Teach education

Reflections of an IB science teacher


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Oh, the Places They’ll Go

Today I want to share a Dr Seuss poem that a good friend shared with me just the other day.

I was never introduced to Dr Seuss as a child – at least, I have no recollection of it. I think my first encounter with anything Dr Seuss was when I watched the film The Grinch at too young an age to really get Jim Carey’s humor throughout the film.

I think it’s a testament to Dr Seuss that so many years out of childhood, this poem hits me as a hard as I think it ever could have. It also seems to me to be a brilliant poem to use to motivate students towards the end of their school years. Heck, I even think it would make a perfect graduation reading.

Anyway, if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the poem… I hope you enjoy it 🙂

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

by

Dr. Seuss

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener there
in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And then things start to happen,
don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.

OH!
THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!

You’ll be on y our way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
that Bang-ups
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…
or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

NO!
That’s not for you!

Somehow you’ll escape
all that waiting and staying
You’ll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t
Because, sometimes they won’t.

I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go
though the weather be foul.
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.

On and on you will hike,
And I know you’ll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never foget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!

So…
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
You’re off the Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!


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3 Habits I’ve picked up now I teach Inquiry

So I’m coming to the end of my second year teaching MYP science, and I’ve started noticing new automatic responses I’ve developed in the classroom. For example..

1. My conversations with students are now more about how they could find out the answer than the answer itself.

I now hold back from telling my students the answer before I know that they are legitimately stuck.

Usually the first response from me when a student asks a question is “What search terms have you used?” followed by “Let’s see which links you’ve followed”. Usually, these two questions were enough to determine that the student had just typed a question into Google and not got the answer immediately laid out in front of them, and they were frustrated. Most of my job these days is convincing students that they have the ability to discover information.

2. I’m grading the quality of sources as much as I’m grading the quality of work.

My students are constantly finding themselves writing an essay about a niche corner of the history of science that I previously new nothing about. As a result, the first crucial step in grading their work involves grading the quality of their sources.

Whilst I run through these sources for legitimacy, I often get to learn things I that never knew!

3. I’ll finish a necessary explanation with “If you need to find extra help, your best search terms will be [X], [Y] and [z]”

Sometimes a student, a group of students or even the class really do need a teacher to lay it all out in front of them before they can successfully research the subject further and deeper. And the expectation really is that they then research the topic that I’ve just ran through for them. We know enough about the science of learning to know that the more sources and the more media and the more approaches to a topic students are introduced to, the more likely they are to have successful retrieval of the information in the future.

I’m no longer the only expert in the room. In fact, if I can help it, I will remove myself as an expert in the subject knowledge altogether and try to only exist to model and assist inquiry.

These are probably three of many habits that I’ve developed since being introduced to the International Baccalaureate, but they’re three that really stand out for me during and around lessons.

I’d be really interested in hearing about habits other people have developed in their teaching practice on moving from one curriculum to another.

Thanks for reading!


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How we Learn – Reflections, part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on my personal reflections of the first quarter of Benedict Carey’s “How we Learn” in a bid to get my head around how the books insights could be used to better my students learning.

Well, during the flight back from a school expedition to Nepal across the holidays (Watch this space for reflections from the trip) I’m pleased to say that I have just completed 50% of the book and that it’s time for another ponder!

Where we left off

To attempt to summarize the main elements of the last post, I learned;

  1. Students should frequently have to retrieve covered material
  2. Students should learn in as large a variety of ways as possible
  3. Topics should be covered little and often
  4. Students will forget, and should forget, and should struggle to remember often. It’s the struggling to remember that convinces the brain to make the information easier to retrieve later on down the line.

Where we are now..

We continue with something that builds off point 4 – that students will forget, and that without struggle their brains are not set to make the information easier to retrieve. We continue with the inherent danger of a skill called fluency.

Fluency

As an international teacher, I recognise fluency as something to strive for. Fluency is the ability to cover material accurately and quickly. It is the ability to run through content with ease. So, of course it must follow that fluency is something that we should encourage in our lessons, right?

Wrong.

The irony isn’t lost on me that after years of wanting to see my students as fluent as possible, this isn’t actually how learning takes place. Time spent “Being fluent” is wasted time, and I get that now. I should have got it when I first understood that mental effort is what forces the brain to retain information.

An interesting statistic detailed in the book is that only 40% of the time spent learning should be spent digesting the subject material. The rest of the time should be spent on some form of “Retrieval practice”. A fantastic new name for good, old fashioned “Testing” designed to rid the preconceptions of grades, scores, percentages etc. None of these are suggested to be even remotely as useful as the questions and their model answers.

The Power of Failing

In all the years and all the schools I have taught, one thing stands true above all others. Students fear tests.

Even in the IB MYP course where students frequently submit essays worth just as much as the test, and lab reports that are worth TWICE as much as the test, nothing comes as close to instilling fear into a class as the announcement of an upcoming test.

One of the main reasons for this fear is failure. And that’s a real shame, because failing has been detailed both in this book and in many books, talks, journals and blogs before it, as one of the best things you can do to learn.

But one thing I hadn’t seen explained so thoroughly before as in this book, was the power of pretesting. That is, testing the students on the topic before you’ve taught them it!

The idea behind this is that having our answers shown as wrong and then quickly being given the correct information actually changes how we think about and store that information. The effect of this, is to increase the likelihood that we will answer a similar question correctly in future.

The book makes a very strong case for this, so much so that it has altered the structure that I have chosen for my on-line physics courses for the next academic year!

4 Stages of “Eureka!”

The book starts to move into the realms of problem solving now, and we’re introduced to four stages of solving a problem.

1. Preperation

Simply the time time you spend actively working on the problem

2. Incubation

This is where you step away from your work. Put down the pencil, close the laptop, and go and do something less demanding for a while.

3. Illumination

The moment the pieces of the puzzle come together and you have the solution in mind.

4. Verification

Checking your solution against the problem.

The stage that many of us are reluctant to pass through here is “Incubation”. And it is one we should not avoid as it helps us achieve two things;

Firstly, it allows us to take mental cues from the environment, or from seemingly unrelated processes.

Secondly, it allows us to unfix ideas that were previously “Fixed”

Unfixing

A creative solution often uses an object or an idea for a purpose that was previously unconsidered. The reason that these things are often unconsidered is that we have a fixed notion of what they are for. On reading about this I was immediately reminded of this experiment.

Percolation and the Zeigarnik Effect

Funnily enough, I had been introduced to the Zeigarnik effect before in a book called “59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot” where the same study is described to highlight the same point: If a task is unfinished, it remains in the subconscious. When we are learning something, that’s exactly where we want it to be.

So, to apply this to the classroom, it appears that the best way in which we can ensure that the topic remains at the forefront of thought between one lesson and the next, is to do our best to interrupt the students whilst they are as stuck as possible. To send them off just as they are in deep concentration, and leave them at a cliffhanger just like a good T.V. drama.

That’s all well and good for lesson content, but I also want to try this across a larger time frame and with a larger problem. I think that this could work wonderfully well if I begin the unit with students planning a structure for an essay question on the topic before they study it. Not only is this a rather all-encompassing form of pretesting (“Use everything you know on this topic already to construct an argument”) but it should result in the students reaching a suitable level of “Stuck” for percolation to take place across the entire topic.

Anyway, those are the main points that I’ve taken from the second quarter of the book and some reflections on how I intend on using them, but I fully recommend reading your own copy of “How We Learn” to get a full idea of the level of research behind these idea’s, including points and examples I’ve omitted for not standing out for me as important for my goals in teaching.


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My First Attempt at a Screencast

So I downloaded a trial version of Camtasia Studio 8 because ever since I saw Sal Khan do what he does, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of creating on-line digital media for education.

It became immediately apparent that creating a quality instructional video was a skill that was going to take some time to learn.

I’ve always considered myself a confident performer in comparison to other, non-teaching friends and I think that even in comparison to other teachers I’ve seen, I really enjoy the occasional bit of stage drama when introducing a new idea or snipped of scientific history.

But as soon as that red recording light started flashing, I was in pieces. I’d start talking and drift off topic then not know where to return to. Then I’d type up a quick script to keep off-screen and endlessly fudge the words. Even when I got the words right I just sounded… Awkward.

Still, I’m pleased with the *eventual* outcome of this video despite having a fairly low quality mic (I’ve since ordered the Blue Yeti to improve my audio) and being a mess in it’s making.

Here’s hoping that this is something I can learn to love doing, I hope you can appreciate it too 🙂


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Teaching and Education

Driving to work one morning I found myself in that awkward position between not having enough on my mind to tolerate silence and not wanting to dull my thoughts with music. I scrolled through the various podcasts and audiobooks I have and settled for one I’d listened to countless times before – “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I sank into the soothing, weathered voice of Michael Kramer as he retold Robert M. Pirsig’s story when a short passage from Disk 5 part 5 jumped out at me.

“The school was what could euphemistically be called a ‘teaching college.’ At a teaching college you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for participation in outside affairs. Just teach and teach and teach until your mind grows dull and your creativity vanishes and you become an automaton saying the same dull things over and over to endless waves of innocent students who cannot understand why you are so dull, lose respect and fan this disrespect out into the community. The reason you teach and you teach and you teach is that this is a very clever way of running a college on the cheap while giving a false appearance of genuine education.”

The words hung right there in the car and refused to move. Even as Michael Kramer continued to read, all I could hear were those words. They perfectly wrapped up the frustrations that I’ve had with education since getting into the sector and allowed me to see something that had been on my mind all along.

When I decided to get into teaching I had a romanticized view of education as this enlightened cluster of academics who enjoyed a life of learning and sharing their passions. I actually had images of teachers in the staff room in deep discussions over their subjects. A physics teacher constructing an ICT unit where basic programming is used to model some physical process. Or the math’s teacher and the art teacher explaining Escher to one another. Of course, you can imagine my surprise when I first stepped into a real staff room.

With the perspective of hindsight, I know how unrealistic my expectations were. I’m a self confessed geek, and not everybody counts studying amongst their hobbies. I do however, feel that schools are making the crushing mistake of treating teachers as *just* teachers and expecting them to only need to do just that.

How many teachers have you encountered that encompass the teacher automatons that are described in the passage? Particularly those that have been in the job for a substantial amount of time. “They’ve just turned bitter” I hear people say. Once I was even told that teachers become either ‘Sinks’ or ‘Radiators’. Well, I don’t believe that for a second.

These are people who chose to study a subject and loved it so much that they decided to share that passion with younger generations. But then we took away the source of that passion. We took away their time to study. To learn. To postulate, theorize, create and most of all to appreciate their subject. We gave them back to back lessons and treated them like an infinite vessel without ever seeing the requirement for filling that vessel. Just teach it, mark it, repeat it. Teach it. Mark it. Repeat it…

*Sqwark* The atom consists of three particles *SQWARK* Protons, neutrons and *Sqwark* Electrons!

Interestingly enough, teacher subject matter knowledge has been shown to make little difference by John Hattie‘s big data crunch (Despite how others might feel). This also seemed to be the case in Sugata Mitra’s methods where a subject specialist was not even present. And you might be surprised to hear at this point that I agree with the research – I don’t think that you need to have subject specialists in the room for children to learn. I do however, believe that you need teachers to model academic learners and to maintain the upkeep of educational structures and of course, to provide expert formative evaluations of student work (Take another look at John Hattie’s report). And for a teacher to be great at this job, you need to maintain a teachers passion and love for what they are mean’t to be promoting all along – learning.