STEM Beats - April 2012

The Message of Video Games: Fail, Learn, Repeat

April 30, 2012

High school science teacher Paul Anderson has turned his class into a video game. Is he capitulating to the worst aspects of the youth culture? Throwing his hands up in defeat? Not at all. Anderson says he’s exploiting a central quality of games that often goes unnoticed: Games are about learning.

In a recent TED talk, Anderson describes three of the lessons games taught him about learning:

  • School should be fun.
  • Failure is OK, because students learn from their mistakes. Think about students who try—again and again—to master the next level on a videogame.
  • Every student should be able to move at his or her own pace from one level of mastery to the next. Students don’t all move through a game in lock step.

Anderson took a whole summer to apply these and other lessons to his science class, which now looks very different the way it did before. The class includes narrated scenarios, opportunities to apply learning, the ability to take quizzes over and over again until students master material, a “leveling system” where students begin a year with zero points and gradually advance to “grand master” status, and a “leaderboard” where students track their progress against that of other students.

Anderson notes that he is learning from the mistakes he made in his first year of teaching this way. Here are some of the lessons of his early failures:

  • Create better “scaffolding” or guidance for students. When students started learning at their own pace, “some of them stalled out, some of them raced ahead, some of them drove right into a wall.”
  • Help students with their reading. Students struggled with reading when they began to work more independently, and so some fell behind. In more traditional classrooms, teachers explain textbooks to students.
  • Add social elements to the classroom. The technology itself won’t make learning more engaging unless students have the opportunity to be social.
  • That, Anderson says, is one of the reasons why students come to school in the first place.

His concluding message? Do what you’re passionate about, and then fail, learn, repeat. That is a message a gamer can understand.

Hat tip: Joanne Jacobs

...But They're Way Ahead of Us.

April 23, 2012

Prompted by alarm over declining student participation in math in Australia, a new study out of Sydney finds that adults have to take a two-pronged approach to boosting student engagement: They should prevent students from “switching off” of maths (as they so quaintly refer to the subject in those parts) while helping those students “switch on.” That might sound redundant, but the authors of the study insist that the strategies are quite distinct.

The press release proclaims that the study “is the first to reveal that 'switching off' and 'switching on' to maths needs to be addressed in different ways.” To prevent students from switching off, schools and parents need to “reduce the negative attitudes to maths, such as anxiety and negative parental attitudes to maths." To get students to switch on, they should promote “positive attitudes” and build up children’s “self belief.” Sure, these strategies might be distinct, but aren’t they flip sides of the same coin?

I take a somewhat different message from release. If the Australians think they're doing poorly in math, what does that say about us? Australia ranked 15th on an international test of 15 year olds' math performance. The U.S. ranked 31st. If countries that are already leaving us in the dust are intent in improving their standing, it simply raises the bar for us here at home.

Business Engagement in Common Standards: “a chance to raise the bar on all children”

April 20, 2012

If you’re looking for a strong business case for common academic content standards, have a look at the video of the STEM Salon we held last Tuesday. An overflow crowd heard Bob Corcoran, a GE engineer who also heads up the company’s foundation, and Josh Thomasis, a senior staff member in the New York City Department of Education, describe the vital work they are doing together to implement Common Core standards in the city’s schools.

Here’s how Corcoran explains GE’s support for common standards. “The focus on logical and clear standards is logical, it’s rational, it’s what we would do in a business to be an efficient company. You would not want your aircraft engine made the way that we design teaching….” That belief prompted the GE Foundation to invest $18 million to support the implementation of Common Core.

He described his shock years ago when he discovered how varied standards were across the country: “As a…process person who has worked on manufacturing processes and engineering processes in our aviation business, I know that when you have variation like that, you have good variation and you have bad variation. The bigger the sample size, the worse the variation.”

For him, Common Core gets at the heart of a problem that has plagued American public schools since they first came on the scene: inequity. If you travel through a district, he said, you can tell “which schools had the best curriculum, which had the worst, based solely on how old the cars in the driveways are…when was the house last painted, and what was the size of the lot.”

His conclusion? Common standards are “a chance to raise the bar on all children.” But they’ll miss their mark if we don’t implement them well. GE has put its money where its mouth is.

See the full video of this event:

GE is a member of Change the Equation.

Tags: Common Core, standards

What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us

April 18, 2012

What we don’t know can hurt us. For Matthew Chingos and Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute, our “scandalous” lack of knowledge about the instructional materials teachers are using in the classroom may be doing us grave harm.

We seem to know more and more about things like standards, tests, the background of our teachers and who attends their classes. That’s good news. Yet we know little more now than we did 50 years ago about what teachers are actually teaching in those classes, Chingos and Whitehurst write.

That is an enormous blind spot, they claim, because schools and districts can get a lot of bang for their buck by choosing strong teaching materials—more bang for their buck, they maintain, than for a lot of other school reforms currently on the table.

For Chingos and Whitehurst, the success of common academic standards hinges on the quality of those materials, which help make standards real in the classroom. Poor materials can quickly dilute the power of standards, and they have little faith that many of the education publishers lining up to declare their products “aligned with Common Core State Standards” are doing more than checking off boxes, “making sure that everything listed in the standards can be found under the same name in the table of contents or index in the publisher’s materials.”

So what’s to be done? Chingos and Whitehurst believe there are some fairly ready fixes. States, the federal government, non-profits and foundations can join forces to collect data on the teaching materials now in use in schools across the country. They can start critical conversations about what is actually happening in classrooms.

That, of course, isn’t the end of the story. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff, yet very good studies of teaching materials are few and far between, in part because they are so expensive. Chingos and Whitehurst concede this point, but they see better data collection as a critical starting point. They more well-organized data we have, they suggest, the easier and cheaper it will be to tell the good from the bad.

Sailing Past the Wrecks of Past Reforms

April 16, 2012

Here’s one of the biggest lessons we can draw from years of school reform. It’s not what the reform is that matters most. It’s what you do with it. All too many veteran school staff have seen waves of reform wash over them and produce so little change in the end.

Take, for example, the reform of “flipping” classrooms. It’s a very compelling idea: Let students get their lectures at home via videos, textbooks or other means, but spend valuable class time working with them one-on-one with their homework. Yet there’s a lot more to it than that. If done well, the reform will require many teachers to transform what they do in the classroom.

For an example of what the flipped classroom can look like, check out Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post interview with Jonathan Bergmann, a teacher who has become an evangelist for the reform. First, he and a colleague flipped their classrooms. Then they realized that, to give their students one-on-one attention in the classroom, they should allow each student to proceed at his or her pace. That required them to adopt a model where students must show they have mastered one unit before moving forward. Students who don't do well on one test have to try again later—after more work with the material, and with a different test. 

So what would a "flipped" classroom look like that failed to fulfill the idea's promise? It may reduce the amount of rote lecture in the classroom, but it could also miss the opportunity for one-on-one teaching. Class-time could become little more than time for "review," with students learning in lock step. Different structure, similar results.

Bergmann's vision goes far beyond structure. It requires a lot more support for teachers. It requires great materials--videos, other kinds of multimedia or text--students can watch at home. It requires measures to ensure that students are actually watching those videos or reading those texts. And it requires a lot more work as teachers move from the "lesson plan" model to the kinds of teaching that adapt to students' individual, and very diverse, needs. Like all school reforms, the "flipped" classroom entails much more than meets the eye.

This is by no means a criticism of the flipped classroom, which could be very powerful, indeed. Yet it is a reminder that, like many of the best reform ideas, it could founder on half-hearted implementation. Our shores are littered with the wrecks of great ideas.

So when we pursue these or other visions of reform (Common Core, anyone?) we have to go whole hog.