Sunday, January 22, 2017

Humans vs. Computers

We hear a lot these days about how computers (and robots) are taking over all the mundane tasks we humans do on a regular basis; how we have to change the way we're teaching in order to prepare students for a very different-looking workforce.

Robots/computers can vacuum our floors (hello, little Roomba!), mix fancy drinks for us, and can drive our cars. On assembly lines, robots complete tasks more efficiently and more consistently than we ever could as a species. They can even create abstract works of art and write newspaper articles.

I've often wondered what the limit is: 
Where is the threshold for what humans can do pretty well, but computers still can't do at all?

Last month, I discovered one possible answer: composing music.

Just before Christmas, a sound clip of the first computer-composed Christmas carol was released. This computer was fed hundreds of hours of traditional Christmas carols which it analyzed, decomposed, pulled the most common elements from, and then used to synthesize something completely original. 

Here it is - take a listen:

It's AWFUL. I'm pretty sure some of the youngest students I teach, who have very little experience in music, could come up with something better. Especially those lyrics. Yikes.

A computer can try and combine the most popular elements of existing songs - basically pulling from a huge resource bank, larger than any human would have access to - but can it really push the boundaries of music? Can a computer be daring? Can a computer take creative risks? At this point, I would venture that they cannot.

Humans, however, can. My husband (@christheij) is a music teacher. Recently, while looking for new choir music for the spring season, he found this gem by Katerina Gimon. Take a listen - it's well worth it.

Perhaps my favourite part of this piece is the score, which contains, among other unique things, the following as notation (seriously, this is actually written into the music) (yes, that's forte fire):

Humans are able to take knowledge of music and not just synthesize from it, but expand on it, creating completely unique music that sounds GOOD, even from seemingly random noises. Computers? Not yet.

So what are we preparing our students for? If the mundane and routine jobs will become automated, but computers still can't be THAT creative, then it's probably a good thing to focus on those 6 C's of 21st century learning: Critical thinking, Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, Citizenship and Character.

But that's not to say we should give up rigour. We humans are still pushing: deepening our knowledge of how our brain works, and translating this into robots and artificial intelligence. The "hard" skills of the scientific method, understanding mathematical processes, and logic sequences that come with activities such as coding need to still be at the forefront. 

With these as skills, our students may one day be able to write a program that allows a computer to compose music that actually makes sense to our ears. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

One Word 2017: Patience

Happy New Year!

True to all the resolution-making and reflection that happens at this time of year, I've been giving thought to what my #oneword2017 focus will be for this calendar year.

In 2015, my one word was JumpThis time last year, my one word was Reflection.

For 2017, my one word will be PATIENCE.

In the classroom, there are a lot of new and innovative things you can try and usually see results - of one kind or another - very quickly. Even if you're doing larger projects or trying bigger things that take months to implement, you can get a sense pretty quickly of how things are going.

In my current position as a co-ordinator, a lot of what I do is behind the scenes. I'm no longer the one interacting with the students, trying out the new ideas, or monitoring how things are going. I'm much more of a facilitator: more learning, assisting, and guiding, and less direct implementation.

Because of this, I would like to focus on patience:

  • Patience with my own learning: I'm doing a LOT of new learning when it comes to the collaborative inquiry process, special education, instructional strategies in math, and the transition from grade 8 to grade 9. Learning, and the reflection/digestion process that accompanies it, takes time. I'm not going to become well-versed in all of these overnight - I have to recognize that to learn well and deeply takes time.

  • Patience when implementing change: This school year, we experienced a LOT of change within our school board. I'm directly involved with changing co-ordinator-led professional development (sage on the stage) to collaborative inquiry-based learning (guide on the side). This is a new model for all of us, and we have to remember that though implementation may not go smoothly in the beginning, we'll learn from our school teams to improve the process over time.

  • Patience when working with others: It's been so great getting out and working with teachers throughout the board - I'm fascinated with the different viewpoints and backgrounds I encounter. In order to meet everyone's needs, I need to be patient, not make assumptions (or jump to conclusions), and really listen to those I work with. Not everyone will approach things the same way I would, which is an asset to how the teams work, but I have to remember to step back and appreciate the different perspectives.

  • Patience with filling in the big picture: A lot of what we're working on as board co-ordinators are long-range goals - small cogs in an overall machine that could have huge impacts over time. I have to keep this big picture in mind and remember that even though one particular project may not feel all that earth-shattering or impactful, together with all the other initiatives, we're crafting powerful models of learning and addressing student needs.

What is your #oneword2017 focus for this year?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Revitalizing eLearning

This summer, I was involved in a provincial writing project aimed at giving principals the tools for becoming leaders of learning in online environments. In coming up with ideas for the resource, as well as what shape the resource would take, there was a LOT of discussion about eLearning as a whole.

But one of the more powerful discussions came from a question that was raised several times during our time together: How do we take eLearning classes from "second best" to THE class that students want to take?

Right now, in Ontario education, eLearning takes a backseat to in-class learning. Students only take an eLearning course if that particular course isn't available at their school (or if there is a conflict between two classes the students want). It never seems to be a course students are *excited* to take, or choose to take, over a traditional class. 

Why is this?

Students often love that they can go at their own pace through an eLearning course (even though sometimes this backfires). But many often find the content monotonous (all reading), and find there is little interaction between the student and the teacher, or with other students. eLearning is often perceived as being dry, unengaging, impersonal, and difficult, the latter because students often feel they are learning "on their own." 

Other than allowing students in small, remote communities access to courses that couldn't otherwise be offered at their school, seems like eLearning might be a bit of a dud.

But few would argue that teaching with technology isn't powerful! Think of all the things we can do with technology that we couldn't do in schools fifteen years ago:

  • Provide access to a large range of resources on all topics and all at levels - we are no longer constrained to a single resource in the form of a textbook!
  • Instantly connect with each other - in something as short as a tweet or as in-your-face as a Google Hangout, there are so many ways to instantly connect with others around the globe.
  • Facilitate collaboration on a large scale - see above!
  • Give timely (instant!) right/wrong feedback to any student at any time, both in and out of class time - whenever the student needs it.
  • Demonstrate more complex concepts that can't be done in class. For example, there is no way we could repeat Millikan's oil drop experiment in Physics class. However, with a simulation, the students can actually reproduce the experiment, get results, and perform the same analysis Millikan did when he discovered the charge on an electron.

What can I add to eLearning??

If all of the wondrous things above can be done in an online class, what is my role as an eLearning teacher?

  • Provide access to just the right topics at the right level for the student who needs them.
  • Give personal feedback - suggestions, challenges, ... sometimes, when completing longer math problems, my students just wonder where they went wrong - I can find the roadblock better than a computer can.
  • Facilitate collaboration on a small scale - I can problem-solve with groups in person and coach individuals toward working as a team.
  • Engage my students in hands-on demonstrations. We can do these in-class as a demo or a lab during blended learning, or I can suggest things to try at home and troubleshoot if things don't go exactly as planned.
  • Get to know my students, and allow them a voice in what they are learning. This might just be the most important thing of all.

A real teacher and an online environment - a perfect storm of personalized learning. So why can't we make eLearning an absolutely amazing experience?

I should add that I know some good, and I mean REALLY good, eLearning teachers, who do all of the above and even more. But how many of us don't take advantage of maximizing both our talents and the technology's abilities, to create an extraordinary online course?

What can we do to make learning online powerful, meaningful, and in-demand? How can we make it THE course(s) students WANT to take?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Five Most-Read Blog Posts of 2016

When I first started blogging, it was a way to jot down new initiatives (moving my classes toward a flipped model and incorporating Bring Your Own Device) as well as get feedback on things I was trying in the classroom. Blogging has been an invaluable tool in connecting with other teachers.

But I've come to realize how important a reflection piece blogging can be as well. I find it really interesting to see how my viewpoint has changed with experience and a change in job, see how I was able to overcome some challenges, and see that I still have a ways to go in wrapping my head around certain pedagogies.

I find it intriguing, too, what others have found interesting over the few years I've been blogging. Here are my most-read posts of 2014, and my most-read posts of 2015

On that note, here are my five most-read blog posts of 2016:

1) #OntarioClassMatch - launch of a new hashtag to help connect classes within Ontario.

2) Unleashing Creativity: All About the Bats - the creative component of the culminating project by my grade 9 science class. 

3) Thinking about Going Gradeless - something I would love to try once I'm back in the classroom.

4) Spiralling: Spinning Around in my Head - something else I would love to try once I'm back in the classroom. Can I spiral gradelessly?? :)

5) Clawing Back the Freedom - when the independence that comes with a flipped model just wasn't working for some of my students.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Manipulatives in Secondary Math

As a high school math teacher, in the classroom, I made very little use of concrete manipulatives such as cube links, square tiles, or the ever-dreaded Algebra Tiles.

I say ever-dreaded because while Algebra Tiles have long been touted as an amazing resource, it's never been obvious to me how to use them. 

If you haven't seen or used them, they are a collection of small squares that represent units, large squares that represent x^2, and rectangles (with a length that matches the large square, and a width that matches the small square) that represent "x." Students can use various combinations of the shapes to model equations and algebraic thinking, leading up to more formal mathematical processes.

Other than their most basic uses, they confuse me. I don't think like that (visually), and I certainly wasn't taught like that. 

I did well in math through high school because I like rules. I could memorize and apply the rules for solving a linear equation, or factoring a quadratic equation, or completing the square. Though I may not have understood the math at the time (I was just following rules, remember), with lots of practice I was eventually able to see why the rules worked, and could apply that line of thinking to solving even more complex problems. 

So I didn't make good use of manipulatives as a teacher partially because I never really learned how, either through experiencing it as a student, or by experimenting with them as an adult. 

I'm changing my mind...

But what I'm learning this year, is that not only are these concrete manipulatives a good option for differentiating our math instruction, they are a NECESSARY instructional tool. 

For our students presenting with learning disabilities, there are a number of reasons why using manipulatives regularly in the classroom is beneficial. Among others, these include:
  • For students demonstrating slower processing speeds, manipulatives force the pace of learning to better match that of the student
  • They provide a means for students with working memory needs to better keep track of what they are doing, by displaying the process on the table in front of them. 
  • They allow students to make use of perceptual reasoning skills to accommodate for needs in mathematical computation.

However, for ALL our students, manipulatives provide a depth of learning beyond what I was exposed to as a student. I was never taught how to think of algebraic processes outside of just rules for making numbers appear and disappear. I wonder how much more quickly I would have seen patterns and made connections if I could have visualized what the equations represented? 

There is a stigma associated with using manipulatives in high school - that they are only for the kids that "can't do math." But what if their use isn't seen as a "crutch," but strictly as another way of thinking/seeing the math (which is exactly what they are!). Students who feel they don't need manipulatives (like I once was) could actually be encouraged to think mathematically in a new way.

This is something I need to start doing more of.

This isn't an easy transition for me - building manipulatives into my arsenal of teaching tools is going to take a lot of learning (and playing?) before I'll be comfortable with them. But for now, I can at least envision what this might look like. When I go back to the classroom, I'll be aiming to:

  • Physically move the manipulatives INTO my classroom (out of storage) and have them in an easily-accessible spot for everyone to get to, not out of sight in an office or tucked away in a classroom closet.
  • Incorporate manipulatives purposefully into lessons - carefully choose which manipulative the students will be using and know why I'm choosing to use it. What process does it demonstrate? In what way will it help my students think/reason?
  • Make manipulatives integral to the lesson itself, not just have it as an add-on to what we're learning. 
  • Challenge the students to whom math comes easily to use the manipulatives, and get them thinking outside of the memorization box. I hope this might also reduce the stigma of using manipulatives.

But I still wonder...

  • How well do digital manipulatives benefit students (if at all)? Are apps worth investigating?
  • What resources are available for getting good, challenging-yet-accessible activities with manipulatives at the secondary school level?
  • How do students learn which manipulative to use when presented with a selection (or when they can choose what to use on standardized tests)?
  • How can I best incorporate manipulatives into flipped lessons?

I'd love to hear of good resources already in use out there for activities and materials that actively engage high school students in learning algebraic processes, and try my hand at some of them!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

How Do We Model Self-Assessment?

At our Manitoulin IGNITEd session on gradeless classrooms today, there was a lot of great discussion on the role of assessment in our courses. Jonathan So (@MrSoClassroom) posed some probing questions on our past experiences with assessment (both previously as students and now as teachers), as well as what the point of assessment in school should be.

One of the topics that a couple of participants delved into after Jonathan's presentation was on how students could better self-assess. How can we encourage (and eventually come to expect) students to reflect on their achievement? And how can they use the knowledge they glean from that reflection to help guide their future learning?

From Jonathan's Manitoulin IGNITEd slide deck

A question we kept circling back to, though, was how do students know how to self-assess? Can they be good judges of their strengths and weaknesses? Can they take that self-assessment and use it to guide how they approach learning in the future?

Do Teachers Self-Assess?

As teachers, this can be something we model. We do self-assess informally - talk with our PLN about strategies, evaluate how a lesson went, replay scenarios in our heads... and then use that reflection to plan our next lessons and units. We do this on a regular (daily?) basis, and we can argue that we've gotten pretty good at it. 

But our students rarely see it. If we want students to be able to reflect and self-evaluate - and see why it is an important process - we need to demonstrate how it is critical to our practice. 

So how can we make our reflections more public? Some ideas...

  • Blog, blog, and blog some more. Get your thoughts down on virtual paper and reflect publicly on what went right, and what went wrong. 
  • Seek input on said blog, and respond to comments. Show an evolution in thinking when in discussion with someone from your PLN.
  • Do a post-mortem on projects or big lessons with your students. What worked? What didn't work? Seek out student feedback and allow them to see you take it in to consideration in the next project or lesson.
  • Apologize when a lesson doesn't go well. Learn from your mistakes and start over. We preach that failure is okay, let's model it too.
  • Ask for feedback from your students and your colleagues. Have your students write a report card comment for you. What are your strengths? What are your next steps?

Assuming we are reflecting enough on our practice (reflection was my #oneword2016 this year, recognizing that I needed to actively practice it more...), what else can we do to model our reflection practices?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Determining the WHY

It's one thing to observe a phenomenon. It's another to understand not just what happened, but why it happened.

This really struck me last month. I was listening to the news, and there was a story about a fatal train crash in New Jersey. The question that everyone asked, of course, was: why did the train crash? 

On the surface, it is easy to answer - the train was going too fast. But that answer isn't good enough. It's not enough to know that the train was speeding, we want to know WHY it was going too fast. Was it a mechanical failure? The fault of the conductor? Malfunctioning signals? Grease on the tracks?

In other words, we want to understand the cause of the excess speed, so that we can make sure this tragedy does not happen again.

The Why in School...

We are learning to take the same approach to our classes. In some cases - applied-level math courses, for instance - we see only a small percentage of students achieving provincial standard. Why is that?

On the surface, just like the train, it's an easy question. In some cases, students just aren't doing the work. They're not working efficiently in class, and they're working even less outside of class (if at all) to learn and master the material. They are not doing all that is required of them, so they are not earning provincial standard, or in some cases, not even earning the credit.

But again, like the train, that's not a good enough - not a deep enough - analysis to say "The students aren't succeeding because they are not doing the work." We have to start, REALLY start, asking ourselves WHY that work is not getting done. And there are many reasons why students might not be picking up their pencils and putting in the work...

Ontario's Renewed Math Strategy

The goal of Ontario's Renewed Math Strategy is to have teachers start asking this very important why, and implementing ways to help our most at-risk students, including those with learning disabilities.

By definition, a student with a learning disability has an average to above average intelligence. They just have ways - that have been identified - in which it is MUCH harder for them to learn. For whatever reason, though these students have average to above average potential, students with learning disabilities are disproportionately taking applied-level courses over academic-level courses. And they are achieving success at lower rates in those courses than students without learning disabilities. 

So again, we ask ourselves, WHY?

That's not to say that we haven't asked ourselves this question before. But now we are being encouraged to really dig deeply for the answers, particularly when it comes to students with exceptionalities. This includes not just past achievement (results on report cards, standardized test results), but really looking at a student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP), Psycho-educational Assessment, and Speech & Language Assessment. We are looking to pinpoint very specific strengths and needs, for very specific students.

We recognize when we have identified students in our classes, but do we know - do we truly know - how to best accommodate for them so that they can reach their potential? For the first time we are really leveraging the expertise of our in-school Special Education Resource Teachers, and by pairing them with secondary subject specialists, bringing unified, purposeful interventions aimed at allowing those students to perform at their best.

And let's not forget, that what's good for a student with a learning disability, is good for even more students in the class. These purposeful interventions can have a huge, positive, trickle down effect.

That's what part of my new role is all about - digging down to determine the why for at-risk students with learning disabilities all across the school board, and working with teachers to best use that knowledge to help students achieve success in math. And perhaps we can prevent a few crashes along the way.