Monday, June 29, 2015

The More Things Stay the Same, The More They Change

A few nights ago an Eric Sheninger tweet caught my eye.  It referenced a Muse article called "10 Annoying Buzzwords the Whole Office Would Be Better Without."  I am a bit of a junkie for lists like this.  In fact, this is my favorite of these types of lists; reading it has become a New Year's ritual for me.  I keep waiting for the annoying habit of adding -out to verbs (like "share out" and "tweet out" - why do we need the out?) to end up on this list, but, no luck so far.  Anyway, I couldn't help reading the article.

The article highlights a lot of jargon-y words that people use, like leverage and disrupt and iteration, more often than they should be used.  A new one for me was "double-click" to replace one of my hated phrases, "drill down."  I hope I don't have a mouthful of diet coke the first time I hear someone say they need to double-click an idea in a meeting.  A spit take is likely.

I couldn't disagree with most of the entries on this list, but, from an edtech perspective, I have another I would like to add.  It's not a term; it's a presentation device.  Our schools or classrooms haven't changed in the last 100 years.  Just look at these pictures.  They're the same.  That's what's wrong (or what's symptomatic about what's wrong) with education.  If you see enough keynotes, you'll hear this a lot.  I take issue with this logic for a couple of reasons.

First, it's not really true.  Sure, there are a lot of similarities when you stare at two rooms that happen to have a teacher desk and some student desks in rows.  All it takes is an evening of stories that my father tells about his school days and I realize how much school has changed in fifty years.  When I think about how education has changed in my twenty-four years, I can only imagine how much it has changed in 100 years.  In some ways, I think I have reinvented myself in the last five years.  And my reinvention was a third or fourth iteration of me as teacher in my career (iteration, heh heh).  Every year I make changes, some big and some small, to meet the changing needs of the students I teach.  As I watch my colleagues doing that too, I am saddened by the pundits who keep banging the drum of "school never changes."  This minimizes the many ways teachers adapt and grow every year and inadvertently places the blame on the same teachers who spend their salaries on classroom improvements because they are tired of waiting.  

Second, that school hasn't changed much is maybe a little bit true, but I am not sure that's so bad.  The basics of education - a well-qualified, passionate teacher who finds a way to help students discover things they didn't know or didn't know they didn't know before - should never change.  Another tired phrase has become that "the best device in the classroom is a talented teacher."  If the teacher is talented, it doesn't matter if the desks are in rows or the students are in stations.  Learning will be the priority.  Plus, we have fundamental ideas and concepts that people need to learn as building blocks.  I remember the first time I visited the Montessori school where my children eventually enrolled.  I marveled at the variety of lessons and work that was happening all over the classroom.  It was quite a bit different from how I remembered elementary school and I questioned the teacher about mundane tasks like spelling lists and math facts.  "Oh, we still have those," she answered.  Maybe they are not the focus all the time.  Maybe we approach them in different ways.  But we still have to learn some basics before we can attack our passions.

Look at all the other settings that haven't really changed much in 100 years.  The grocery store still has shelves of food and someone located in a central-ish area who rings up the sale and asks you to pay.  The doctor's office has a waiting area with a person who tells you when it's your turn and then a doctor who asks some questions and makes a recommendation.  The courtroom has a judge up front and two sides for the participants with some rows for others to participate.  I never read any articles about, or hear a keynoter mention, how none of these settings hasn't changed enough in 100 years or about how if we don't make sweeping changes right now, we'll all starve with poor medical care and no justice.

So, please, let's stop talking about how the reason to change is that we haven't changed.  Let's talk instead about being well-qualified educators who are willing to try whatever is in their bag of tricks, and learn new tricks, to help students find ways to discover things.  Let's change when it makes sense to change because we evaluated many options and this one is best.  Let's have sound reasons for trying whatever we try.  And let's stop minimizing the craft of the hardest working professionals on the planet.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Using a Lab to Answer a Student's Question

One of my constant sources of inspiration is the work of Dan Meyer.  Dan's recent post "If Math is the Aspirin, Then How Do You Create the Headache?" explores the idea of how to introduce a concept or stir up interest in a concept so that math is authentic.  I struggle with this a lot in chemistry, especially since students begin the year with very little foundation on which to draw.

As I planned my acids and bases unit this spring, I was trying to incorporate an inquiry-based lab that involved the properties of acids and bases.  Initially I thought I would give students unknown solutions and some equipment and ask them to identify the substances as acids, bases, or neither.  Maybe I would make it more relevant by using household or common substances.  I opted against that because it felt too elementary and, if I am being honest, wouldn't they just measure the pH and call it a day?  I had to miss a day for inservice, so I left them a great PhET simulation to discover answers to some questions about strength and concentration.  The image above is from that simulation; it shows the difference between an acid's strength and its concentration on a particle level.  

When I returned from my absence, I still had not settled on exactly what we would do in the lab and my students had questions about the simulation.  In my second period class, when I asked for questions from the previous day, one of my students said that he understood what they were supposed to get from the simulation, but he didn't feel he knew the right answer to the question of which property - strength or concentration - had a greater effect on pH.  I started to answer, to tell him which one it was.  But then I didn't.  Instead, I said, "I am so glad you asked.  Tomorrow we will explore that question in the lab."

The next day I provided two solutions, a solution of hydrochloric acid (a strong acid) and solution of acetic acid (a weak acid) with equal concentrations.  I labeled the solutions as A and B so they wouldn't know which one was which.  They had to use what they knew about pH to decide which was strong and which was weak.  I also provided pH paper and asked them to design an experiment to answer the question "Which has a greater effect on pH: acid strength or acid concentration?"  Their homework was to write a lab report.  Here are some excerpts:

It's always fun to watch groups work on days like this.  Some were completely mystified about why the pH wasn't changing as they added equal volumes of acid and water.  It was a great lead in to our lessons about pH and especially the logarithmic nature of that scale.  Students often smile and nod as I describe the scale as being powers of ten, but this year they had experienced firsthand how drastically different, in terms of dilution, a pH of 2 is from a pH of 3.  The lab really got them thinking about the difference between strength and concentration too.  Since those terms are used interchangeably outside of science - a strong drink is typically a very concentrated one - it is important to help them understand how different they are in chemistry.  I think, based on the writing they did following the lab, that most did understand this difference.

When I do it again next year - and I will definitely do this one again - I will also provide a solution of a sodium hydroxide and ammonia so that they can use a strong base and a weak base in their experiments too.  The trick will be, of course, getting a student to ask the question again!