Thursday, August 26, 2010

Reading Dewey: The Introduction

So, I've decided to read my way through John Dewey's essays. I have quoted him a lot in a variety of my ed work and on Twitter but have never read anything by him. So, I've decided to rectify that.
I will be reading my way through:
John Dewey on Education, Selected Writings
Edited by Reginald D. Archambault
University of Chicago Edition 1974
ISBN: 0-226-14390-2

So, here goes my thoughts, reflections, and critiques (well probably no critiques as these ideas are amazing and I'm not learned enough to critique them) on the Introduction (by Reginald D. Archambault <- which is an amazing name):
It is commonplace that everyone talks about Dewey and no one reads him.
~ Preface
According to Archambault, Dewey's philosophy of education is based on his philosophy of science. He was a strong skeptic and scientist who believed that the scientific method could be applied to pretty much anything and should definitely be applied to education. This to me is a breath of (old) fresh air. I am a skeptic and scientists myself and believe that those two items (coupled with critical thought) form the basis of education.
Dewey felt the aim of education was the 'development of reflective, creative, responsible thought' (p. xviii). This is a well stated, succinct purpose for education. With this goal in mind, students will be able to a) teach themselves b) critique what they are shown and c) further their own growth through self-reflection.

Although perhaps not in the sphere of educational philosophy but still interesting (as a skeptic), Dewey felt that morals should belong within the world of facts, not distinct from it. As the act of valuing is susceptible to the scientific method.
Back on education, he felt that the ends of education are not a fixed point. For to be fixed is to have 'rigid, habitual forms of behaviour [that] can lead only to stagnation' (p. xx). Instead the goals of education must shift in relation to the changing environment and changes in society. It is a common question in the Twitterverse about the goals of education. Dewey I feel would argue that that is not a good question as in his mind, the goals must be stated in terms of processes (i.e. the promotion of reflective thought not reflective thought). This means that education is the end goal in itself. He felt that a major aim of education was to help students become morally responsible so they can, as adults, create new societal rules and become autonomous. To achieve this end, Dewey argues that the desires of the student must be heard, addressed, and acted upon where reasonable. In essence, he is arguing for more student control in their learning.

Back on the subject of ends, Dewey believed that if the end goals are to be meaningful they must be defined 'in terms of the means which would be used in their attainment' (p. xxiii). Dewey argued against vaguely stated goals for education (such as 'freedom' or 'wisdom' or 'the full development of the child') as in his mind they were stated as ends within themselves and precluded the notion of a means of attaining them.

Dewey also fought against traditional (and popular) methods of instruction that he called 'assign-study-recite' (p. xxiii). He felt that the justification for these methods was faulty: the belief in a Tabula Rasa state and the idea of a child as a passive receiver of information. Instead he argued for a method of instruction that focused on the 'live, meaningful, and important problem to be grappled with and solved' (p. xxv). This to me indicates a form of PBL, an active integration of content with the student's interests in a way that supports learning and does not stifle it.
He also argued against the idea of separating learning into distinct subjects. He felt this caused the subject to be viewed as an unchanging collection of facts to be learned either through 'classroom management' or by applying a sugar-coating to the material to make it more palatable. In relating this back to his ideas of ends and means, he deduces that this method of instruction actually prevented the achievement of its own aim (the absorption of the distilled subject knowledge) by promoting a hatred of the subject by preventing an open and free exploration of the subject. Instead the knowledge is not the driving force of education, it must be subservient to the purpose and method of instruction. Knowledge should not be presented based on the ideas of tradition but instead organized and structured based on its relevance to the problem at hand. I have created some illustrations to illustrate this.Whereas Dewey's approach would look more like this:Dewey argues that content must be defined in terms of the relationship between the teacher and the student and must not be the end in itself. The end is the application of content to a real problem thus proving the means for synthesis of the learning.

In Dewey's mind the teacher's role is not to disseminate of content but is instead tasked with 'prompting the development of ideas in the pupil' (p. xxvii). The teacher's role becomes one of helping the student to develop relations and connections and their own ideas. To accomplish this the teacher must be foremost a learner, armed with a broad general knowledge but based on a sound grounding of educational theory; especially the relationship between theory and practice.

The introduction ends with a quote from Dewey:
If we are willing to conceive of education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education.
The editor concludes with a statement that in order to understand Dewey's thoughts on education, you must first understand his total philosophy. Let the education begin ...

Reflections on Project Based Learning

Well, my first course with the Web Design crew is finishing as I write this post (they are writing their exam so I felt I should write something to). I wanted to post a few thoughts I had regarding project based learning.

First, some context. The course is on Database Design. If you haven't closed your browser window yet, thank you. Their project involved creating a database of their own choosing (i.e. to store their own data). I have 13 students who all chose to model 13 different things including: music libraries, web design client tracking, movies, TV shows, a room booking system, ski team participant tracking and more. The course ran for 4 weeks, 5 hours a day, 5 days a week (I know, seems like the ironman/woman of courses).

My rationale in allowing students to create a database of their own choosing is it allows them the freedom to model data they understand. One of the challenges facing a database designer is understanding the client's data, the relationships it has with other data, and their requirements for processing/viewing the data. If I allow students to model their own data, I effectively remove that roadblock from their learning allowing them to focus on learning the language and art (yes, there is art in database design) of designing databases. Had I assigned them a 'canned' database to design, they would not only have to learn how to design a database but also have to wrap their heads around data that is not their own. That is two strikes too many in my books.

I provide a basic outline of what I want (divided into phases and then a final submission to help them stay on track - description can be seen here). I try to make each phase as open as possible.

Now some reflections:
  1. I find students have reservations about starting a PBL task. I think this comes from the fact that I am not providing them with everything they need to begin. I am asking them to fill in the details. However, once the ball gets rolling, I find students begin to go above and beyond the project requirements and become very invested in their databases.

  2. I attempted to restrict the students too much by forcing them to create certain items for their databases. My issue was I wanted them to do everything we discussed in class to 'try it out'. However, it ended becoming an academic exercise as they tried to create solutions for my requirements that fit their databases. This violated the purpose of the project as I laid it out for my students: to apply their learning to a real-world context. In their second project, I tried to relax the restraints and allow students the flexibility of choosing what they wanted to implement. This of course means some students will not be able to do all the of the items I teach, which I know is fine in one part of my brain. However, another part is having a bit of a tough time letting go of the idea that everything that is taught must be used.

  3. Next time I will stop grading the intermediate phase submissions. I think the allocation of a grade here may be preventing students from completely digesting the copious amounts of feedback I include. Instead, I will only provide a grade on the final submission (part of the requirements for the final submission is to apply the feedback given in the phases). I am currently pondering some sort of level system (On Track, Not On Track) but I worry that that is no better than a grade. I think I may go cold turkey and not provide any sort of numerical/psuedo-numerical label and only provide written feedback/suggestions.
Overall, I am pleased with how the PBL approach worked out in my class and I believe that the students were also. I personally feel that a PBL approach is a perfect fit for Computer Science as it allows for immediate application of the learning in a context that is known and safe for the student.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Don't - Redux

Don't teach me how to use Twitter,
Teach me how to express my ideas succiently.

Don't teach me how to make a Prezi,
Teach me how to speak in public.

Don't teach me blog,
Teach me to have ideas worth expressing.

Don't teach me how to Google,
Teach me how to have good questions.

Don't teach me how to create videos,
Teach me to how to see the beauty in the world.

Don't teach me how to make word art,
Teach me how to appreciate the power of language.

Don't teach me how to use an eReader,
Teach me how to love reading.

Don't teach me how to use social media,
Teach me how to collaborate.

Don't teach me how to consume content,
Teach me how to think critically.

Don't teach me how to use technology,
Teach me how to be human.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Don't tell me what you know,
tell me how you use it

Don't tell me what you believe,
tell me why you believe it

Don't tell me who you know,
tell me why they matter

Don't tell me what you've done,
tell me how you've grown

Don't tell me where you're from,
tell me where you're going

Don't tell me where you've been,
tell me about your journey

Don't tell me what you do,
tell me why you do it

Don't tell me your biography,
tell me what you live for

Don't tell me your name,
tell me who you are

Feedback: It's a two-way street you know

I've been thinking a lot about feedback and the one-way nature of it in education. Wikipedia defines feedback this way:

Feedback describes the situation when output from (or information about the result of) an event or phenomenon in the past will influence an occurrence or occurrences of the same (i.e. same defined) event / phenomenon (or the continuation / development of the original phenomenon) in the present or future.

In many classes, feedback is a one way process: the instructor provides feedback to the student. Typically the student is only granted the ability to provide feedback on the instructor or the course once (at or near the end of the course). This feedback is then not provided to the instructor until after the course has finished. This implies (based on our definition above) that the feedback can not be used to alter the present state of the course that the students are in. This implies an altruistic impetus to the student to even provide feedback (i.e. I will provide feedback not to improve my own state, but to improve the state of future students). I know in my own experience as a student (anecdotal of course, but illustrative) that I only ever filled in the multiple choice part of a end-of-course evaluation unless I was extremely pleased or displeased with the instructor. In addition, by the time the end of term was rolling around, I had forgotten much of the feedback that I had wanted to share.

Looking at it from the other end, this lack of feedback for teachers tends to reinforce the stereotype that teachers are an irreproachable source of knowledge. Stereotypes tend to be more damaging to the one that is being stereotyped that the one perpetrating them. This lack of constructive, useful, timely feedback encourages teachers to accept and embody this omniscient stereotype, and thus not to attempt to become better. Yes, teachers can self-critique and self-reflect upon their own practice (and they should) and change that way. But the system of not permitting feedback for the teacher does not encourage (and in fact discourages) this self-reflection from taking place; in fact it negates any form of reflection of the teacher upon thier teaching practice. It discourages the teacher from changing; what change could be needed by someone that is perfect? By tacitly neglecting feedback, we tacitly accept the idea that we are beyond change and beyond growth; we tacitly accept the idea that we are not learners as we have nothing to learn.

How do we rectify this disparity in our feedback model. The solution is rather simple: do not wait for the prescribed feedback form to come around; be proactive. The exit card strategy is an excellent means of gaining feedback on the lesson from students:

At the end of each class, students are provided a cue card. Upon the cue card they are asked to record the following: One positive item from the lesson, one piece of constructive criticism, and one thing that is interesting (in essence a form of a PMI). Students should be encouraged to do this every class, and to discuss anything they wish. It should also be anonymous.

In my experience, this must be encouraged every class because as students we are very used to having no voice in how we are taught. This idea is not easily dispelled.

It is vital that constructive criticism is acted upon swiftly. Students will realize very quickly if this is a 'sham' when their ideas are not implemented or discussed. Actively discuss the suggestions in class and your feelings on their efficacy.

As I teach in a computer lab, I have digitized my exit card strategy. I use Google Docs to host a form on my course website. The results from the form are dumped into a spreadsheet (think Excel) for me to process. The link to the form is kept on the website and I provide 5 minutes most classes (as I can be forgetful) for students to submit feedback. Here is a sample form for that purpose.

The speed at which I can adjust the flow of the course is empowering. I benefit as a teacher by knowing that my students are understanding my (and our) ideas for the course. I can also gain valuable insights into how my assumptions on how to teach this class may not match the needs of this class. Perhaps more importantly, it shows my students that I am not perfect; that I am growning and learning alongside them; that I make mistakes. But, most importantly, it illustrates those same points to me.

Sample Forms:
General Feedback Form
Exam Feedback Form

Friday, August 6, 2010

Reflections from Summer Institute for CS Educators

I presented two talks today at the Summer Institute for CS Educators here in Waterloo. The first was on The Effective Use of PowerPoint and the second was about Teaching Programming Through Game Design. I'm just going to jot down a few notes and reflections mainly for myself; if anyone finds them useful that is a bonus.

Effective Use of PowerPoint

I was very pleased with how this went, it could not have gone better. I really slimmed down my presentation from when I gave this talk as a student at Trent. That reductionist approach seemed to be the spark that led to an engaging conversation during the talk. I did not have time to get to the group activity of having the participants 'makeover' some slides I had brought in, but I don't think that was needed. The conversation we had was fascinating. I'm going to attempt to summarize some of the key points that I remember:
  • Too much text leads to us serving PowerPoint during the presentation. We need to ensure that PowerPoint is working for us.
  • Sometimes the best usage of PowerPoint is to not use it at all.
  • Allowing our students to use PowerPoint as a crutch (i.e. by having a text laden presentation that they read) may be great scaffolding to help them get over their fear of public speaking. We just need to remember to remove the scaffolding.
  • Tell your students to 'think graphically' about their presentation.
For next time, I would like to have attendees email me some slides prior to the presentation so I can have time to adjust them and we can discuss the changes during the presentation.

Teaching Programming Through Game Development

I felt a bit hectic in this presentation. It was a difficult arrangement as I was planning on working through a few demos with both Python and XNA, but when I got there I realized that would probably not work due to the differing comfort level with the languages.

Overall I was pleased with this presentation as well. I think for next time I would allow time for brainstorming of ideas of games students can program. Also a focus on how to use gaming to bring in the groups of students not typically represented in CS (i.e. anyone non-white male). I would also go through more of my assignments looking more at the idea of them as opposed to the code. Perhaps a bit more detail on how to develop games in a few other languages (like Java or C++) would be helpful


At this moment, I have received approximatly 10 submissions to my feedback form (had roughly 15 in the PPT session and 30-35 in the Game Dev session). The majority of the feedback is for the Game Dev session (I'm assuming that is because we were in the computer lab so they were able to fill the form out right then). Some highlights for changes for future presentations:
  • Show games in Java and C
  • More discussion of simple game ideas (as opposed to the graphical games I'm assuming)
  • Less lecture up front, get to the hands on portion ASAP
  • Time to code in XNA (this one is tricky as XNA has a steeper learning curve)
  • Examples that we can work with that allow us to develop parts of the program or improve it (once again, tricky as it implies a working knowledge of the language. Could have a Python example, Java example, C++ example and have them break off into teams. Would have to brush on my Java ...)
  • Have a break (PPT session) and do some sort of group activity (I agree, I had the idea for the makeover at the end and ran out of time. Perhaps moving that forward)
Overall, I am very pleased that I decided to do both presentations. Next stop .... STAO!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tech Tuesday: Create a Google Doc Form

Ok, I've decided to start a Tech Tuesday portion of the blog. One of my professors at Trent told me about her PD she runs at her school on Tuesdays for 1 hour after school educating teachers on the uses of technology. Since I don't have a school, I figured I would start with the blog.

So, today I want to discuss using Google Docs to create a form/quiz/information gather that also has a chart display for the results. This was definitly the show stealer at my recent OAPT presentation. So, here goes.

1. Get a Google Account. Visit Google and click on Sign In in the upper right corner. On the next page choose Create an Account Now. Your new Google Account gives you access to GMail, Google Docs, Google Reader, and Google Calender to name a few.

2. Click on Google Docs in the upper left (may be under More).

3. In Google Docs, click on Create New and select Spreadsheet. A new window will open. Click Form -> Create a Form. Create the form you are interested in (quiz, introduction form, feedback form). For the purposes of these directions, you will need to create questions that have distinct answers (T/F, MC, likert-style).

4. Back in your spreadsheet (which should now have your questions as column headings), click on New Sheet in the bottom left. This new sheet will be used to tally the results from your form. For this example, I am assuming that you created likert-style questions with a 5 point scale (this works best when all the questions have the same style and scale).

5. The values in row 1 should be the questions from your form (or abbreviated versions of them). The questions should start at B1. In the first column (starting in A2) start the scale for your question.

6. Now, we need to add in some formulas to count the responses. For example, in B2 I add a formula that counts all of the responses to the first question that were 1 (this example assumes you renamed the sheet that stores the data from the form as RawData).

=COUNTIF(RawData!B$2:B$103, $A2)

The COUNTIF function will count the data in the range (the first thing in the brackets) only if the value is equal to the second thing in the brackets. The RawData!B$2:B$103 is the range that the function looks over, cells B2 through B103 (this would allow for 102 responses) in the RawData sheet. The $ in front of the number ensures that the numbers do not change when we fill the equation down. The $A2 refers to the 1 placed in that cell, which is the value we want to count.

7. Fill the equation down by clicking the blue square in the corner of the cell highlight box and dragging down. Repeat for the remainder of your questions (by filling across).

8. Now we need to build a chart for our data. Start by selecting all of the data in the new sheet you have just finished making. Select Insert -> Chart to open the chart wizard. Set the Group Data by option to Columns, and ensure that both Use row 1 as labels and Use column A as labels are checked. Click save chart.

9. The chart will appear in the current sheet. Right-click the chart and select Move to own sheet.

10. Now you just need data to be processed into your beautiful chart. Click the Form option in the tool bar and choose Go to live form. This is the page that you can send to the people who you would like to fill out the form. Just copy the web address (the bit at the top of your web browser), and send it to your students. They do not need to log in and they do not need a Google Account to fill out the form. In fact anyone who knows the web address can fill out the form.

And that is that, you are now the proud owner of a GoogleDocs hosted spreadsheet creating form that has a nice chart to boot. I have opened the sample form I used for the screen shots, so you can access it through your Google Account. You can access the sample here.

Happy Googling!

My return

Well, that was a long month. Things have quieted down a bit so I'm hoping to resume my presence on the Internet again. Just thought I'd let people know I'm haven't forgotten about the blog.

Monday, April 5, 2010

On Jack Johnson, Trains and Curriculum ...

I was listening to Jack Johnson's excellent album In Between Dreams today when his song Breakdown came on. Here is an except of the lyrics for those who have not heard this song (which ranks as one of my favourite songs of all time):

I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
And, see what there is to see
And time is just a melody
All the people in the street
Walk as fast as their feet can take them
I just roll through town
And though my windows got a view
The frame I'm looking through
Seems to have no concern for now

When I first heard this album I was living in Cape Town, South Africa working as a waiter at a Mexican Restaurant (I know, it makes no sense). I listened to this song a lot as I was backpacking around Southern Africa and it resonated with my wish to get out of the bus I was in to explore everything that was rushing by me. But the bus kept going ...

Today, it hit me an entirely different way. I was thinking about all the times in school when we are exploring a curriculum mandated topic and the students and teacher would love to stop the curriculum train to explore the current topic. But the train keeps going ...

It seems to me that our current model of education views curriculum as the train; it drives education. This model may be preferred by some as it removes much of the control from the individual teachers, who may choose to teach different topics. However, what it fails to do is to allow for exploration, to permit creativity and to generate passion about the topics. We have a set time to explore a topic, and whether or not we want to move on, we must when the time is up (or we need to dredge through 3 more weeks on a topic no one cares about).

What if we instead switched our model and made the curriculum the track and allowed the teachers to control the train. We would all have a set path to follow, but we would be allowed to stop and gawk when it was appropriate. Or to speed on through when the scenery wasn't to the groups liking. We could even stop the train in the station for a day or so and go on a walkabout; exploring that stop in more detail because our students wanted to.

Imagine that, no longer needing to view the curriculum just through our window frame which, according to Jack Johnson, "seems to have no concern for now", but instead getting out of the train and seeing things unobstructed, freely, and without restraint.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Where are the Students?

While wandering through the woods today:

I saw the deer and thought this is Biology.
I saw the different biomes and thought this is Geography.
I saw the roots of the upturned trees and thought this is History.
I saw chickadees flying through the air and thought this is Physics.
I heard the animals chattering around me and thought this is Music.
I saw the marsh grasses purifying the water and thought this is Chemistry.
I felt the perfection of nature and thought this is Math.
I saw the beauty around me and thought this is Art.
I felt connections to everything around me and thought this is Philosophy.
I felt these words flow through me and thought this is English.

Then I saw that I was alone,

And I thought, where are the students?

What did you learn in school today?

I learned that knowledge is static.
I learned that I have no hope of learning on my own, knowledge must come from my teacher.
I learned that learning is best done quietly and in rows.
I learned that fun has no place in life.
I learned that I am not smart enough to learn on my own.
I learned that conformity is valued more than creativity.
I learned that my opinion and ideas are worthless.
I learned that my greatest achievement will be a test score.

What did you teach your students today?

Friday, March 26, 2010

The beginnings of #scisat

So, I had another idea (which I have apparently followed through with ... go me!). I am a huge fan of science laboratories that are open-ended and allow for students to learn important soft skills such as observation, note-taking, hypothesising, problem solving and communication. Personally, I don't care much for labs where a 'correct' answer must be found. In school, I usually reversed engineered them to solve for the answer and add in some experimental error to make it look better.

So, on to the idea. The creation of #scisat. Every Saturday (or Sunday, or apparently Friday as I posted early ... Maple Syrup Festival tomorrow and all) I will post a science idea that helps to foster the skills I listed above. Anything is fair game from labs to demos and journal ling to technology.

If you like the idea and the inaugural posting Spicy Spicy Science, let people know. Let's start #scisat as the way of communicating our ideas with each other. Let's bring science back (hmm, I smell a song ... is Justin Timberlake on twitter?)

Science Saturday: Spicy Spicy Science

So, I like hot food. I like science. Why not combine them together? I was listening to Tom Allen on CBC Radio 2 Shift today (apparently, he provides me with much insight) discuss the Scoville Unit and determining the heat of peppers. Then I got to thinking about converting it into a science lab. Here we go:

So, Wilbur Scoville designed this scale in 1912 to determine and compare the pungency of peppers. This is defined by the amount of capsaicin contained within the pepper. His test, known as the Scoville Organoleptic Test, involves soaking dried peppers in alcohol (capsaicin is alcohol-soluble) and determining by how much it must be diluted with sugar water until it is undetectable to taste. So a pepper with a rating of 2000 Scoville Units must be diluted over 2000 times (its original volume) to render it unpercetable by human taste.

How does this apply to the science classroom? Well, this makes a fantastic open ended science lab that can cover important topics such as: experimental error, subjectivity of methodology, issues with perception, observation and experimental design.

My idea is to provide students with the background information presented above. Have them design an appropriate experiment to determine the Scoville Rating of an unknown sample. Provide each student group with a different sample (I would recommend nothing too hot as it can burn eyes and mucous membranes) and let them run their experiment. Students should have the opportunity to present and discuss the different methodologies chosen by their peers.

Of course, the one outstanding question on your mind is: you want me to have students drink alcohol? Well, it is unfortunate that capsaicin is not water soluble, but it is fat and oil soluble so I would recommend using vegetable/olive oil instead of alcohol in class.

Finally, here is how Scoville did it. He had a minimum of five tasters who were allowed to taste only once per session to prevent prior tastings from influencing their decisions. Because of the subjectivity of the testing, today we test through liquid chromatography.

One more extension is to discuss why drinking water after eating food spiced with capsaicin doesn't work (it is not water soluble). Whereas the drink of choice, beer, has a mild amount of alcohol which can alleviate the burning sensation. The alternative drink, milk, has a compound casein (which is lipophilic or fat-loving) that surrounds the fatty capsaicin molecules and washes them away.

This is a easy to run lab which should provide ample opportunities for students to explore the scientific method while having a bit (or heaps) of fun.

More information on Scoville, capsaicin and peppers:
Chile Pepper Scoville Scale
The chemistry of capiscum

Monday, March 22, 2010

Top 100 Education Books

Well, I've been sitting on this idea for a bit now and I think it is time to unleash it. I was scouring the net for some amazing way of implementing it, but I can't find anything that doesn't require me to host a web site myself. So, without further ado ...

My idea is to have teachers collaborate and generate the Top 100 Education Books that aspiring, new, and current teachers should read to improve and inform their practice (with thanks to Tom Allen at CBC Radio 2 Shift for the inspiration). This of course is a unending project as new ideas are introduced and new literature produced.

This will be hosted at the shift-ED wiki site and should be ready to be unleashed in its entirety shortly. So, get pondering and get ready to produce the greatest list ever produced (that references books about education).

Theme Days

I've always toyed with the idea of having theme days in my class. People love structure and routine as much as they may need change. Having theme days can allow for the structure, give students the chance to get settled and prepare them to venture into the unknown. My current idea is to spend 5-15 minutes each class on the particular theme. My week would look like this:

Monday Madness -> Show a short video showcasing some cool science
Tuesday -> Individual silent reading
Wacky Wednesday -> Some cool demonstration (may not apply to what we are studying)
Thursday -> Individual silent reading
Famous Friday -> A short bio on a famous scientist

For the silent reading, students would be allowed to read whatever they like (as long as it is not rude). I would also have a variety of reading material in the class library in case students forgot to bring something. I think having students pair up afterwards to discuss something they read is a nice extension.

Sure this would take time away from teaching content, but in the long run I think more science would be learned and taken away.

Reflections on my continuing job hunt

Well, I think some back story is in order:

I graduated Teacher's College in April of 2009 (from Trent University). I am certified as a Intermediate/Senior (grades 7-12) teacher in Physics and Computer Science. I went into Teacher's College with over 10 years teaching experience (first aid, adult ed, ESL)

So, while I was there we knew the Ontario market was poor (or dismal may be better). However, I was always told "Oh, you have physics you'll be ok". Unfortunately, that turned out to not be the case. I think I may have rested on my laurels a bit.

So, currently I am Associate Faculty at Conestoga College (a contractual position), I tutor, teach first aid/lifeguarding and do computer consulting. I have applied to over 80 public school jobs and have received one interview. Don't ask me why I got a job at a college and not in a high school, I don't know either. Lastly, I am currently hunting for a high school teaching position.

So, the purpose of this post is to share what I have learned in my year of job searching:

1. Do not get discouraged. If you want to teach, find ways to make it happen. Tutor, volunteer, blog, teach random people on the street. Make sure you doing what you love.

2. The hardest part for me is being ignored. I wish people would call/email and tell me that they didn't hire me. That would be nice; but that has happened twice. What typically happens is well nothing. And that nothing can be hard to swallow.

3. If you don't know someone in a board, it will be tough. This is my predicament. In chatting with my colleagues at Trent, it seems there are two groups who get jobs: French teachers and those with connections. So, if you are currently connectionless get connecting. For web tools try blogging, twitter and LinkedIn. Volunteer at the school you want to be at. Go to conferences (or better speak at conferences). Call in old favours. You just want to get to the interview, then you can shine.

4. If you aren't getting interviews, check your resume but don't freak out about it. This is what I did, I would constantly re-examine my resume for the tiniest errors. I was convinced my phone number was wrong. Then I realized that in times of job shortages, a resume means nothing if they already know who they want to hire. That being said, if anyone has ever offered to look at your resume, take them up on it.

5. Build your personal brand. This is my latest discovery. If people don't know who you are they typically won't call you for an interview. So, how do you get people to know who you are? The contemporary ways include: volunteering, getting someone to introduce you, or getting a job you don't want at the company (i.e. mail cart person) so you can at least get your foot in the door (does this work outside of Hollywood?). However, with social media, you have new tools that work much faster at your disposal. Start blogging about your experiences getting a job, or your love of teaching, or what you would do if you were teaching. Start using Twitter to connect to other educators (who may know of jobs). Create a virtual resume at LinkedIn which allows you to make connections with people you know and don't know.

6. Do not rest on your laurels. This was my mistake. I felt that by throwing out resumes, people would flock to me with jobs. They didn't. I did everything I thought I could to help me out while at Trent: I gave presentations, I applied for (and won) awards, I took my Senior Math ABQ. None of it seemed to help (well except for Conestoga). If you want to teach, you can not stop actively trying, no matter what anyone says.

Well, this post is getting long (I may have to go for the award of most long-winded blogger) so I will save future ideas for another posting.

Good luck with the search!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Can Creativity Exist in School?

One of students (thanks Paul) recently sent me the link to the excellent TED video by Sir Ken Robinson as he discusses his view that school kills creativity.

This is a fantastic video and an excellent analysis of creativity and schooling. I have pondered on this video since I was introduced to it in Teacher's College. How do we spark creativity in education? How do we stop the bludgeoning of creativity that happens in school every day.

I just finished my second in-class course at Conestoga. We finished up with informal presentations where each student demonstrated their final project. The project was to create a first-person shooter game (it was a Game Development course). When I laid out the assignment description I stressed the importance of creating a project that suited them. The result was 5 very distinct, very unique final projects. I had one remake of the classic NES Duck Hunt game; one zombie-box shooter; one maze game; one helicopter shooter; and one game for those of us who apparently hate tetrahedrons. All distinct submissions that met the loose criteria I specified. In all of the projects, the students learned what was deemed to be important. But perhaps more importantly, they went beyond the assignment description to include features and functionality that I never dreamed would be added. The other interesting side effect was the ownership that each student showed over their project while they presented it. That and the pride they had in their work. Now, I do work in adult education and adults may be better suited to creating their own ideas on projects. But, I don't feel that they are more apt to this form of learning than our younger learners. Adults may embrace it more, because they have had more experience with self-directed learning because they have had to learn those skills ... outside of school. The interesting thing I noted was that with each new assignment, the submissions became more and more unique; more and more creative.

At the end of the day does it matter than one student forgot to add sound effects because they got caught up building 3D models? Not at all, because they learned something more important than knowledge. They learned how to learn. Because at the end of the day, according to this educational researcher, they probably won't remember what was taught anyway ...

On the pedagogy of making pancakes

In my home, we've recently begun experimenting with making our own pancakes from scratch. The first thing we realized is just how easy it is to prepare excellent tasting, nutrious pancakes from scratch. We felt almost deceived by the pancake mix companies (you know who you are) for tricking us into thinking we needed pancake mix. Then we realized that we had allowed that to happen.

The interesting thing about making pancakes is how it mixes both science and art. You can easily get a recipe from the Internet to make pancakes of any description. The quantities of ingredients needed and the order to mix them is easy to follow. However, I have learned that the art of cooking the pancake is not so easily described.

I find myself sometimes watching the pancakes closely as they cook in the pan. On these occasions I tend to flip them before they are ready and they just don't look nice once they are done. On other occasions, I become distracted, either intrinsically or extrinsically, and forget to flip the pancakes and they burn. However, on those rare occasions the right mix of attention and distraction occurs and I flip the pancake at the perfect moment and it looks, well, good enough to eat.

I've tried to scientifically determine when the pancake should be flipped. The recipes say to wait until the bubbles have formed deep in the middle. However for my combination of cheap stove and cast iron pan, that causes them to burn. Some days I need to flip before bubbles form and other days I need to wait to flip. There appears to be no consistent pattern regarding the flipping of the pancake. It seems to be determined by the state of the mix, the pan and the stove on that particular day.

Sure things may work better if I had a stove that actually distributed heat properly. Or maybe if I chose to use a Teflon pan. But regarding the stove, I work with what I have. Regarding the cast iron pan, it may be archaic, it may be more work, but it makes everything taste so much better.

To spice up the pancakes, we experiment with adding fruit to the mix. Pineapples, apples, bananas, and strawberries have all made it into the mix at some point. These small additions help keep things fresh.

Now, when we first started we went on a pancake bonanza and ate them everyday for a week. That resulted in the avoidance of pancakes for the next week. Now we try to balance pancakes with other meals like a nice hearty oatmeal or some greasy French toast.

I know that every time I make pancakes I do it better, faster and easier. I am better able to predict when to flip the pancakes to have them turn out perfectly. I still screw up here and there and burn one or under cook some, but I take those mistakes in stride, learn from them and move forward.

Just some food for thought ... (sorry, its late couldn't resist the horrible pun)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reflections at the End of My First Course

Well, I just finished teaching my first in-class course at Conestoga College . In my first semester I only taught Mixed Learning (think structured self study) so I never physically taught in the classroom (only proctored). Overall, I am very pleased with how the course turned out. But, let's start at the beginning.

I was asked to teach the course the Friday before it started (on Tuesday), and only received the textbook and course outline that Monday. The course was on Adobe InDesign which is desktop publishing software. I remember being in a huge rush to get something thrown together (as I had nothing) for the first night.

I was nervous about teaching at the College. For the last year I had been studying and preparing myself to teach in a High School; now I was teaching adults in Continuing Education. I have taught adults before, but never in a course of this length (usually weekend First Aid courses). I was worried that all the pedagogy I had learned wouldn't apply. Turns out I was wrong.

Because the course was not already prepared for me (as they usually are at the College), I decided to work with the students to decide what we would cover in the latter half of the course (after the midterm). This went very well. We also completely reworked the final two assignments combining them into one project. Finally, we converted the final exam into a presentation, where the students could share their projects and their learning with the class. That just happened a few hours ago and it went splendidly. I was nervous about broaching the idea of presentations to the group, and although there were some reservations, everyone was on board. Now, I am glad I chose to bring it up in class.

I used my class wiki from my mixed learning classes last semester. It ended up being used mainly as a static, teacher updated website. A few additions were made by students in the early weeks, but that did not carry forward. I realize now I made two mistakes with it: I should have spent a bit of time each class explaining how to use it as a wiki; and I should have set time in class for students to contribute to it, thus letting them get used to the idea. I was toying with assigning contributions to the wiki (i.e. giving it marks), but I'm on the fence. I don't like to force people to do something they may not want to, but sometimes we need that to begin using something new. I guess I force them to do assignments and tests, so why not using the wiki. Wikis are more fun anyway!

I would like to incorporate more collaborative learning in my next courses. I was nervous to deviate from a directed learning approach as my past experiences with adult education had indicated that approach worked best. However, based on tonight's success, I may have need to reevaluate my past observations.

I have also been pondering the idea of having my students complete real work for real companies (for free of course). I tried to make my assignments as realistic and useful as possible, but in design, nothing beats working for a real client. I've never done this before, so I really don't know where to begin. I also want to work on not talking so much. I'd love to talk only in 5 minute segments and then only for 4-5 of those. I'm just not sure how to do that with teaching application software where so much of the lesson is working through how to use the software.

I already have some ideas for incorporating Twitter and Wordle into my next classes (on the programming language Python and a course on Database Design). I'll post some of those ideas in a future posting. But for now I must be off to bed. I've got a couple of interviews on Thursday so I need my beauty sleep.

Reply to Katie Stoynoff's Article

I recently read Katie Stoynoff's article in the Huffington Post entitled To Strength Education, Strengthen Teacher Education Programs. It is an excellent article with many sentiments that I agree with. Now, being Canadian, we have a different teacher education program but ours is not without many of the same faults as our peers across the border.

There are problems with our current educational model, that can not be denied. It seems that everyone has an idea as to the source of the problem and how to fix it. Many people push technology as the panacea that will cure all of our ills. Many look to a lack of funding or a lack of standards or a lack of standardized testing. Some blame the students whereas others blame the parents. Teachers of course are never left out of the equation (see Bill Maher' rant for more on that).

When a system is failing, there are no easy answers. However, many of the so called causes are not causes but effects. When you want to change a system, it must be done from the top down. And that is were I completely agree with Stoynoff; let's change Teacher Education to better prepare new teachers.

Where I don't agree is her insistence that we raise the GPA admission standard. Teachers who did well in the current school model will be more likely to propagate that model indefinitely. In Ontario, you must have a university degree to teach; this denies many potentially excellent teachers who chose to go to college instead. It also propagates the hegemony of public schools being feeding grounds for universities, thereby further alienating those students who do not wish to attend university.

Her point of Mr. Shank mixing fun with instruction is one that is not made enough. When did we decide to separate fun and learning? But, that is for another posting ...

What do you think about this article?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Direction of this Blog

With much thought, I've decided to refocus the direction of my blog. There are a number of excellent resources that are available discussing the newest web2.0 technologies. I will eventually post some links to the ones I like. I don't see the usefulness of reiterating what already exists.

So, what to do. I am going to focus on the integration of new ideas into the classroom; looking at the holistic idea of teaching. This is something that I have not been able to find elsewhere (although I have no doubts it exists in the blogosphere somewhere). I want to focus in on the art of teaching while not losing sight of the science. I will do this by analysing and reflecting upon my own practice as I delve deeper into the pedagogical ideas I have. With this, I hope to generate conversation as we collaborate to become better teachers.

I will still look at new technologies. However, instead of just talking about them, I want to focus on integrating them within the big picture of teaching. Because if they don't add to the picture, then maybe they don't belong in the classroom. I don't know. I guess we will find out ...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Can We Build a Better Teacher?

I recently read an article from the entitled Building a Better Teacher. It has been making its way around the net and seems to be garnering positive reviews. I wanted to take a second to offer my opinion on the matter.

Before I delve into the article, I feel I need to expound upon my own theories a bit (to only be fair). Continuing with one of my previous posts where I elaborated on my views of technology. According to Franklin, there are prescriptive and there are holistic technologies. Prescriptive technologies attempt to reduce problems down to a set of discrete, independent steps. These steps can be completed with no idea of the final product, no investment in the process and with no connection to the subsequent step. Whereas holistic technologies give control of the entire process to the worker; these are the technologies utilized by artisans for example. I feel that true teaching falls into this category, as a holistic technology.

For me, teaching is both art and science. Art is the appreciation of the beautiful in abstract, holistic terms. Whereas science is the appreciation of the beautiful in logical, ordered terms. To me they are not two sides of the same coin, or at different ends of the spectrum. In my mind, they are each a lens in the glasses we view the world through. When we focus too much through the science lens we lose perspective on the abstractness and chaos that exists around us. If we insted choose to only view through the artistic lens, we lack an understanding of the order that exists in the world. This may sound contradictory or oxymoronic, but order can not exist without chaos.

True teachers are able to balance between these two lenses. They apply the skills and knowledge they need to impart the lessons they have decided need to be taught. The means of dissemination can appear to be random to an outside observer, because the true teacher is teaching to many people; many minds; many views.

The work being performed by Lemov as reported in this article attempts to reduce teaching down to its science side only. He is working on creating a series of discrete, independent steps that anyone (or anything) could take to 'teach' a class. To me, this is no different to watching Kenneth Branagh play Hamlet versus watching me play Hamlet. His performance is a nuanced act of beauty, mine would be a focused repetition of a series of memorized steps. It would appear forced and unnatural.

I always have two initial thoughts when I read of an 'educational researcher' attempting to quantify the act of teaching to help 'build better teachers'. My first thought is that if they are successful, why don't we just program a robot to perform these steps. With the proper logic, it is a fully possible feat. Why would we need people to teach anymore, if all those people are doing is performing a series of quantifiable, discrete, programmable steps.

My second thought stems from the 'build a better teacher' idea. Why not build a better student instead? What would a better student look like? If you assume we need better teachers, and the proof that better teachers have been produced is the attainment of better grades, then in essence you imply that we need better students.

I would like to examine a few quotes from the article:

This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. (p7)

I don't feel that what Lemov is touting is pedagogical knowledge. It is a series of classroom management techniques. My view of pedagogy relates to methods of sharing knowledge in the classroom, not the methods of controlling the learners. Effective pedagogy negates the need for classroom management techniques (in all but the most extreme cases).

“But I feel like it’s insufficient. . . . It doesn’t matter what questions you’re asking if the kids are running the classroom.” (p8)

I'm not sure if this is meant in a positive light (i.e. democratic classroom) or in a negative light (i.e. the kids are running rampant). If it is the former, then I don't understand how it wouldn't matter what questions you ask. So, I lean towards it being the latter. This to me is the most telling aspect of Lemov's own personal pedagogy: children need to be controlled while in school. I don't subscribe to this so I can't subscribe to his 'manifesto'.

For these kinds of challenges, Bellucci leans on Kramer’s seven years of experience teaching math, plus her own applied math degree from nearby Union College. She also improvises. (p9)

She also improvises? But, that can't be reduced to a prescription? It must be implied that this improvisation is negative by Lemov's own hypothesis.

While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. (p9)

Thank you.

And while Lemov has faith in his taxonomy because he chose his champions based on their students’ test scores (p9)

Really? Well, I guess I can prove anything with that application of the scientific method.

“You could change the world with a first-year teacher like that,” he said. (p9 Lemov)

If that is so, why has the world not changed? A statement like that is only made if the premise is untrue (i.e. the world is unchanged, needs changing and can be changed). I don't understand his need for this statement, it is pure rhetoric.

For an interesting counter-point by Malcolm Gladwell (who I just learned was born in the city I now live in ... cool), I would encourage you to read Most Likely to Succeed.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why Use Web2.0 in Your Classroom?

So, I know I promised to start looking at actual uses of technology, but I was thinking discussing why we might want to use them might make more sense. Then I started thinking and realized that I probably should talk about why I use web2.0 technologies in my classroom. So here goes ...

As a teacher, I believe that one of my most important duties is to prepare my students to creatively contribute to our society. The society they will build does not yet exist. The memorization of facts that may become obsolete will not help. Instead students need to become learners, they need to be taught how to teach themselves. Eric Hoffer sums up this beautifully with his comment:

"In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

I was talking with a friend the other day and reminiscing about programming on a Commodore 64. We started wondering what we did back in those days to find information, before Google. We couldn't remember. The Internet has completely changed how we access and store information. The memorization of information is no longer as necessary as it once was. The teaching of information gathering and processing is now vital.

Web2.0 has the power to put the content of the Internet, the information, back into the hands of the users. We live now in an age where Wikipedia is touted as being as accurate as Encyclopedia Britanica, where blogs and tweets are becoming many peoples main source of news.

How do we prepare our students to exist and contribute and build this brave new world? How do we help our students understand the responsibility they have to add to the ever-building content on the net? How do we help them to see what is true and what is hyperbole? The same way we always have, through effective modeling of best practices. I believe that as a teacher I must show my students how to navigate and utilize these new tools, how to mold and direct them, how to learn from them.

This is why I choose to teach web2.0 ...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

More depth on yesterday's post

I feel that I should explore the introduction in yesterday's post a bit more. I want to define my current educational philosophy on technology and teaching. I tend towards Ursula Franklin's views on technology: that it is a set of practices that exists here and now. According to Franklin, "Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset."[1] So, in essence technology is anything that we use to solve any problem. I find this definition to be much truer to my sense of technology.

So, that means that on this site we could examine almost anything ... which is exciting. However, I think I will start with some uses of some of the things you find on this blog, such as: twitter, apture, and the blog itself.

Until tomorrow ...

[1] Franklin, Ursula. (1992) The Real World of Technology. (CBC Massey lectures series.) Concord, ON: House of Anansi Press Limited. ISBN 0-88784-531-2

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Welcome to shift-ED. With this blog (and various other accompanying sites), I hope to explore new, old and interesting ideas relating to education. My idea is to have the main focus be towards the use of technology in the classroom to create collaborative, experiential learning environments. But, we never know how these things evolve. Miscellaneous posts regarding education and teaching will probably make there way in here as well.

Since the purpose of this site is to foster collaborative learning environments, I would be remiss to not encourage as much here as possible. I'm creating a wiki site to allow for ideas, feedback and suggestions to be posted more freely (and to help showcase the technology).

The idea behind the name shift-ED is to focus on the constant ebbing and flowing that occurs within all things that are social in nature; education being no exception. While exploring new ideas and technologies, the old methodologies that work should not be ignored simply because they are aged. The name represents the shift required to incorporate these new tools, while perhaps shifting our views on education and its purpose slightly.

I relish the opportunity to explore this with you.