Responding to Alan November

This week at Lenovo’s ThinkTank 2010, I had an opportunity to hear from Alan November.  I have long admired Alan’s forward-thinking examinations of learning in an environment where technology is increasingly available and essential.  I’ve spent a couple of days thinking about some of the things that Alan said in our session and want to share these thoughts.

One thing that Alan suggested is that one should listen to Eric Mazur and I’m doing that now. The reason that this came up is the idea that no amount of good teaching can overcome the preexisting misconceptions that students have before.  To overcome these preexisting misconceptions you must first be aware of them.  Then, you must address them directly so that the students can “unlearn” that wrong information.  Last, you can now teach new ideas.

I’m lucky in that, as I return to teaching only AP Computer Science, my students don’t have a lot of misconceptions about the material because very few of them have ever programmed before.  The only misconception that they are likely to come with is either that the class will be very hard or that it will be fun and easy.   (The truth of course is that the class is fun and hard).

So, I’m watching “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer: Eric Mazur.”  Eric discovered that his carefully prepared lectures were not actually resulting in his students learning the material he was teaching.  He came to the conclusion that he needed to shift from “teaching” to “helping” his students and to letting them help each other.

Back to Alan November’s talk.  In this talk, Alan said that homework was a stupid idea.  You give a student some problems to do.  The student does the problems.  Let’s say that the student gets 10 problems wrong.  He adopts this concept of how to do these problems and then turns in the problems.  A couple of days may pass before he knows that they are wrong and at this point, he has completely absorbed the incorrect idea of how to do the problem.  Alan proposed that the homework needs to be the classwork and the classwork becomes the homework.  What might this look like?  The students read or watch the lecture for homework.  They interact with each other online or respond in a way that allows the teacher to identify their misconceptions.  The teacher can then use class time to call attention to the misconceptions and by identifying them, begin to “unteach” them.  Class now becomes a time for the students to interact with each other, solve problems, and collaborate.  Using automatic response tools throughout the class, the teacher can identify how the class is doing progressing toward understanding the concept.  The teacher can direct students who solve a problem correctly to assist students who are having difficulty.  The time with the teacher becomes about action and interaction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how this might apply to my AP Computer Science class in the upcoming year.  The class has eight students, which seems small from an outside perspective, but in my particular school this is a huge AP Comp class.  How can I make the classwork into homework and the homework into classwork?

First, I learned awhile back that the more I have students read from the textbook, either before or after the lecture, the more confused the students become.  In the last two years, I have stopped assigning required reading; all reading is supplemental and optional.  So, I don’t want to assign readings from the text to make the classwork into homework.  I’m going to start out by looking at MIT’s Open Course Ware to see what video can be assigned as part of our required summer work.  I had success creating youtube videos for my Honors Chemistry class last year, so if I don’t find material I like, I can create my own.

Second, according to Alan’s experience, when students feel that their classmates are depending on them, they will do more than if they are doing the work only for themselves.  I have had classes work collaboratively to work on wikis to create study guides, but I want to take this further and I have to think about how to do this.

Lastly, my classes have always done a lot of group programming, but I’m always the scribe.  It’s time to put the kids in control of the screen and let them solve the problems collaboratively for themselves.

So, I’m hoping to use the summer assignment for my AP Comp class to test this idea of switching the homework and the classwork.  Then, when I have my students in the classroom, I’m going to try to sit down and shut up a little more often.


Virtual education – the time and place for simulations and animations

At NCAIS Innovate this year NCAIS unveiled their Virtual School.  The backchannel chat on twitter raised a lot of questions and one that I found most interesting was what is the role of the virtual, mainly simulations and animations, in education.

For those who might be new to this blog, my first love was science.  I majored in biology and minored in chemistry at WFU.  While in high school at NCSSM, I completed two independent research projects during my senior year.  The lab was a big part of my life for many years.  I love the smell. I love the tools (cryostat, centrifuge, pipets, electrophoresis just to name a few favorites).  I love the way that the lab makes science real.  You can see things and prove things to yourself.  You can connect to the universe and its secrets.

In becoming a chemistry teacher, I’ve found labs can be a simultaneous blessing and curse.  Labs are essential to teach science.  Students need to get their hands dirty and see the science work.  They need to learn how to collect and analyze data.  Unfortunately, labs are time consuming.  Sometimes they fail and confuse students rather than clarify concepts.  It is difficult to get students to understand that results are results, not right or wrong.  They might be expected or unexpected and their might be a source of error that has skewed them, but they are what they are.

In a world of virtual education one can’t necessarily do labs.  Students working at home don’t necessarily have the resources to dissect a frog, perform an acid-base titration, or measure the frequencies of sounds.  So, where is the happy medium for the virtual in science?

I think that it is in supplements and in visualizations.   Below are a two examples that I feel represent the best of the use of the virtual in science education.

Titration Simulation

I used this simulation as a follow up to the hands-on titration lab my students did.  Titration is tricky, because it is so easy to overshoot the equivalence point and miss your chance to record the correct data.  Several groups struggled with this aspect of the experiment.  On the next day, we needed to demonstrate how to complete the calculations that go along with titration.  Using this simulation let us review how the experiment works and then complete the calculations.  For homework students used it again to try an experiment on their own and turned in their assignment by sending me a screenshot of their completed “experiment” and correct answer.   One of the best things about this simulation is that it provides a lot of choices to the students with regard to which acids, bases, and indicators they use.  It also lets them complete the calculations and check their answer.  The only thing that this simulation lacks is a review of how to do the calculations themselves if your initial answer is wrong.

Buffer Animation

One of the challenges of teaching chemistry is that students need to visualize things that are happening on the atomic level.  This particular animation was very helpful in helping my students understand how buffers function.  You can explain and draw the chemicals and their atoms on the board all day, but seeing the motion of this animation made a huge difference for my students.

As the NCAIS Virtual School and others like it develop, I’m sure much more will be learned about how students can use the virtual to understand scientific concepts.  In the meantime, I’ll be looking for more examples like these that can be used for preview, reinforcement and practice.

Copyright Confusion Conquered

Teaching concepts of copyright and fair use to teens – or anyone – has been a challenge for me for years.  I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it is complicated or because no one really every wants to hear that they can’t do something that they want to do.  Perhaps because I didn’t understand it well enough myself to explain it to others.  In any case, with multimedia projects on the rise, I wanted to be sure that I taught my twelve tablet campers how to stay within the bounds of copyright as we learned how to edit images, create slide shows, and use Premier.  I also wanted to keep in mind my vow to find ways to let students discover things on their own.   The lesson outlined below was by far the most successful one that I’ve ever used and took approximately 45 minutes.

Students will need internet access.

Step One: Independent Exploration: Using Specified sites to answer questions.

  • Students should visit
  • The should jot answers to the following questions.  I had them use OneNote on their new tablets to do this as practice with OneNote, but paper will also work fine.

    • When is something copyrighted?

    • Do you own the copyright on anything?

    • If something is on the Internet, does that mean you can always use it?

    • Read the following scenarios and decide if taking the action described is allowed by copyright laws and fair use guidelines.

      • Making a copy of a CD for a friend.

      • Using pictures you took on a family trip to Washington, D.C. in a school project.

      • Using images of three paintings by Monet in a school project.

      • Using a whole song by your favorite singer in a slide show for class.

      • Writing a parody of a song from your favorite band.

Step Two: Discussion

    Discuss each scenario taking time to explain fair use and public domain.

Step Three: How to find things you are allowed to use – Creative Commons

Step Three – Use it.

  • Give students a specific multimedia task that requires a particular type of license and have them find media that meets their needs:
    • A picture that can be used, unedited, in a presentation.
    • A picture that can be edited and used.
    • A video that can be edited as part of a video project.

We did this lesson on Wednesday, and followed it by using various media that fit the licensing needs to complete multimedia projects.  Students seemed to have a clear grasp on how to locate public domain and creative commons usable media and to understand the limitations and opportunities of fair use, as well as why it is important.


Back to School Preview

This year, my school is doing its first every “Tablet Jump Start Camp.”  I’m spending each morning this week with twelve new students going over the finer points of using different capabilities of their new Lenovo X200 tablets.  Additionally I get to answer their questions about our school.  So far it has been fun, and educational for me as well as my students.

One thing that I’ve learned about myself is that I’m very accustomed to the rhythms of the school year.  I am not used to teaching in July and while I’m enjoying teaching, I find that changing gears after the end of the half-day camp is slow and difficult.  During the school year, I can jump between classes, administrative duties, and home life moment to moment.  This week, it takes me almost an hour to get my bearings and get in gear for the afternoon of summer projects like our web site and database launches.

In my last post, “Don’t Panic,” I felt calm and ready to deal with the masses of upcoming projects and deadlines.  I’m still feeling pretty prepared, but I feel myself slipping into the trap of floating in that not-quite-caught-up area.  I spent a few years there, so it feels familiar, like a pair of jeans that don’t quite fit anymore, but that you remember fondly and try to wear anyway.

I don’t want to settle into the complacency and spend the next month preparing for school with slightly elevated blood pressure and four different to do lists floating in tote bags and under stacks on my desk.  So, tonight has been catch up night.  My inbox is down to 8 (it’s not zero, but I’ll take it).  My to do list is up to date and all in Outlook.  I still have a few things to do, but I’m in a better spot.

Now, if anyone can suggest a good site to explain electronic fair use to teenagers, send it on!

Changing the Subject

For nine years, I’ve been teaching computer courses to high school girls.  Next year, I start Chemisty.  Yes, the both start with C and involve “science,” but don’t otherwise have much in common. I have a science and technology background, but until the coming year, all of my classroom teaching has been in technology courses.

Computer Science makes it easy to use real world examples, problem solving, experimentation, hands on, and paired/group learning.  You learn to write good code by writing code – sometimes writing bad code.  You write, compile, and test.  Then you do fix the problems and compile and test again.  It’s fun to teach and students learn the language along with planning, problem solving, and patience.

Today, in a conversation about how computer science allows you to teach with 21st century skills in a very natural way, my inner thoughts turned to how I would be able to continue this mode of teaching in a new subject area.  What are my goals?

  1. To provide and welcome opportunities for my students to discover information on their own and share it with each other.
  2. To find and share real world illustrations of the concepts we learn.
  3. To find ways to assess my students that go beyond traditional assessments.

In the meantime, I’d welcome ideas from those who have taught this subject longer than I have.