A conversation

You should comment more on blogs.

Sure pot calling the kettle black and all, I don’t comment as often on blogs as I should, but still you should.

Not because I want to feel special, but I do every time you make a comment.

You should comment simply because it furthers learning. It forces me and my blog, and you by extension because you are reading it, to think, grow, and evolve.

And no please don’t comment here just for the sake of commenting, go find another blog that has few comments and just say something, even something that is critical.



A comment on this blog post just seems to say to me that being within the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a motivating factor in education.  It isn’t, it’s a scaffolding tool. The ZPD is basically that sweet spot where a question is just hard enough to make a student think, but not hard enough that they cannot figure out the answer.

“What is important for personalisation is the ZPD where a student has enough support and incentive to become independent and make their own connections. Before that can happen, it is up to the teacher (or virtual teacher) to teach students to make connections by example or open questioning.”

Sure, you can interpret that comment differently, but I’m not so sure many of the EdTech companies actually do, especially in math. Too many of these companies seem to think that what constitutes math education is the ability to solve a problem so they come out with adaptive learning, hints, pre-testing, post-testing, alignment to common core, and anything else they can find to make the teacher as superfluous as possible.

France:The Tyranny of Mathematics by Sylvain Labeste

Of course the company line will always be, “Nothing is better than a real teacher”. When in the end what they are selling is the ability for a human being to supervise the work of 100 or more students at one time. Face it, the hard facts of education is that 70 to 85% of every school budget goes to teacher salaries.

Think about that for one second. Here let me help you, a school district near me just passed a bond to build a new school, $40,000,000, and still 80+% of their money goes to salaries.

Carl Schurz High School by Teemu008 (not this school)

If an edtech company wants to sell to a school they will do so by making it possible for teachers to do more work.

I’m getting off track, I don’t want to talk the money, but the money is one of the reasons for the tortured justification. the Zone of Proximal Development is not a motivation tool, it is a scaffolding tool. When questions are posed at just the right level students can, if they choose, figure out the answer and hopefully learn. Magic right? If enough of these questions are strung together eventually the student will progress up the ladder to knowledge.

Total poppycock, when a student is motivated he or she will work to answer the questions posed. If those questions are within the ZPD then the student will be able to work more independently and is less likely to give up. See, the motivation comes first.

Not only that but we can expand the ZPD of our students, but teaching them how to learn. Giving students tools and instructions for breaking down questions into manageable parts, teaching students skills for researching information, connecting with experts, etc… all can help make what was once an impossible question, into maybe we can figure this out.

Shooting the inspector by edrabbit

None of it however happens without the motivation. Motivation can be external like a basketball themed question, but it can also be internal. “Why do I hear the sound of fireworks a second after I see the flash?”

Teachers can sus out the educational value of the themed questions. This is a lot of work and requires a lot of creativity as well as subject knowledge. Technology can help, Open Educational Resources (OER) can be a way to crowdsource the knowledge of thousands of teachers.

Teachers can also encourage the internal drive of students. Instead of drilling procedures on children day after day quashing any and all questions. Teachers can slow down and encourage questions, “Hey, that sounds like something I would like to know. What is a good first questions to start researching?” or “I’ve got this questions and I hope you can help me design a solution?”


edited for clarity

The Love of Science

What if kids love Science when they are young because they get to play around with it. You know the hands-on stuff is fun and occasionally gross.

Image from Wikimedia.org








Then as we get older we lose some of the hands-on stuff so we start to hate Science. The fix is easy right? Just add more hands-on stuff!

Photo by looking4poetry

What if the fix isn’t that easy. High school Science is more that just hands-on. It requires a bit of precision; quality measurements, repeatable experiments without impurities. This isn’t, throw some corn starch and water together and look it’s a magic substance.

Rigorous experiments in Science require creating experiments that remove all but one variable. They require students follow complicated directions and make precise measurements. Then they have to collect the data correctly and feed it into tables and graphs, perhaps even perform some magical mathematical functions. Then after all that hard work they get a conclusion that might, just might, resemble the correct conclusion in the book.

Image from Wessex Archaeology

Not quite real experimental Science of discovering the cure for cancer, but closer than those semi-magical demonstrations in Kindergarten.

So what would be the better way of teaching Science?

  1. Nose to the grindstone. Here is your worksheet and a virtual experiment don’t make any mistakes and pay attention to those details, especially in the math.
  2. Do the experiment, fail, do it again because you were sloppy. Then do it again because you were sloppy, then do it again because you were sloppy, oh forget about it here are the numbers you should have gotten to use now pay attention to those details.

Yeah, I don’t like the choices either, though honestly if I were forced to pick I would choose the second. The real trick in teaching, if you want a silver bullet, Science, is to Be Less Helpful (I think Dan Meyer can be credited with coining that phrase).

So really, the question is, “How do we keep the interest of our students, in this really cool experiment, while simultaneously requiring them to take excellent measurements, and controlling for variables in experimentation?

Maybe this is the way – http://www.fastcodesign.com/3032886/innovation-by-design/this-is-the-physics-lesson-of-the-future-and-it-looks-insanely-fun#12

Image from Matthew and Tracie

This is, at least as I see it, a kind of middle ground. Students are still excited by Science, they are just getting bogged down in the details. Quite honestly I think those details will bore just about everyone except a Scientist. On the other hand understanding that there are details and this rigour is important are also takeaways we really need to have. However, if you want to collect excellent data and import it correctly into graphs and tables so you can examine the actual physics this seems like an excellent way to do just that.

Blended Learning

Blended learning is new for teachers as well as students. Most teachers don’t have a frame of reference because they have never experienced it in their own lives. Therefore it is easier to find examples of blended learning opportunities for teachers than it is for students. As teachers learn by doing. Some schools around here are creating a new position called a chief innovation officer or something similar. I would assume they do things like help implement blended learning and alternative professional development methods.

Like many other innovations online learning filled a niche, the cheap, easy way to get unimportant learning. (Think compliance training) Many online schools and classes continued that tradition.  Blended learning, I think has become popular as a way to add rigor to those online learning opportunities. It is just so much harder to cheat or slack off in real life.

Blended learning can be so much more:

There is a cultural shift that needs to happen for true blended learning. Many teachers I work with see a web site as a place to put up the newsletter and post homework. They don’t know what they don’t know and never imagine the interactivity they could have in the classrooms.

Blended learning happens when we shift thinking to something along the lines of – Here is how I teach math in the classroom, here are six other methods you can practice with your children (look ma no homework). Or here are the shared notes we took in class today, add some comments. Or any number of ways teachers extend the school day not just to the students, but also to bring in or increase parental involvement.

Some teachers do this shift on their own, and sometimes get in trouble for it. Some teachers wait for the OK before doing anything, some will not do it because they don’t see it as part of their job. (Certainly this would take up more than the 1/2 hour prep time most teachers get in Illinois, not to mention the fact that many teachers would end up checking work online late into the night, weekends etc…)

But what I can tell you from visits to blended classrooms and schools, in both traditional public and charter schools, is that students tend to find what exists thus far as fairly dull, lacking both the community and the accountability that comes with good face to face learning. A number of students told us at one highly celebrated blended school that they liked everything about the school except for the online learning!

Fifteen years ago I was studying education at Northwestern and the technology professor was talking to me of the advantages of online work. That students who didn’t like to speak up in class could, and often would, be active participants in teaching and learning online. But even then it was never about teaching online, it was about creating and environment for learning that was appropriate for the students. It wasn’t expected that every student would participate online, or even if the participation would be better, just that it was a way to extend the learning and reach more students. Blended learning works when you think like that.

If blended learning is extra work to be done online, or a substitute for traditional homework, it is just the same junk in fancy wrapping. When it adds something new, giving parents a method of being connected, extending the learning that happens in class, giving a voice to deep thinker, or shy student, then and only then does blended learning enhance education.

#hearthfire – A zombie story

What a day. A little zombie hunting with my oldest son seemed like a good idea. After all they are just slow pokes right. Shuffling around in their raggedy clothes. They couldn’t catch a fly. But no, my son trips up and forgets to use the correct hashtag and suddenly he is zombie meat.

I can’t bring myself to kill him though. He was my son after all. Instead I tried to lock him up in the cheese shed. (don’t ask me it’s a minecraft thing I think)

He broke out in the afternoon and tried to eat a giant bug

I had a stroke of genius and called Bill Nye the Science guy. We worked out a nice cure. And now we are safe at home sitting by the fire eating marshmellows.

Summer PD Roundtable

I was a participant in one of Ben Wilkhoff‘s roundtables this summer. (#summerpdroundtable)

When I started teaching summers meant motorcycle trips and tents. (Oh to be young and single and childless). I’ve meant to clean up that site for years now, I just never seem to get around to it.


Later my summers meant summer school and earning a few extra dollars.

Today my summers are spend designing and delivering professional development to teachers.

For most teachers it seems PD means “how do I use this”. Which is great when the school district comes in with a new learning management system of something along those lines. It isn’t so great when we are asking ourselves, “how do I get my students more engaged?”

 I know a million different interactive tools out there that leverage technology. These tools connect people, facilitate collaboration, add flash, or make us mobile, and a million other changes to the classroom. The questions we have to ask is why? What does this tool do for my classroom, besides add a cool tech element?

Does it enhance my teaching, does it allow the students to interact with the content in a more suitable way for him or her? Does it change the assessment in some vital way? Am I engaging learners or just exciting them?

So many questions that, as a teacher, I need to find time to ask. For me as a teacher summer is a time to slow down and reflect. And I think that is why the camping theme kind of came out n the video. I don’t need to sit sown and study books or technologies over the summer. At least I don’t need to do that right away.

During the summer I need to reflect a bit on how the last year went. then I need to imagine what I want to do next year. Finally, I need to start learning new skills.

Yesterday, I had a summer PD session in which I taught the use of Interactive Whiteboards. My student already knew she wanted a whiteboard. Not because they are cool, but because she wanted students to be able to interact with the same media at the same time as a group. She had already determined a new direction in her classroom based on what she wanted to do and then went and found the solution to her problem.

For me that is the essence of summer PD.