Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Example of what young children are capable of doing

Hat tip to a former student for sharing an article about a class of 8-10 year old children in Britain, who did a scientific study of bees and ended up being published in a Royal Society journal. This is great!

This fits in nicely with my last three posts. This is a prime example of 21st Century learning. This is what our kids here in the U.S. should be doing, rather than largely ignoring science and the social sciences to put all the focus on reading and math, in order to do well on high-stakes testing for NCLB. This is multi- and interdisciplinary work, where kids learn that science, math, writing, reading, and communication are all related, and that the content being presented in school matters in the real world. This is giving them experience and practice and exposure to problem solving, critically thinking about data and observations, trial and error with experiments, trouble shooting, tinkering, collaborating, finding information with modern tools, and how one's work is presented to the world. It gives them a chance to discover things on their own, and allows them to be creative and innovative as they try to learn about and figure out a complex problem. This shows what young children are capable of doing, if only given the opportunity! We tend to UNDERestimate what kids can do.

If only we could do this on a large scale in the U.S., and actually prepare kids for their futures while making learning fun and engaging!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Uncle Sam Limping? Probably, because Politicians are in charge of education and keep shooting him in the foot

Another state bites the dust. Massachusetts took the step, where its teachers agreed to tie their salaries and promotions to test scores. I do hope there are some other criteria in this, but it is the latest instance of our test-crazed society that has existed since the introduction of No Child Left Behind some ten years ago. While testing has always been, and will always continue to be, a part of education and the assessment of what students are learning, it has bothered many educators for many years that testing is the primary, and for some who have a voice in the education debate, the only, means of assessing and 'fixing' American schools. This is what we will continue to get so long as politicians, almost all of whom have never taught in the classroom and do not have expertise in education, control the education system.

I've harped on this countless times over the years, and will continue to do so, especially since Sec. of Education Arne Duncan will be working with congressional leaders as they discuss the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). One can only hope that both sides agree that changes to NCLB must be made in how a school or district is assessed, with multiple measures considered instead of the present high-stakes test each state is required to produce.

We continue to regress in education by becoming like much of the rest of the world that has used high-stakes testing to determine what students will be allowed to do. But do our politicians pay any attention to the global trends that many countries have participated in over the past decade? Do our political leaders know that many countries, including numerous Asian countries that have been ahead of us on global standardized tests (such as Singapore, China, Japan, and so on), have been slowly breaking away from a content-focused test meritocracy system to one that encourages more student freedom and skills development? I know this to be true since I participated in a discussion at Northwestern University five or six years ago with a delegation from Singapore. I spoke to them about how I approach teaching physics, and how to include hands-on, experiential learning for students, and how to connect content to student lives and develop problem-solving skills for students. It was a truly interesting meeting, and testing never came up. This delegation made it clear that they wanted their education system to look more like that of the U.S., and could not understand why the U.S. wanted to look more like Singapore's and other Asian and European traditional school systems.

Content is important; at least certain content in each discipline. One needs foundational concepts and principles in order to build up off that foundation. But just look around at what current students are going to face when they get to college and beyond. Listen to what Bill Gates and others are telling educators, as well as just about every professor I know is looking at - they want students to have some basic knowledge foundation, but also skills sets, creative problem solving capacity, being able to work both alone and collaboratively across disciplines, and strong communications skills across multiple media platforms. This package of skills forms what many are now calling '21st century skills.'

I dream of the day when my junior students in high school will not be judged on if they remember an obscure vocabulary word from a physical science class they took four years earlier (and never touched that topic again). Rather, let them be judged more on what they come up with when posed an open-ended problem on how to best modify a bridge design that needs to span a specific geological feature, or how to take experimental data and develop an empirical formula that relates several quantities together, or something, anything, that makes one think critically, problem solve, and communicate the thoughts to the reader. When will we have student portfolios count in an assessment, where we can see a variety of skills and knowledge in action, and see growth over the course of a year?

If you build an assessment that requires 21st century skills, teachers will set up their classes to develop those skills and focus on appropriate content. They will then break away from a 19th century classroom of memorize, sit still and quietly for 6 or 7 hours in rows of desks, listen to mostly lectures, and do sets of worksheets. Why are we teaching and assessing the way we were taught and assessed decades ago? If we do not change the way we do school, we are simply setting our kids and the country up for disaster when they go out and try to compete against kids from other places in the world who will be properly trained and prepared for the new workplace. And what scares me most is that we know this to be true, and are simply ignoring the eventual outcome by continuing down this same pathetic path that provides only disincentives to be creative, innovative, collaborative, technologically inclined and competent, and figuring out more complex problems that are multi-disciplinary in nature.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Where do New Ideas come from?

Two terms we hear quite frequently in education are innovation and creativity. CEOs and other private sector leaders largely agree that these two 'skills' are essential for the present generation of children who are moving through the education system, as manufacturing jobs are largely gone and the economy is fast becoming one built around services and the flow of information, i.e. technical jobs that will be the thrust of job growth over the next couple decades.

But what exactly are innovation and creativity? The dictionary definition of innovation is 'the introduction of new things or methods,' while creativity is 'the ability to create meaningful new ideas, forms or methods' that are original and imaginative. So the key notion is the development of new ideas in whatever field one is working. A question naturally develops, which is where do new ideas come from? How do we begin preparing children now to be creative and innovative in the future? In the past, many would have first thought about the arts as being the training ground for creativity. Now, we realize that the development of the abilities and mindsets and skills necessary to be creative in every field of study is necessary.

Steven Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, provides the argument that there are seven common themes that have led to the vast majority of great ideas throughout history. He gives numerous examples of such ideas, ranging from Darwin's development of the theory of evolution to the of the GPS system, from Google to the creation of the first mechanical computing devices centuries ago, and so on. It is an interesting read.

Here is a summary of the seven themes that lead to good ideas. Keep in mind there is certainly some degree of overlap and relationships between the themes, but overall they can be thought of as distinct concepts.

1. The Adjacent Possible: Even if you have an interest in some topic or problem, if there is not a good environment conducive to presenting the necessary pieces to solve the problem, good ideas will almost certainly not develop. You may be brilliant with some of the information (i.e. pieces of a puzzle) in your mind that is necessary to solve a problem, but if your surroundings are not able to provide the remaining pieces of information or experiences, you will endlessly search for them to no avail. If you are isolated from others who know something about your problem or issue, or if there is no means of gathering further information (which is becoming less of a problem with the advent of the Internet), or if your environment does not provide the physical infrastructure or supplies to finish building a new physical device, you will be unable to develop the Idea or solution to your problem.

2. Liquid Networks: Great ideas can develop when information is allowed to flow through a larger network. One possible network is a social network, or often and more specifically, a professional network. The focus of this is the ability to collaborate to solve problems. It turns out that there are almost no great ideas throughout history that have been developed in isolation or by an individual who did not need any help in the development of that great idea. One may think Newton or Einstein did their work in isolation, but this is not entirely true. Those two individuals come about as close as you can get to not needing a network to develop the laws of motion or relativity, but they relied on some level of feedback, reading others' work, and ultimately talking and discussing issues with close colleagues and friends.
An interesting study was done that looked at how research groups reach the coveted 'Eureka!' moment, where a new discovery is made. It turns out that these rare moments of discovery or problem solving almost never happen in the lab! Instead, the 'Aha!' are yelled out at the conference table, where members of the group are throwing ideas around and sharing results of their latest work over the past week. The person who figures it out needs to have input they have not thought about from the larger group or network, before the grand idea is formed.

3. Slow Hunch: This is the notion of wanting to solve a complex problem or answer a difficult, involved question, but needing long periods of time to find 'the idea' that allows you to solve it. This could be over a period of years. Darwin, for example, had all sorts of data and observations he mulled over for nearly twenty years; same for Johannes Kepler, and countless others. It takes percolation of ideas in one's mind before the right mix is found. Especially in the past, individuals would keep 'commonplace books' where they would write down all thoughts and experiments and notes from literature. They would review it frequently see where their thoughts have been and where they are presently. Now many people do similar things electronically, but the idea is the same. For inventors and experimentalists, the slow hunch is an analogue of tinkering. Whatever you call it, people have hunches they follow, some of which work and others that do not, but over time the right connections of ideas are made in the brain and 'the idea' forms. While it may seem like more of an 'Eureka!' moment, it was likely a slow hunch that evolved into the great idea.

4. Serendipity: This is the accidental connection. This theme stems from the many examples of artists and scientists and businesspeople who get the great idea in dreams. Thoughts and information are processed subconsciously, and the idea seems to come from 'out of the blue.' But it is something that has been thought about consciously and then develops during the stormy brain activity during REM sleep. Every so often the right synapses fire that connect the appropriate thoughts in the mind. In fact, brain studies in 2007 by Robert Thatcher show how busier, noisier brains do better on IQ tests, since the increased neural activity allow for more interactions of more synapses between neurons. If one gets lucky, the right combination of thoughts are processed during the chaos and the idea is hatched.
This notion of the accidental discovery can be accelerated and encouraged during brainstorming sessions, where ideas are being thrown around, some chaos is present, and someone puts out just the right example or bit of information that clicks, and the idea is born. There is an argument that the Internet and web surfing can encourage serendipity because it is so easy to go off on tangents during research that a new piece of data from a site you never would have guessed would be useful actually turns out to be the key to forming a solution or great idea. Taking walks and showers are other ways to encourage this, and the prime Eureka moment of Archimedes took place in the tub!

5. Error: I think of this as learning from trial and error us a powerful way to modify initial, likely incorrect, ideas or solutions, to form the correct idea or solution. As an experimentalist, I have experience with this. On paper, you think you have the perfect design to test something. You put it together, and it is a complete flop! You need to play with it, learn from any mistakes, and modify. Perhaps you need to scrap the design altogether. But that is OK, since you learned from the errors. Theorists of all disciplines must learn from errors in their predictions when in conflict with experimental data, and this is a way to develop new ideas to replace those which are flawed in the initial theoretical model.
Errors are helpful because they help eliminate some number of incorrect ideas, and allows us to explore other ideas outside of the set of those that are incorrect.

6. Exaptation: This is borrowing a mature technology or idea from, typically, a different field and putting it to use to solve a seemingly unrelated problem. Some have called Gutenberg's printing press the most significant invention of the past millennium. But he borrowed a technology from the wine producing industry of the day, which was a screw system for pressing the grapes. It turned out this inspired him to develop the model for the press, using the same screw system. In economics, mathematical modeling and functional solutions in physics inspired new economic modeling and mathematical solutions to statistical problems, to the point of there being a new subfield of econophysics. We are using natural designs in plants and animals to develop new ideas for manmade products, ranging from structures for robotics to membrane systems to aerodynamic designs.
A big part of this, in my mind, includes analogies. The use of analogies is powerful in teaching and learning, cognition, and in just about any field of study one can imagine. It is making something more familiar by using ideas or concepts from entirely different fields or contexts. I certainly agree that this theme is completely relevant to the formation of new ideas, as well as for learning about new topics.

7. Platforms: The last theme for forming good ideas is to have a foundational set of principles, concepts, ideas, thoughts, or rules and build off that foundation, or platform. Physics is one of the great examples. Classically, there is Newton's laws and Maxwell's equations. For centuries, those provided a platform to build from, and science and technology prospered. Ideas continuously develop as 'what ifs' of known problems and solutions. This led all the way to taking people to the moon. For the GPS system, it all began with Sputnik, when two engineers used the Doopler effect to pinpoint the orbital trajectory of the satellite. This one development got the military to ask them if it is possible to invert the system, and if one could use the technique for a satellite to pinpioint the location of a signal on the ground. Turned out it is, and our ballistic missile system was born. Years of playing with this technology platform developed into a 30-satellite GPS system (as well as weather satellite and radar systems).

Looking over this list, it seems fairly complete. Some are more obvious than others, but the production of good ideas is something one cannot predict. However, identifying circumstances and environments that increase the likelihood of good idea production is useful. Many of these ideas are already employed in industry, such as Google's 20% rule (all engineers must take 20% of their time and devote it to their own interests and research, where the slow hunch is encouraged), as well as in university research, where the development of multi- and inter-disciplinary research collaborations and research institutes are being formed (perhaps most famous is the Santa Fe Institute, which has a focus on complex systems analysis) and utilize several of the above themes. We can certainly implement some of these ideas into the classroom, to provide exposure and training to students about the skill sets they need when they move into college and beyond.

What is also clear is that regardless of the pattern(s) of innovation being used, these work best in open environments where ideas and information can freely flow in unregulated channels. This certainly means having an open Internet will be vital to the continuation of progress and the production of ideas that will, hopefully, benefit humankind.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Running for Woodland District 50 School Board in April Election

Well, I will be a candidate for one of the three seats for the Woodland School Board. The election is April 5, 2011. Check out my new blog dedicated to this at http://vondracekforwoodland.blogspot.com/. There will be more to come on this after the new year!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Examples of 21st Century Education

One hears about 21st Century Education and Schools a lot as catch-phrases by politicians, parents and teachers. But how often is someone who uses this phrase able to give a good definition of what it means, or what they think it means? And, even more rare, how often is someone who uses this phrase able to give real examples of what they mean?

There is, in all fields I suspect, a phenomenon of 'great volumes of talk but of little action.' The notion of a 21st Century Education has been this sort of phenomenon in education the past few years. There is SO much talk about it, but little action. Many I have discussed this with point to getting X number of computers into a school or into a classroom, and then there is 21st century education happening since kids can then access the Internet. Well, I suppose this is part of it, but in my mind that is the beginners' definition of this phrase. But there is SO much more we must do. What about problem solving? Sure, but that has been around for a couple centuries already in schools. For 21st Century problem solving, let's add the word 'creative' to it. Then there is innovation. Then there is critical thinking, which has also been a popular education term for at least decades now.

These are common terms that are overused and poorly defined by most people who use them. What continues to be missing, though, from too many faculty meetings and conferences and workshops are real examples of what these mean, and much more importantly, what they look like, in real classrooms. To put it bluntly, I think all teachers should be asking administrators and education professors and themselves, "Give me something I can actually use!!" Well, here is a TED video that does just that. A real classroom teacher, who really gets it when it comes to what a 21st Century classroom looks like, and who gives real examples from her classes of what we can do with high school students. She is social studies and history teacher Diana Laufenberg, and it is a great example of what I think all teachers should see and think about.

If we continue to teach and run schools the way we were taught and learned prior to the late 1990s, we will continue to lose kids to the many distractions that exist in the modern world that are more exciting than the old teaching and learning paradigms, and we will continue to do a disservice to kids because we are not preparing them for their world.

Check it out.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Quick Thoughts on recent politics...

So, the GOP is now planning on blocking all legislation until the Bush tax cuts are extended for all brackets. President Obama and most Democrats want to extend the cuts, except for those in the top bracket who earn $250,000 or more. Two reasons the GOP give for wanting to extend the tax breaks is to help stimulate the economy and equity/fairness. The Dems argument is that by going back to the rates under the Clinton administration will save some $700 billion off deficits in the next decade.

Now, at the same time, the GOP has blocked extending unemployment benefits to some 2 million American workers, mostly middle and lower class workers, because those benefits are not paid for...and we can't have that, since living within our means is the overriding reason voters just gave Republicans control of the House. A second important item being held up is the START Treaty with Russia, which the President, military leaders, and four former Republican Secretarys of State endorse and state is in our national security interests.

I try to have an open mind on just about everything, and I find glaring holes and contradictions in the Republican. The first problem I find is that the Bush tax cuts have never been paid for. The cuts were given in a time when Clinton and a Republican Congress were able to leave a large budget surplus, and there has never been a worry about this large loss of revenue in the federal budget. Many economists note that this has played a large role in the budget deficits during the Bush administration and, now, the Obama administration. I do not agree that we should continue to give the wealthiest Americans, who have seen incomes explode during the past ten years and even during this recession while middle class workers have seen stagnant and even slight declines in income (when adjusted for inflation) during the same period. By placing a small tax increase to an old rate (and where we had one of the healthiest economies in our history) would not only pay for short-term assistance to millions of unemployed workers, but also contribute to trimming tens of billions of dollars from yearly deficits for years to come. After all, aren't we all supposed to sacrifice (I've heard some GOP leaders mention this, too)? By the way, if tax cuts are SO essential to revive the economy, why are we in a recession? Where are all the jobs? Shouldn't the wealthiest Americans be reinvesting all those tax savings back into the economy? They should have been doing this continuously for the past decade.

Obviously, the trickle down theory doesn't always work as advertised. And now we are being held hostage because of it, where literally nothing will get done until we continue on with an unpaid gift for the wealthy while millions of families get their Christmas present of a loss of unemployment checks that, for many, is the only money keeping them afloat while they continue to look for work. By the way, it is predicted that we'll have a new record high for bonuses for our top income earners - some $140 billion in bonuses, much of that going to those who helped cause the near collapse of the global economy. At least the GOP will continue to take good care of that extra income for those who do not need it, while sticking it to those who desperately need it. Merry Christmas.