Friday, October 28, 2011

Clickers and Questions

This year I got a set of Sentio Response clickers for my classroom.  When the Sentio's (to be referred to as the clickers from now on) were first brought out and available I thought that they were gimmicky and a symptom of bright new shiny object syndrome.  After going to Boston and Allan November's Building Learning Communities conference I really got to thinking about them.  I had a conversation with Donna Desroches (one of our division consultants), and we agreed that they were not worth the $2400 price tag.  The cellphone option of Poll Everywhere was also not possible because of my school's cellphone policy.  So I did what I do.  I found a cheaper way.  That cheaper way was to buy a used set off of eBay for about $500.  Two of the 32 were DOA but the rest worked fine (a third just decided that it did not like the number 9).

Let me start with the conversation I had with Donna.  Her fear was that the clickers were not being used effectively in other classrooms.  They were sometimes just a tool for trying to buy student engagement in review sessions at the end of a unit.  I agree that that would be almost a complete waste of money.

When I went to Boston, Dr. Eric Mazur was demoing his own version of the clickers.  I liked some of his methods and he is the one who got me thinking about using them.  To put it simply he would ask a question.  If the majority got the answer correct he would move on.  If most were wrong then he would reteach.  The magic happened when there was a variety of answers.  He would have the students pair up with somebody with a different answer.  They were to convince each other that they were right.  He said that the students almost always came back with a much higher percentage correct.  They were teaching each other.

I have been using the clickers quite heavily in my Workplace and Apprenticeship Math 10 class.  They are quite useful for formative assessment.  I actually over plan my lessons.  Before I start the actual lesson I ask one or two quick review questions to see if they have the background skills.  The software gives me a quick chart describing what percentage knows it.  If it is too low then I have to take some time to review the skills.  A couple of clicks and I can see it.  If the students get it then I skip the review section and go on to the lesson.  I have not had much luck using Dr. Mazur's method in this class.  This class has some definite gaps in ability and they are very reluctant mathematicians.  I have next to no luck getting the students to formally discuss the math questions.  I still believe in his method, it just isn't working for this class.

The clickers are have a couple of effects in my classroom.  Nobody gets left out or missed.  Every student signs in with their own ID number and I can quickly see who has not answered a question.  I can even go back and see what each student has answered for the question.  It is harder for a student to hide in the corner unnoticed.  Unfortunately it does slow down the pace of the class.  Everybody has to wait for those few students who might have simply let the class move on past them.  On the other hand I have a higher percentage of students engaged (if I don't lose them from going too slow).  Every few minutes there is a clicker question that brings them back in.  They know that I know when they are not following.  The students are not engaged because of the bright new shiny object, they are engaged because I am doing an activity that forces them to keep coming back and contributing to the lesson.

There is another function that allows them to click a button and have their name flash up on the screen showing that they have a question.  I have not used it yet but it also has some potential.

So do the clickers help me teach?  Yes.  The best teaching tool is a good question.  The clickers just help facilitate that question.

Is there a place for them in every classroom?  No.  I don't use them with every class or every period.  I only use them when they fit.  In my WA 10 math class they get used most classes.  I have never used them in Math A30.  Different classes, different students, different needs.  In a smaller class it is better to walk around and look at each individual students work.  In a large class clickers are quicker.  I miss less.

Assessment Questions

Photo Credit:

I am sitting at a PD session on assessment.  A couple of questions have come up.  Some I am asking as a devils advocate.  Others are true burning questions that I don't have answers to yet.  They are not really in any particular order.

1.  Is it our job to sort and rank students for universities?  Is my responsibility to the universities or do I have a greater responsibility to those university bound students?  Is it my job to give them the best chance to get in and succeed at university?

2.  Ryan Hackl built upon the earlier question by asking "What is our end goal if we are teaching with the end in mind?"

3.  What if one student can complete an assessment in half the time of another?  Assuming the same level of achievement and effort do they both deserve the same grade?

4.  When you give a zero for an incomplete assignment does that really mean that the student knows zero about the concept?

5.  Why do students cheat?  Is it because they are lazy? Is it because they don't understand the content? Is it because I did not explain the task well enough or did not provide enough scaffolding?

6.  What does it say about our assessment if the mark is based purely upon the right answer?  Is process part of your assessment?

7.  How do you do formative assessment with poor attenders?  What happens if the group you did formative assessment with yesterday is different than the group you are teaching the adjusted lesson to today?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Building Learning Communities

Some quick reflections.

I loved my pre-session.  It was in depth time to work with one of the Ewan McIntosh (one of the keynotes).  It wasn't just a 60 minutes session but a full morning.  McIntosh and his scottish accent is worth my time and money.  More presenters should have an accent.  It adds credibility because they must come from a distance (which makes them experts right?).

This year had good keynotes.  One exception is that Stephen Wolfram is not Conrad Wolfram.  Confusing - I know.  Stephen is probably the smarter brother but Conrad presents better.  (You really should watch Conrad's math TED talk.) This was the keynote that I was most looking forward to but any disappointment is really my fault for not reading close enough.  However - I still got something out of his keynote.  Stephen's creations Mathematica and Wolfram/Alpha are awesome.  They had better change the way I teach

Dr. Eric Mazur started things off well with a talk about how the lecture is dead.  (Yes a lecture about how the lecture is dead).  His response system and smart grouping program would be great for my classroom.  I liked his techniques and how his system automatically paired up people with differing answers.  Without knowing which answer was right the students are to discuss and are given a chance to change their answers.  Students are learning from each other with guidance from the teacher.  I loved his quote "technology should be at the service of pedagogy."

Marco Torres ended up pinch hitting for another presenter that had to cancel at the last minute.  I could not for the life of me tell that he put it together on very short notice.  I wrote about him last time I went to BLC in 2009.  He was no less awesome.  Marco talked about the analog restrictions to students in this digital world.  I laughed, I cried (well not really), and I LEARNED.  Good job Marco.

Ewan McIntosh's keynote made me think.  He looks at education from a different perspective.  I like it.  His message is that we don't need problem solvers - we need people who go out and find their own problems to solve.  We need to build students who are motivated by the problems the they find.

Our final keynote was Rob Evans.  He is a clinical and organizational psychologist.  He talked about the psychology of change.  There is grief involved in change because you are letting go of something that you believed in.  If there is no resistance to change then people really did not care about what they were doing before.  It was a very entertaining (and enlightening) talk that came without any visual aids.  He pulled it off well.

When I went to BLC in 2009 the keynotes were from different professions and specialties.  There was more talk about creativity in their talks.  This time the presenters were all educators.  It was a more focused group of keynotes.  Not better or worse - just different.

The Building Learning Communities conference was a great opportunity for me.  Lets see how much I can improve my teaching with what I learned.

More to come as I find time.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I am Giving Up.

I am tired.  I am frustrated.  I (we) have failed.  I am giving up....... and I am ashamed of it.

I have made a difficult decision.  It goes against a lot of what I believe.  It goes against a lot of what I have been reading and what the big names in educational technology have been saying but I think I have to do it anyways.  With the support of my administration I am getting our internet content filter back.  We will be blocking YouTube and Facebook (as well as other similar sites).

I have failed because we have been unable to teach the students to use our internet responsibly.  When logging into a computer it was very common for students to start by firing up a YouTube video, logging into Facebook, and then finally getting down to their real work.  In the meantime they were not focused on their actual assignment.  It was not just a few bad apples.  It was a large percentage of the students.  I know because I have spent a lot of time using the monitoring software.  Many students would only bring up their work when the teacher was nearby.  I know how easy it is to hide.

Facebook was also becoming a larger social issue.  Students were bullying over it and using it to organize fights.  We were not getting through to them when it came to digital citizenship and their online presence.  Yes I know that the students will still have access to Facebook on their cellphones.  (And for the record our no cellphone policy just sort of petered out - no formal end to it.  That is another story.)

YouTube was primarily a bandwidth issue.  Listening to music online was not a real problem - in fact it cut down on other management problems.  It is a shame to block online video because many of us do use it to teach with.  Myself I have about 70 math videos posted up.  It did not seem to matter how many time I explained our bandwidth problems, how many times I gave warnings, or how many times I suspended accounts.  Students were usually using YouTube for non-educational purposes.  They were using it a lot.

So is it permanent?  I sure hope not.  If I have my way we quit cold turkey and after a little while we start to reintroduce the sites teaching responsibility as we go.

Needless to say I have given up.  I am tired of the daily fight and once again I am ashamed.  What a great way to end the year.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do)

Gever Tulley (and Julie Spiegler) are at it again.  (I wrote about Gever's TED talk a while back.)  They just released the book 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do).  Yes I did pre order it.

CC Image courtesy of  eurleif on Flickr
It mostly talks about how to inspire creativity and competence in children.  It has 50 projects, skills, experiences for your children.  Most of them would make a wet nurse panic.  Superglue your fingers together?  Play with fire? Perform on the street?  Is he nuts?  In the book he lists good solid reasons for trying each thing.  Gever suggests supergluing your fingertips to "better appreciate our usual physical condition".  It forces us to be creative to accomplish our everyday tasks.
How do we build competence in children?  We do it by giving children opportunities to distinguish that which is truly dangerous from what merely contains an element of risk; we introduce them to risk through measured, supervised exposure; we teach them how to explore safely, and set them on a path to exploring on their own.
I have talked about this before.  Safety comes from understanding and managing risk not avoiding it.
You are a superhero; you are endowed with the power of supervision.  Use it wisely, and judiciously, and not only will your child surprise you, you may surprise yourself.
I do like the way that the book is laid out.  At first I wanted a digital copy (because that is how I read all my books now).  I am glad that I sprung for the real, hold in your hand, dog ear the pages, smell the book binding glue version.  Every project comes with a field notes page and a spot to put a completion date.  It is actually more of a workbook than a reference (because experiences are not just something you should read about.)

If you have children and you actually want them to accomplish things in life read this book - or watch the TED talk - or let them play with pocket knives.  Just let them do things.  It will be okay.

I am going home to lick a 9 volt battery - and find one for my son too.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mike Rowe is the Man

Recently Mike Rowe testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.  Don't know who Mike Rowe is?  He is the host of popular Discovery Channel show called Dirty Jobs.  He goes around the U.S. doing the dirtiest, messiest, and nastiest jobs he can find - and he does them with a smile.

Anyways he recently spoke before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation advocating for the skilled trades.  You can read the whole text here.
It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought.
We need to the trades.  How stuff gets built, produced, or fixed can't be a mystery.  We need people to do these things.  University is not the be all and end all of education.

I need to teach more like he suggests.  Anybody who knows me knows that I like to make, build, tinker, disassemble, and hack things together.  Why buy when you can DIY.  I need to pass this mindset on to more of my students.

Along the same line you NEED to watch Mike Rowe's TED Talk about dirty jobs.  It is awesome, though provoking and entertaining.  (There is an awkward discussion about animal husbandry - just warning you.)

Up next:  Gever Tulley's 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do).

Thursday, March 10, 2011


So I toed the line.  I collected the cellphones.  I put my own away.  I punished those who failed to follow the rules.  I raised questions at the staff meeting.  Then I got on with teaching.

So what are the results? 
( Of taking away everyone's cell phones.)

In the short term there has been an improvement during class.  The students are less distracted.  My class is interrupted less.  For most teachers this immediate benefit is enough.  Oh and there are fewer calculators available.

In the long term?  We are letting down our students.  Rather than teaching responsibility we force them to learn it on their own.  Teenagers are good at that right?  We are failing to leverage a powerful tool in the classroom.  If you are reading this blog then you have probably already read several articles about the benefits of mobile devices in the classroom.  Some of the links I have collected can be found here.  Go ahead and read through them.

The staff meeting was interesting.  Virtually all of the staff were in favour of the ban.  In fact I was greeted with a little hostility when I asked if there was a plan in place to start using cellphones constructively.  The bottom line is that according to current policy the students will NEVER be allowed to have cellphones during class again.  It was actually said with capitol letters.  One teacher commented that it is not our job to teach the skills to use cellphones respectfully.  As for staff cellphones?   We are to be seen locking our cellphones up with our students and then put them back into our pockets or purses when the students are not looking.  According to our emergency planning we are supposed to have cellphones on us.  It is a good thing that the students would not be able to notice a cell phone sized bulge in our pockets.

I did have a good conversation with another teacher.  We concluded that the best course of action is to cut the students off cold turkey (like we have) and then slowly reintroduce the cellphones on a class by class basis.  We should be teaching respectful use as we go and increase privileges accordingly.  Of course this was just a conversation between two of us.

I also had another good conversation with one of our division consultants.  She pointed out that our division is moving towards one to one computing.  How will we handle each student having a laptop when we can't even handle them having cell phones?  Students having their own mobile devices at their fingertips is actually good training for teachers.  It gets us (teachers) ready for when students will all have the technology at their desk.

So how has the cellphone ban affected me personally?

I refuse to lie to my students so I don't carry my iPhone around with me.  Besides there is no point if I cannot use it.  I am less organized now.  I no longer have my dayplan in my pocket.  I enjoyed having a camera with me at all times.  I read my books on it.  I loved the fact that I had access to most of my accumulated information.  I do miss being able to look up student lists, classroom phone lists, and other information.  I miss being able to look up school emails - I have to rely on my memory (not great).  I think that I actually got the shakes when I had to put it away .  Did I text constantly? No.  Was I an obsessive Twitterer?  Nope.  Was I on Facebook?  Uh, uh.

I realize that my smartphone really kept me better connected to myself.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I Think That Tomorrow Will be a Fight

Today we had a school wide assembly.  At the assembly the students were told that as of tomorrow they were no longer going to be allowed to have cell phones during class hours.  The cell phones will be collected at homeroom periods and returned during noon hour.  This is okay.  We talked about it during our last staff meeting.   We really have not done much of a job of teaching our students to use the cell phones respectfully and productively.  Our students' cell phone use is really distracting them from their education.  We teach at a difficult school and we are scrambling to help our students succeed academically.

Then our principal blindsides us (during the assembly) by telling all of the students that staff members will be locking up our cell phones as well (contrary to the mandate of the staff handbook).  Let me start with my initial irrational reaction.  No bloody way.  There is no way that you are going to take away my shiny new iPhone.  I will not be separated from having Google in my pocket.

Let me explain a bit before I move on to my more rational reaction.  I finally got my first smartphone a few months ago and I have been working hard at finding ways to integrate it into my daily work and daily life.  I now read my email on it more than I do my computer.  I have my life programmed into the calendar.  I use it to refer to my day plans.  It is a quick reference tool, my calculator, one of my notepads, and my camera.   I read most of my books on my smartphone.  It even sends me texts to remind me when I have supervision.  I feel much more organized when I have this tool with me.  I am an edtechnophile.

And now for something completely different - my rational reaction (after thinking about it of course).  I agree that I will get better buy in from my students if I lead by example.  They are more likely to comply if I am not flashing my own cell phone in their faces.  I will do it (with some grumbling out of student earshot).  I may even agree with doing it.  Enough said.

If I reacted this strongly, how are our students going to do?

I still think that tomorrow will be a fight.

On a related note:  Take a look at the slides from this presentation by David Truss a few years back.