engaging minds in the internet age

Assessing Effort? (Should we be doing this?)

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I’ve just been pondering whether we should be assessing effort.  I mean, most of the tests that we see reward students who put in a lot of time in memorising details.  The more time spent memorising the better their results.

I think we should focus more on higher level thinking in our assessments.  Once a student has the skill of Googling basic facts, ans perhaps checking them against other online sources, then there is little need to assess memory.  

Don’t get me wrong, I think memory is a great thing to develop as a skill in itself, but is it really that important that we force every student to work on it?

It’s important to note that kids go through a developmental stage where they just love to memorise things.  Dorothy Sayers calls this the ‘Parrot’ stage.  This should be used to memorise important foundational knowledge and skills, and to teach kids how to notice details of the world around them.  But once they move on from this stage, there is little need to focus on memorising new information.

Some professions require a high level of memorised data.  Surgeons, for example, can’t stop their operation to look up the best method for transplanting a liver.  However, recall is easier when you can make sense of the info, noticing patterns and understanding the concepts behind the facts.

There’s more to consider but surely it is plain.  Skills, wisdom, and personal discipline are worthy of our time more than memorising a bunch of stuff that can be easily looked up!



Written by watchsamfly

July 31, 2012 at 08:29

Posted in Uncategorized

3 (bad) Reasons for Not Flipping

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I am convinced that one of the largest barriers for teachers who are considering flipping their classroom, is the fear of doing a poor job at producing the resources/lectures/info for students to work on at home.  Other barriers may be significant too, but this is clearly important.

Here are three of the sources of this fear:

  1. Teachers can be perfectionists
  2. Teachers know that they aren’t perfect but feel they have to pretend to be
  3. We worry about putting up a resource that has mistakes or is incomplete

And why you should get over those fears:

Teachers have a tendency toward perfectionism.  We love our subject.  We love teaching and we want to do a really good job at it.  But it takes time, which we don’t have.  Most teachers also have families to care for and social lives to bring a bit of balance to their brains which are focused on teen and pre-teen aged people, and their enormous physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual needs for most of the day.  We worry that we won’t have time to produce something worthwhile, a decent video lecture for example.  And we certainly don’t have the money to produce something as polished as we think the kids would engage with in their own time.

I want to encourage you, that you don’t have to be perfect!  Nobody is anyway, except pretenders.

You don’t need to put a lot of time into making Khan Academy video lectures or Discovery Channel quality presentations.  A few minutes of something thrown together on scrap paper, photographed using a cell phone camera, and then uploaded to a class web page is all that you really need.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the real learning happens when your students watch a video or read a text.  Sure, they will learn some of it, even enough to pass a test perhaps, but the real learning happens when you begin a discussion.  Questions, collaboration, working through applications together – that’s when it sinks in and the students turn the concepts over in their mind to find a perspective that catches their understanding.  Only a very few freakish individuals can learn to a high level without interacting with other people.

Now, teaching is sometimes considered a game.  In this game we must pretend to be the top authority with all of the answers to our students’ questions.  This game certainly helps with classroom management of a certain style.  Students who disrupt proceedings and interfere with the teacher’s routine and delivery can be easily shown to be “bad” because they are affecting the education of many.  I want to encourage you again, to show yourself to be human and imperfect, and to not play games with your students.  They will respect you for it and will feel MORE inclined to come and ask you for help.  The connection that develops when you open yourself up to your students in this way will reap untold benefits.

Mistakes, what about them?  How about considering them as an opportunity for discussion?  Mistakes + Discussion = Fantastic Learning!

What if a mistake goes unnoticed? Who cares!? Nobody saw it, but if you’re worried about teaching the wrong thing (by accident of course) then I say, “Get over it!”

Nobody is perfect and the sooner you realise that, your students realise that, and the world realises that, the sooner we can all get around to relaxing and moving forward together in an open, honest, and humble way.

If you want to check out my imperfect efforts, come on over to The Physics Lounge and see if you could do something similar.  Most of the videos I make are about 5 to 10 minutes of effort.  If I manage one per week I’ll have about 50 lessons in a year and I can re-use them again next year!  After about 5 years I will have fairly comprehensive coverage of the material that I need for a single course.  But if you’re not into making videos, someone else may have already done it for you and you can then spend 5 minutes finding videos for your class for the week.

Written by watchsamfly

July 25, 2012 at 07:03

Testing effort, commitment, or something else (with written assessments)

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I’m against written tests for the most part.  That’s not what this post is about, but feel free to reply about that if you like!

What is a test meant to assess?

I’ve administered tests which seem to reward effort, and commitment to the preparation and testing process.  Those tests were idiot proof, unless the idiot did no preparation whatsoever.  Usually they are the tests which reward memorisation of a bunch of facts which then need to be written down in the appropriate location on the answer sheet.

This is low-level thinking (Achieved level if you are in NCEA mode).

These tests are a waste of time, in my mind. We could get students to perform menial tasks like moving a pile from one side to the other and ensuring the stack is tidy, and that wouldn’t be much more of an achievement.  There is a place for this sort of ability, but do we need that at high school?  Should it be the majority part of any assessment?

Maybe in primary school with kids who are below the age of about 7 (the “parrot” stage according to Dorothy Sayers (pdf) ), but not for high school, which is what concerns me and which is when we usually introduce such testing methods.

So what should tests be assessing.  Yes, to a limited extent, the knowledge of the student, but to a much greater extent there should be an emphasis on deeper skills and understanding.  Higher order thinking, innovation, and creativity.

These are things which are actually valuable to society, and are worth measuring.  The rest can be looked up on the internet, or in a physical book (a what?) pretty easily. But those things worth measuring, are they better assessed via other means?

Written by watchsamfly

June 22, 2012 at 11:14

Posted in Uncategorized

Collaboration – 3 obvious ways it can help in education

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One – You can give and receive encouragement to help get the work done.

If you’re feeling discouraged, sometimes all it takes is a positive word from a friend or colleague to give you a lift in energy and focus.  That might be the difference between giving up and finding that creative spark to overcome.

Two – You can learn from others who can see your mistakes when you can’t.

If I’m struggling with my physics homework, it seems only natural to call up a friend or to start a Google+ hangout to compare notes.  I tried it this way… Can I see how you worked it out?  There is inevitably more than one way to skin a cat!

Three – You can take the best ideas and skills of a number of individuals, combine them, and make a better idea.

I have tonnes of ideas for apps of use on mobile devices.  I don’t have the time to learn to program.  However, working with a student on her ICT assignment, we have produced a really useful measuring application which takes an input from a picture or camera, calibrates the measurement with a known length in the frame, and then measures anything else in the picture.  Incredible for field work in physics or applied math!

As an extra comment: collaboration is what many people forget to include when they make video lectures.  I’ve been producing some physics video lessons on my iPad, but the site where I’ve collected these videos is geared towards collaboration.  So far the collaboration hasn’t happened outside of my classroom just yet, but the site is still very new.

The Internet makes collaboration really easy and fun.  I’m hoping that rural communities (who don’t have access to specialist physics teachers) and home schooled (or un-schooled) students can make use of the videos and develop a network of collaborators.

So, how do you use collaboration on-line to advance positive educational outcomes?  Shared docs?  What else?

Written by watchsamfly

June 21, 2012 at 10:18

Future Cell Phones and Portable Computing Devices

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I’ve been wanting to write about this future concept for some time.  It’s super exciting, definitely coming, and the technology already exists to demonstrate how it will work.  A fully functioning device might even already exist – it’s been that long since I first saw and thought of this.  And, technology moves so fast now that I’m not keeping up.

So what is it?

A cell phone sized computing device which projects a screen and a keyboard.  The keyboard utilises infra-red sensors to read the positions of your fingers on the board, or the position of your touch on the projected screen.

Let’s take it further…

Now imagine that every surface is a touch screen (projected upon or displaying images from within like a TV).  You have a tiny implant which is your own personal computing device, connected via wireless to the input and display screen.  You simply walk up to a wall and start tapping away to do your work.  Every surface is “smart” and connected to you.

Take it one step further…

Sensors within the surface of the walls sense your gestures and you can interact with them from a distance.

Even further…

You have implants under your eyelids which perform the same as displays.  You also have implants which sense your movements and only activate when you close your eyes and perform certain movements.

Even further…

The implant is in your brain, interacting directly with your sensory nerves, creating a “real experience” of a world when you close your eyes and switch on via some conscious method.  A small logo is input into the signal being sent through your optic nerve to your brain so that you know when you have your eyes closed.  Wireless connections to other brains are now fully possible and you can observe other people in their heads from a first person perspective.  Hackers confuse people by breaking in to the optic feed and removing the logo which shows that you are in your head and not the real world.  Subconscious programming is the new terrorism, taking away people’s free choice.  People begin to have their brains removed and placed into nutrient vats and robotic bodies because real bodies are too much work for them and are perceived as totally unnecessary…

Okay, getting a bit far ahead of the current tech, but not quite as far as you might think…

Here’s the projection keyboard. It’s only a matter of time before it’s a part of smart-phones.


Written by watchsamfly

June 12, 2012 at 09:52

Posted in Looking ahead

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Exams vs. Assessment

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This post looks at some observations of students undertaking exams and how we can use at assessments to make them worthwhile for us and our students.

It’s exam time for seniors at our school.  We have these exams to give students the opportunity to get used to exam conditions, training them to sit still for long periods of time, and we also have them to perform internal assessments which are too long or difficult to have during regular term/class time.

With several hundred students crammed into our school gym, all working steadily enough not to require my 100% attention (I’ve trained my instincts to pick up raised hands or sneaky cheating with little direct attention – just in case any disapproving colleagues read this), I jotted down these observations:

  • Students panicking about unimportant details such as the correct teacher code
  • Students missing the obvious solution (write the name in full – even a poor attempt will get the paper to the right teacher)
  • Students giving up on something too hard and leaving the teacher space blank which is the worst case scenario really
  • Students bringing a single writing device (which inevitably failed in the cooler than usual temperatures)
  • Students asking, despite the obvious clues, whether they are allowed to write on the papers
  • Students doing nothing at all before leaving as early as they were allowed
  • Teachers getting rather excited and engaging thoroughly with their role

I also had the following thoughts:

  • Is this a fair test of student learning?
  • This doesn’t seem much like “real life” – more like an attempt to control a bunch of factors/students in order to drag information out of them.  Not too different from some interrogation techniques
  • What a huge waste of paper!
  • Should we assess “common sense” as a prerequisite for courses?
  • Do our schools and societal systems tend to quash common sense and lead to these issues?
  • Is this a worthwhile use of time?
  • Are these students being permanently harmed through this experience?
  • Do I want my daughter to experience this when she’s older?

As you can see, I have a busy brain. Especially when there’s not a lot to occupy my mind in the empty exam supervision hours…

So those are exams, but what about assessment?  Is there a difference?

First off, I don’t think exams like this are useful for anyone.  Definitely not for the majority of students sitting them.  Assessment should be as close to real life as possible, because that’s what they are meant to be a measure of.  Aren’t they?  Isn’t an exam result a recommendation of academic ability to future employers or academic institutions?  Exams are so artificial compared to “real life” that I can’t see how they are a measure of anything except perhaps a peculiar sort of mental toughness – expressed in the ability to suppress strong and potentially debilitating emotions such as fear.

Okay, so I’m a bit angry about exams.  I’m a practical electronics and physics teacher who prefers to have a conversation with students to develop their mental models and ability to apply them in unfamiliar circumstances.  Even so, if exams are useful, it is to get nothing more than a general measure of group achievement and nothing more.

General because they are not accurate enough, as anyone who has ever tried to mark an essay will tell you.

Group (and not individual) because individuals can have bad days, and are strongly influenced by many changeable factors – it’s just not fair to judge a student by a single performance on a test which is not even a reflection of the real life ability to problem solve, communicate, etc.

Let’s face it, exam halls are a left over from an industrial model of education which is rapidly slipping away (I feel the urge to go and watch Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms RSA Animate talk again!)

So assessment should match real life.  Education should match real life – or at least build student’s ability to cope with real life.  In real life the test comes first and you learn how to pass because if you don’t you can’t drive to your friend’s house for social events, or kick a rugby ball over the cross bar and between the posts, or form a relationship with a potential partner, or survive in the aftermath of a disaster, or have a nutritious meal… the list goes on.  Everything in life is a test and assessment should be a gauge (not an igage!) of how well you are able to deal with, and help others deal with, all of these things.

Imagine if assessment was all about how much you can contribute to society.  Imagine if every single assessment was framed in that way, with a generous dose of your personal purpose and fulfilment levels thrown into the mix?  Seriously.  What would it be like?  Teachers would set meaningful “tests” and students would be trying their hardest to pass them.  Society would thrive with everyone understanding at least some of their purpose as a member of the whole group and we wouldn’t need artificial systems to “manage” most people because they were on the right path all the way.

I can go on, but that’s enough mental stimulation from me for you for now.  It’s your turn to stimulate your own brain.  Fire away!


Written by watchsamfly

June 6, 2012 at 05:12


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The very word conjures up vast ranks of compliant “uniforms” all focused on the same tasks and the same outcomes, working at the same marching pace.

About the only use I can see for uniforms is in identifying and associating with a particular group.  That’s important for security personnel and airline pilots maybe, but for school students?  Students are different from each other in the way they learn, different in the things they need to learn, and different in the pace they learn.  The exact opposite of the thoughts which are brought to mind when thinking about uniforms.

Uniforms cost money, are usually more expensive than regular clothing (due to a limited production run of about 1000 to 2000 units, and in different sizes).  The quality also suffers due to keeping production costs as low as possible so that uniforms make them at least a bit of money.  As far as I can tell, uniforms are a pain in the neck for uniform retailers too.

And policing uniform is a pointless and demoralising task for teachers.  Everybody knows that it doesn’t change the ability of the students to achieve.  The poorly worn uniform is a symptom of a larger problem – one of poor student engagement (and an unwillingness to pretend to be engaged for fear of the “consequences”).  Making a student wear their uniform better will not make them engage with the work in a productive manner.

Now, I’m not against a tidy standard of attire, in keeping with the role of the person attired.  However, what is appropriate for that role is usually culturally determined.  Teachers dress a little smarter than their students to set an example which will stand out.  The older students get, the more they tend to dress in a “mature” fashion (yes that was a pun).  As time passes, and age occurs to them, people (students are people too) “find themselves” and their style.  It’s another form of creative expression which we should encourage.  It is more important for some to stand out than others.

If uniforms are indeed necessary, then I think denim jeans make a good base to start from.  Cheap, tidy, hard wearing, good looking, warm in winter.  Let students wear whatever else they want but the other compulsory item is one of those rubber wrist bands which cost about $2 each.  You could even have the school name stamped on the band.  How easy is that?  How cool is that?


Written by watchsamfly

May 30, 2012 at 07:51