Who are you calling broken?

I’m feeling the morning-after shame of attempted profundity via wordle. When I was young my mother told me, “Riley, when you can’t quite think of the right way to say something, remember: anything’s better than wordle.”

Or something like that.  Maybe the exact details are eluding me.  For whatever reason, I now believe that inaccurately or imprecisely describing something is ok. I stopped looking for the exact right way to do something, because finding the best solution was costing me the passion of the moment.  Now you get the unthrottled passion of my moment.

Yes, sometimes, in wordle form.  I’m not saying there aren’t costs both ways.

So I’m not mad when people talk about education being broken, or washington being broken, or [your favorite societal system] being broken.  Fixing things as a community is a great way to strengthen our community and come together.

Attention, world, though: “Broken” is the wrong word to use.  It stirs people up.  It’s violent and gory.  It’s one step away from saying “Education is dead.”  And:

1: Education is not broken

There are low literacy rates and low test scores and people who are homeless.  There’s violence and cruelty.  There are kids who sit bored in classrooms all day and who lose whatever innate love of learning they might have had because their teachers force them to add fractions and feel stupid when they try to figure out why they can’t do it.

In the face of all that I dare say that education is not broken because kids are learning and most people are nice. I live in Iowa, in a nice house surrounded by nice people who are almost exactly like me, so, you know, narrow perspective etc etc.  Outside the United States, I hear stories of schools that sound like they’re doing a good job. I hear success stories, and I read the blogs of like 50 teachers inside this country that are doing a great job.  I love, by the way, that so many of our own blogs use positive suggestions instead of destructive terms.

If you’re into violent imagery you might say, “Well Riley, a broken lawn mower will still cut some blades of grass perfectly,” and then I’ll say, “A broken lawnmower doesn’t start. Your lawn mower just needs some oil and its blades sharpened and, maybe, a realignment or height adjustment.”

I just mowed the lawn. Find another metaphor. But at the worst, I’ll give you “Education needs a shift in focus” or “Education needs more money” or “Education could improve under a different style of management.”  Really I think it’s something more like “Education is hard, and thank goodness we have so many brilliant people working really hard to make sure our children have a good future to look forward to.”

2: Calling something broken 100 times makes everyone think it’s broken

What would you say about a teacher who kept telling her students that they were broken? I actually know this teacher. Her grades go “A,” “B,” “C,” and “Broken.”  Then she hires lobbyists to picket those students’ front lawns until they stop leaving themselves behind.

We don’t do that, though, because we understand that feedback isn’t useful when it’s all negative.  In fact, I think the most effective feedback is almost all positive. We would never call a student broken, or even call his math skills broken.  Even when we’re talking to a fellow teacher, we say things like, “He just hasn’t gotten it” or when we’re really pessimistic “He just can’t do it.”

If we say that the educational system is broken, we’ve given up hope of fixing it.  We’re saying we need a new one. But we don’t need to replace the six million teachers that are dedicating their lives to improve others’.  We don’t need to tear down all the buildings, and throwaway all the text books, and replace every pencil with an iPad.

The worst thing of all, of course, is the power that just saying “broken” so many times has over your message.

Look what it did to my wordle!

Word Processing

Michal’s writing an article about the goals of schools, and she inspired me to use wordle to get a visual handle on things.  We started by compiling the mission statements of 65 schools selected randomly from the ISACS directory[pdf].

65 Independent Schools (Central States)

It took about 45 minutes to find all the mission statements.  Where vision statements were offered I included those too. I avoided sections called “philosophy.”

This is all Michal needs for her article, but I thought I’d keep looking into things.

The First Posts of the 33 Blogs in my “Math Ed” list

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 [link]

The “About” Page at http://www.khanacademy.org/about

The Second Annual Virtual Conference!

What is at the center of your classroom?

The Virtual Conference is an annual summer event that gives us a chance to step back from the daily challenges of teaching and consider a broader topic. Last year more than a thousand teachers attended and participated in 17 presentations.

The conference is free-form and easy to participate in. Each speaker creates a presentation and presents it on his or her own blog under the title “Virtual Conference.” Each post is added to the convention center index.  Post any day in July to be included!  It’s like an edcamp, online.

This summer’s conference will focus on what drives our teaching. What is at the center of your classroom? What ultimate goal or question motivates your lessons?

You’ll see articles with titles like…

  • Challenges and successes leading a student-centered class.
  • Is there a place for teacher-centered classrooms?
  • Why I keep teaching even though it’s hard.
  • Leading a flipped classroom
  • How I made projects the keystone of my class
  • Giving meaningful feedback
  • Using computers to let students explore
  • The Matrix: Seeing the constructs for what they are; learning the rules so you can break them.

Some of these first set are more specific than others.  They all give glimpses of their authors’ basic pedagogy. That basic pedagogy is what this conference is about: the hearthstones of our classrooms.  Specific advice and experience is always helpful, and there’s also room here for philosophy and general values.

Now, even though they’d be great to write about, at this conference you won’t see titles like…

  • How to write a good calculus test
  • Five ways to keep kids in line
  • How I use [sweet iPad app] to do [something great]

This second set of posts sound useful, but this summer’s conference will focus on the bigger questions of “What do we hold most important for our classes?” and “How can we better focus on that?”

Everyone is invited to share their ideas!  All you have to do is write an article, or make a video, or record a podcast, and publish it on your blog!

If you have questions, please leave them in the comments or email me at riley@larkolicio.us.

You Wouldn’t Believe The Dumb Answers I Get

The Setup

One time I made my students measure the heights of buildings around our school with an engineer’s transit. They had to use trigonometry.  I was a pretty great teacher so I made them take all of their measurements multiple times.  Man, they loved it.  It was a great activity because I give out points for each successful thing they do, which really motivates them. Everything is on a scale of five to ten (I have a progressive attitude about grades), so when a team gives an answer I give them some points, and at the end of the week we average them to get final grades. (side note: this is extra great because I can give students feedback pretty quickly)

Anyway, when they were done we did some serious analysis on the board. One team measured the gym, and they took four separate measurements. They found that the gym building was 40, 39, 42, and 39 feet tall. To really make the significance of that stick I made a spark graph.

I gave that team three 9/10s, one for each incorrect measurement, and one 10/10, for the correct measurement of 40 feet.

The other team measured the science building, and I guess they were slow or something because they only measured it twice – 19 and 21 feet. In the end it worked out because we could still make a spark graph. Two 9/10s.

I was starting to think that the spark graphs weren’t that useful, but luckily this was on a smart board so I could have one of the students come up and drag them around.

We figured out that the science building was about 20 feet tall and the gym was about 40 feet tall.

Here’s what I couldn’t believe, though.  I asked them what the average height was, and here’s what they did:

\frac {(19 + 21) + (40+39+42+39)} {6} = 33.33

Whoa guys! I know the scale is supposed to start at 5 but I’ve got to give a zero for that.  Very disappointing.  Are you sure you’re in the right class?

The Problem

The students couldn’t understand that the numbers they collected shouldn’t just be added up and averaged together.  I mean, you can add up numbers and average them, but you have to understand what you’re doing.  Averaging is an algorithm that really only works for equal, independent measurements of the same thing.  Obviously the average height of the buildings is 30 feet. We have to make sure that the numbers we’re sticking into our averaging algorithm are actually compatible.  Even though all six of our measurements were in feet… some are measurements of the science building and some are measurements of the gym.  If you average them you get the average measurement, not the average height!

The Punchline

Overall, I think the activity was a success.  After I added up the points everyone got during the day and averaged them together, everyone had over 90%!  Then I added up the points they got on homework and tests, and averaged that in too.  Finally, I added up all the points that everyone had earned in the whole week and averaged those together, and I had a final grade of B+ for the class overall – pretty good!

Afterwards, someone asked me what they needed to work on to improve.  I looked up their grade and saw they had an 85%, so I suggested they try to get more points the next time I asked a question. I love that self-motivation that points systems provide.

But I was the proudest when the director of maintenance heard that our class had been measuring the buildings.  He actually came into the class to ask some advice! He needed to get new ladders so that he could easily repair the roofs of the building, and almost my entire class could easily answer that he should get – you guessed it – the thirty-foot model!