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.