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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Expensive Useless Education Technology

While preparing a post on state-of-the-art language labs in schools, I came across this piece about interactive white boards (IWB). Our society is so enchanted by technology. If you are a grant writer, you know that nearly every request for proposal (RFP) wants a technology piece. If it is not there, the proposal will not be funded. Thus, otherwise excellent proposals are encumbered by unnecessary, and often useless components that add expense without clear benefit.

Seen as the first step towards “21st century teaching and learning,” schools and districts run out and spend thousands of dollars on these gizmos, hanging them on walls and showing them off like proud hens that just laid the golden instructional egg...without time and training, they quickly become nothing more than really expensive overhead projectors.

Back in the 1980s, when my high school decided to buy a state-of-art language lab from Sony, they sent me on an expensive trip to Tokyo to learn how to use it. My job was to come back and teach everyone else. I was also tasked with creating language lab materials to supplement the textbooks and providing the voice for the materials.

I loved my fancy-dancy language lab. I used it all the time and enthusiastically taught my colleagues how to use it. They ignored it. Eventually, the administration, worried about the evident waste of money, decreed that all language teachers must utilize the lab at least once a month. So they did, turning it into a very expensive cassette tape player. Me, I had a blast designing all kinds of innovative ways to use the lab.

Is the interactive whiteboard nothing more than a fancy accessory to much-maligned “stand and deliver instruction.” Personally, I do not have a problem with stand and deliver instruction. Well-delivered direct instruction is highly effective.

Adminstrators worry about utilization, but not so much about effectiveness.

...schools rarely have any kind of system in place to evaluate the impact that whiteboards are having on instruction. We spend heaping piles of cash collecting whiz-bang gadgets and then completely fail to reflect on whether or not they have helped us achieve the outcomes we most desire.

On the other hand, it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of any technology when it is rarely used or used as expensive replacements for other equipment like overhead projects or cassette players. Even technology that has been around for decades is not well-correlated with academic achievement.*

On the other, other hand, maybe effectiveness is not the salient consideration.

Frankly, it seems like most school leaders don’t really care whether IWBs change instruction in meaningful ways in their school’s classrooms. Why? Because whiteboards aren’t an instructional tool in their eyes. They’re a PR tool—a tangible representation of innovation that can be shown off to supervisors and parents alike.

Yep, that described my language lab. I was constantly pressed to show it off to school visitors.

Yet in the past, I often wistfully wished there was a way to save a chalkboard...or a way to project an internet page...or …

Today, I think I could find a lot of great ways to use an interactive white board, but I still question whether it is the gizmo or the instructional design that accounts for any improvement in academic achievement. Actually, I do not question at all. Of course, instructional design wins hands down. I would like all schools to be able to have the technology to augment great instructional design, but as long as schools are complaining of tight budgets and laying off teachers, I would prefer they spend scarce dollars on people rather than things. I would prefer to see schools set priorities more profound than keeping up with the Joneses.

Roxanne Elden has expressed well educators' frustration in her open letter to Educational Technology. I suggest linking to the original article and reading the comments to find out what an admittedly nonrandom cross-section of teachers think about interactive whiteboards. Often their comments can be applied to education technology in general.

*Go here to find out how to obtain a comprehensive report on calculator research with our youngest students.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Review: The Language of God by Dr. Francis Collins

Book Review: Francis S. Collins The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. 2006. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The science curriculum is the battleground for one clash after another over creation and evolution. Nearly every school board must engage the issue; it is only a matter of when. If they exclude creationism, they risk alienating parents. Most school boards opt for a consider-all-sides approach which pleases no one. Creationists object to what they perceive as an attack on God. Evolutionists object to the inclusion of creationism on any terms because creationism is not science. Declaring, “No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution,” Dr. Collins comes down firmly on the side of evolutionists, and fervently wishes certain Christians had not packed the word “creationist” with so much unnecessary baggage.

While finishing up a doctorate in physics, Dr. Collins changed his major, earning a doctorate in biology and becoming a physician. His ideas incubated in both sterile laboratories and the social messiness of the hospital. He is a committed Christian who believes a “satisfying harmony” is not only possible, but preferable. As an unimpeachable scientist, his views may help peace break out.

When Dr. Francis Collins stood with President Clinton before cameras and microphones, the president said of the Human Genome Project, “today we are learning the language in which God created life.” Dr. Collins seconded, adding, “...we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

Presidents invoke god all the time for political purposes. But a world-renown scientist? It turns out Dr. Collins is in good company. In a 1997 survey, 40% of his colleagues in biology, physics and mathematics professed belief in a God “who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” It is common knowledge that 40% of Americans consider themselves Christians. Belief in a personal God is as common among scientists as the general population.

Dr. Collins asks, “Is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and the spiritual worldviews?” He wrote this book to explain why he believes the answer is a “resounding yes!”

Very few scientists have the status to address the question. Other scientists have attempted only to be dismissed as intellectually dishonest or worse. Dr. Collins establishes a ground rule, “Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world...”

Dr. Collins was raised with an apathetic attitude toward religion, first identifying himself as agnostic, and then under the influence of university, turned to atheism. He became convinced, along with 60% of his colleagues, that “everything in the universe could be explained on the basis of equations and physical principles,” concluding that “no thinking scientist could seriously entertain the possibility of God without committing some sort of intellectual suicide.”

Eventually, he realized his atheism was based on weak “school boy” constructs. As a scientist, he determined to seriously investigate God. A Methodist minister suggested he read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. The book changed his life. He could not escape the implications of “right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe.” He considered sociobiology's postulate that what we call morality developed to aid biological survival. Yet the theory could not account for sacrificial altruism, someone who willingly gives on behalf of someone else, with no foreseeable benefit to the giver. The argument that altruism provides indirect evolutionary benefit did not stand up to scrutiny. From there he boarded a logic train and, as he stopped at station after station, he arrived at a place where “faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief,” throwing him into a quandary. He paced the landing platform. “It seemed impossible either to go forward or turn back.” Finally, he took a leap of faith and thereby started an inner “war of worldviews.”

His inner war occurs on at least four battlegrounds, the same fields of doubt all of us have crossed at one time or another.
1. Isn't the idea of God just wish fulfillment?
2. What about all the harm done in the name of religion?
3. Why would a loving God allow suffering in the world?
4. Can a rational person believe in miracles?

Dr. Collins struggles as we do, as laymen on the same spiritual path, struggling with the same issues. He does not stand, as theologians and generals are wont to do, on a hill overlooking the battlegrounds. He shares the trenches with us, his readers.

We laymen are awed by the starry night sky, the intricate dance of the honey bee, or the blooming of a rose, and suspect the Psalmist may be right that “creation displays the handiwork of God.” But what awed Dr. Collins was the elegant beauty and simplicity of mathematical representations of physical phenomenon. He wonders, “Are these mathematical descriptions of reality signposts to some greater intelligence? Is mathematics, along with DNA, another language of God's?”

First, Dr. Collins establishes a miracle as a “singular, exceedingly improbable, and profound event in history” that science is incapable of explaining. Then he considers the Big Bang and the question science has been unable to answer, “What came before the Big Bang?” Considering it more than a creationist gotcha question, Dr. Collins agrees with astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, “Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world...the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.”

Dr, Collins demonstrates that the big guns, including among others, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Hawking and Albert Einstein, firmly established “the existence of a universe as we know it rest upon a knife edge of improbability...our universe is uniquely tuned to give rise to humans.” Then he surveys the present state of scientific knowledge in physics, biology, chemistry. He makes a point that bears frequent repeating. If there is a God and “if God is truly Almighty, He will hardly be threatened by our puny efforts to understand the workings of His natural world.” When believers act if they must defend God they make God small indeed.

The corollary of improbability, “the God of the Gaps,” is a dangerous shoal for the ship of faith. If the gap is filled, where does that leave God? One tempting gap is the origin-of-life gap “given that no serious scientist would currently claim that a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life is at hand.” Another is the “woefully incomplete” timeline of the fossil record. Nevertheless, implications of the Human Genome Project, which he headed, makes a common ancestor a virtually inescapable conclusion.

The book is powerful if not original. Many authors have proposed a similar harmony of science and faith. In fact, Dr. Collins quotes some of them. Critics have a field day with many of these other authors, on the grounds that they are not true scientists, or if they are, they must be bad scientists. Dr. Collins' credentials are impeccable. He is well-armored against the spear of idiocy flung so carelessly at other scientists who have attempted to make many of the same points.

After making the case for evolution, Dr. Collins sympathetically refutes three current options in chapters every parent and school board should read:
1. Atheism and Agnosticism
2. Creationism
3. Intelligent Design

He proposes a fourth option he calls “BioLogos,” science and faith in harmony, concluding, “[God] can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate,and beautiful---and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.”

Finally, Dr. Collins bears his heart in an account of his own spiritual journey and personalized messages to believers and nonbelievers. In an appendix, he explores several current ethical dilemmas in science, and again argues that the very existence of these perplexing dilemmas indicates the universality of the moral law. For him, a harmony of science and faith is essential to optimal resolution of these dilemmas and any others that may come later.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Science for Preschoolers?

I am shocked, I tell you, shocked.

The change in Mr. Hoff’s room, and in a handful of other classrooms like it around the country, stems from growing interest among academic experts and educators in teaching science to preschoolers.

A handful of other classrooms? Just a handful in 2010? When my kids were in preschool twenty years ago, there was tons of hands-on science. Oh wait, they went to preschool in Japan.

But still, Montessori preschools, even in America, have provided hands-on science for decades. Every preschool has a sand and water table. The Methodist preschool, where I sub occasionally, provides a rich selection of science opportunities for the children. I guess lots of preschools have stuff, but do not use what they have.

“Most teachers will have a science area in their classroom, ... and if you look on plans, you would see something listed as science but, in reality, there would be some shells, some magnets, and maybe a pumpkin, or a book about animals in winter,” said Nancy Clark-Chiarelli, a principal research scientist at the Education Development Center, a research group based in Newton, Mass. “But those items are not conceptually related, and they don’t promote children’s independent exploration of them.”
If preschool teachers had water tables in their classrooms, Ms. Clark-Chiarelli and her EDC research partners found in their work, they were often turned into bathing areas for plastic dolls rather than used as science-teaching tools.

Yeah, come to think of it, I have seen the children bathing dolls.

Ironically, a call for more science in preschool has its critics, those who believe science is just one more academic subject crowding out what little playtime is left.

New efforts to teach more science in preschool come at a time when early-childhood educators worry that a growing emphasis on academics during those years is crowding out the playtime that children need for healthy development.

Is it possible those early-childhood “experts” really do not understand that science IS play, or can be, if handled properly? Science also provides a great context for building language skills and acquiring number sense in a realistic context. Science can be the ultimate content integrator.

American need to abandon the assumption that academics must be work requiring pencil and paper. Think of all that children learn about language and number and the way the world works by observing and testing hypotheses from the day they are born.

Maybe it is just me, but it seems that providing science experiences for young children would be easy. But if it is not, there is help. A new book is out, entitled Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS): Facilitating Scientific Ways of Thinking, Talking, Doing, and Understanding, that should help.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Special Report on Calculator Research Released

Announcing the release of the special report, Calculators and Math Reasoning Skills in Primary Students: Moot Point Without Skilled Math Teachers.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has gone on record recommending use of calculators in the earliest grades, thereby precipitating a debate on such use within the academic community and among school-based practitioners. In this survey of studies, research critiques, case studies, and editorials, the most generous conclusion to be drawn is that calculator usage need not hinder the development of math reasoning skills, but it may in fact do so. Educators should not be expected to adopt NCTM recommendations based on such skimpy research.

NCTM’s recommendation that calculators should be introduced under the guidance of skilled teachers is inadequate given the documented shortage of skilled math teachers at even the primary level. Until the first prerequisite is met, that is, upgrading the quality of math instruction by upgrading the quality of math teachers, the issue of calculator use in the earliest grades is largely irrelevant to math achievement, math reasoning skills, or problem solving skills.

This special 78-page report reviews a huge selection of published sources on calculator use in elementary schools. What does the research really say? Read this special report to find out.

See the sidebar for ordering instructions.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Discovery Good, Lecture Good, Too

Lecture doesn't have to be a dirty 7-letter word. One of the things we are learning about education is that we do not know what we think we know. See the new research on learning styles. Another surprise: lecture is not necessarily bad. Check out this powerful lecture method.

Sometimes lecture is not only the most effective, but also the preferred medium. Honestly, has anyone else sat through a three-hour “hands-on” professional development workshop, only to walk out wishing the presenter had lectured the material and saved everyone two and a half hours. We could have gotten some serious grading done instead.

TED:Ideas Worth Spreading relies on lectures with a strict twenty-minute limit. Some of the most effective talks last less than five minutes. It stands to reason that direct instruction, a time-honored method, has to work. It is fashionable to deride lecture as the tool of choice for control freaks. However, nobody considers the TED presenters domineering.

Why do people persist in framing every issue as a polar dichotomy? Left-right, phonics-whole language, direct instruction-constructivism. Dichotomies close down possibilities that are more likely to lead to effective strategies. With phonics-whole language, the common sense approach turns out to be the best. Phonics is a powerful tool for decoding the words students need to comprehend in order to derive the maximum benefits of whole language.

Likewise, when researchers compare direct instruction with constructivism, direct instruction generally gets the nod. When adults are the audience, direct instruction usually means old-fashioned lecture. Few classrooms actually exhibit a separation between direct instruction and constructivism. Most teachers blend both approaches every day for maximum effective learning.

For more Power Teaching videos, search "power teaching" in the YouTube search window. Notice how well prepared the teacher is. He has written everything on the board before he began. I tried out the technique this past summer in a "Finance 4 Kids" class with mixed results, probably because I need more practice. The students were receptive and active. Here is a less intense example of Power Teaching, also known as “whole brain teaching.”