Wednesday, December 21, 2011

M.Ed First Chapter Rough Draft

I have completed a rough draft of the first chapter of my Master's Thesis.  Below the embedded pdf file I will mention some of the big changes (not the little ones) that I intend to make.  The goal of this chapter was to thoroughly analyze artifacts we collected in our observations and come up with a question that will drive our M.Ed inquiry.

MEd Chapter 1 Rough Draft

After looking over my own work and sharing it with other MEd students I have decided to make the following revisions (other than the odd syntax, spelling or other minor correction):

  • Add distinct categories of classroom culture.
  • Separate the influence of the environment from the influence from teacher interaction with students.
  • Re-word driving question: instead of relationship between management and culture make it about engineering classroom culture (classroom management would be an example of engineering the classroom).
  • Consider how the kinds of activities in a lesson plan influence classroom culture.

Khan Academy and Internet Issues

You probably won't get this reference, being a cool person.
There is an interesting article in Wired about Khan Academy as well as the role of individual instruction in increasing student performance.  The article mentions a study done in 1984 by Benjamin Bloom that shows great results from it:
What Bloom found is that students given one-on-one attention reliably perform two standard deviations better than their peers who stay in a regular classroom. How much of an improvement is that? Enough that a student in the middle of the pack will vault into the 98th percentile.
 My own experience with students has confirmed that one-on-one instruction greatly improves student performance.  A knowledgeable amateur can do more in a one-on-one setting than a teacher can do in a group setting.  This creates a challenge for teachers with large classrooms.  How do you give students the one-on-one attention they need to become proficient in your subject when you have 35 students in each class?  The Khan video is one solution: use the tutorials to do the lecture so that all of class time can be patrolling and helping students run their drills, problem sets, assignments, or some sort of practice work (this would be most effective for something like math, for humanities subjects I'm not sure how this would work out).  

There are still a few problems here.  For one thing, many students simply will not do any work at home (especially if you assign a video to watch on a Friday for class on Monday) and there is the digital divide issue (The Benton Foundation runs a site that updates you on issues regarding access to technology and the public interest, you can get lots of info about the digital divide there).  So you will inevitably have a significant amount of students who are going to need the lecture repeated to them when they get to class.

One of my thoughts that I will hopefully blog about in the future is on the necessity of assigning any homework in the first place.  If you can cover both the lecture and the practice in class then why bother with making students do anything when they get home?  For this teachers can try the cooperative learning model.  While this is not exactly individual instruction it increases the students individual support team to include other students in the class and not just the teacher.  This method can have similar results to individual instruction because a struggling student can get individual attention from his team members.

The Science Education Research Center at Carleton College in Minnesota lists what they call key elements of cooperative learning.  The most interesting to me are the second and third ones:
  1. Individual Accountability: The essence of individual accountability in cooperative learning is "students learn together, but perform alone." This ensures that no one can "hitch-hike" on the work of others. A lesson's goals must be clear enough that students are able to measure whether (a) the group is successful in achieving them, and (b) individual members are successful in achieving them as well.
  2. Face-to-Face (Promotive) Interaction: Important cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics only occur when students promote each other's learning. This includes oral explanations of how to solve problems, discussing the nature of the concepts being learned, and connecting present learning with past knowledge. It is through face-to-face, promotive interaction that members become personally committed to each other as well as to their mutual goals.
 These address concerns teachers may have over students being free riders on the efforts of their teammates and it notes that when students teach other students both the instructing student and the recipient of that instruction benefit.  Teachers can take a step back and allow other students to fill in their role in small group situations where one student who understands the material can help a student who does not in a one-on-one situation.  While this is happening the teacher can patrol the classroom providing instruction to the groups as needed.

This method can be combined with a lecture.  The students come to class and start with a quick warm-up exercise or preparatory set, then the teacher can introduce the new topic, give a lecture on it and use the rest of class time for practice.  The order of this can change as well.  Students can figure out how a mathematical operation works or find a historical cause as part of their group work and then hear a lecture that explains it more fully.  This method ought to give students the individual instruction that Khan saw a need for without putting a strong necessity on every student doing their homework and having access to the internet.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good at History

Here is an essay that I wrote for one of my classes about what it means to be good at history (the subject I intend to teach).

Good at History

            “What good is this going to do me?”  It is a very annoying question to most teachers but the question is a fair one.  Perhaps in a perfect world all students have a natural curiosity of history and value its study as an intrinsically good activity, but that cannot be expected.  Many students are not going to be naturally interested in the subject.  There is an answer, however, and it has to do with mastering the skills involved in history.  Someone who is good at history will be able to find a way to make it useful for them.  Studying history provides students with a grab-bag of tools they can use from evaluating evidence to tell a good story to a sense of their place in the general flow of human civilization.  The qualities of being good at history can be divided into two categories: one has to do with applying cognitive ability to the subject, the other is essential concepts someone must understand.  People who are good at history display higher order thinking to historical topics and are aware of challenges specific to history like understanding historical context and being able to evaluate information without having to be judgmental.
            I am sure that most of us would agree that being good at history means more than just memorizing facts about leaders, dates where lots of important people did something or famous speeches.  As enjoyable as those things can be for enthusiasts they are insufficient for making one what could be considered good.  Ideally, rather than training students to repeat information learned in class teachers could bring students to cognitive domains that are higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy.
            Consider the following quote from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

At breakfast the next morning, "Tommy," some one says, "do you know which is the longest river in Africa?" A shaking of the head. "But don't you remember something that begins: The Nile is the …"
"The - Nile - is - the - longest - river - in - Africa - and - the - second - in - length - of - all - the - rivers - of - the - globe …" The words come rushing out. "Although - falling - short - of …"
"Well now, which is the longest river in Africa?"
The eyes are blank. "I don't know."
In the above quote the child Tommy is simply recalling a fact that was taught him without understanding it.  If he understood the meaning of the sentence he had memorized he would have been able to answer the question that was posed to him.  Unfortunately he was only trained to recite a fact.  He is not good at geography, he is good at memorization.  Someone who is good at history should be able draw logical conclusions from the facts they hear and not just recite them.  Being good at history means that when you learn that Abraham Lincoln was president in the 1860s you can then come up with his name when asked to say as many government officials of the 19th Century you can name.
            While history is generally categorized among the humanities it is partly scientific.   Interpretation is often open-ended but it bound by what is made possible by the evidence and what can be rationalized as the best explanation.  Abraham Lincoln’s exact thoughts about slavery are open to interpretation among historians but it would be factually incorrect to speculate that he was a Nazi.  Because the National Socialist Party did not exist during Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime the evidence does not permit this interpretation.  Someone who is good at history understands that there are many ways to interpret an event but those interpretations are limited by the evidence.  They can evaluate how well an explanation accounts for the evidence presented.
            Those who are good at history have a sense of how things came to be and have a good idea about how things could have been different if different events had happened.  Essentially, someone who is good at history can make intelligent counterfactual claims.  When making these claims one does not have to pretend to know exactly what would have happened if Truman did not use atomic weapons but they should be able to show their awareness of the effect that event had in history by altering events that are connected to it.  What would be interesting about this exercise is how someone justifies the changes they list.  Why do they think Julia and Ethel Rosenberg would not have given atomic bomb information to the Russians?  Why do they think America would have been more willing to use atomic weapons during the Cold War?  This step is similar to picking historical interpretation in that there are a wide variety of reasonable possibilities but limits to what the evidence would allow.  For instance, someone who is good at history would not argue that a different decision from Truman would have lead to Germany taking over Europe because Germany had already surrendered by the time the bombs were dropped on Japan.
             In addition to climbing the ranks of cognitive domains there is still the second category of essential historical concepts.  One who is good at history understands the need for context in understanding the past.  This means that they can put themselves in the mindset of someone who lived in the past based on what facts they know about the time in which they lived.  They can imagine themselves as someone who has never been on the internet, seen a movie and does not know what quantum physics is.  They can imagine themselves as someone who grew up in a Native American tribe and lives in a wigwam.  Then when they learn about the person’s actions or how thoughts they can make sense of them in respect to the mindset they know they had.  Understanding context also means you have to suspend severe moral judgments (not to say there are no objective morals, just that applying them to people long dead does you no good in understanding them) because that can inhibit the process of possessing their mindset.  Good historians must step out of their favored position of hindsight during this process and think as if they were someone directly involved in the events they are studying.
            One thing that I hope ties all of these features together is that they all have useful applications outside of history class.  The student who wonders what studying the past will do for him personally has only to consider the tools he is acquiring in the process.  He can consider the views of others, make informed decisions about counterfactuals and in doing that learn from his own past, and he can draw facts from the information he is presented with to better understand it rather than parroting what he has heard.  All of these skills are useful for him to manage his social life, work in a professional environment and even come up with routines to handle his personal affairs more efficiently.