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!