Teaching in Mismatched Shoes

I was out and about running errands late Wednesday afternoon. I stamped the snow off my feet before stepping inside, set my bags down, shed my outer wear, bent down and untied my shoes, slipped my feet out, reached down to pick them up and put them away in the closet, and then finally looked at the shoes. Good grief. Well isn’t that the way it goes some days?

I work from home, teaching prospective teachers in an hybrid/online program. Mondays are for grading assignments from the previous week (everything is always due on Sundays). After a long day and part of an evening, I provided feedback to students on half the assignments I had hoped to review. Tuesday, was spent completing a months-long project of writing a self-study for my department that was due Wednesday to the Professional Education Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB). It’s pronounced Pellsbee. Roll’s off the tongue, no? I wished they were the Professional Education Board of Licensing and Standards (PEBLS), but I guess the legislature didn’t have a sense of humor about such things. In my head, I’m sticking with hearing “pebbles” which is much more satisfying to say. The self-study is due no less than 60 days prior to the pebbles site visit or the visit must be rescheduled, which could result in the program no longer being authorized by the state of MN. It must be delivered by Wednesday February 6.

Anyway, pushing the timeline for delivering the self-study, I planned to hand-deliver a flash drive containing the report and all other attached documents Tuesday afternoon. After making the last edits sent by my colleagues that morning and attending a remote meeting, I had time for a quick lunch before the 50 mile drive to St. Paul. A little snow was forecast, but not much, and it was for later in the day. No problem. The snow started at noon. Hmmm, it’s really coming down. This may not be a good plan. Okay, instead, I could get some more grading done and deliver the self-study on Wednesday morning, hours under the deadline. By 5:00 pm we had twelve inches of snow. Good decision to not drive to St. Paul that afternoon, but wait until Wednesday morning instead.

It was 4:00 Wednesday by the time I made my way up and back to St. Paul (still quite a few poorly cleared roads and streets), attended a couple of meetings remotely and ran an errand to the drug store when I discover my mismatched shoes. I still had grading and prep work to do, but I did deliver the self-study. That was a weight lifted until an email from Pebbles informed me a required list of all evidence aligned to the teaching standards was missing. Alright, so 9:00 pm and said list is completed and sent via email. That’s the way teaching goes. Some days you find you are wearing mismatched shoes.

Many of my students are already teaching while finishing their license coursework. There is a K-12 teacher shortage (especially in rural schools) so many districts are hiring “non-traditional” students changing careers before they complete a teacher license program. Every week, my students discover that things do not always go as planned in this job. Kids are sick, snow days (yippee!) interrupt plans, thirty-five to forty students are squeezed into a room designed for thirty, some students are hungry and maybe even homeless, teaching days are lost to test prep and test taking, and so on. That’s the deal as a public school teacher. Whoever shows up they teach that day. Whoever shows up they care for. Despite all their days with “mismatched shoes” of one kind or another, they teach anyway.

Now, it’s early Thursday morning and today—today—I’ll get back to attending to my students and get that grading done and get assignments for next week posted online. It has to get done because this afternoon I start prep for my first colonoscopy. My mismatched shoe adventure was to the drug store to get what I needed because I had to have it to do today’s prep for the Friday morning colonoscopy, otherwise I’d have to reschedule the colonoscopy. I turn 51 in a week and you’re supposed to get your first colonoscopy when you’re 50. So this too, I’m getting in just under the wire. I’m actually not a procrastinator. I hate being late and completing tasks at the last minute. So, it’s been stressful not having that self-study done until the last possible day and then having to rush to the store at the last minute and prep for the “invasion.” But really, you can’t blame a guy for procrastinating such things can you? Now, I’m not saying the self-study and site visit is like a colonoscopy…

Posted in Written Blog

Teachers, Enough Already with “I do, We do, You do.”

In my role of teaching pre-service teachers about teaching, I hear this phrase a lot, from my students, practicing teachers, and my colleagues who teach in teacher ed programs: “I do, we do, you do.” It’s an easy way to remember a simple lesson design model. First, you model how to do something, then you have students practice in groups, and lastly they practice on their own. It’s an effective model, but only for a few teaching situations. It’s a good coaching model for getting learners to develop a routinized set of skills, often skills requiring muscle memory, such as hitting a golf ball, throwing a Frisbee, shooting a basketball, playing a musical scale on an instrument, or such things as basic math and grammar skills, etc. However, even with these examples, to move beyond competent to highly proficient and incorporate those skills into a sequence of practices, the individual usually needs to develop their own “flare” to that skill to truly “own” it and make it into a craft.

Unfortunately, I see this model used for teaching concepts much higher up on Bloom’s Taxonomy than simple recall and memorization. Here’s the trouble with this model. Beyond routinized, rote-learning, this model of lesson design is ineffective at guiding students to do more than “rent” the skill, concept, or information for the short-term. This model of instruction robs the learner the opportunity to make their own discovery, work and wrestle with a concept, and incorporate a lived experience into their previously existing worldview, paradigm, or understanding.

You might be thinking, why not just tell, show, or demonstrate the concept to the learner so they don’t have to go through the frustration and time required for the “struggle” of discovery. Well, quite simply, that is not how the human brain works. Mammals make meaning and construct knowledge (so learn) when they have opportunities to take in new information and understand it by resolving inner cognitive experience, participating in collaborative discourse, and then actively reflecting on what they learned and how they learned it. That is the learning theory of constructivism. That is how humans truly learn complex concepts.

So, now you might be thinking, yeah, but there isn’t time for students to puzzle through and wrestle with all that I have to teach. My initial response might be a glib one; Well, then I guess they won’t really learn it will they. Or, maybe a more constructive response might be that you have to prioritize, and really focus on those concepts that Wiggins and McTighe would call the “enduring understandings.”

Those might be false choices though. It doesn’t have to be as hard as you think. I teach my students a simple 3-step lesson design process that I call “Consider, Construct, Confirm.” I feel a little like I’m hocking a magic elixir, but I assure you it isn’t magic, it does work, and it isn’t very complex. I’ll illustrate with a couple of simple examples that might be taught often using the “I do, we do, you do” model.

“I do, we do, you do”

“Consider, Construct, Confirm”

Now, let’s compare the two models. First, look at the sequencing of the activities. Really, all I did with the second model is I reversed the sequence of activity, to be (roughly), “you do, we do, I do” (with an I do added to the end). Now, compare who is doing the heavier cognitive activity in the two models and when. In the first model, the teacher does the majority of the work and the student is passively receiving. In the second, that is reversed. By having the students first consider what they know about the topic, you are facilitating them exposing and exploring their prior knowledge. This is important, because in the end you want them to either confirm what they already new or replace it with the correct conceptualization. However, if you don’t first uncover the prior knowledge, it doesn’t effectively get “over-written” in the learners mind. Therefore, the misconception eventually comes back and even bumps back out the new conceptualization you “taught” them.

The students are constructing their own understanding by working together to figure it out with each other’s help. Then, by having the students present their own procedure (for the equation) or findings (for the metaphor) you can more accurately identify any misconceptions they have (as they have to verbalize with they think and why), which allows you to know more precisely what you have to then “teach” in the last phase.

Lastly, by “lecturing” at the end, you are now taking a passive lecture experience that might happen at the beginning and convert it into an interactive exchange between the teacher and student. The lecture becomes an active exchange involving a comparison of their examples and previous experience with the accepted or taught ideas from the teacher (the expert). Through this, the students effectively “confirm” what they have learned as they compare and contrast what they did/discovered with what you (as the expert) now tell them.

Reversing the lesson, in reality shouldn’t take much more time, but now the sequencing is properly aligned with constructivist learning theory and giving students an opportunity to make meaning that will endure, rather than storing a memorized procedure or example in their short-term memory. So, enough already with the “I do, We do, You do” model of instruction. We can do better.

Posted in Written Blog | 1 Comment

Visualizing Electrons

Have you ever been wondering how you could visualize and understand the quantum nature of matter? Well I have. So here’s an attempt to use the starship Enterprise from Star Trek to visualize the nature of electrons.



Posted in Video Blog

The World Faces Significant Clima….Squirrel!

I’ve been trying to write about the report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since it was released on October 8th, but I’ve been so flummoxed by the generally collective “meh” I didn’t know where to start. In case you missed it, and I would not blame you if you did, the report warns that we have until the year 2030 to make significant changes (essentially eliminate) in the introduction of more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere or we face irreversible environmental and social upheaval.

While still processing that article the last few days, this morning I see an article from the Smithsonian Magazine: Earth Lost 2.5 Billion Years’ Worth of Evolutionary History in Just 130,000 Years. According to the article, “even if humans curbed destructive actions within next 50 years, it would take between five and seven million years for mammal biodiversity to fully recover.”

What is the value of a few hundred species of mammals you might ask, since after all, really, how many do we need to survive? After all, it is not as if we use products from, or eat more than a few selected mammal species—and those are the product of generations of artificial selection anyway so probably safe from extinction. While life as a “concept” may be hard to eradicate and is quite durable, after all Jeff Goldblum taught is in the movie Jurassic Park that “life will find a way,” the stability of ecosystems in their current homeostatic state is quite fragile and ephemeral. While ecosystems, and the planet as a whole, can withstand significant changes in conditions, the current balance of organisms living within that balance is quite delicate. Removing a few hundred mammal species from the biosphere, or more locally a few from a biome or ecosystem, could have catastrophic effects (for us) on that ecosystem, biome, or even the entire biosphere.

Coupling this report about biodiversity reduction with last week’s dire warning about climate change means it has not been a good week for the planet. Actually, the planet will be fine. It is just all of use fragile life forms that will have to adjust to a very different planet. Life will find a way. It just may not be an ecosystem that supports tall, lumbering, tailless, mostly hairless (except for the recent proliferation of facial hair in actors and musicians) large-brained primates with remarkable opposable thumbs.

Considering that despite our large brains and opposable thumbs we cannot even agree on the color of a picture of a dress on facebook, let alone take political action and/or engineer a solution, I do not see a whole lot of hope that we can take any significant collective action before 2030. I am having a hard time envisioning even enough actions happening to slightly mitigate some of the effect, let alone avoid catastrophic impacts to our climate. These changes mean we will experience significant sea level rise, increasing ocean temperatures that will radically alter weather patterns, and the desertification of much of the North American, Europe, and Eurasian interiors, greatly reducing food production.

I am not shocked by either of these reports. I have been aware of these dangers for more than 20 years and scientists have been making such predictions for decades. I am not even shocked by the fact that, despite such reports, we are losing ground right now in our efforts to enact policy to even attempt to mitigate climate change. We still have leaders (and supporters) that are ignorant of these reports, believe they are overblown discounting the impact our one species can have, or insist it is an elaborate hoax, as if you could get thousands of scientists to secretly all come to the same conclusions (see dress reference above).

All of those responses frustrate me, but the response that infuriates me is the response that we cannot afford to take action. Apparently, within their cost benefit analysis, it is not worth the risk of spending the money and potentially shifting the job market from one energy source to another, to warrant taking action and either fail or take unnecessary steps in the unlikely event the prediction was not as dire as predicted. If you were playing Texas Hold ‘em and there was a 99% chance your opponent had a winning hand, would you go all in? Those taking this position are admitting defeat to the climate (and societal structures) as we know it and going all in purely for their short-term financial and power-status stability at the expense of future generations.

They used to have the luxury of thinking this was generations off and we had time for one of those brilliant, bearded, scientists will come up with a solution to save us. That is not panning out. We do not even have our flying cars yet. Warp drive is certainly not around the corner. Our current leaders using this pessimistic algorithm are clearly communicating that they are going to just ride this one out, profit while they can, and since they will die before it gets too bad, then well, “Meh, whatta ya gonna do?” The selfishness of this inaction unconscionable.

Here is what flummoxes me, though. Why are these not the only news stories we are talking about? While we are distracted with all things Trump and GOP acquiescence scientists are predicting the end of the modern human way of life as we know it. This is not a prediction made in the National Inquirer. This is peer-reviewed, credible science speaking with one voice. And we are more interested in the president calling Stormy Daniels horseface or if Jim Mattis will be defense secretary for another week.

Maybe it is just too much to fathom, so we retreat to the short-term and want to believe that if we recycle our plastic bottles, we are doing what we can. The moral in movies such as “Independence Day” or “Arrival” (I cannot believe I’m putting those movies in the same sentence) is that the world can and will come together under an alien threat to our existence. The threat is here now and it is real—but it is not extraterrestrial in origin. We must shift our global dialogue to this issue, choose leaders who take this warning seriously and have the political strength to support policies prompting radical environmental action, and be willing to examine critically our own personal habits of consumption. Or ride it out with a smile.

Posted in Written Blog

For Pete’s Sake, Give Them a Cookie

This is a repost of  a blog entry from June 2013.

Do you know the children’s book, if you give a mouse a cookie? A boy gives a cookie to a mouse. Then the mouse needs a glass of milk. Then a litany of requests: a straw (to drink the milk), a mirror (to avoid a milk mustache), nail scissors (to trim his hair), and a broom (to sweep up). After that he wants to nap, which requires a story read to him, time to draw a picture, and to hang the drawing on the refrigerator. Looking at the refrigerator of course makes him thirsty, so the mouse asks for a glass of milk. And what goes better with milk, than a cookie?

If you give a child the love of learning….

Except children already have a love of learning. As they grow and go to school, we manage to take that away from many of our students. I had a recent conversation with a teacher when to start having students investigating their own questions and doing their own inquiry. I got the answer I so often get. “We can’t do that until we get the basic skills down first—then in more advanced classes students get to do that kind of learning.”

No. No. No. No! This is backwards. The American Psychological Association has recommended teachers reconsider constructivist methods, contending that students are active learners who should be given opportunities to construct their own frames of thought. Students need to be put in learning situations where they are doing the work of learning, not the work of listening to and memorizing the teacher’s understanding of a topic. They need to be free to infer and discover their own answers to important questions. To enjoy learning.

To dig deeper into what this might look like see my recorded presentation, Thematic, Inquiry-Based Biology.

There is a notion among many educators that we can’t do progressive or constructivist education until we have “taught” them the basic skills. Do you see the contradiction here? This is especially the practice with students who are disengaged or disenfranchised from school and worse, from a life of learning. It is especially true that as these students get older we need to use these methods. Why does the learning in school look less and less like how children learn—asking questions, making mistakes, seeking guidance, exploring, and play?

Ask most teachers how they learned something complex, say for example how to teach, and they won’t cite a great lecture where they were told how to teach. They will cite doing it and figuring it out, hopefully with the help of a good mentor. Why do they then assume their students can’t do this until they are “taught” the basic skills? I’m not saying there aren’t times for teacher-centered, direct instruction. But, it should be the exception, not the norm. Students would learn the basic skills much better if they weren’t memorizing another’s understanding of those skills and basic content, but instead were applying those skills and concepts as they were investigating something that had meaning, with the help of a good mentor. That’s where the teaching comes in. Don’t lecture about a topic, then have them look at it, and then tell them again what they saw. Instead have them consider what they already know, explore it to construct some meaning, and then lecture, or better yet dialogue with them, to allow them to confirm what they saw and deal with the cognitive dissonance with what they thought would happen.

The problem isn’t that we have gone away from or quit teaching the basics. The problem is that is predominantly all we are doing—especially for students on the wrong end of the achievement gap. I think we don’t so much have an achievement gap, but instead a learning gulf that we have created. It mirrors our countries economics. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Those engaged with school, get the fun learning. Those behind get the boring learning. If this was you, would you want to keep learning? Why take students that haven’t succeeded in learning the basics through teacher-centered models and slow them down even more and continue to do more of the same that didn’t work the first time? How will that catch them up?

Instead of decreasing the amount of inquiry, exploration, and play, our students are doing, we need to increase it to keep them loving learning. For Pete’s sake, give them a cookie. Who knows what will happen next? Well, maybe that is what scares most teachers.

Posted in Written Blog

Teaching Empathy

It becomes more and more apparent to me that we need to increase the ability for one another to understand one another with compassion. I believe we can grow compassionate children by teaching empathy through nurturing acts of trust and gratitude.

Posted in Video Blog

Feeling Angry and Helpless

I am angry. There simply is no doubt that human activity is causing a rapid increase in global atmospheric and oceanic temperatures. Changes in temperature that we are seeing now, and predicting to occur in the next 100 years or so, have been seen before in Earth’s history. However, those changes occurred over thousands of years, not decades. We’ve known this for at least of all of my 50 years on this planet.

In 1988 the World Meteorological Society and the United Nations Environmental Program created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to evaluate the state of climate science as a basis for informed policy making regarding climate science. This was not the beginning of research on anthropogenic climate change, this was after years of publications warning us of the potential for humans to greatly impact the climate. Countless scientific papers have been published and withstood the scrutiny of peers. The IPCC has presented the consensus of scientific opinion that Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities. All major U.S. scientific agencies have also agreed, concluding that evidence for human modification of climate is compelling. There has even been a scientific study to study the consensus of the scientific studies. Nearly 1000 peer reviewed articles published between 1993 and 2003 about climate change were reviewed to determine if there were any dissenting opinions among researchers. Seventy-five percent of the articles were about the causes, impact, and possible mitigation methods of climate change. Twenty-five percent were studies about paleoclimate and took no position on anthropogenic climate change. None of the articles disagreed with the consensus viewpoint. Certainly scientific consensus could be wrong, but that is highly unlikely at this point, and the peer-reviewed scientific process of developing consensus would support that conclusion. What is more likely, based on the history of other controversial and difficult scientific theories, is that more and more details will emerge that might modify our understanding about climate interactions and climate dynamics, the general thrust of the consensus will not change. The scientific community is quite conservative when it comes to accepting a theory. The controversy is simply a manufactured one by industry and then propagated by politicians and media speaking for that industry which has something to lose from an acceptance of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have been repeatedly telling us for nearly all of my lifetime and our society has failed, no refused, to listen.

We are now seeing the immediate effects of climate change. Previously, it was dismissed as a future problem with abstract effects on human livelihood. Now it is becoming painfully obvious, from shifts in weather patterns resulting in feast or famine rain cycles—either torrential rainfall or drought, catastrophic wildfires, increased hurricane events and strengths, changes in animal migration, plant distribution, melting glaciers impacting communities located in coastal and those relying on seasonal glacial melting and reforming for drinking water, well the list goes on unfortunately. Finally, a majority of Americans “believe” in climate science (as if science is ever something to “believe” in), and more and more Republican politicians are coming around to accepting the scientific consensus. The mere fact that acceptance of the scientific consensus is split by party affiliation is evidence enough that this doubt was never about accepting the science, instead but a function of “politics” and accepting an alternative narrative to benefit corporate interest initially and then utilized as a wedge issue to divide and conquer the American voters. And it worked.

It cannot be that the majority of the Republican elected officials do not, or cannot understand the climate science. They aren’t stupid. The only explanation I can see is that they instead have hung on to the doubt to satisfy those funding their campaigns and to keep the support of those voters successfully divided and conquered so as to remain in power. This campaign to utilize manufactured doubt in climate science (and now all of science) is being done for one purpose only—short term profit and maintaining of political power. And this is what makes me so angry. A minority of powerful citizens have manipulated the media and political system for their short term benefit at the expense of EVERYONE ELSE ON THE PLANET. This is much worse than stupidity. This is either an act of narcissism, ignorance, or just plain evilness. As we now see the immediate and direct impact of climate change on the lives of specific communities, we are taking action to not mitigate the problem, or even reduce our impact, but instead reenacting outdated policy that will make the problem even worse. Let’s call it what it is—sedition.

And this is what makes me so angry. I’m fearful we have already reached a tipping point with climate change and nothing we could do (even if we could magically enact the use of only renewable resources tomorrow) can stop catastrophic changes that will greatly impact the lives of everyone on the planet and the minority of individuals that prevented us from taking meaningful, timely action will not be held to account. These few individuals stood in the way and we will all pay the price—except many of those that did stand in the way, because of financial advantage will be the last to pay the price and those with the least voice in our political system will be the first to pay the price (if they haven’t already).

Right now, I’m just angry and want my pound of flesh. And I feel helpless. Granted, I have done as much as I could have to adjusted my lifestyle so as to have no ecological footprint on the planet, but even if I had been able to live completely off the grid, it would not matter except for my own state of mind. The power of my one vote, my one voice, and my individual action steps have had no effect. I do not like living in this place of anger and helplessness. But, that’s where I am right now.

Posted in Written Blog