Friday, July 25, 2014

"I want to expand a child's world!"

Aside from my knee-jerk reactionarism to anything that smacks of missionary politics, I do wonder why so many of us assume that we need to "broaden horizons" of young human beings who have lived lives thus far unknown to us. This human stuff goes both ways, or should, anyway, especially since the youngters in a classroom have been coerced to show up.

So, a crank's view of common classroom practices.

New teacher: I want to show my kids the world!
  • Do not show photos of galaxies to kids who have never seen more than a dozen stars under city skies.
  • Do not read Blueberries for Sal to a child who has never picked fruit that goes directly into her mouth.
  • Do not impose a microscope into a child's universe until she has had time to play with a magnifying glass.
  • Do not make them do a project on some foreign mammal roaring in some foreign land.
  • Do not allow calculators until a child has a need to shave.

New teacher: But I want to expand a child's universe!

Old fart: If you want to expand a child's universe, you're going to need to make a child know a little bit about it first hand. This may cause you, Mr. New Teacher, a little bit of time, money, and comfort:
  • Schedule a night class trip to a meadow beyond the city lights. An evening of stars, lightning bugs, and even mosquito bites will last a lifetime longer than the latest fancy NASA photo of Stephan's quartet quintet.
  • Find a damn mulberry tree (or whatever equivalent can be found in your neck of the universe) and let the kids munch a few berries. If you can't do berries, find a few dandelions. Or, heck, take another field trip.
  • Buy a class set of magnifying glasses for under $15, less than you'll spend for that motivational poster telling kids that they're geniuses. 
A local critter--easy to keep!

  • Collect some local  critters that fit in a mason jar, and let the kids care for them. With any luck, they'll learn something about copulation before they stumble on it "accidentally" through a classroom chromebook
  • Keep wooden blocks, abacuses, slide rules,compasses, rulers, thermometers and all kinds of other digital devices that require no more power than provided by the hands and brains of their operators.
Not saying you shouldn't do the stuff on your "Expand a Child's Universe" list--just saying you introduce them to the one that exists before tossing them into the one defined by teachers.

Make sure the life you're trying to save is not just your own...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A thousand children

I've been teaching a little while, not nearly as long as most teachers my age, but long enough to have a voice now. I think this year I may have my thousandth student.

Now while that may not seem like a whole lot, time does add up. I get almost 150 hours of face time per student, so that's about 150,000 hours of contact time total, over 17 years worth.

I used to be a pediatrician--I saw way more than 1000 kids, but those who I spent the most time with, well, died. The chronically ill and the dying need a lot of time, and need a lot of love.

Healthy kids had no need for me beyond a few vaccines and some safety advice, and the safety advice was probably superfluous.

So I teach now.
17 years of contact, 17 years of a chance to make a difference.

Why else teach?

The phlogiston of education

 Astrology, alchemy, and education theory?

If you take a strip of magnesium, a metal, and light it on fire, you will get an incredibly bright white, searing reaction--it's used to give us the brilliant white highlights in fireworks.

When you are done, you will have a pile of ashy, powdery stuff. It's no longer metal, you just saw the metal burn up. You just saw incredible amounts of heat and light get released.

Would you expect the pile of ash to weigh more, less, or the same as the ribbon of magnesium you started with? The answer is obvious, no?

Until not so long ago, scientists were not sure what to do with heat--we've all been through the catechism of high school science, so we all know that heat is a form of energy (though nearly all of us have no handle on "energy").

Before we realized that air was a mixture of several different things and not an element, again not so long ago, scientists had a problem. (Scientists always have problems, that's the whole point of science.)

If you burn wood, you are left with ashes much lighter than the original wood. The ashes will not burn. The stuff that left the wood during it fiery transformation was thought to be phlogiston. As it left the wood, the wood became less flammable. Ashes, of course, have no phlogiston left, and therefore can no longer combust.

Wood releasing phlogiston. (Photo by Francisco Belard, PD)

Here's the problem, though--if you weigh the stuff left after you burn the strip of magnesium, it weighs more than the original stuff you started with. Something has been added! (We now know, of course, mostly through indoctrination, that the stuff is oxygen.)

We see the world differently now, though it's still the same world. Same magnesium, same charcoal, same air, same ashes. We just have a better handle on everything chemical now because we figured out through careful observations that what we believed to be true simply wasn't so.

Humans have been teaching each other things for a long, long time now. We know that learning happens, and we assume it's because of certain processes we attend to. Much of what happens in a classroom does help, and a lot doesn't, but we're still in the Phlogiston Age of Education--we attribute power to ideas that have no basis in reality.  The Learning Pyramid. Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. The 10,000 Hour Rule. Ad nauseum.....

This is not to say we need to blow up the classroom as it exists--a lot of what we do does work, but it's not (yet) clear why.

Still, our field seems to fall for every Sylvester McMonkey McBean that strolls into town, making fistfuls of dollars one way ($3 to put green stars upon our bellies), and then the other (only $10 to remove those same stars).

We can do better.
We must do better.

At least if we want this profession to last longer than alchemy did....

Monday, July 14, 2014

Fiddling away our children's lives

I'm feeling crabby tonight....

Education beyond learning what you needed to get by day to day used to be called elitism.
Now it's called getting ready for the global economy.

Neither one, by itself, prepares you to live.

I spent a chunk of a Sunday watching a colony of fiddler crabs from a kayak, once they got used to me ogling them. (If you ever stumble upon a mess of fiddlers, they will disappear in a blink, so quickly you might wonder if you truly saw them. Just sit quietly like you're a stalk of phragmite. Then sit some more. They'll come popping out like Munchkins after Dorothy's first killing.)

Along the banks of Spicer Creek, Cape May

When the males weren't busy displaying their dominant claws the way American males flash their cash, they mostly ate, picking up tiny pieces of the mudbank with the smaller claw, bringing mud to their mouths.

Piece by piece by piece, the crabs convert the muck into themselves, muck made from the deaths of millions of organisms before them, teeming with bacteria, bits of algae, and mostly death.

Hundreds of fiddler crabs can be found on a small patch of the creek's edge, all of them made of the stuff of mud.

There's a lightning storm brewing outside as I write this. My fiddler crabs, most of them anyway, will survive the storm, and tomorrow will again be feasting on the bank.

If fiddler crabs needed schooling, what would they need to learn in order to live? What would they need in order to live happily? What part of their lives would they give up in order to go to school?

These are rhetorical (and silly) questions--fiddler crabs already know how to live.

Most of our children do not, and that's OK, it's one reason our young depend on their elders for so long. After years of schooling, though, how many of our children know how to live as well as
the fiddler crabs along Spicer Creek?

We need food, air, water, shelter, and love.
How good is a child at getting any of those after 13 years of public schooling?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

NGSS and food: starving for accuracy

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
Richard Feynman

I am trying to get a handle on my seemingly irrational visceral response to the Next Generation Science Standards. I should be lovin' this up, especially since philosophically the folks at NGSS and I are on the same page. The Visigoths of Ignorance are banging on national psyche, and we are teetering on the brink of Age of Magick.

I am a bloody mix of superstitions, awe, and and mortality with an inkling of the power of science, and as such may put too much trust in my enteric nervous system ("gut feelings"), but eventually I wrestle with my viscera enough to either make sense of these feelings, or abandon them.

So what's the problem? Ah, the devil (there's that magick again) is again in the details.

If you want to learn science, you're going to have to let go of some things you believed to be true. Not all things, not even all things irrational, how dull would that be?

But some things, some things that you believe in your core to be true. The ground is mostly solid stuff. The sun rises and sets. You are, in some sense, immortal.

From Johannes Stabius’s Pronosticon (1503) via Philadelphia Are Center for History of Science

If we're going to teach young students science, and if we're going to insist on some set of national standards (though why we need "standards" in a field whose strength is blasting holes through standards through the ages), we need to get the basic stuff right.

Not mostly right, or almost right, or, please-forgive-us-we're-a-committee right
We need to get what we do know (or at least think we know) dead on balls accurate.

And the NGSS whiffed....

Energy can be “produced,” “used,” or “released” by converting stored energy. Plants capture energy from sunlight, which can later be used as fuel or food.

One of my pet peeves is our inability to grasp what food is--we screw up the concept at so many levels. For now, I'll limit this to its definition.

Food is stuff, not free energy. It is very unstable stuff, and when it breaks down, lots of energy is released, but we end up with the same amount of stuff we started with, just in different forms.

Plants put stable stuff together to make food. This takes energy, energy plants glom from sunlight. If I want to build an (unstable) house of cards, I take a deck of 54 cards, use energy to arrange them a certain way, but when I am finished, I still have exactly the stuff I started with, 54 cards.

Food is represented by the house of cards, not the energy I used to build the house. Plants do not convert sunlight into food, no more than I create cards out of thin air when building the flimsy house.

If the soul of biology is the theory of evolutions, its heart is the babble of bubbling life trying to make or grab food, breaking it down to release free energy and to rearrange its parts to build new things.

I preach from Day One: Follow the "stuff," follow the free energy, the two are entwined but separate.

"Plants capture energy from sunlight, which can later be used as fuel or food." So what's the big deal?

Energy is not food. Plants are not made of sunlight.  It seems so, though, given how big trees can get, seemingly from little more than air and water.

We are surrounded by trees, huge organisms weighing tons and tons While we bemoan folks for not being able to see the forest for the trees, many of my lambs miss the trees as well.

The NGSS gets this wrong--free energy is used to make food, true, but energy is not used as food. And now we've given thousands of elementary teachers permission to keep getting this wrong.

NGSS, energy, and motion sickness

I once taught physical science here in New Jersey--some introductory physics, a little bit of chemistry, a whole lot of hands-on experimentation, and a rocket project at the end, where kids designed and built rockets designed to blast raw eggs up a couple hundred feet, then back down again intact.

 I am a certified biology teacher, but had a year of physics in college, as well as two years of chemistry, and I know my 19th century stuff, more than enough to teach Introductory Science I, a "low level" introductory course to how the physical world works.

Turns out that the NCAA had some issues with the way the course was named--it had to have the words "Physical Science" to count towards NCAA eligibility. So the name was changed. Same course, different name, new power. Magic!

Alas, the state of NJ has its own magical powers, and once the course was renamed "College Preparatory Physical Science" to keep the NCAA happy, I instantly became ineligible to teach the course because my biology certification was now insufficient. 
I get this, and I am even OK with it.  It is possible to be certified as a biology teacher in NJ without ever having studied physics, so if I want to teach physical science, I need to show I'm capable: take the Praxis, schlepp a transcript to Trenton, and pay my $70. A pain in the arse, but not unreasonable.

But here's the problem. The Next Generation Science Standards require a deep understanding of what look like simple concepts. Here is a concept pulled directly from NGSS, from the 3-5 grade physical science progressions:

Moving objects contain energy. 

While true in a trivial sense (since all objects "contain" energy), it gives license to teachers not well versed in the mechanics of motion to continue to spout off misconceptions most of us hold. As phrased, this progression obfuscates the profound shift in one's worldview required to grasp the laws of motion.

Here's another:
 The faster the object moves, the more energy it has.

Again, trivially true, but without a reference frame, without defining what kind of energy, this statement is, well, nonsensical, and will only confirm the biases we all have in how the natural world works.

[Addendum: Frank Noschese, a brilliant physics teacher, has no problem with the statement as it stands. "It doesn't say 'Fast objects have more energy than slow objects.' That'd be problematic (& false)." He notes the statement is true since it "clearly states relation to itself," and he is right.]

(If I throw a baseball 50 mph at sea level but just drop one from a balloon hovering 5 miles above Earth, which "has" more energy?)

If the Next Gen standards are over-simplified because the committee worried about confusing the kids (or more likely the teachers who will "teach" the kids), you can roll out the standards to the tune of 1,001 trombones and nothing is going to change. Nothing.

I am not qualified to teach these concepts to adolescents in my state;
elementary teachers with far less science background than me will be required to teach them to the pre-pubescent crowd.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

My qualms with the Next Generation Science Standards

New Jersey just adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, a fancy title with a fancy logo:

(OK, cheap shot alert, but what  does this motto mean? "For States. By States." I thought the standards were for the science education of children by reasonably adept adults who hope to make the world make more sense.)

I'm ambivalent about all this, not because I think that the idea of standards is some deadly sin, nor because I have strong disagreements with the contents of the standards. I'm OK with letting evidence take us where it will take us, and while some folks fear the wrath of Baal should a standard or two clash with the worldview of folks who fetishize the words of ancient dead people, science has proven to be pretty bloody convenient.

My ambivalence stems from my fear of what happens when officials from on high impose standards onto those below when neither the high nor the low have a good grasp of, say, Newtonian physics.

The hardest part of Newtonian physics is abandoning our perceptions of what we think is true, perceptions that have kept us alive (in one form or another) for well over 3 billion years (sorry, Baal). While high school students fret over the algebra, it's the underlying concepts of Newton's Laws of Motion that bend our souls.

Here's my concern. Grasping that "[a]n object at rest typically has multiple forces acting on it, but they add to give zero net force on the object" is tricky enough, and one many teachers are not equipped to handle. But let's take this one step further, imagining that the folks deciphering this core idea are non-science majors.
What can be said about an object in motion, say, a car going down the Garden State Parkway at 60 mph in a straight line? That car has multiple forces acting on it, forces that add up to zero, at least until the car comes to a bend in the road.

A more subtle (though perhaps much bigger) point is this--what does it mean for an object to be at rest? A third grade child is getting tremendous amounts of huge pieces of information. The Earth spins on its axis. The Earth revolves around the sun. Gravity keeps you "stuck" to the Earth.
Now I am not expecting a child to come out of 3rd grade grasping Newton's First Law--I am expecting, though, that the schools do not plug up her worldview with nonsense.
Watch this--Derek's Three Incorrect Laws of Motion."You would think you were understanding them, but I think you wouldn't..." (0:20 seconds)

If a teacher does not own Newton's Laws of Motion, and most of us do not, particularly in the non-science fields, he will fail to get this right in class, no matter how the standards are worded.

I'd rather have naive students than ignorant ones.