Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why study when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?

When we have to resort to external motivators, that means there's something wrong. Often, it means something we're doing is not fitting with human nature. That's why we have to force it.

And I have to wonder how much of our modern system of education and even civilization really is not a good fit for humanity at all.

Christopher Ryan tells the story of three natives of Tierra del Fuego, who were brought to England by Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle to learn the ways civilization, in hopes they would serve as missionaries to their own people.

But when they were returned to their homeland, they just reverted to their old way of life--a primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The good Captain offered to bring one of them back to England, but the man declined, saying he hadn't "the least wish to return to England," because he was "happy and contented" with "plenty fruits," "plenty fish," and "plenty birdies."

His response was similar to that of the Kalahari bushman who was asked why his tribe hadn't switched from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture. He replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"

This may apply to school in at least two ways.

First, who can blame young people who are enjoying their social lives, sports, hobbies, and freedom from responsibility, and whose parents are taking care of all their needs, if they choose not to work their butts off in school? Why bust their tails when there are so many mongongo nuts around and they haven't yet learned the "skill" of worrying about the future like we adults have?

Or maybe they feel a need to improve their lives, but their experience has told them that the educational system doesn't work for them. I imagine it doesn't take many suspensions or Fs on your report card to get that message loud and clear. No wonder these students "revert" to lifestyles they feel work better for them.

And I wonder how many young people, when presented with the modern education-career-retirement pipeline are simply not interested. And I wonder if that's a bad thing. After all, what's the point of all that education and career if it doesn't bring fulfilment, if it doesn't make us "happy and contented"?

Darwin and Captain Fitzroy didn't take the hint.  They were saddened by the inability of these "savages" to see the wisdom of the "civilized" way of life. But what if they were missing the point? What if they were the ones not seeing?

I wonder if we too easily assume that our modern systems are best without looking for how well they actually fit humans.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Five meditations to develop better cell phone self-control

One of the challenges of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) classroom is that students get distracted by their cell phones. And they're not alone. A recent Gallup survey shows most people (me included) check their phones at least a few times per hour.

I, for one, could benefit from more self-control in this area--better "cellph-discipline." And I'd like to help my students do the same.

One way to do that is through mindfulness meditation. I've been working on mindfulness skills for a year and a half or so, and I'm still a beginner, but it's become an essential part of my life. It's relaxing, relieves stress, and trains your mind to be more aware of your body, environment, emotions, thought patterns, feelings, and habits.

Here are five ideas for using meditation to retrain your brain to better manage your digital life:

1) Susan M. Pollak's cell phone meditation is a variation of the "thoughts as sounds" meditation explained by Mark Williams and Danny Penman in the book that got it all started for me: Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace In a Frantic World. You start by meditating on the sounds around you. When thoughts arise, just observe them as if they were sounds. But in this version, you first turn on every beep, whistle and ringtone notification on your phone.

2) Thich Nhat Hanh cell phone meditation, from Lindsey Lewis. She writes: "Instead of grappling with our phone to answer it right away as soon as we hear the first ring, we turn it into an opportunity for peaceful contemplation. Ring 1: we pull out our cell phone. Ring 2: we notice who’s calling. Ring 3: We notice our breath. Ring 4: We answer."

3)  And here's a similar, simple one from a Reddit user: When your cell phone goes off, or when you feel the urge to check it, don't. Instead, observe your feelings and thoughts as you leave it where it is. Click this link for more details.

4) A similar one I'm trying is a variation of Williams and Penman's "meditation on difficulties." Intentionally bring your cell phone up in your mind and simply observe all of the thoughts that arise, and/or the physical sensations that arise--your heartbeat, tension in your jaw, nervousness, etc.

4) Or try this variation of the "meditation on form" of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: Gaze at your phone, focusing on it's physical shape, color, or form. As thoughts arise, simply watch them pass by like clouds floating across the sky and bring your attention back to the shape of the phone.

5) And a third I'm trying out: During any form of meditation, whether anapana (meditation on the breath), vipassana (body scan meditation), thoughts as sounds, etc., just leave your cell phone in front of you to encourage thoughts about your social media, games, etc. When they arise, just acknowledge them and gently bring your focus back to whatever you were meditating on.

Cell phones and the internet are powerful ways to communicate, access information, and build social networks, but I feel like they've come on faster than I've been able to wisely assimilate them into my life.

I'm looking forward to using mindfulness and other strategies to better manage this digital whitewater and help my students to do the same.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Trying to make sense of late penalities

As I plan for the coming school year, I'm trying to make sense of late penalties.

A typical policy is that students lose 10% per day for late work and no late homework is accepted.

On the surface, this seems to make sense. Kids need to learn responsibility. Getting work done on time is an important skill.

But there are two problems with this.

1) Imposing penalties doesn't teach anything. It doesn't show kids who lack the skills how to manage their time and get things done on time. And while it may motivate some students to "kick it into gear," others--those most at risk, don't respond that way. They're used to failure. They expect it. That's the problem.
And we're not helping them. At the very least, we need to accompany the penalties with support and training until the start seeing success.

2) The second problem is that it places an inordinate amount of value on turning things in on time. What percentage of a student's grade should be determined by whether or not they can turn things in on time? In our system, a student who is routinely late by a couple of days on major assignments could easily lose 20-30% off the top of his or her quarter grade. Should timeliness be worth that much? Should we count time management and responsibility as 30% of the course grade, especially when we don't even teach it?

Right now, I'm looking at ways I can increase support so that students don't fall into this trap. But I'm hoping in the future we can do something completely different.

Monday, July 20, 2015

What's your one job?

What's your one job?

What's the one thing you want to make sure happens in your life--in your work?

What's the one thing you can focus on, as everything else is uncertain and changing around you?

Mine, at work, is to make education work for more kids.

Whatever else happens with my career, that will remain: I'll be working towards closing gaps and helping every single student succeed and push the boundaries of their abilities.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Why the success of everyone is up to all of us

The message of Malcolm Gladwell's provocative book, Outliers is either kind of discouraging or really exciting, depending on how you look at it.

According to Gladwell, it takes four things to be successful:

1) Practice. You need 10,000 hours of what has come to be called "deliberate practice" to become a world class expert. That's 8 hours a day, 7 days a week for 3.4 years.

2) In order to get that, you need plenty of lucky breaks, like Bill Joy, who basically just fell into lucky opportunities to get in tons of computer hours--at a time when they were hard to get, and at a time that positioned him precisely on the ground floor of an industry about to explode.

3) And you need the right upbringing--one that teaches you it's OK to ask for and, if necessary, fight for opportunities. You can't be like Chris Langan, the genius who's defeatist attitude he learned as an at-risk youth cost him a college education--twice.

4) This unhelpful attitude of powerlessness toward authority may also be passed on by your culture, so you need the right cultural heritage. And it helps to be from a culture that also instils a strong work ethic, like that of southern China, where the simplicity of the language and the lessons of rice farming combine to make people into mathematical powerhouses.

This can feel a bit discouraging if you're not someone who meets these criteria, like me, but here's why we shouldn't despair.

1) Subsequent studies have suggested that "deliberate practice" actually accounts for only one third of whatever it is that determines whether or not someone will become an expert. (Tim Ferriss also takes issue with the 10,000 hour rule. He's done it again and again--in months instead of years. It's all about how you learn, rather than how long.)

2) It's hard to argue with Gladwell about the importance of upbringing and culture. But it just means those of us without the best backgrounds will have to work harder, and that's no surprise to any of us. The good news is, change is possible, as the success of the KIPP schools demonstrates.

3) Gladwell's ideas echo Carol Dweck's concept of the growth mindset--the belief that talent and intelligence are not fixed, but flexible and responsive to effort and attitude. Gladwell says in a footnote that IQ is 50% genetic. If that's true, that gives us a lot of room for improvement by effort and strategy.

4)  There's been some controversy over the idea that success is determined by grit or perseverance. Critics seem to think this means blaming disadvantaged people for failure of attitude. But Gladwell's book shows us the balance--even "character" can be inherited, and changed.

5) More than anything, the central message of Galdwell's book, to me, was that, because success depends on these factors, there are things we can do--as parents, teachers, friends, as a society, to help everyone be successful. It's within reach.

If we can dump this outdated mindset that we live in some sort of global meritocracy where people automatically get what they "deserve" and realize that we are all subject to all of these external and internal factors--that some have great advantages, and others, great disadvantages, and that we can do something about that, "The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Mastery learning with Google Classroom

I teach an online summer science enrichment course called The History and Philosophy of Science In 6 Easy Steps.

Usually I run it on Moodle, where I run all of my other courses, but this year, I decided to move it to Google Classroom.
I wanted the experience of running a course on Google's platform, and really don't need all the features of Moodle for this course. And it turns out Google Classroom does a great job streamlining the mastery-based learning model.
After reading or viewing a video, students write about it and self-assess. Then we chat about it as a class on Twitter, I assess their work, and they can revise as many times as they want.
Classroom's system of assignment submission and return makes it easy for students to revise and resubmit work. And by automatically creating a copy of the rubric for each student, a copy that is automatically shared with me, Classroom makes it easy for students to submit and revise self-assessments and view my feedback.

You can watch how it all comes together in this tutorial I made for my students: