Saturday, March 13, 2010

Reflecting on a recent PD

Reflecting on a recent professional development that I organized... Our school was getting to the end of the Scantron Performance Assessment, and I wanted to give the teachers at my school a briefing on the data the testing generated and a little bit of info on the kinds of resources available via the Scantron site. (Here's a link to a blog entry on how the testing went -- read the comment from Nicole Zumpano also.)

The PD consisted of two main parts. First I gave some background on the testing, described the kinds of scores Scantron site generated, and showed the teachers how to access the reports and resources. During the second part of the PD, teachers were supposed to look at their student data, and practice generating study guides and quizzes for their students.

Good things about the PD:
  • It was well attended.
  • Teachers paid attention to the information I gave them.
  • It didn't go on too long (about one hour).
  • I think I was coherent (not sure!).
  • I thought the handout and PowerPoint were good -- short, informative, supportive of the goals of the PD.
Not so good things about the PD:

  • I spent most of the practice time generating new passwords for the teachers, since they didn't know what their passwords were.
  • I don't the teachers had much of a chance to really see how the data and resources might be useful to them.
  • Time was short.
  • The PD was held in our building, and teachers wanted to get to other things they had to do in their classrooms.
  • I was lax about getting evaluations from the teacher, either no the PD or on the testing process in general.
  • The talking part that I did went on too long (I videotaped it, and was surprised to see that I blabbed on for 20 minutes).
If I was to do it over again I would:
  • Make sure everyone had a sense of the importance of the Scantron assessments (the data may be useful, the resources can be handy, teachers will likely be evaluate on their students performance on the test, the principal should reinforce the relevance of the assessments and resources) -- or more generally, make sure that there is a real need for the PD, and that the participants are aware of the need.
  • Do it off-site, so teachers wouldn't be so distracted by things in the building or their classrooms; or do it for teachers at another school.
  • Talk less, do more.
  • Have all of the password stuff straightened out ahead of time (!!!!).
  • Be better about collecting evaluations.
The handouts, PowerPoint, and additional info can be found here.


Reflecting about a math competition

I just got back from working on the math portion of an academic olympics for one of the Chicago Public Schools areas. First time ever. Some thoughts:
  • I think math competitions may best be done not as a first response, Jeopardy-style competition, but to give a paper and pencil test with a tough time limit (e.g., 20 questions in 20 minutes). Students would still need to know their math, and be quick about it, but not be penalized if the luck of the draw puts them with some super competitors. At least for the first round...
  • Or maybe do a paper-pencil for Round 1, and then go to the first response mode for a second and third round.
  • And/or have a class of questions that are 10-second questions, and some that are 5-second questions.
  • In the case of a Jeopardy-style competition, run all of the questions by some teachers first to see if they can answer them in the allotted time (in this case, five seconds). I came up with a number of questions that were not mathematically difficult, but were complex enough that it was hard for anyone to figure out in five seconds. And so time ran out before anyone attempted a response.
  • Double-check the slides, projected, to make sure all of the labels and text are nice and big.
  • And if you switch from Windows to a Mac, or from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice, look at all of the slides beforehand to catch any problems with incompatibilities between their respective formula editors and fonts/symbols! (By the way, there's a beta version of an OpenOffice extension that provides a very nice two-screen presentation, (the "Sun Presenter Console") where the audience sees the presentation slide projected, and the presenter has a nice view of the slide, notes, time, and upcoming slide.)
For what it's worth, the finalists at both levels (intermediate and upper grades) did a remarkable job.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Draft National Educational Technology Plan

The U.S. Department of Education has released its draft National Educational Technology Plan. The Five Year Plan is supposed to be a model of "21st century learning powered by technology" according to a post to one of ISTE's special interest groups.

The 80-page draft is available at:

There is a 10-page executive summary available at:


Sunday, March 7, 2010

PD definition yawn

Tedium alert: This posting is being done for a course requirement on The Most Boring Subject in the World, "professional development". So if you were maybe beginning to the think that you might want to see what it's about, well...

The National Staff Development Council (yes, there is one! And my my brain fogs over and I start looking at my inbox to see what needs to be cleared out) created this definition of PD for the No Child Left Behind (sic) law:
The term “professional development” means a comprehensive, sustained, and intensive approach to improving teachers’ and principals’ effectiveness in raising student achievement...
[BTW: if you need help with intelligent-sounding phrases to spice up your PD, here's a useful tool: Education Jargon Generator]

Per the definition, PD should be aligned (check), conducted by well-prepare people (umm check), based on teacher and student performance data (hmm -- when I see these words I look around to see who is swinging the ax), goal-oriented (check), regularly assessed for effectiveness (check), and informing continuous improvement in teaching (check).

Which all sounds very good as defining concepts. The real challenge comes in trying to successfully implement PD.

The concept of continuous process improvement comes out of the automobile industry and W. Edwards Deming's ideas about quality control. One of the radical concepts in his management ideas is the idea of treating production workers as human beings with ideas and opinions and pride in their work. See the Wikipedia summary of Deming's Key Principles for an idea of what he was on about.

A problem arises when the exhortations to improve conflict with an adversarial, even antagonistic relationship between workers (that would be us, the teachers), and management (pick whatever level of administration you want). If one side is expected to change, and the other side isn't, trouble is on the horizon. Why are just the teachers and staff fired when a school is supposedly failing? Why not the school board, the CEO or superintendent or the administration? When the resources aren't there to support either the PD itself, or to implement what you have learned, nothing is going to happen. If everyone is convinced that they are in fact on the same boat, and rowing in the same direction, and not stuck in steerage or the engine room, then good things are possible.

Anyway, talk is cheap. The NSDC definition is fine, and the idea of continuous improvement is good. But they can only work if there is a sense of a future, of common purpose, of shared reward. All of which seem to be lacking at CPS right now. No matter what you have this year, there will be less of it next year.


Trying out a problem-based lesson

I continue to play around with Etoys. As noted in an earlier post, I think Etoys works best as a construction kit for students. This, as opposed to a multimedia development environment for teachers or other lesson designers to assemble ready-made, teacher-directed activities for the students. The construction kit idea fits with the constructionist roots of the project. Veteran computer researcher and educator Alan Kay, one of the forces behind Etoys and Squeak (the Smalltalk implementation that Etoys is built on, and in many ways has superceded), described it like this:
The most important thing about powerful inexpensive personal computers is that they form a new kind of reading and writing medium that allows some of the most important powerful ideas to be discussed and played with and learned ...

This is what our work and Squeak is all about. We are interested in helping children learn to think better and deeper than most adults can. We have made the Squeak medium to serve as a new kind of electronic paper that can hold new ways to represent powerful ideas. ("Background on how children learn", 2003?)
I have been wanting to try a genuine Etoys project on some students, to see how they do with it, how the constructionist idea plays out in practice. I suppose this sounds a bit mad-scientist-ish, but that's also a lot of what teaching is -- a never-ending tinkering.

I'm working with Shane Jonas at Kellman to develop a lesson plan that uses Etoys to design something, in this case a simple seascape with a few beasties that crawl or swim about. The exercise is inspired by a similar project on the Etoys Illinois site. The main purpose of the exercise is to develop problem-solving skills (design something and make it go), but in the course of creating the seascape, the students will hit a number of cross-curricular standards, including technology design, ecosystems (both science), transformations and the coordinate plane (math), drawing (art), and public speaking when they present their work. Shane and I are also going to experiment some more with having students at our two schools video conference about their projects.

I tried the exercise out on some prospective teachers at a class I am teaching at Dominican of "integrating technology into the curriculum" (!). We had been looking at different types of educational technology, organized by where the center of teaching/learning occurs. Drills and tutorials are at one end of the spectrum ("teacher centered", even if the authority is a computer program); webquests and scavenger hunts and the like in the middle ("directed inquiry", teacher-directed but the student plays an active role in directing the outcomes), and problem-based learning and constructionist tools on the other end ("student-centered"). The idea was that the candidates would both get a chance to work with Etoys, and also to experience from the students' point-of-view what a constructionist exercise might feel like.

An instruction sheet for the exercise is available.

A few things about the exercise stand out:

1. Etoys is a software development environment, so before a student (of any age) can feel success, he or she needs to at least get comfortable with the tools. Etoys comes with three very good tutorials that take the student through the basics of working with the program.

2. Still, even the simple seascape exercise allowed for some important wrong turns. In the exercise, students are supposed to create a background, save that, and then add new objects on top of the background. A few students missed the important step of saving the background before adding their octopi and fish. As a result, their sea beasts were not separate objects that could be programmed to move about on their own. When I do this with the young ones, I need to make sure that they get this step -- maybe even break the session into two parts to make sure the background is created as a background.

3. The tutorials did not go into enough detail about the Etoys programming model. Some additional direct instruction is needed up front I think to help students understand about scripts or code snippets, and looping and tests (if-then statements). And also how this is done using Etoys (tear offs and drag-and-drop tiles).

4. One of the challenges of constructivist teaching is providing the Goldilocks mean of teacher involvement -- just enough scaffolding to keep each student in his or her zone, not too much, not too little. With adults, and probably with children as well (we'll see), each person has their own tolerance for trying things out, failing, trying again, etc. before frustration sets in. Some need more encouragement than others. So the teacher is not giving just one lesson, but many. On the other hand, students were very helpful with each other as they figured things out. That's another hallmark of constructivism -- student peers are important teaching agents.

Being able to try out such a lessons is a great opportunity because complex lessons like this are not easy to organize and execute. The feedback is there, but it is so long between executions that it takes a long time to really make the lesson work well.

Hopefully I will get around to doing a report-back on trying it out with elementary school kids.