Rethinking school size

In our efforts to reduce class sizes in schools, we are missing a more important metric.
Son Adam noted years ago in his school safety findings that there’s correlation between school size and school safety. A smaller school is more likely to be a safer school, irrespective of other factors in the community.
Researchers have published a working paper that shows this and other benefits of smaller schools in New York City.
Regionalization has been in use in Massachusetts for nearly 60 years. The goals was to save on administrative costs and make programs available to students who would not have had access in small-town schools. We’re now seeing that the benefits of this consolidation weren’t quite as grand as we’d hoped.

h/t Freakonomics

On Google maps and education

At lunch today, I talked with a former professor about some of the issues that he sees with his students. This, by the way, is at Amherst. The students who get in there did so because they knew how to present themselves to their high school teachers and admissions boards. They knew how to win.
Many student wrote papers that were focused on a narrow topic, crisply-defined, but with little connection to other ideas or domains. These students did well well because they showed a clear answer to a specific, albeit esoteric, question. Their research skills were limited to delivering a precise answer with no ragged edges.
If you ask Google Maps (or any GPS system) for turn-by-turn directions, you get good results. Using those directions will get you where you intend to go, but with a curious side effect. You are delivered as in a tunnel, without context.

Time was, we studied maps and knew not only the path, but also the frame of reference. Recently, I had to travel to a part of a nearby town that was unfamiliar to me. The person I was visiting said that his street is right near the so-and-so school. I used Google Navigation. It made no mention of the school as a prominent reference point. Instead, it said, “in 600 feet,  turn left.” I got where I was going, but Google told me nothing of the fact that this family lived near a school.
It turned out that living near a school was very relevant to this person and his wife because his kids could walk to school. Google told me what was true, but not what was meaningful.

Educational merry-go-round

Bill Cosby talked about how the grown-ups “improved” the playground by adding monkey bars and other malevolent inventions that were deemed fun for kids. He vowed never to play on any playground equipment that he didn’t see adults using.
He tried the merry-go-round once. “You sit on it and three of your friends push you around in a circle for five minutes and then you throw up.”
I was talking with a middle-school student recently. She said that she likes math but is terrified of the upcoming MCAS test.
Tracy Novick recently blogged that sixty percent of adults failed a Rhode Island math test required for high school graduation.
If testing is such a good way to prove that we’re competent, why don’t adults have to re-take the graduation exams to prove that they still deserve their diplomas and degrees? Why do we put kids on rides that we won’t use ourselves?

Educational conferences and Spotted Dick

The Brits have a dessert that’s tasteless in both senses of the word. Spotted Dick is, according to various sources, a boiled suet pudding with raisins or currants stuck to the outside. Serving the delicacy with custard doesn’t help much. It’s best to eat the sweet, dried fruit and then look for the dog to finish the rest.

I’ve been to a few educational conferences in the past three months. They, too, have had some sweet treats in a flavorless puddle. The good parts are real and exciting; the boiled suet is soul-crushing.
The conferences have had these general characteristics:

  • There are excruciatingly few questions from the audience. Most of the few questions are the teacher-equivalent of “Will this be on the test?” The educators ask about logistics and process, rather than digging deeper into the ideas. 
  • Even the good presenters often aren’t interested in talking afterwards. They’re good on stage, but have a tough time with individuals and small groups. 
  • The Twitter stream and other social media channels are quiet. Some of this depends on conference organizers. If’ they promote it online, more people respond. Otherwise, there’s little chatter inside the room and even less from people outside.

    Academics tend to be politically and socially liberal, but very conservative on matters of changing the way they teach. #UMass
    — Karl Hakkarainen (@RoasterBoy) March 28, 2013

  • If the people at the conferences are the innovators or interested in innovation, imagine the dispirited temperaments of those who didn’t attend. We should be worried about the future of education. 
We also need to make sure that the catering staff (mostly students) checks their spelling before lunch.

Citizen science: to observe and record

How do you talk to your kids about big hard subjects? You talk to them. Then, you give them something to do about it.
Kids know and feel a lot about troubles in the world. They might not always know the details of the problem, but they know something isn’t right. They might think it funny at first that a shipment of yellow rubber ducks fell off a freighter and is adrift in the Pacific. Then they realize that not all trash in the water is cute. Most of it is ugly and all of it can make us sick.
So what do you do? Well, for one thing, you can send them to the water’s edge and have them count pieces of debris along with thousands of other folks around the world who are part of the International Coastal Cleanup project. Each year, volunteers walk their coasts and up trash. Before they toss it in the receptacle, however, they record what they’ve found. Cigarette butts, plastic bags, shotgun shells and casings, cars, and appliances. (You can see the full data set here.)
The ICC project lets kids of all ages do something not only to clean up our messes, but also contribute to scientists’ research into our oceans. These most basic skills, to observe and record, form the foundation of all scientific research. This is work that’s done by citizens. Dr. Loree Burns, writes in her third book, “Citizen science, then, is the study of our world by the people who live in it.” Her book is Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard.
Learning from litter

Dr. Burns talked to a dozen of us in meeting room at the Wachusett Meadows Audubon Sanctuary the other night. She tells her story easily, of graduate studies in biochemistry, the ways that kids push our lives in directions we’d not planned or even thought possible, and, as noted earlier, the challenges of talking to kids about big and sometimes troubling ideas.
So when she read a brief article Dr. Curt  Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who was tracking debris, including rubber duckies, that was riding the Pacific currents, she saw a way to continue with her scientific work and, at the same kids, keep kids like hers, and such as hers, busy with meaningful projects. That became book the first, Tracking Trash.
Is Mom killing the honey bees?
Her second book, The Hive Detectives, takes readers on an investigation to find out what’s killing the honey bees.
At one point during the research cycle, the media misreported that bees were hypersensitive to cellphone radiation as well as chemicals we use in our yards and farms. The kids heard those stories as well. When the kids saw their mom using her cellphone, they panicked for bit.
Yes, the radiation may not be good for the bees, but one phone call, by itself, isn’t going to destroy a hive. A lot of factors go into the colony collapses. “There’s not one thing responsible for the death of the honey bees,” said Dr. Loree.
Rarely does science tie things up nicely and put them in a box. Maybe there are seven factors contributing to an outcome that we don’t like; maybe there are 70. If we eliminate or reduce two or 10, will that make enough of a difference.
We’re not sure.
You know what? Kids are OK with that. They can work the ambiguities as long as they know their work is making a difference somehow.
Ladybugs are carnivorous.
The Lost Ladybug Project is part of the work to find out why certain types of ladybugs were increasingly difficult to find. Professor John Losey is an etymologist  at Cornell, researching ladybugs. Through field work with his young son, Ben, he discovered that children could be valuable research assistants. So valuable, in fact, that two Virginia siblings, age 10 and 11, found the first nine-spotted ladybugs seen in eastern North America in 14 years.
Ladybugs, by the way, eat aphids, making them a favorite for farmers. Ladybugs, by all accounts, don’t like the taste of humans of any age.
What if you don’t have a backyard?
We talk about our world as if it’s universal when, in fact, its only the world that we see. When Dr. Loree talked to a group of kids in an urban school, they were puzzled at the thought of looking for anything in a backyard. Outdoors was often dangerous.
It turns out that you can raise sunflowers and other plants in a window box, the flowers of which can attract bees, even in the city. We may think of nature as only existing in the countryside. In a world increasingly urban, nature follows us. It looks different, but it’s still nature and it still needs scientists.
Kids pay attention to what we do and how we do it.
If we, as adults, are afraid because we don’t have the answers or afraid of the answers we’ve found, kids will notice. They’re not always looking for a definitive answer. They’re looking for ways of dealing with all this stuff, dealing with change, dealing with things that aren’t going well, that are scary. If we can show them how to understand problems by observing and recording, they might not feel so helpless. They’ve got something to do that part of something bigger than themselves.
When we figure that out, for ourselves as well as for the kids, we get better, too. That’s how it is that Dr. Loree can say, as she did at the end of the presentation the other night, “There’s a piece of this that is, for me, just joy.”

Abbreviated education

UMass offers online undergraduate and graduate programs. To learn about the programs, you need to fill out a form and select the program(s) that interest you before you can download a brochure.
The form lists several programs, including some with long names that are truncated by the form window. Too bad. I was wondering what a degree in Education Specialist Degree in Curriculum and I might encompass.

But, wait, there’s more. If you view the source of the page, you can see the full description of the programs. You also see, but without explanation, that the form page starts with 147 blank lines.
If you stumble around the site, you can also find out more about the programs on their Programs page.

Technology in education – are the roads wide enough?

Last week’s Technology in Education conference left me with a couple of ideas to ponder:

  1. There are a lot of good people on the front lines of education, teachers and administrators. They have the smarts and commitment to do great things. They’re creating lots of small successes, even in small, rural school district where bandwidth and access to computers remains an issue.
  2. During the morning sessions, including the keynote and two workshops, no one asked a question or made a comment. (One person did ask for clarification about the location of some materials, but there were no questions about the content.) Attendees at the afternoon sessions talked more. 
In 2007, ABC News ran a story, The Future of the Workplace: No Office, about the changing world of work. More than 40% of IBM’s employees don’t have a full-time office in an IBM facility. They work from home, customer sites, hotel rooms, airplanes, or, occasionally, an IBM office that’s set up to support visiting workers.
While K-16 (kindergarten through college) education brings lots of money and attention on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM curriculum, little is said about the way that people work.Collaborating with teams around the country or the world requires much more intentional communication. You can’t rely on corridor conversations to exchange ideas or schedule changes. You can’t keep your project plan on a whiteboard in the main conference room.

via Mr. Boffo Archives

The people from the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative included the ABC story in their presentation. After their talk, I asked the presenters how well educators understood the ways in which work has changed and will change even more. They said that there was little evidence of widespread appreciation of this type of change. Teachers and parents were OK with the new content included in STEM education, but weren’t seeing a need for learning about new ways to work.
Teaching new material in traditional ways fits well, in my opinion, with an educational model that lines up with standardized tests as the measure of educational success. Teaching old or new content in new ways may not.
Watching a couple hundred people sitting and listening to ideas about radically reinventing education is unsettling. It reminds me of my classes in the 60s, where a radical history professor would be spouting revolution and the students in the back of the classroom wondered if the Yippies were going to be on the mid-term.
Every airplane carries a black box (which isn’t really black, but orange so that it can be found easily after a crash) that contains recording devices that stores vital data and voice recordings.

Do you know why they don’t make airplanes the same way that they use in the black boxes? Because the roads aren’t wide enough.
(A plane built like that wouldn’t get off the ground and would have to drive to its destination.)
Educators are keenly aware that they’re measured by the kids’ test scores. Federal and state funding is tied to improvements in the numbers. Change has to be introduced carefully, lest it disrupt what’s already proved to work well enough. 
Added to that is an academic environment for educators that rewards obfuscation in language and thought.
The result is a risk-averse spirit that wraps innovation in thick protective layers.
The entrepreneurial spirit that we expect of our kids when they go to work is punished when applied to education. Entrepreneurs know that  meaningful failures are essential to eventual success. An essential element of physical and emotional well-being is resilience, the ability to adapt to change and setbacks and find new ways to move forward.
For the many people in politics and in the general public who don’t like government or educators, lower test score means that schools are failing again. Never mind that the lowered scores might be the result of incompetence or an experiment that didn’t turn out as hoped. The remedies for each type of failure are quite different.
Marco Annunziata is Chief Economist and executive director of Global Market Insight for GE. reported on on GE’s annual Innovation Barometer. More 300 global business leaders who were surveyed said that they want governments to cultivate more innovation in education to prepare students for often chaotic work that’s ahead. One respondent endorsed “strengthening the education system in a way that not only gives students a solid basis of knowledge, but also fuels an entrepreneurial culture and creates a closer alignment with business. “
This new world of work is less than a generation old. We don’t yet have proven methods for educating large numbers of students in the technologies and processes that will be a part of their lives.  We need to try some things, many of which may not work. No one likes the idea of experimenting on our kids. Truth be told, however, I don’t think we have much choice. We’re not going to get them to their future by driving down I-91 in a jet.