Saturday, May 28, 2011

Some Thoughts About Teaching.

This isn’t a recurring nightmare but it is a recurring thought. After fouteen years of teaching I really don’t have a clue how to do it. 
I  go to work and my classes are organized and on task and  I have a pretty good reputation as a teacher. I actually think I am pretty effective, or at least above average. But when it comes to figuring out how to do it, I really don’t know. I think about this because effective teaching is in the news. It is the news; America is in all stages of a decline and crisis because of a lack of effective teaching. So if I fancy myself as an effective teacher than it only seems fair that I should be able to explain how to do it. But I can’t. 
I am in good company. There is an interview with Richard Feynman a Nobel prize winning physicist who was also a professor at Cal Tech. Besides being a brilliant physicist his reputation as a teacher was beyond reproach You can  still go on Amazon and buy books that are simply transcripts of his lectures on physics even though the lectures are over forty years old. 
But in the interview he admits that after many years of teaching he still doesn’t know how to do it. He relates teaching his young son science through a fantastic make believe world he invents as bedtime stories. He tells how interested and excited his son was, and how much he learned. But then he had a daughter. She wanted nothing to do with it, she wanted traditonal bedtime stories. Feynman thought it was because they had different personalites. 
In his formal teaching he tries a skattergun approach, send a lot  of stuff out there and see what sticks. But he doesn’t know why some stuff sticks for some people and why others are bored by the topics some find fascinating. He asks the question just how do you get people interested, which in edu-talk is how do we get them intrinsically motivated. And I wonder that too. 
I have two physical science classes this year. One is large, 32 students and the other is about half that size. The large class  gets more of their work in, stays on task better and has consistently better grades. 
Interestingly the small class defies the  conventional wisdom of the positive effects of small class size. Fewer of them consistently get their work in, stay on task and as result the class average is about a full letter grade lower. 
This could have something to do with unintentional “tracking.” In our small school, especially in their freshmen year, the band is a big driver of the schedule. And as might be expected “Band Kids” typically are somewhat better students. So that might explain part of the discrepency. And for whatever reason there are more at-risk kids and attendance problems in the small class so that could also explain the difference. 
But there is more interesting difference than grades. In the smaller class the students consistently raise very interesting questions and we have wide ranging discussions about science. They really think about it and make the connectins to their real world. They say things like, “Oh so that’s why such and such happens....”
While in the other class I have to pull teeth to get a discussion going and it is rare to have a kid ask a question that shows some deeper understanding.  Frankly, it is a more boring class to teach. 
So in the end while I give both classes the same assignments, projects and tests, I think at the end of the day the “poor” students learn more science. For some reason these kids get more interested and as a result learn more. But how does a teacher make that happen?  How can we train teachers to make that happen, to make teachers more effective, to cure our country's ills? I wish I knew. 
 Here is the actual Feynman interview. It is very interesting, especially if you like Feynman.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I just came away from reading about the latest scheme from the educational industrial complex for evaluating teachers. Thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the wonders of technology a 360 degree camera records everything going on in  a classroom in real time, tie this to a helmet cam on the teacher’s head and implanted microchips in student’s arms and administrators will be able to collect massive data streams to evaluate teacher effectiveness. It will be just like a reality show for your boss' enjoyment. 
Okay, there aren’t implants just yet, we need an amendment to the Patriot Act for that or at least a really good parental permission form, and  the helmet cam is still in development but the all seeing camera is real.  And the teacher does wear a microphone so that anything they say to a student is recorded. This will prove handy in those lawsuits that arise from a foolish teacher telling Johnny to his face that he really isn’t working up to his potential. 
Now the authors admit that even with the video there is “that pesky human subjectivity--whoever is watching the video is interpreting what he or she sees.” but "these kinds of technologies are going to be very attractive, given the demands on administrators these days.” Hopefully cash strapped districts will be able to hire experienced  observors to augment the administraotrs. Perhaps they can hire off duty security guards who watch the shoplifter cameras at Walmart. They can be up in the booth producing objective evaluations of teacher effectiveness. 
If you  are one of those worrying Willy’s don’t. Because as the authors say “these cutting-edge systems are potentially game changing technology, but less for teacher evaluation than for supporting teacher reflection.” This means that at the end of the day you can review the tapes for the big game tomorrow. Between making dinner and putting the kids to bed you can see who was texting or gazing off into space and adjust accordingly. 
I’m not worried but I will be the first to admit that in my fourteen years of teaching I haven’t  given 110% everyday. Just the other day a student  tied me up for almost 15 minutes talking. Not a word of it was related to the curriculum or the day’s lesson. The rest of the class was hopelessly off task. Now contrary to what instant replay would show,  we weren’t just killing time. It turns out this student’s father is about to go to jail and the mother is already there.  The student wasn’t sure where they were going to live. I didn’t have an answer  but I do wonder just where that sort of conversation fits in discussions about teacher effectiveness.