Saturday, March 31, 2012


I lost a friend this week, a strong woman who once jumped out of airplanes to fight forest fires, and lost her fight with some vagrant cells after a long, long battle.

None of us are permanent, of course, a flippant statement when one is healthy.

She's dead, I'm still here.

That won't always be true for me. Nor you. Nor our students.

I took a walk today and saw gannets crashing headfirst into the bay. Their wings fluoresced against the gray March sky. Some folks believe that gannets go blind from their forceful foraging. I used to believe this, too.

I am easily confused by words, and trust them far more than the trust they earn. Most literate folks do.

The edge of the sea defies words, and will continue to defy words, and so long as words are mere symbols (which is all they'll ever be), this will be true. The edge of the sea defies recorded images, recorded sounds. I walk along its edge several times a week, and every time it surprises me.

Our problem is not so much our inability to train our lambs to manipulate the abstract, though that is a necessary skill for anyone landless who wants to survive in our culture. Our problem is that we forget that the abstract is dependent on the world.

Global is abstract. Core standards is abstract. God is abstract. Country is abstract.

A mudflat in March, the aroma of dead critters mixed with the milt marking those who will replace them, cannot be captured by our imagination, never mind our words. What's real exceeds what we know.

The abstract matters, of course, but is utterly dependent on the real. Death does us a favor by reminding us of this. Every time I lose a friend I briefly become a better teacher.

Then I forget.

Bye, Christine

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thank you Steve Dembo and Discovery!

I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to hang with some edu-gliterati folks at Discovery Education's Beyond the Textbook last week. It was fun hanging with the circuit crowd, listening to them talk of gigs, comparing notes and frequent flyer miles. Many had an aura about them, and I chased most of them down for autographs. I felt like a kid in the candy store.

I know a few were surprised to see me there, none as surprised as me. I've never written a book, never started a WikiEduSomething or a #EduSomethingElse. I don't speak particularly well, though happy I can speak at all (I'm pretty durn deaf), and I'm not photogenic. I have no advanced education degrees, never wrote a piece for The Huffington Post, and I'd rather clam than tweet.

I was born lucky, though (ask anyone who knows me), so there I was, and I enjoyed every moment. Thank you, Steve!

Full disclosure: my expenses were paid by Discovery and I got a Kari Byron (from Mythbusters) bobblehead talking doll--which now belongs to B362.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

John Spencer on data

As a result, I am known as the guy who "doesn't believe in data." And they're right. It's not a belief. It's a rejection or acceptance. I hold research at a high enough standard that I don't easily accept the counterfeits.
John T. Spencer, a mensch

A couple of hours ago, an old man new to fishing hooked a large smooth dogfish. Its emerald eyes stared at me in its last few moments as I helped him and his buddy hoist the yard-long fish over the jetty rocks.

There is no word to describe the intensity of green of the dying critter's eyes. I suggested that they bleed the fish (which they did), and that they knock it out before they do (which they didn't). Dogfish bleed the same bright red that we do, and it struggled just a moment after the artery was cut.

I don't have data for the suffering of a fish slapping its tail on a jetty wall while it bleeds into unconsciousness, but I knock them out anyway.

Measuring anything that involves humans can be messy, and measuring the progress of our human larvae in public schools is particularly difficult, complicated by our lack of consensus on just what we're trying to accomplish.

There is a concerted effort to discredit public spaces in general, and public schools in particular, in this fine land of ours. Those of us in education are not helping by clinging to magical beliefs that education is immune to old-fashioned research, leaving us prone to silver-haired, silver-tongued devils.

John Spencer's simplicity gets to the heart of the matter--don't easily accept the counterfeits. We'll get fooled now and again, even the beset researcher in science do, but let's not make it easy.

The Piltdown Man fooled the science community for 40 years, but eventually his fraudulent conception unraveled, only because of a consistent application of logic. The Piltdown Man did not fit in with the rest of the story.

Who among the edu-glitterati push the Piltdown Man?

How many of us in the education community have the tools needed to recognize fraud?

Full disclosure: I love John T. Spencer's blog, and I've appeared in one of his books.
The dogfish photo was from the Oregon Coast Aquarium

Action pseudo-research

My district's recent incursions into action research have been interesting. I have the extreme fortune of sharing my prep room with a retired bench research scientist, published in multiple peer-reviewed science journals. We are tackling a specific method of inquiry, but quickly realized getting any reasonable data will require far bigger numbers than we will likely generate in our classes.

Our administration responded reasonably, explaining that the process of looking at data generated in our classrooms will encourage teachers to look critically at specific classroom practices. No one is pretending that will will develop statistically significant findings (p <0.05).

In education, a field where Marzano's and Gardner's "research" cause real (and possibly destructive) changes in the classroom, the lack of concern for the validity of the studies used to measure effective outcomes scares the crap out of me. Charismatic personalities trample over available evidence.

On Twitter I stumbled onto a group of ed folks setting up an action research project. At least one university professor was involved, someone I've met, so I figured I'd jump in on the open invitation.

I wondered aloud about how we might generate statistical significance from our work; to be fair I wasn't clear if that was even the goal. I was told that my medical background imposed a biased logical positivistic view, one too narrow for endeavors such as this one, and that I need consider other ways of viewing the world, including "intentional observation," which is, ironically, exactly how science works.

Experiment is in fact intelligent and intentional observation.
Robert Boyle, Epoch Men, 1868

(I also happened to major in philosophy, leaving Michigan with a B.S. in philosophy back in 1982--logical positivism was declared dead back in the 1970's. *sigh*)

Medicine and education have scary parallels. Medicine only recently advanced beyond the snake oil stage, with doctors kicking and screaming every step of the way.

Docs like to treat things. Patients like to be treated. Docs like to get paid. Patients are not quite as happy to pay. Our motto is primum non nocere--"Above all, do no harm"--which is a whole lot different than "Make them better!"

Snake oil is (mostly) harmless for self-limited illnesses, it makes patients feel like they're getting something, and docs make money. You don't need antibiotics for the vast majority of cases of sinusitis. Most docs will prescribe it anyway.

Medicine started looking at itself back in the 1970s, around the same time logical positivism was declared dead by professional philosophers. I was in medical school when evidence-based medicine starting taking a hold, and it was both liberating and frightening--most of what we did we did because, well, that's the way it's always been done. Sound familiar?

Education also finds snake oil useful--and it is for those selling it. Lots of folks make lots of money selling snake oil.

But in education, snake oil is harmful. A child's education is not a self-limited illness.We need to pay more attention to what we know through our research than we know "in our hearts." We need to pay particular attention to the folks who hide behind pseudo-research, tossing out fluorescent graphs, cooked numbers, and charismatic smiles.

I'd be glad to participate in some research. Medicine abandoned leeches not so long ago. It's time we pushed some leeches out of education.

Photo of leeches from LiveScience

Saturday, March 17, 2012


 Yes, it's last year's, but I liked it then, and I still do. Seemed like the right day for this.

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
'Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

Yeats' Crazy Jane makes sense mid-March. This is a hard time of year for mainstream churches. Words fall flat when the earth erupts again.

Today is the kind of day you count the old men in the neighborhood after a long winter. Still missing one, but he may be recovering from St. Patrick's Day. I will wander by his stoop again in a bit.

The cherry blossom buds are tumescent, ready to spew their sperm on our streets, our cars, our heads. Life is, again, for the living.

The big old moon reared up on its hind legs this evening. The clams are in trouble. I could feel the moon pull me along with the sea water. It seems unfair, raking clams when the moon sneaks up so close. The moonlight will dance on their siphons just past midnight tonight, and maybe a clam or two will share in the dance. They need not fear my rake tomorrow.

The crocuses have tossed off any sense of decorum, popping up pretty much anywhere they please.

The sun has returned, and with it, life. The old men left shuffle past and mutter hello, in shoes impossibly thick and black. They know, they know, what we all pretend to ignore.

Grace comes, again, unearned. None of us leave this life intact. Drink the wine, the sun, the pollen, the life.

I have spent too many of last week's hours indoors--I'm tossing this out there and taking a walk....

Discovery Education's "Beyond the Textbook" Forum, Part 3

OK, last one for now, folks. We'll resume our regularly scheduled programming.
Spring is breaking out all over and I'm missing it playing with abstract ideas.

And finally, my dream "textbook."

Science starts, and ends, with the natural world, the one we can consistently sense, the big mystery of whateverness, this ether, that we swim in.

Everything in a science class should get back to stuff and energy. If it's not grounded in the stuff of the world, it's not science.

The only stuff a child can truly know through her senses is the stuff she walks on, the stuff she breathes, the warm blush of sunshine on her face, the whiff of cherry blossoms blooming too early.

Textbooks can't do this.

Textbooks do what they're designed to do, provide a high density of information, 300 words per gram, millions of pixels per dram. They get sold, they get used, they get torn, they get tossed.

I have gotten some decent science out of some old textbooks--every year I drop an ancient, thick science book at the same time I drop a dime. And every time, the dime and the book pretty much hit the floor at the same time.

Let's forget about the physical context. Let's forget about the word "book." Let's forget about the way high schools traditionally approach science and focus on what we need.

We need a place for children to see their place in the natural world, a place where children fall in love with the critter beside them, a place that is as much theirs as it is of those imposing adult figures around them.

I am going to use North Cape May as my example--Leslie and  I spend most of our free time here, it's where we hope to live once I find a way to earn a living here, and most important, it's where our hearts sing. It's where I show children how to hold a live horseshoe crab, where I rake up quahogs that fill up my belly, where the tide rises and falls and rises again, as it has, as it will.

No book written for a national audience, or for a state audience, or perhaps even a county-wide audience can do justice to our patch of earth here perched on the Delaware Bay. Pretty much anyone who knows and loves the town they're in could say the same thing.

Every tool for science class needs to enhance a child's ability to observe and understand the patterns spinning in the figurative ether that surrounds us.

Every tool for science class needs to minimize abstraction. The abstract concepts need to build up from real interaction. A second grader can live with the Democritus view of an atom--split up something again and again until it is too small to be split again. That is a huge concept.

Make the world in the classroom synchronize with the real world of the child.

Teachers are flooded with tech toys tools--many are wonderful, but each is presented as a tool unto itself, each has a learning curve, and each will be replaced with something shinier, faster, slicker within a year or two.

Here in Cape May, like many towns, we are busy recording and observing the environment without much thought.
I can see what the sea level is down the road at this moment without taking a walk. I can see what it was a few days ago, and I can see where we expect it to be in a few days.
I can follow the weather.
I can follow the local groundwater levels, using USGS real-time data that goes back a decade. (I'm one of the few knuckleheads in town that thinks having a basement is a good idea. These charts matter to me)
I can peek at the harbor through webcams.
I can read the hyper-local news about people I know in town
I can see what fish were caught where in local waters.
I can walk down local streets on GoogleMaps.

I know about these things because I use them for things I like to do. I am sure hundreds of similar tools are available as well. It took me time to find them, to bookmark them, to develop my habit of scanning them.

I clam a lot. I need to know how much it rained during that last storm, I need to know the tides and the wind, I need to know what front is brewing. Had I no need, I'd never have found half of what I've found.

We already have something that does all this--it's called Facebook. Aside from privacy concerns (and they are not trifling), Mark Zuckerberg could corner the education market were he so inclined. (His early forays into Newark show his heart is in the right place, but he needs some better guidance.)
We don't need new sources of information--they will continue to pop up like toadstools in a spring cemetery. We need curators.

We don't to spend a whole lot of time developing the hardware--the kids already have it. They can take pics, record sounds, look up just about anything, and they have access to pretty much anything that can be reduced to binary language. We need curators.

Information is cheap. Wisdom is not.
We need curators.

So here's my grand idea for Discovery Education, or for Pearson, or Mark Zuckerberg, of for anyone else willing to try it.

Your sales force needs some work to do--textbook reps are going to go the way of telephone repair folks, who followed the milk deliverers' demise. Don't fire them just yet.

Good sales folk like people, tend to be a bit passionate about things, and enjoy traveling. They're well organized, and they can solve problems. I have a job (OK, a mission) for them.

Travel from town to town, get to know the locals, get to know their towns, get to know what tools are available--heck, even the cameras on traffic lights could prove useful. Which towns have Weather Bug stations? Which ones have the eccentric with a DaffodilCam? Which have beer league sports teams to follow?

Put together a town-wide package, get together the permissions needed to use the tools provided by the package, and serve as the town's technology curator. For free. Gratis. CHEEP!!! What mayor or superintendent or local wackadoodle could resist a chance to be part of something like that? (Think

The tools are free anyway, but few towns have the energy or the creativity or the political will to assemble everything together. Or the money. Setting this up will cost money. The traveling curator needs to be fed and watered, no?

So what's in it for Discovery Ed et al? Good will first.

Now back in Silver Springs, these traveling curators have among the best tech folks money can buy. They can put together individualized packages that sit in the cloud (or more specifically, is some warehouse of servers in Maryland). If a teacher has access to local tools that requires no new hardware nor new skills, he will use it. Even for a fee.

But even this only touches upon the possibilities.

The kids are creating their own worlds today anyway, worlds that are dangerously magical. I'm a science teacher holding out against a culture of magical thinking, teaching too many kids who took Dorothy's ruby slipper world vision to heart. 

The kids record everything anyway--have them record the natural world around them. If a child takes a photo a day of a tree along their walk to school, Discovery can make it become a living documentary, showing the tree's annual events in time-lapse photography. In ten years, Discovery has the 10 year story of a local tree.

When classes run experiments, they can record their data through Discovery Education--and their experimental data can be stored and used by future classes.

When an unusual event hits town, like Irene's unwelcome visit last August, the children can record its effects, narrate how it affects them, take charge of the story.

What makes this so compelling for science is that the heart of science relies on a matter of faith: what happens here, in this spot, at this moment, would happen anywhere else if (and it's the if that makes science science) the same conditions hold.

If  child starts paying attention to the local natural stuff--and trust me, they're paying attention to all kinds of things most adults do not see--we have a chance to get our kids fascinated by science again.

Heck, if you need any pioneer curators, consider a few science teachers.

Discovery Education's "Beyond the Textbook" Forum, Part 2

While some schools have fancy Madagascar hissing cockroaches, we made do with an American cockroach, the huge one found in norther Jersey.

A child volunteered that she her dad had caught one at work, and wondered if she might bring it in. I loved the idea, most of the class groaned, and the next day she waltzed in with a margarine tub poked with holes.

(This says a lot about the child who was curious, about her father who saved a "pest" for his curious child, about our town where kids can freely talk of cockroaches without being ostracized, and about our school where kids believe that bringing in cockroaches is an option. Think what you will, I love Bloomfield!)

Once the class settled down a bit--a 1 1/2"  live cockroach in a classroom beats the Krebs cycle any day--a few kids started paying attention to this critter, one they knew they were supposed to hate.

Cockroaches like to groom themselves--and our particular cockroach, when trapped in a Petri dish groomed her antennae incessantly like a nervous tic.

This is what a scientist sees:
Antennal grooming behavior consists of the following sequence of events: 1) medial rotation of the head coincides with the raising and extending of the foreleg opposite (contralateral) the antenna to be groomed; 2) the flagellum in the region of annuli 15-20 is contacted by the fore tibia and adduction of the foreleg bends the flagellum to the mouth parts; 3) the foreleg returns to the substrate; 4) rapid lateral movement of the maxilla and labium on the flagellum as it moves through the mouth parts; and 5) the flagellum returns to the original, extended position, and the maxilla and labium continue to move for a short time. This sequence of five events comprises one episode of antennal grooming.

A child sees a creature "cleaning" herself, taking care of herself, getting nervous--a child sees herself in the movements of a creature she was taught to hate, and an odd thing happens.

The child becomes interested in a cockroach, a once reviled critter. She looks some more. She falls in love. She becomes an entomologist.

You cannot love (or know) the idea of things unless you love (or know) at least one thing that represents that idea. A child who loves bugs loves them because she knows something about particular bugs.

You can go through life loving abstract ideas more than living, and many of us do. (Those who chase the abstract seem happy enough, and they're are plenty of days I do the same--Go, Giants! Our economy depends on this.)

 If you want to create children interested in science, though, the abstract must emanate from the real. You need to let them play with cockroaches and magnets and balls. You need to let them fall into puddles, to fall out of trees, to scrape knees as they master something they can truly know, not mere ideas pushed on them by a culture that honors magical thinking.

And what does any of this have to do with textbooks?

Any educational tool that honors the abstract above the real helps foster magical thinking. Magicians make lousy scientists, have no need for math, and design crummy bridges.

Traditional textbooks exist to be sold. The larger the market, the less attached to the real, to the local, they must become, unless "the local" means a market as large as Texas, whose laws affect the content of science textbooks.

Pearson started as a construction company, nothing wrong with that, and now aims to take control of the education business, whatever that means. It is a publicly owned company, PSO on the New York Stock Exchange, nothing wrong with that either, as long as it's understood that their primary obligation is to earn money for its stakeholders.

Pearson's latest financial data from Google

Our school bought a wonderful set of textbook's from Pearson last year--Campbell Biology, a wonderful and hefty book that I love to read. But I already love biology.

My students (in, ironically, the abstract sense) are not reading the book. They do not care how beautiful the photos are, how accurate the words, how much money their town spent on them. They do not dive into the website set up for them, they do use the CD that comes with the book.

But I bet if it had a photo of something we did in class last week they'd all take a peek at that page.

Discovery Communications, inc., is also publicly owned, you can follow them on NASDAQ. Discovery Education holds a huge influence in our classrooms, providing free digital and media (redundant?) through the internet. Pearson, of course, does the same, but the two are coming from different angles.

Discovery Education has bought a piece of my time--I've learned more about them in the past few days than the past decade. I'm not immune to influence, and I'm a sucker for anything that allows me to hang out with folks wiser than me.

They think I might have some ideas on how to reach kids through the next-generation tool--I'd love to drop the word textbook, it's too limiting--we'll find in our classrooms.

So why am I doing this?
It looks like fun.
1) We have been assured that this is not meant to be a direct promotional bid by Discovery--anyone who's been kidnapped by time-share schemes knows the dangers of committing oneself to a confined space.

It looks like fun
2) Steve Dembo wants us to spread our ideas publicly before we even meet. Not sure his bosses are keen on this, but his emphasis on sharing ideas openly makes this more than a junket. (/me waves to the Pearson folks....)

It looks like fun
3) I'm older than most folks bleating the tech story, and age has tempered my enthusiasm. A conference like this needs an old goat, a Luddite, a keeper of tradition, if nothing else than for amusement. If I had a choice, I'd take a slate board over a SmartBoard, for several valid reasons. (To be fair, though, my typewriter's collecting dust as I write this.)

It looks like fun
4) It's free and I'm cheap.

It looks like fun
5) I love train rides. Trains are older than planes, buses, cars, and rocket ships. You could look that up.

 It looks like fun
6) At the risk of being influenced, and there's no pretending that I am not, I get to have some input into an extraordinarily important process. Last time I got to do anything like this was back in 1993 when I served on a sub-subcommittee for the Clinton Task Force on National Health Care Reform chaired by his wife. Not sure I accomplished much, if anything, but I got a nice train ride and a few free meals (see 4 and 5 above).

 It looks like fun
7) I get to grovel and apologize (and apologise) to varied folks who have tried to drag me into the 21st century. (Lessee, I already apologized to Eric, there's Alex, Dean, Tom, good Lord, Jon, David--is there anyone online I haven't tangled with?)

It looks like fun
8) I have my Principal's blessing, Chris Jennings, who just won a NASSP Breakthrough School award last week in Tampa. We're good. We want to get better. Mixing with folks from around the continent can only help.

Next up?
My dream school toolkit....

Downside? I hate missing classes. We got a lot of stuff going on in Room B362, and never enough time.
Cockroach photo from Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University, used with implicit permission.

Discovery Education's "Beyond the Textbook" Forum, 1

A few quahogs destined to end up on my plate tomorrow just got a reprieve from the governor. They will have to wait a bit before they feel the cold steel tines of my rake.

I've been asked to attend a conference unlike any I've attended before--Steve Dembo has asked if I'd join Discovery Education's Beyond the Textbook Forum this Monday. I'm putting away my clam rake long enough to pack up my slate and chalk.

I can be all self-effacing or breast-beating or any number of personae I'm supposed to assume publicly, but I'm in full kid in the candy store mode. I also feel like "Mr. Irrelevant," the last man drafted in the NFL draft. At my level, any recognition at all causes a rush of oxytocin.

Our charge? Develop something beyond the textbook.

I have a confession to make--I love textbooks. I love the pictures, the words, the smell, the heft. I love the incongruous feel of dozens of writers hacked together by a team of editors.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I also hate them.

Stodgy, quickly outdated, and often inaccurate, textbooks today take on a life of their own, like some sort of Holy books that carve truth out of ambiguity. Their permanence, their "truthiness," trump the science they purport to teach.

Textbooks are like flies on poop--we've come to accept their presence without even thinking about why they're there.

Here are a few of my ideas so far. I am looking for help. My schtick is science. If you want a child to grasp the concept of soil, you're going to have to put up with some mud.

In the meantime, though, here are some ideas for Mr. Dembo and the Discovery folk:
1) Make them hyperlocal. 
Use the public cameras around town and link them to whatever electronic form of delivery. Use local USGS data available online to connect to the local groundwater stats. Hook up with National Buoy Data System to learn what's happening on the edge of your piece of the sea. Find local businesses already sponsoring local cams.

Develop a package of local, tangible data sets. Most of the work has already been done for you.

2) Build longitudinal data sets for local phenomena.
Every year the children stay the same--and any decent teacher loves being surrounded by the exuberance of youth. It's easy to forget we've been in this game for a few years, that our earlier students are now well into life as adults.

Maintain a database of measurements made by prior classes, something that can be used by children to see the recorded history of the natural world in their town.

(I just came in from staring at Jupiter and Venus kissing each other on a ridiculously warm March evening. How hard would it be to preserve this in a photo taken by a child?)

3) Shared units
Few folks can handle the local like the local folks--set up a mechanism for everyone to share their input.

4) Local concerns
Here in Bloomfield we sacrificed a good chunk of land to help the US develop the atomic bomb. Nagasaki has been rebuilt, our dirty brown field marking where Westinghouse once stood remains a blot on our town.

Here in Bloomfield a local public park served as the staging ground for eliminating radium from a neighboring town, an egregious act that fades into the edges of our memories.

Here in Bloomfield, a local plant was allowed to spew tons of potential carcinogens. The company has long moved, but its legacy remains. Every town has its own stories

A living electronic information  machine could go a long way into rekindling a child's interest in those things that matter.

5) Develop a multiple probe system with a USB plug
OK, I'm well out of my league now--why not develop one (or more) probes that children can use to measure various aspects of their environment.

6) The Dream Machine
Develop a proprietary machine with a camera, an audio recorder, and skin tough enough to be treated like a 14 year old's backpack. Load it with local databases. Make it something useful for a child..
So far, very preliminary ideas for what looks like a bright  future in education.

If you were King of the Universe, what would you develop?

(OK, I know my role. You want a Luddite? You got one!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A child's critique of modern science education

I got to spend a wonderful few days in Tampa at the NASSP Convention schmoozing with principals and other high falutin' admins, a rare treat. One of the folks I got to meet was Eric Sheninger, one of the winners of the NASSP 2012 Digital Principal Awards.

At the conference, Eric mentioned that he got his digital start with a guest post on a fellow administrator's blog. Two days after I heard that, a fellow teacher wondered if she might guest post on mine. 

Her name is Susan Eckert, an erstwhile genetics counselor.  She has two children--David, who just turned 6, and Julianne, who's not much older.

And here it is:

I woke up late on Monday morning and asked my daughter, Julianne, if she could just have hot lunch today (such a treat to not have to pack a lunch).

“No!” she cried, “We’re going to the planetarium and I want to bring my own lunch!” That’s right! She had been excitedly talking about her upcoming field trip to the planetarium for days. And so when I posed the requisite “How was your day?” question after school, I was a bit surprised to hear her thoughts on the field trip.

She paused, she thought, she seemed a bit deflated. She carefully chose her words and then she slowly told me she didn’t really like the planetarium because she wishes she had “more knowledge” about it.

Hmmm, this needed to be explored. I probed, asked her a few more questions, specifically on whether she had learned anything. And her response was a mixture of words about “adoms” in her pinky exploding and blowing up the whole town.

She had no idea what that meant (not sure I do, either) but that is what stuck with her. The lasting impression, though, is that she is now a little turned off to planetariums, the stars, the moon, and the planets because she was confused much of the time. Jules seemed to almost feel guilty telling her science teacher mommy about this but I truly appreciated her honesty.

My daughter’s homework that night was good, very good. She was asked to be a critic and to review the planetarium trip. I could get on my soapbox about what I think some of the shortcomings of elementary science education are but I think the earnest words of an 8 year-old tell the story perfectly. And so here are some her words:

I didn’t really like the glenfield planetarium. Because I didn’t really know a lot of the words the guy said… I think people who like space movies like star wars would understand. And people who don’t know what rambunctious means wouldn’t understand. Also the guy would be talking about atoms and not explain what atoms are. And he also got me confused about what he said.
[Sidenote: Knowing what the word rambunctious means and how to spell it is some kind of intellectual litmus test for my daughter.]

As educators, we tend to say too much. I have done this and I still do but I am much more aware of it these days. Our intentions are often good but in our eagerness to teach children about the wonders of the natural world, we sometimes do the complete opposite—we kill their curiosity.

When should children learn about atoms? NJCCCS says by grade 8. I don’t really know but I’m pretty sure it’s not during second grade. Before I entered into education, I would tell my own children all kinds of facts and I tried to ignore their eyes glazing over. And now that I know a bit more about teaching science I try to say much less. It’s my new mantra: just be quiet. I’ll have to undo this—I’ve already put the North Jersey Astronomical Group Telescope Night sponsored at Montclair State University on our calendar. And I swear that I’m going to keep my mouth shut and just let my children do the talking.

Addendum: This morning, two days after Julianne went to the planetarium, I signed my son’s permission slip to go on the same field trip. “Oh, you’re so lucky! I love it there!” she said to her brother. 

 Huh? When I questioned her about this considering what she wrote just two days prior, she explained that it’s still really cool to be there and look up at the ceiling. What she saw had a more lasting impression than the confusing words buzzing in her ears. I wondered if this diminishes my message, but after further reflection, I think it just amplifies it: let our words not distract from their wonderment.

Please comment liberally--I want Ms. Eckert and her little one to get hooked on this blogging thing.... 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Is this right...?"

Procedural rules are both useful and arbitrary--we like to have routines, and we like to know the routines already established. (I bet the 20 odd people backed up at Newark Liberty Airport while I fumbled with the check-in procedure would agree.) A child in my classroom might not know that if you want to go to the bathroom, you just sign the in/out book and grab the horseshoe crab shell that serves as the pass.

Because the rules are arbitrary, asking "is this right?" makes sense.

"Is this right?"

A child looks up, not invested enough in the problem to look confused.

Some things in high school science are obvious once you grasp the principles--there is no need to ask. Because there is no need to ask, I no longer feel compelled to answer.

I walk away. When she knows enough to be confused, I'll amble back over.

I am still less experienced than my students--they have been at the school game for 11 years, and this is my 6th year teaching. I am getting better.

The child has learned the rules of the game well--extract the right answer, and Teacher gets off your back. Mom gets off your back. The Principal gets off your back. Chris Cerf gets off your back. Arne Duncan gets off your back. Rewards are promised. You can listen to your iPod in peace as you drift back into a world defined by primates.

We tolerate no confusion in our culture. Decisiveness trumps thoughtfulness. Political campaigns thrive on this. Twanging the amygdala pushes us into the certainty of the Light Brigade.

Science doesn't work that way because the natural does not work that way.

"The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility." Albert Einstein
The cartoon is from xkcd, natch!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Harping on education

Anybody can do science in the same sense that anyone can play a harmonica--it's very easy to bleat out some noise and pretend you're playing something worthwhile.

Doing it right takes years of practice, and not everybody is going to enjoy it well enough to get through the nonsense needed to make it worthwhile.

Imagine if every child in our fine state was required to play harmonica competently, no matter what their interests.

We could devise a state test where most kids would pass, and we could pat ourselves on the back for demonstrating that our children play as well as their Chinese counterparts.

But I wouldn't want to sit through a recital....

Time spent studying something that gives no joy is just spent time.
The album cover lifted from Amazon.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Art and Science of Science and Art

Chris is the guy on the left....
I've had an interesting past few days in Tampa the past few days, celebrating the work of our principal Chris Jennings and our school at the NASSP Convention. We're a MetLife Foundation Breakthrough School this year and we're beaming, much more on that later.

I got to spend a lot of time with a colleague, an art teacher with a strong interest on how science works. We talked, and we listened, not so much on what is called science, though he is interested in that as well, but on what it means to know something in science, or to know anything.

We mostly chatted on the edge of an estuary, under the sun, occasionally stopping to watch a pelican or three glide yards over our heads, to listen to a laughing gull squawk trying to steal a crumb from a naive Iowan.

We paused a lot. (I suspect our neurons branch quicker in the silence than in the noise of human--need both though.)

I think the learned folks call this epistemology--we called it human.

We did what we hoped our students will someday do--that they don't that now is to our shame.


We all "know" what an atom is, or at least what the cultural icon we call atom is. When you push the model, it becomes space and energy levels and predictably unpredictable relationships that defy a concrete model.  I did more talking than he did.

We all "know" how to draw a cube, what is should look like, that the vertical lines never meet, and the horizontal ones eventually do. My artist friend drew two sets of lines in perspective--I could tell one was better, but I could not tell why. He did more talking than I did.

We worked our way through our epistemological forest using voices, written words on scraps of conference paper. We talked sitting down, we talked standing up, we talked while we walked, while we ate.

We did it because it matters, true, but mostly because we enjoyed it. The line between our disciplines dissolved a bit, like sidewalk chalk drawings on a foggy morning. The lines are still there, but the edges now blend.

I left Tampa with my neurons connected in altered ways. This is not just a figurative statement. Real learning alters the physical architecture of your brain. It takes a lot of energy, it takes cellular materials your body would gladly use somewhere else with a whisper of an excuse.

It hurts. You're not going to do it for some abstract long-term goal--I'm old enough where a few new synapses will not alter my financial circumstances.

You're not going to do it well if there's no joy.

As we spun our metaphorical atoms and very physical drawings into various hypotheses on how we are who we are, how our environment affects us, how we affect our environment, well, we learned more on how we learn.

Learning how to draw, how to play a trumpet, how to plant a seed, how to make a paper crane, or how to do just about anything for ourselves takes a little pain.

We pretend we do it for the long-term ends, and maybe a few of us do. For me, though, even the awful parts of figuring something out--my first few painful hours blatting on a trumpet also brought pleasure in its joyful noise.

I still have a lot of work to do before I become half the teacher I want to be. I suspect most of us feel the same way, not because we're on some arduous journey to reach the Promised Land of Aypia but because we enjoy getting better.

There is pleasure in creating something new.
There is pleasure in sharing this pleasure.
There is pleasure, real pleasure, in teaching.

 We owe it to our children to know this pleasure before we fault them for rejecting what we pretend they ought to know.

Thanks, everybody!