Monday, February 6, 2012

Overcoming stereotypes in science

I recently tweeted out a link to this Tumblr (This Is What A Scientist Looks Like) in which they post pictures of scientists in their natural habitat (complete with David Attenborough discussing their mating rituals).  I received a tweet in response to it (from @MissDSciTeacher):

which inspired this post.  What a great way to not only overcome students misconceptions about scientists but also to discuss stereotypes and cognitive biases.

Following Danielle's suggestions, have students come up with what they think a scientist looks like, acts like, or has for personality traits.  Then have them peruse the Tumblr.  At that point lead a discussion about the differences between the perceived idea of a scientist and the reality of a scientist (of course assuming their is dissonance there, which there most likely will be).

From here you can lead the discussion in what causes us to have stereotypes and why they are so difficult to get rid.  This leads perfectly into a discussion of confirmation bias, which is something that should be discussed in every science classroom (and in my opinion, every student should leave school aware of their own cognitive biases and how to correct for them).

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why not weigh your own head?

Looking for something fun to do this weekend?  Why not design a way to weigh your own head?  Too weighty?

I was watching QI (Hypothetical) in which Steven Fry poses the question: "How would you weigh your own head?", which I thought would be a fantastic open-ended question to pose to a science class:

Design an method that would allow someone to weigh their own head (within a certain degree of accuracy).  
The method that was proposed was to utilize Archimedes' Principle and submerge your head in a bucket of water while catching the spillage (which I think would be an excellent thing to do in class as well).

Johnny Vegas then wondered if the air pockets in our head would affect the measurement (which I felt was an excellent question and one that a student could pose).  Apparently (according to Steven Fry), the density of the bones in our skull is greater than that of water, so coupled with the lesser density of the air pockets, the overall density of our head is roughly equivalent to water.  The submersion method gets a result nearly equivalent to using a CT scanner to approximate the weight.

What do you think?  Can you come up with an alternative method of weighing your own head?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

From Now On I Blog Posthumously

One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer. You don’t really care about public opinion now, you don’t mind about sales, you don’t care what the critics say. You don’t even care what your friends, your peers, your beloved think. You’re free. Death is a very liberating thought.
Christopher Hitchens

This quote has stayed with me since I stumbled upon it a week or so ago.  Hitchens was a personal hero of mine, and his death is a blow to all of humanity.

In resuming my blogging again I have been resisting an urge to in effect pander to gain more traffic.  As if more traffic would mean my blog was better.  In that I have made an error: it is my blog and it will only be better if it remains mine.  I mustn't think twice about posting if my thoughts are to wonder if this will boost my traffic or bring me more followers.  So, from now on I write as if posthumously.

Changes to My In-Class Approaches

I have recently made some drastic changes in my classroom which I wish to document here for my own records:
  1. I removed from the course schedule a listing of which topics would be taught when.  My main reason (other than I don't enjoy making them) is that I feel constrained by them.  When we need extra time on a topic in class, my guideline (which I make myself and am not forced to follow) urges me to push on.  I don't like that.  What I find most interesting, is unlike other teachers, I actually don't have to follow a guideline, as I am the only teacher teaching my program (which I created myself) and have (close to) total autonomy.  However, I still feel a desire to keep up with them which is absurd.  So, to alleviate that issue, I have done away with them.  Instead, I now post what reading the students are to do on the course website on a daily basis (based on how much we covered in class that day).
  2. I have started providing time in class for students to work on their assignments and have instead assigned readings to be completed out of class.  This is to provide them with an opportunity to get assistance while working on their assignments which they can't do while working at home (most likely alone).  Of course, they could run into trouble with the reading, but I hope that they can record their questions and bring them into class the next day.  Whereas getting stuck on an assignment may be more debilitating to their self-confidence as they work towards becoming Coding Ninjas/Gurus.
  3. I have reinstated late penalties.  I removed them ages ago as I don't like them (and still don't).  However, this lead to the majority of students submitting all their assignments at the last possible moment (which was after the final exam).  This meant they weren't finishing them prior to the exam to gain the experience, exposure, and feedback possible from working through the code.  It also meant we were unable to take up the assignments in class.  So, now I have created due dates and the policy that the assignment will be addressed in class the day that it is due and a maximum mark of 50% will be given for assignments submitted after that time.  I am still not happy about the late penalty but haven't formalized a better alternative yet.

Monday, January 2, 2012

My best practices are better than yours ...

I've been sitting on this post for a while now.  A few weeks ago, I lurked an #edchat twitter chat on defining best practices in education.  I had to stop halfway through as I think I was close to having a coronary.  I will attempt to summarize the general flow of the conversation:
  1. Best practices are awesome.
  2. Umm, what are best practices exactly?
  3. We should find a way of sharing best practices so we all can benefit from each others ideas.
  4. Maybe best practices are not global, instead there are best practices for each teacher-learner-classroom combination.
  5. The moment you say a practice is best it constrains the learning.
  6. We should find a way of sharing best practices so we all can benefit from each others ideas.
  7. The very idea of best practices is silly as all of our practices are best, it's all relative.
  8. Head asplode ....
So, I have decided to lay out my ideas on best practices in education.  I recently finished reading Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape in which he attempts to define a scientific basis for human morality (which in itself is a fascinating idea).  In it, he defines the goal of morality as maximizing the well-being of the greatest number of people possible.  He defines a spectrum that ranges from the worst possible suffering to everyone (at the bad end in case you weren't following along) and the greatest possible well-being for everyone at the top.  He then posits that we can investigate moral choices that move us either towards the worst suffering or away from it.  This can then be analysed scientifically.  

I propose a similar model for defining best practices in education.  One in which have a spectrum from the worst possible education for everyone to the best possible education.  Of course, this requires that we decide what the goal of education is (one of my largest complaints about #edchat discussions is the lack of focus towards achieving a salient goal).  If we take Dewey's stated aim of education as the 'development of reflective, creative, responsible thought' as our goal we have a starting point.  Of course we would now all need to agree as to what that meant.  However, as Harris notes we are able to work towards a goal of improving health without having a clear definition of what health is (although the seeming popularity of pseudo-medicine may show that the lack of a clear definition is fundamentally unstable).

Once we have defined a goal, we can start to measure the results of various practices and if they move us towards or away from that stated goal.  In this regard we can measure the effectiveness of practices and therefore can isolate practices that cause the greatest progress and encourage those practices while stifling the practices that are detrimental.

Note that nowhere in this exposition did I state or imply that there is only one possible best practice.  As Harris states his moral landscape can have multiple peaks on it where being on top of that peak would be the greatest possible well-being; as would being on an alternate peak.  My ideas for best practices is similar, there could be multiple peaks where we achieve the maximum possible education for all people just as there could be multiple means of scaling those peaks.

To summarize, the idea of a best practice is moot without a clear statement of purpose for education.  We need to know what the end point is to define something as being best.  A best practice would then therefore be an approach that maximizes our movement towards this goal.  Although best practices may only exist in theory, they can still exist.  As I have argued before, it all comes back to the purpose, the goal of education.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Gender: It's all in your head you know ....

I just finished reading Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender and highly recommend it.  In fact I think it should be required reading for all teachers and parents.  Anyway, I wanted to write about a few highlights from an educational standpoint.

One of the greatest challenges facing science (and computer science) is the lack of female students (and non-white students).  In fact, it is such an issue that many believe it is more data that woman are not capable of mathematics and science due to their brain structure.  In fact, one educational consultant even gave a number of talks to this very topic.  He spoke about a region of the brain known as the 'crockus' -- a region that is four times larger in girls than in boys.  Due to this, girls see the details but not the whole picture whereas the reverse is true for boys.  This is great news from an educational standpoint as it could help us tailor our teaching methods to how the brain is geared for learning.  Great news ... if it was even remotely true.  There is no region known as the crockus, let along having it be at least 4 times the size in girls.  However, sadly, the fact that a consultant is spouting this garbage is true (see here and here).

Sadly, this misinformation is impacting our approach to education and most of it is as much of a crock as the idea of the crockus (I did not make that name up, but couldn't resist the last sentence).

Fine demolishes much of the current tripe that amounts for gender based (perhaps biased is a better choice) neuroscience on the market, instead exploring the socio-cultural roots of our ideas of gender.  For example, the very act of marking your sex on a test (a common occurrence on standardized tests) caused European American women to feel more confident about their verbal abilities (a trait commonly thought of as 'female') and less confident with their math abilities (a skill associated with maleness).  For men, the results were reversed.  The simple act of checking a box can change performance.  As educators we need to be aware of these sociological effects so that we can mitigate them in our classrooms.  For example, if gender must be recorded (to appease the powers that be), place the question at the end of the test.  Or have a proctor track gender by seating plan (which could be correlated with the tests afterwards).

I highly recommend the book and would consider it to be mandatory reading for all educators and parents.  Make it your first New Year's resolution.