardware:

The year we made the switch, a little more than four years ago, all classrooms were equipped with an iMac, a projector, and speakers.  At the same time, every student had to buy their own Apple laptop.  Right there, I think it would have been better to wait a year before introducing the laptops to students.  This would have given the teachers time to familiarize themselves with the Mac operating system, and it would have given the IT team a chance to deal with technical issues better.  As David put it, it would also have given us a chance to deal with the “human” factor better, bringing in the parents as partners, for example.

The students had a choice to buy either a Macbook, Macbook Pro, or Macbook Air (when that came out).   We found that all three served our purposes just as well, except that for the money, a simple Macbook with a RAM upgrade was actually better than a stock Macbook Pro.  Today, the white Macbook isn’t sold to the general public anymore, but David tells me that it can still be purchased through the “education” channel for about $1000.

Students who bought a protective hard shell for their computer were less likely to break their computer than students who used a computer case.  One particular model of laptop case had the zipper at the opposite end from the handle.  A few times, some students forgot to zip their case, grabbed the handle, and sent their laptop flying across the table.  Simple things like that can cause a lot of problem if multiplied by 70 students.

Each classroom also had a few power bars scattered around on the floor.  Power bars with the outlets oriented sideways were best since they could accommodate more chargers than those with the outlets pointing parallel to the bar.  Each classroom had a VGA adapter for the iMac (which also worked with the earlier models of Macbooks).  Over the years, we realized that we needed different adapters for the new generations of laptops so that all students could quickly connect their computer to the projector to show their work.  Now, Kristen tells me that students no longer use the VGA adapter.  Instead, they put the presentation on the server, and project it from the teachers’ computers.

For my classroom, I also bought a few cheap USB microphones for them to podcast or screencast.  I found that even a cheap USB mic gave much better results than the internal microphone since it cut off the noise from the fan.  This is something each student might have wanted to buy with their computer.

Every year, a few unlucky students lost all their work due to hard drive failure.  Our IT department kept a few spare hard drives to quickly fix laptops on the spot and give time to students to buy a new hard drive, but we never managed to implement a successful, campus-wide backup and recovery system for all students.  This was a big miss.

Software

During the first year of implementation, we used the software that came “free” with the Apple computers.  We soon realized that files created with programs from the iWork and iLife suites could not be opened directly on other operating systems.  Some teachers began asking their students to export their files into formats that they could open on their home computers (like pdf).

During the second year of implementation, we began the switch to FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) such as NeoOffice instead of Microsoft Office or iWork.  It was very important for us that files created with one system could be shared and opened with any other system so as to ease collaboration and not bind students into a Vendor Lock-in situation.  It quickly became easier for students (who were used to the Apple software) to use the FOSS instead of always having to convert their work to open formats after.

Kristen tells me that students now use OpenOffice for Mac instead of NeoOffice because it “is apparently much better”.  Whether this is true or not, the beauty of this situation is that documents created with either NeoOffice, OpenOffice, or LibreOffice use the exact same file format and can be opened by all three programs on any kind of computers (Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux).  This is a very valuable kind of freedom we want our students to have.

All of our staff was already using Gmail and we had all students who didn’t have their own account get one so that we could use Google Apps with them for collaborative work.  We found it worked really well.  Google Doc was an excellent way for students to work together, or to share work in progress with their teachers.  Some teachers also set up Google Calendars for their classes, etc.  Two details are important to note here however.  First, the students’ Gmail account was their own and was in no way managed by the school.  This was so that students could easily bring their “cloud” work with them after they leave our school.  Second, it was tempting to go all out, embrace the cloud completely, and use Google Apps for everything  (instead of locally running software for non-collaborative work), but this increased dependence on the network and would have created more problems when the network was slow or not functioning properly.  More importantly, we needed to be critical of how much we should trust third party companies such as Google with our information.  Here’s an excellent interview about this that I found later from CBC Spark. [2]

Over the course of the next few years, I created this wiki page [1] to list programs that should be used.  (The list is a little outdated at the moment, but I’ll try to update it again this year.)  The underlying idea here is that, as an educational institution, it’s more important to be grounded in sound philosophical principles that promote freedom of learning, than to use whatever is the most convenient tool at the time regardless of future consequences. [3]

Appropriate Use

As instances of computer misuse (off-task IMing, torrenting, gaming, etc) started to emerge among the student population (and some of the teachers!), we started debating whether we should add layers of filters to the network and restrictions to the students’ computers to deal with the problem.  For example,  I am told that recently a parent called the school twice to complain that their child’s Facebook page was being updated during class time.

One proposed solution was to block social networking sites (and a list of other popular “non-educational” sites) and turn on some of the parental control settings on the student computer accounts.  Philosophically, we recognized that it was more important to teach students how to use technology appropriately than to turn all Big-Brother on them and enter an endless game of Cat and Mouse with them.

The decision was made not to block websites and restrict computer accounts.  Instead, we started working on ways to scaffold this new type of learning for different age groups and individuals.  Andrea, for example, had a “laptop parking” shelf in her classroom, where all younger students had to leave their laptops as soon as they entered the class (whether the bell had rung or not).  Classrooms became “Academic Use Only” zones even during breaks and lunch to encourage students to be outside instead of playing on their computer.  Parental control restrictions were added to a few specific students’ laptops who were struggling more than others.

It would have been much more effective to role out these policies from the get-go, and they would have been even more powerful if students had had a voice in the decision making process.  Unfortunately, we reacted to problems as we saw them arise, and students saw the changes we made as added restrictions instead of as age-appropriate measures to help them become better 21st century learners.

During my last year there, there was a change in the administration and the one-to-one program was informally put on hold.  There were some discussions as to whether younger students (grade 7 and 8’s) could ever handle such distracting devices in a school setting.  A computer, after all, is both a tool and a toy!  Personally, I don’t believe age is the critical factor (although it is a big one that must be considered carefully).  When I do work, I too get distracted by all the other things my computer has to offer.  The same goes for students, except it’s our job to help them learn how to deal with it.

Since then, the school decided to phase out the program for all new students so as to “lighten the financial burden on families”.  Students can bring their own laptops if they have them, however.  I am not sure what the school’s position is with respect to the larger issue of appropriate use, however.

Conclusion

Although my experience in Taiwan was extremely enriching, I am very curious to see what a fully developed one-to-one program could look like.  I hope my experience can help my new school navigate the new challenges that lie ahead, and I’m excited to see just how far it will take us.

Bringing technology into a school to such a high degree must not distract from the primary centre: student learning.  New tools with old ways of doing things don’t work.  As David and Andrea put it, there has to be systems in place to help teachers not use the technology for its own sake, but to help transform their teaching into project and inquiry based learning.

Links

  1. Patrick Truchon, Wiki Notes: Software,
    <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/wiki/doku.php?id=software>
  2. CBC Spark, Full Interview: Siva Vaidhyanathan on the Googlization of Everything,
    <http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2011/05/full-interview-siva-vaidhyanathan-on-the-googlization-of-everything>
  3. Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 1: The Philosophy),
    <https://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2008/05/18/free-software-part-1-the-philosophy>

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Conceptualizing Physics

Posted by Patrick on June 27, 2011

The following two videos address one of the questions that I ponder the most: what are the best ways to help students understand concepts in mathematics and physics?  Although both speakers reach similar conclusions, they each reveal many other insights that are also very important.  Here are a few lessons that I take from each.

Derek Muller (@veritasium) shows that:

  • Students new to physics come with misconceptions they think are true (about the world of physics).
  • Because of this, they don’t pay their utmost attention to the videos (which might as well be traditional lectures).
  • Which causes them to think that what is being presented is the same as what they think.
  • So they don’t learn anything.
  • While getting more confident in their misconception.

But his interviews with the students also showed something else:

  • Students are bad at judging how much a video (or lecture) is helping them learn.

This part I found very interesting.  Indeed, the “clear” videos didn’t help them learn as much as the “confusing” ones.  Although Derek doesn’t make that leap, I think this applies equally well to traditional classroom lectures.  Further more, it also suggests that students’ evaluations of teachers are (at best) an incomplete metric of teachers effectiveness, if not a completely bad one.  Of course, it doesn’t mean that the way to help students is to be as confusing as possible, but now I’m wondering if the good feedback I tended to get about my teaching was such a good thing…

In essence, Derek says that for students to really learn physics, they have to engage and struggle with the concepts on their own terms.  Delivering information is not sufficient for learning.  Dr. Eric Mazur (@eric_mazur) also comes to the same conclusion but in the context of the lecture hall:

This time, Dr. Mazur breaks down learning into two parts [3]:

  1. Delivery of information
  2. Synthesis of information

Traditionally, classroom lectures have focused on the first part, but it is the second part that constitute true learning.  Thus, he assigns readings ahead of time (or finds other ways for students to get the information before they enter the classroom) so that students can spend more time in class synthesizing information instead of being passive recipients.

Dr. Mazur also reaches a second conclusion: Conceptual understanding leads to good problem solving abilities, but good problem solving abilities doesn’t necessarily implies conceptual understanding.  This strikes at the heart of traditional assessment methods.  Simply giving problems to solve doesn’t discriminate between those who understand what’s going on, and those who have memorized an algorithm they don’t really understand.

In my practice, I always try to emphasize the “why” of things over the “how” (mainly because I have a bad memory myself).  It’s encouraging to see research that validates that philosophy, and enlightening to see the various methods used by these inspiring educators.

  • Update: I added a reference relating to Howard Gardner that is very relevant to this post. [4]
  • Update 2: I added a reference to an article describing the results of team of researchers at UBC that supports what Dr. Mazur is doing. [5]

Links

  1. Veritasium, Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos ,
    <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVtCO84MDj8&>
  2. Eric Mazur, Memorization or understanding: are we teaching the right thing?
    <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tn1DLFnbGOo&>
  3. Mazur Group Publication, Peer Instruction: Making Science Engaging,
    <http://mazur.harvard.edu/publications.php?function=display&rowid=538>
  4. The Daily Riff, Misconceptions About Learning & Teaching
    <http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/howard-gardner-shares-his-just-released-97.php>
  5. ScienceNOW, A Better Way to Teach?
    <http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/05/a-better-way-to-teach.html>

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Math Wiki

Posted by Patrick on January 22, 2011

During my four years teaching math in Taiwan I’ve been spoiled in many ways.  Our school was a small 1:1, with every student having their own Macbook.  I spent countless hours developing activities using spreadsheets for things like statistics, and GSP [1] for everything from geometry and algebra, to calculus.  Because our school was committed to giving students as much freedom as possible, we decided to use free software whenever possible.  Although LibreOffice [2] / NeoOffice [3] have a great word processor and spreadsheet program, I hadn’t found a GSP alternative yet.  We also wanted students to share their work online so we had setup blogs for them.

For math, that last point has always been more technically challenging.  I needed something that would allow me (and students) to:

  • Write mathematics online in a convenient way.
  • Embed interactive (GSP-like) graphics and animations.

Finally, after four years of searching, I believe I found something that pretty darn near does the trick.  It started with discovering Geogebra [4], a free and open source geometry software very similar to GSP.  A big advantage that Geogebra has over GSP is that it is completely cross platform and can even be installed on a USB key.  At the school I’m at now, it’s nearly impossible to get anything new installed on my own office computer (let alone on all the lab computers) so Geogebra’s installation flexibility is a big bonus for me.   The feature that scores the most points, though, is its ability to export its files as html code.  I think GSP has this feature too, but in the four years I’ve worked with it, I never managed to get it to work.

So here’s the basic setup I have currently running:

  • I keep my old iBook G4 permanently connected to a wired internet connection at home and I run pageKite [5] on it, which allows me to use it as  a web server with a fixed web address even though the IP is dynamic.
  • I installed LaTeX [6] on the iBook to typeset mathematics.
  • I installed Dokuwiki [7], which is a WYSIWYM [8] wiki platform.
  • I installed the Dokuwiki LaTeX Plugin [9] to allow Dokuwiki to use the LaTeX engine and typeset math equations.
  • I installed Geogebra on my USB key to create the demos, which I can then export as html code and embed in the wiki pages.

This semester, I’m testing this platform in my classes with wiki’s [10] I’ve created to host Geogebra demos [11] and math derivations we might not see in class.  I also invited my students to collaborate to the construction of our class wikis by adding their own explanations and creating their own Geogebra demos.

Now that I can write math online and embed interactive demos conveniently, I would like my students to also be able to do the same.  For that, I would need:

  • Support from the school to install the necessary software on their server.
  • Support from the computer science department to offer teach wiki syntax, LaTeX syntax, and basic Geogebra skills.

To be continued…

Links

  1. GSP, <http://www.dynamicgeometry.com>
  2. LibreOffice, <http://www.libreoffice.org>
  3. NeoOffice, <http://www.neooffice.org>
  4. Geogebra, <http://www.geogebra.org/cms/>
  5. pageKite, <http://pagekite.net>
  6. MacTeX, <http://www.tug.org/mactex>
  7. Dokuwiki, <http://www.dokuwiki.org/dokuwiki>
  8. Wikipedia: WYSIWYM, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WYSIWYM>
  9. Dokuwiki LaTeX plugin, <http://www.dokuwiki.org/plugin:latex>
  10. Patrick Truchon’s Cegep Wiki, <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/cegep/>
  11. Patrick Truchon’s Geogebra Demos, <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/webfolder/Geogbra>

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Pondering the Next Semester

Posted by Patrick on December 4, 2010

[1]

I can’t believe there’s only two weeks left to this semester.  Time flew by so fast.  It seems like yesterday that I was hired to teach three different courses with less than a week to go before classes were set to start.  Overall, I’m happy with how things went considering I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants the whole semester.  I’ve had to keep lessons pretty “traditional”, but I know it’s a survival mode that I’m not planing on adopting permanently, and well… I survived.

A few challenges I’m now aware of and finding solutions to are that:

  • Most classrooms only have blackboards and old-school projectors (for transparencies).
  • I must book computer labs a few days a head of time if I want a spot.
  • The computers are old and slow, but the IT department insists on using Microsoft Office 2010
  • Other than Maple, there’s no math software installed on the computers.
  • Even on my office computer, I don’t have administrative privileges to install software on it.

Next semester should be better though.  For starters, I know what I’m teaching 6 weeks a head of time instead of 6 days.  I’ve also applied for a classroom with a computer and projector (but I might not be getting it), and I’m thinking of a few workaround to the challenges mentioned above.

Because I can’t install anything on school computers, I’ve been using PortableApps [2] to install free/libre software on a USB key (that’s what the IT department suggested I do when I asked them to install OpenOffice on my computer).  It made a tremendous difference to my planing since I only use free/libre software with GNU/Linux at home.  For next semester, I’m thinking of buying a bunch of cheap 1Gb USB keys from walmart, installing PortableApps on them, and loaning them to my students (with a deposit of course) for them to use so that they can save their work using open formats.  No more problems reading xlsx files!

A few weeks ago, I also made a wonderful discovery that I’m extremely exited about: Geogebra [3].  The school I worked at the past four years required all our students to buy a copy of Geometer’s Sketchpad (GSP).  It was my first time using this type of software; I quickly grew fond of it and used it extensively in my classes.  Sometimes, I used it to create live demos of mathematical concepts, but very often, I made my students create the demos to explore the concepts.  In a one-to-one laptop school, this kind of stuff was much easier to do.  Since the beginning of the fall, I’ve been missing GSP a lot and tried to hack Excel demos together that just weren’t the same.  Until I found Geogebra.  So far, Geogebra does pretty much everything I would have wanted to do with GSP, and as an added bonus, it’s written in Java so it can load on any platform without the need to be installed.  Geogebra files can even be converted to html and inserted in webpages as interactive demos.  Which leads me to meat of my pondering.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about creating some sort of online class notes.  With a platform like Dokuwiki [4], I can easily edit the pages from any browser, typeset math equations with the PHPMathPublisher plugin, and add Geogebra applets.  I started writing some notes for one of my courses already, and so far so good.  What I’m wondering is how I should use these notes, and to what degree I should make the students participate in the process.  Here are a few options from the “safest” to the “riskiest”:

  1. I write the wiki, use it in class to drive the presentation/discussion, and give the link to the students as an added resource.
  2. I write the wiki, the students make the Geogebra applets to illustrate the concepts, and I include the best ones in the wiki after.
  3. I prepare the structure of the wiki and the students do the rest.

I’d love to go with the third option.  I think it could potentially be much more interesting and meaningful to the students, but this year I’ve had the strange experience of having two very different groups: one is very engaged with a very positive dynamic; the other is the complete opposite.  When I picture these two groups, I see such different outcomes.  Should I start with option 1 and push towards option 3, or should I start straight with option 3 and reverse toward option 1 if they don’t buy in?  And what if they really don’t buy in?  Is it worth doing at all?

A challenge I’m still struggling with is how to deal with the vast difference in student engagement at the school.  That underlies so many other issues.

Links:

  1. Photo under CC-By license by Flickr user irishwildcat, <http://www.flickr.com/photos/irishwildcat/3020466221>
  2. PortableApps, <http://portableapps.com>
  3. Geogebra, <http://www.geogebra.org>
  4. Dokuwiki, <http://www.dokuwiki.org>

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A Bad Day at School

Posted by Patrick on November 24, 2010

Music and Life [1]

I remember reading an article a few years ago that started with something like this: “There can be learning without teaching but there can also be teaching without learning”.  The author (I forgot who) was trying to illustrate the complexity of the relationships between teaching and learning, which is too often oversimplified by the general public as: better teaching is THE solution to better learning.

The two videos that follow are some of my favourites because they inspire me to be a better teacher.  What they have in common is that they both stress the importance of good teaching for learning.  Sometimes it’s using the right tool, or asking the right questions, or even being less helpful and letting the students figure things out for themselves. I agree with most (if not all) of the arguments: teaching should be engaging, relevant, meaningful, … but … (if you haven’t seen these videos before, take a few minutes to watch them now, you won’t regret it!)

Again, I agree with most (if not all) of the arguments, but I can’t help but feel that what we’re really doing is making education more “entertaining”, not meaningful.  I’m sure the presenters in the videos would disagree, or at least insist that we should be careful not to conflate entertainment with meaningful teaching practices.  But in practice, it seems that’s what happens.

Like most educators, I have good days and not so good days.  On the darker days, I sometime start to wonder if the root cause is not that more and more students are forced into areas of study they simply have no interests in.  It’s a recurring theme in Sir Ken Robinson’s presentations that as a society we give more importance to the subjects that are the most practical, and less importance to subjects like the arts.  I can’t believe that someone could live a fulfilling life without being passionate about at least one thing.  Unfortunately, I think the uniform (and narrow) “education” we are forcing kids through is creating the false notion that if something is not entertaining, it’s boring.

I happen to like pondering abstract math and physics puzzles (most of which I never solve) and I love my job as an educator.  I don’t expect everyone to like that sort of stuff as much as I do, but I would hope that everyone who studies something would be passionate about the hard work they do.  Whatever it is people love to do, it’s usually meaningful and rewarding because it is difficult.  Entertainment isn’t that, and it saddens me when I meet students who have never felt the rewards of mastering something difficult (other than beating a video game maybe).

On my darker days, I feel there’s little I can really do in my classroom other than say: “Dude, you’re in the wrong place, go do something you feel passionate about.” and even that I don’t do.  But I know there are also good days when I do what I can.

Links to the last two videos from TED with subtitles in different languages:

  1. Screenshot of animation of Alan Watts’s talk: Music and Life <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERbvKrH-GC4>
  2. Dan Meyer: Math class needs a makeover <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html>
  3. Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on The Learning Revolution <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html>

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What Makes Rock Climbing (or Math) Fun

Posted by Patrick on November 19, 2010

Four years ago, when I worked in Taiwan, a colleague of mine brought me to iClimb [1], the local rock climbing gym in Hsinchu. I had been to climbing gyms a few times before when I lived in Vancouver, but this time was the beginning of a passion. Over the next four years, the friends I made there taught me a lot about climbing and helped me improve my skills tremendously. I learned to lead climb [2], started climbing outdoors in LongDong [3], and even tried trad climbing [4] a couple of times. I am by no means a pro, but I love the sport.

Since I’ve been back in Quebec, it’s been harder to go climbing. There are a few outdoors spots, but no gym, and I haven’t met people who do it regularly yet. A few weeks ago, my dad let me build a rudimentary climbing roof [5] in his unfinished basements. For the first week, it was awesome! It took me a day or two to go completely across, and a few more days to make a complete round trip. The (good?) thing about climbing is that you can always push yourself; I could probably make two round trips across the roof if I worked at it for a few weeks. But to my surprise, I was getting… well… bored?! Why? I had been climbing at iClimb for four years (sometimes more than 5 days a week!) without ever loosing interest and here I was getting bored after only a week…

I continued climbing a little bit everyday hoping the interest would come back, while in the mean time focusing on some of the benefits. Climbing is a good workout, which means two things: the exercise helps me be a healthier person and it empowers me in other activities. These two reasons may seem the same but they are quite different. Being healthy feels good no matter what I do, but being fit feels good when I’m able to do unrelated physical tasks more easily (like chopping wood with dad, who is, incidentally, a very fit guy!). These are two instrumental reasons for climbing: personal health, and greater ability to complete other types of demanding, physical tasks.

These reasons, however, are not why I loved climbing for four years. I like that I get those benefits, but I’ve never had the discipline to workout because it’s good for me. There had to be more.

A few days ago, I thought of something. In climbing gyms, you usually don’t use just any holds on the wall, that’s too easy (and boring). Instead, pieces of coloured tape mark different routes of varying difficulty levels. So I made myself a route. The pleasure instantaneously came back, but why? Yes the route was more difficult than being allowed to use every hold, but using every hold can be hard too by adding distance. So that’s not it (or just it). The missing piece came right after my first (failed) attempt at completing my route.

The first time I tried the route, I made it to the third hold before falling. Then, the crucial moment arrived: I unclipped, lied on the floor, looked at the ceiling, and thought. The part I liked the most about climbing was the puzzle-solving part. Climbing is not just about fitness or technique, but also about problem solving. It took me two days to figure it out. Every time, the process was the same: try something, get stuck somewhere, unclip, lie on the floor, look at the ceiling, visualize a move that might work, try it, get further, fall, …

The third reason I like rock climbing is not instrumental; it’s intrinsic: I like puzzles.

Immediately after I finishing the route, I made a video of it [6], sent it to my friends in Taiwan, and asked them to make me a route to try and solve. Back at the iClimb days, we’d spend hours working on routes together. Bouncing ideas off each other, considering moves that might work better for a person or another, helping and challenging each other.

The fourth reason I like climbing is that it’s social and collaborative.

These four reasons are the same reasons why I like math and physics. In order of relevance (to me at least), these subjects are fun because:

  1. They are filled with interesting puzzles.

  2. They generate interesting conversations with other people also playing with these puzzles.

  3. They sharpen my mind and clarify my thoughts in specific ways that I value.

  4. They allow me to perform useful tasks (like calculating the length of wire needed to fix a rooftop antenna).

Sadly, most of my students only care about the fourth reason, and when I can’t find an utilitarian answer to the eternal question of “what is this for?”, they tune out. A few times, I’ve been dead honest with them and answered that I had no idea what it was for, but that it was fun and beautiful! Most of them looked at me like I was from another planet, but a few had twinkles in their eyes because I had just confirmed something they already knew. This also means that, if by chance, some students have already discovered the fun of math puzzles (and are probably pretty good at it), the best way for me to kill their interest is to give them more boring problems instead of more interesting ones.

As a teacher, I don’t know how to help students see that math is not just useful (sometimes) but fun. That, to me, is one of the greatest puzzles to solve.

 

Links:

  1. iClimb <http://www.iclimb.com.tw>
  2. Wikipedia: Lead climbing <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_climbing&gt;
  3. ClimbStone, <http://climbstone.com>
  4. Wikipedia: Traditional climbing <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_climbing>
  5. Patrick Truchon, Climbing Roof Pictures, <http://picasaweb.google.com/ptruchon/ClimbingRoof>
  6. Patrick Truchon, Roof Route 1 Video, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__2T_5Sjzgo>

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Different Time Zones, Different Kids

Posted by Patrick on May 29, 2010

In this RSA talk [1], Professor Philip Zimbardo explains how we think differently because of the different “time zones” we live in.  He starts by identifying three “time zones”, each subdivided into two:

  1. Past: good times  vs  bad times
  2. Present: hedonism  vs  why bother planing
  3. Future: plan for later  vs  act for a better afterlife

Interestingly, different cultures tend to lie at different points on this continuum depending on external factors like seasonal variation in weather: people closer to the equator tend to be more present hedonist, while people living in places with greater seasonal changes tend to be more future oriented.  The fact that external factors can affect our “time perspective” has deep implications to education.  Zimbardo mentions that we all began life as present hedonist, and that depending on the culture we live in, one of the purposes of schooling is to make us more future (or past) oriented.  But one of the problems we have in education now is that “analog” education is not interesting to kids anymore because growing up in the digital world “wired” their brains differently.  I personally don’t like that catch phrase. Kids today don’t think differently because their brains are “wired” differently, they think differently because the culture they grew up in is different.

So, since our kids culture is so different than our own, and since these differences affect their time perspective, how should we teach them?  Should we adapt our teaching methods to yield to their needs for greater control and faster feedback, or should we continue to try to help them become better at delaying gratification and planing for the future?  Talking about math education, Dan Meyer [2] explains that one of the problems students have today is they are very impatient with problems that can’t be resolved quickly.  The solution he proposes, however, is not to go “back to basics”, or simply accept that that’s how kids are today, but to use whatever tools he has to help them shift their time perspective.

In the world of EdTech, I see two dangerous extremes: technology is the source of the problems we see today and kids need less of it so it has no place in schools, and kids are digital natives, and we, the digital immigrants, need to embrace what they do and use “their” technologies to teach them.  The truth is that although they are different because of the world they grew up in, kids are kids and they need our guidance.  Whether we should use technology or not to provide this guidance shouldn’t be the primary focus.  Dan’s use of a real life water tank (instead of a fancy digital animation of some kind) is a good example that our goal is not to use technology for its own sake, but to pick the most suited tool for the task.

Links:

  1. RSA Animate, The Secret Powers of Time, <http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/05/24/rsa-animate-secret-powers-time>
  2. Dan Meyer, Math Class Needs a Makeover , <http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html>

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iPads for a 1:1 School?

Posted by Patrick on April 3, 2010

A Recipe?

I’ve been giving a lot of thoughts lately about what the “best way” of implementing a 1:1 laptop program is.  Thinking about questions like:

  • What kind of computers and OS should students use?  Should they all use the same or one of their choosing?
  • What kind of applications should students use?  “User friendly” but non-free?  Free (and Open Source) but less convenient?
  • What constitutes appropriate (and inappropriate) use of technology?  When?  On campus only?  Anytime and anywhere when it’s online?
  • In a remix culture, what does plagiarism mean?  Can a line be drawn between collaborating, re-mixing, and plagiarizing?  How?

Not surprisingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that there is no ready-made recipe to navigate these “problems”.  They simply have to be acknowledged as real, important and consequential issues, and then addressed by the whole school community.  These are the type of questions that a special school committee (that includes students) should grapple with for the good of their own school, not the type of questions that have pre-digested answers for all.

Creativity

Keeping that in mind, I’d like to suggest a definite “non-answer” to the first question: the iPad is not a good device to use for a 1:1 school.  One of the reasons (which I won’t expend here) is that the iPad is incompatible with ideals of digital freedom.  Even if it had promising educational uses, it’s one of those things that we should avoid as much as possible. [1]

Apart from that issue, I think the iPad is simply not a device conducive to unforeseen creative uses.  I am *not* saying that it can’t have any creative use what-so-ever.  If creative teachers can find relevant uses for mobile phones or portable media players, surely they can find something for the iPad.

Jeff Utecht focuses on the creative aspect of the iPad when he writes:

“Apple’s own iPad website states: “The best way to experience the web, email, photos, and videos.” That might be so, but what’s the best way to create web pages, emails, photos, and videos? […] That’s the device I want in the hands of my students!” [2] (emphasis is mine)

Although he’s right, I think he’s being too gentle by leaving out the unforeseen part.

Generative Technology

In his book, The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop it, Jonathan Zittrain develops the concept of “generative technology”.  Such technology invites people to tinker with it.  Its creators may have had an idea of how it would be used, but they left it open to the users to come up with their own applications.  Zittrain contrasts two devices from Apple, thirty years apart:

  • In 1977, the Apple ][ was a blank slate.  It quickly became popular two years later when VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet program) was written by an independent programmer.  Apple had no way of knowing that this would happen.  “They had their hunches, but, fortunately for them, nothing constrained the PC to the hunches of the founders. Apple did not even know that VisiCalc was on the market when it noticed sales of the Apple ][ skyrocketing.” [3, p.2]
  • Thirty years later, “[t]he iPhone is the opposite. It is sterile. Rather than a platform that invites innovation, the iPhone comes preprogrammed. You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device. Its functionality is locked in, though Apple can change it through remote updates. Indeed, to those who managed to tinker with the code to enable the iPhone to support more or different applications, Apple threatened (and then delivered on the threat) to transform the iPhone into an iBrick. The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple (and its exclusive carrier, AT&T) wanted.” [3, p.2]

In that respect, the iPad is not much more than a bigger iPhone.  But isn’t the difference outlined by Zittrain only relevant for programmers?

Beyond Expectations

As a teacher, it’s always my hope that my students will go beyond my expectations.  The type of tools they use implicitly tells them something about the height of those expectations.  By giving them a computer with a list of possible programs they can download, install, and use to complete a project, I’m telling them: “be creative and impress me”.  By giving them a tool that can only run certain applications, I’m telling them: “this is how I want you to do this”.

Cory Doctorow puts it well when he writes:

“Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals. […] The real issue isn’t the capabilities of the piece of plastic you unwrap today, but the technical and social infrastructure that accompanies it.  If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you.” [4]

In my classroom, I want my students to be creative in ways that I might not have foreseen.  On the surface, the iPad may solve problems of “inappropriate use of computers” (or not), but it doesn’t deal with them.  And then, students loose on all the potential for creativity that a blanker slate offers.

Links:

  1. Patrick Truchon, Just Because it Works…, <https://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/just-because-it-works>
  2. Jeff Utecht, The iPad: Not the Right Product for Education, <http://www.thethinkingstick.com/the-ipad-not-the-right-product-for-education>
  3. Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it, <http://futureoftheinternet.org/download>
  4. Cory Doctorow, Why I Won’t Buy an iPad, <http://www.boingboing.net/2010/04/02/why-i-wont-buy-an-ipad-and-think-you-shouldnt-either.html>

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