Friday, April 29, 2016

Schools in Finland

"In Finland the teachers are the entrepreneurs" is one of many interesting comments in this fascinating article from the Wall Street Journal.  The article is really well written because it describes in pretty good detail why the Finnish system produces such bright, well educated students. It describes the nature of the curriculum, the requirements to be a teacher in Finland as well as the government support for education, especially reading.

It also points out the many reasons why such a system would probably not work in the US which is rather sad and depressing. For example the Finnish school population, they say,  is much more homogeneous in terms of languages spoken. I presume this means that it is easier to teach students who are all the same!  Parents also take a much more hands-off approach when it comes to  raising their children from tying their shoe laces to college selection.  Things such as this are the reason why making international comparisons based on a single set of test scores are so difficult to analyze and interpret.Life in Finland is very  different from life in the US in every respect imaginable.  Tests such as TIMMS have long praised the math performance of students in Singapore but make no mention of the deplorable situation in that country where all students with disabilities such as Down Syndrome are required to attend special schools.

Nonetheless there is much to be learned from the schools in Finland, something Bernie Sanders has been advocating for for some time. Perhaps it's time to abandon the standards-based movement that, I think, has been responsible for much of the decline of student performance and happiness and give power back to well trained teachers so that they can, once again, teach students and not teach standards or text books.

Here's a wonderful short video by Michael Moore that gives us a glimpse of schools in Finland. Notice the words of the math teacher in particular.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I'm Counting on You.

OK, before you read any further start counting by 5s. You can stop when you get to 50. Done that? Did you go 5, 10, 15, 20 etc? Yes you probably did.

Now, before you read any further count by 5s starting at 3.

OK, done that? What you probably did, if you are representative of 95 percent of the population is that you started off really slowly and hesitantly
3 + 5 is 8 + 5 is 13 + 5 is 18 and then, you probably went 23,28, 33,38,43,48 gathering speed as you went.

To check try counting by 5s starting at 7. Chances re you stumbled to begin with until you saw the pattern. Math is the Science of Pattern and once you see the pattern you are a long way to having a meaningful understanding of what you are doing.

Try the same thing with fractions. Count by halves starting at 0. Try it before reading any further.   Now start counting by halves beginning at a quarter. It's just the same, once you see the pattern everything gets easier.

So why not try it with decimals. Count by .3 starting at 0. Now count by .3 starting at .5. A little bit more tricky but it works. As soon a you see the pattern you can reel the numbers off as fast as you can speak.

This is the sort of thing we should be doing with students and adults to combat the paralyzing fear or hatred of maths that is so pervasive in the US. We are hampered, held back and disabled  by the debilitating phrase of "I'm no good at math" spoken aloud every day by so many people in so many places with large and small audiences by people of all ages and genders. Even the phrase "do the math" sounds like a  threat sometimes. No-one ever says "do the reading" and no one ever says, out loud, "I'm no good at reading" as described in this very eloquent Washington Post piece
sent to me recently by Erik, my wonderful engineer son-in-law.

Everyone can do maths if they focus on understand it and don't just memorize isolated facts to get scores on tests. Maths is made to be understood and played with; just like language.    

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Future is in Everything?

It's funny but it's not until  one is diagnosed with a terminal illness that one suddenly becomes acutely aware of how different perspectives come into play in one's life.

One such difference I've noticed recently is just how much the activities and thoughts that comprise our daily lives are focused on the future: I need to go shopping so I can eat later today and for the rest of the week; I need to publish an article to remain tenured; I need to brush my teeth so they will remain healthy; I need to not smoke so that I will live for ever (if only I had heeded this one 50 years ago). The list goes on. We paint our houses to protect them from the ravages of rain, we change the oil in our cars to keep them running. Of course, painting a house makes it look nice and choosing a car you like gives one a sense of pleasure. But when you stop and think and give everything a percentage of now/present or future it always seems the future part comes out way ahead, almost 90% it seems sometimes.

 Everything except listening to music. Music is for the present. I listen  mostly to  Bruce Hornsby or Scars on 45. If you really, really listen to the music; to the voices and the instrumentation; the feelings and emotions being conveyed you are 100% in the present. There is nothing in the music you are listening to that is touched by, or touches, the future. Pure hedonism perhaps, but in the best possible way.

So I started thinking about this related to elementary school math. So often we call elementary school "preparation for the future" or :preparation for middle school". This is all wrong. Elementary school is for a child in the present, in the now, for them as children. For example, when we teach a set of multiplication facts we should help the student focus on the wonderful  patterns made by the facts, the relationship between the numbers, what multiplication means and how cool it is to have a tool that can help you work  out what 12 fifteens are.if we do this the student will remember the facts. The 'future' component of the activity is the result of being in the "present" while being involved in it.

Elementary school should be a celebration of what it means to be young, to be curious about the world, to make mistakes and have conceptions of things that are outrageous and wild until the reality of what they really are sets in. The British Government currently fails to see this where they see education as "economic investment". Their push for turning all public schools into private academies is as misguided as constantly testing children.  We re thankfully beginning to see that this focus on testing in US schools is seriously misguided.

I remember teaching a graduate course to teachers in a school in Monterrey in Mexico 30 years ago where children were treated as children. They were expected to behave and think like children  and not as mini-adults. Childhood was celebrated for what it was, a time of growing, learning,discovering and just being a kid.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hot Moments or Difficult Discussions?

Sometimes the emails I receive at work make me wonder what is happening to the world of education. It's probably always been this way  but the use of sensationalism to grab people's attention seems much more in one's face these days; probably because of the use of social and mass media.

Today I was invited to register for an on-line seminar on the topic of "hot moments in the classroom"  presented by Dr. Tasha Souza of Boise State University. For only $247 I can join in and there is a "100% satisfaction is guaranteed".  Just for fun, I google-imaged "hot moments"  and then I google-imaged "difficult discussions" the other part of the seminar title. When you compare the two sets of results it becomes fairly clear why the term 'hot moments' was chosen; obviously an effort to boost the number of people shelling out $247.

I'm probably getting old and cynical, or maybe I already am, but this type of sensationalism is not what is going to help improve the educational experience for our students. For me, it is denigrating to use the term to describe what the author herself says are clearly important times during the educative process. Being able to handle different points of view between 20 or so adults in a classroom can be a tricky thing but a hot moment it is not. When difficult topics are discussed with open minds then we all can learn. When we all adopt and develop growth mindset skills and dispositions we are all able to develop the way we think, feel, sense and learn.

Theories such as Carol Dweck's Mindset theory are well research, developed and improved upon over time unlike the sensationalist ideas such as Souza's "hot moments" and Angela Lee Duckworth's idea of grit..   

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Classroom Stories Four

One of the best days of the year to teach a class of fourth graders is April 1 or April fool's day. The students are old enough to appreciate a good joke as well as to initiate a good prank on their teacher.

During the five years I taught fourth graders before moving on to college teaching I played some great jokes on my students and they on me. One of the most memorable was the April 1 of, probably 1975. It was a large class I had that year, some 35 students and for some odd reason it included several sons and daughters of fellow teachers. On this particular day I walked in to classroom after morning recess and all the students were sitting and working  quietly at their desks. Recognizing this was a somewhat unusual situation as I usually had to quieten them down or redirect a few. I sat down at my desk and  a line of students quickly formed with questions about what they were working on. Sometimes I sat at my desk and they came to me and sometimes they sat at their desks and I came to them.  

As the students asked me questions each one had one hand at their chin gently stroking it as they asked a question. After I had responded to the third student in the row I looked up and realized that all 30 or so students still sitting at their desks as well as the few still in line were gently rubbing their chins; thumb up one side and fingers up the other in a pensive gesture. I stood up grinned and was about to say something when I realized that I, too, was gently rubbing my chin in exactly the same way all the students were. We all at once burst into unrestrained laughter and I never, ever rubbed my bearded chin pensively again.

Probably, one of the best April fool jokes I played on my students was to do a forty minute lesson on how spaghetti grows on trees in a certain part of Italy, I would draw a picture of a tree on the blackboard with bunches of long strands hanging from the branches. I would then draw the spaghetti harvesting tool that was a long rake-like implement with a  board on the shaft into which the bunches of spaghetti would fit when they were a meter long. This was the only sign that the spaghetti was ripe. The drawings would be accompanied by considerable writing explaining all the minor details such as farming licenses, climate conditions and so on. The class would end at 11:55 because in England April fools jokes are only good before noon. I would then tell the students that it was an April fools joke and that spaghetti really didn't grow on trees. I sometimes worry that the students, now in their early 50s still think that spaghetti grows on trees because "sir", as students called male teachers in those days, said it  did. 

Classroom Stories Three

Many years ago when we were advocating the use of genuine inquiry science there were what we called the "Alphabet" science programs. Things like SCIS, ESS and several more that I don't recall. They were all based on the idea that children needed to be actively involved in their learning, or hands-on-minds-on science as we used to call it. Activities involved interaction and engagement in every sense of the words. These programs were just like the current NGSS only much easier to understand and operationalize. At least that's how it seems to me.

One really neat activity in the SCIS program, I think it was, was called Clay Boats and involved the students in molding a piece of clay into a boat shape to see how many pennies it could hold. The main science concepts were sinking, floating, and density. The idea was to make the boat as large as possible to displace as much water as possible thus allowing it to hold more pennies, but still float of course.

So I selected this activity as the focus for a science ed. professional development session  for a group of teachers at a school in Plymouth Vermont I had been working with. Having run out of my regular clay I bought a packet of blue playdo that I thought would be a good substitute for the clay. After fifteen or so minutes introduction we filled large plastic containers with a couple of inches of water and started making our clay boats. To my horror, within  a minute of testing the boats in the water the 15 or so teachers' hands had all turned bright blue, as had the water. The playdo was water soluble; a fact that had never occurred to me. In panic, I searched the classroom for a substitute and for some reason, I'll never know how I thought of it, my eyes landed on a box of aluminum  foil. Quick as a flash I tore off 12 inch squares of the foil and showed the teachers how they could make their boats using the aluminum foil. The funny thing is that I have used foil every time I have done this activity since as it seems to work much better than the clay.    

Another, brief classroom story happened just a few years ago when I was teaching math ed to a group of undergraduates. As I was teaching using the SMARTboard at the front of the class I noticed something fall from the ceiling to my right about four feet from the door. I looked up and saw that a couple of ceiling tiles had been removed for a maintenance project. I then looked at the floor directly beneath and saw a dazed mouse looking around as much as to say "where am I?". The mouse was about six inches behind one of the u/grad's chairs which was as close it had come to landing on her head. As I approached, the mouse found its bearings and disappeared under the classroom door. I followed it out just in time to see it disappear under the door to a fellow faculty member's office. By all accounts it spent the weekend dining on a packet of cookies left on the faculty member's desk.

There was not one "eek" from the students and no-one stood on a chair; how times have changed!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Classroom Stories Two

 A couple of animal stories this time. When I was a fourth grade teacher in England I kept a pair of gerbils in my class. They were in a large aquarium with a chicken-wire cover on top. The students called them Brownie and Whitey because one was browner and the other was, you've got it,  whiter. Periodically the gerbils would produce offspring which always amazed the students especially when it happened during class time. The students would always get alarmed when the gerbils carried their babies around like the one in this picture. Each time there was a new litter students would sign up to take a pair home, with parental permission of course. I would build a cage out of half an old wooden desk and send it home with a water bottle, two gerbils and a week's worth of food. I always assured the parents that the gerbils were the same sex.

One afternoon I noticed one of the students walking slowly  across the back of the classroom and stopping every few steps and stamping his foot. I asked hi what he was doing and he said that Brownie had escaped from the cage and he was trying to catch him. When I asked how stamping on him could be an effective form of capture he stopped for a moment and replied "I was only trying to stamp on his tail". After that we kept a large net in the classroom for catching escaped gerbils.

The other story was told frequently by one of my doctoral advisers at the University of Illinois where I completed my doctoral program.As the story goes, a class of fifth graders had invited a member of the local raptor organization to bring a bird of prey to class for part of a thematic unit. It was a small hawk as far as I remember and the plan was to let it fly around the classroom a couple of times. After a fifteen minute talk about hawks the handler duly released the hawk which flew  straight to the classroom aquarium in which was coiled an unsuspecting, and very contented, small garden snake; the class pet. Instantly, the hawk snatched up the snake, flew up into the ceiling rafters and proceeded to devour the hapless snake much to the horror of all the students who were swiftly led from the classroom to avoid being splattered by the blood falling from the hawk's unexpected meal.  

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Classroom Stories One

As my career draws to a close in just over a month it seems natural to recall some of the events and people that have shaped my life along the way as I have learned how to teach, a journey that is never finished or complete.

I started my professional career as a fourth grade teacher at Sefton Infant and Junior Schools in Bristol, England. As you can see it's still there. Hopefully it will remain under the watchful eye of the Local Education Authority and not become one of the Conservative government's dreaded Academies . It's hard to believe that they would even consider such a drastic, mandatory change in the way education is managed.

Anyway, I digress. The first two stories I can recall have to do with a particular student and a particular event. The student, Hugo Tubbs, (yes, I will always remember his name although the spelling might be incorrect) was in one of my fourth grade classes, perhaps the last one before I emigrated. I think he had 6 or 7 older sister which might account for him being such a memorable character. The first reason I recall him so well is that he had memorized up to his 23 x 12 times tables. He could either rattle them off or tell you what individual facts were. But, it was on a school camping trip that Hugo really excelled himself. We were camping at a permanent campsite near Southampton on the south coast. The tents had wooden floors and were arranged in rows. On the first night I was assigned to check on the 60 or so 4th graders in their tents of 6. When I came to Hugo's tent I opened the door flap, stepped in and was instantly bathed in the brightest light imaginable. I had been going to use my flashlight to check if all were asleep but I clearly didn't need to. Hugo had set up a switch on the floor wired to a car headlamp hooked up to a car battery next to his sleeping bag. By this time just about everyone in the campsite was awake  and I asked Hugo what it was. It was, he said, a warning light in case someone tried to enter their tent.We all wondered why his suitcase had been so heavy.

The event occurred on the same field trip when another school sharing the camp site took their students, also fourth graders, to the Isle of Wight for the day; a five or so  mile ferry trip off the coast in the English Channel. At the end of the day the students, tired and exhausted, boarded the ferry for the short trip back to the mainland. Five minutes into the trip one of the students told one of the teachers that Tommy was missing. After a quick roll call it was confirmed that Tommy was, indeed, nowhere on the ferry. There were, of course, no cell phones, or quick ways of communicating with Tommy wherever he was. As the teachers huddled to form a plan, which included asking the ferry captain to return to the Isle, one of the students interrupted to say that Tommy was standing on the bridge of a Royal Navy motor torpedo boat that was racing past the ferry at around 30 knots. A loud cheer went up from all on the ferry. Tommy was at the quay with his Royal Navy escort waiting when the ferry docked.

We shared several drinks with the teachers from Tommy's school that evening.