Moving Facsimiles of Ourselves?

I’ve picked up a new podcast I dig: Big Ideas from TV Ontario.  It bills itself as the only television program in North America dedicated to the art of the lecture.  The current episode is “No Educator Left Behind” by Mark Federman.  It’s decidedly worth a listen.

Part of Federman’s talk gives a very brief history of media, including how the first mass media was media for Catholic Mass.  Media for Mass led to media for the masses.  He goes from their to Gutenberg’s press through a series of steps to bring us to the Internet.

A key point was the evolution of the movement of people and ideas.  Reframing his ideas got me thinking that the next societal revolution may be moving interactive facsimiles of ourselves around the world.  If that’s right, the consequences for how we live our lives and how we learn are profound.

And I think it needs to be right.

I’ve pondered for a long time how folks who think of themselves as the most scientifically literate in the world justify their typically huge ecological footprints.  An experience at the year’s Geological Society of America annual conference highlighted the issue for me.  It was in Houston in October.  The temperatures were in the high 80s.  Jim Hansen, the eminent climate researcher, was a keynote speaker.  The auditorium was filled with scientists who had flown from all over the world to participate in this meeting.  The auditorium was also probably about 65 degrees F.

Hansen’s legacy can probably justifiy his world travel.  That is, his work helps us understand better what to do because it is both well done and widely known.  For most of the other thousands of people at this meeting (myself definitely included), I have to wonder about the balance of costs and benefits.  I like to think my work is about helping to build understanding of the social and natural world so that we can live purposeful, useful lives that make the world a better place.

Fundamental to that, I strongly believe, is using less stuff and especially burning less stuff.  If we’re routinely hopping on jets that burn scores of tons of fuel to get us to our professional meetings to work in hotels and conference centers that are absurdly oppositional to the climate of their region, are we offsetting that by giving and going to presentations and chatting with our colleagues in the bar?

So, how does that relate to the title of this post?  Well, conferences really are often great places for professional development.  You get to talk with the people in the world who are experts in your field and that likely makes you better in your field.  But I think the cost is too high.  It’s not sustainable.

As technologies like Second Life, iChat, and Skype mature, we become able to interact with our colleagues at a distance.  With Skype, iChat and and other sorts of conferencing software you can, right now, host conference sessions and do them very well.  The most valued things that go on at conferences is often the hallway and cocktail lounge one on one and small group interactions.  Second Life can simulate that reasonably well and gets better at it all the time.

If we think about how the economy has evolved, the winners have typically been those who can move things that people care about.  Moving agriculture products to market; moving materials to and from manufacturing facilities; moving people to wherever it is they wish to go and moving  ideas about has driven much productivity in our history.  We moved from moving people and things as key in the last century to moving information in the new millenium.

Now we’re on the cusp of being able to move representatives of ourselves to anywhere in the world (with highspeed Internet access) and to control the actions of those representatives as they interact with people and their facsimiles.  Now, that’s not energy neutral.  Server farms are huge energy consumers, but sending those virtual representatives around the world surely takes far, far less energy than moving the real people around.

So, buy some stock in Second Life… and think about what it means for how people learn and teach in a time when our students have always had Google and IM at their disposal.

Reflections on a love lost

She was my first true love and for most of our twenty years together it was an affair that brimmed with passion.  I loved teaching.  Loved it.  But now it’s over.  Too many broken promises.  Too much heartbreak.

I’m now reflecting on it a little over a year after The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back.

Our affair started with a little innocent fooling around while I was in college.  Take an education class or two, teach a lesson here and there.  Then it intensified with student teaching.  As a physics teacher I got to play with toys in front of an audience!  And the audience, at least some of it, really seemed to like it!  And some times I got that special rush that comes with seeing the light bulb come on.

That feeling, the feeling of kids “getting it,” is what I imagine a hit of heroin might be like.  The shiver that ran down my spine; that look of appreciation and understanding; and especially when a kid could do something worthwhile that he or she couldn’t do before.

It turns out I was being deceived and deceiving myself at almost every turn.  In my last few years as a professor, I routinely had course evaluations telling me that mine was the best class they’d ever taken.  But I also routinely had students weeping in my office, unfairly dealing with my love’s capricious heart; unfairly dealing with the reality that, on its face, teaching is simply a bad idea; and unfairly dealing with the fickleness of who evaluates you.

It seems that at the ends of the continuum, the system works pretty well.  In the early grades, I learned to read and write and add and subtract.   In graduate school, I learned to analyze and craft an argument (and, I think, to read and write much better).  In between the ends I learned a great deal, but most of that learning came by doing and you don’t really do things that matter in classroom settings.

You mostly sit still.

Thus, most of us leave formal schooling knowing how to sit still, and to read and write and there isn’t much else that most of us know.  We’ve all been taught about geometry, evolution and the Civil War.  We’ve been taught many of these things many, many times.  But if you scratch through the surface understandings, you won’t find much underneath.  In spite of being taught the so-called scientific method over and over and over again, few adults think scientifically.  In spite of being taught over and over again about diet and exercise most of us are fat.

I’d learned in graduate school to look critically at the system and at the individuals within it.  For most of my twenty years in teaching, I’d not only been passionate about teaching, but also about the study of teaching and learning.  That study led me to understand that global warming had led glacial change to exceed academic change and, therefore, it was time for me to change direction.

I’d worked for most of my twenty years in the profession trying to make schools better.   Joining the faculty at a new charter school, I wished to make better schools.  I had an epiphany there that led me to want to make something better than schools.  And that epiphany ended my twenty-year romance with teaching.

And left me feeling alone in my new paradigm.

Standing there, in a room with 25 teenagers, trying to get them to think about why convection matters,*  it hit me that teaching is a fundamentally bad idea.  I don’t mean (just) a bad idea for me.  I mean a bad idea.

Put aside for a moment what you know about schools and focus on how you came to understand the things you understand most deeply and remember too what you know about kids.  Now, imagine someone suggesting the following:

Hey!  I’ve got a great idea!  Why don’t we put 25 teenagers in room together for an hour and have them listen to a single adult tell them about the Magna Carta!  And then, have them move down the hall and listen to someone else tell them about parabolas!  And then how heating causes expansion!  Isn’t that a great idea!  We could have them do something like this hour after hour after hour, day after day after day, year after year!  We could put 2000 fifteen to eighteen year-olds in a building!

Clearly, that’s just not a good idea.  I think I realized that when I was a teenager, but had managed to suppress that realization until I was faced with the realities of school in a new way.  I’m convinced that we’ll look back in another 20 or 30 years and be shocked that we did this to damn near everybody, much as we look back now on the horrors of segregation in America 30 and more years ago.

So, the affair is over and I’m trying to figure out how to move on.  I still have the things I learned from years of studying the system.  The creative destruction of my conceptual framework is both creative and destructive.  I’m saddened by my loss, but hopeful about the future.

I raise my question about what to do next in a way clearly derived from the way the system has made me think – an SAT analogy question:

Typewriters are to computers as schools are to: ________________.

I have ideas about how to complete the analogy, but I can’t do it alone.  I need partners in my paradigm.  Who will join me?

*Yes, convection really matters.

The need for extra-chunky educational choices

This post is intended to be read in juxtaposition with the previous post, and like that post (Stuck between too much and not enough choice), draws it’s inspiration from a TED Talk.  This TED Talk comes from Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, The Tipping Point and the forthcoming Outliers: The Story of Success.

Gladwell’s talk, What we can learn from spaghetti sauce, describes happiness brought on by choice and choice attributed to Howard Moskowitz.  Here’s the video embed:

An assumption of schools is that this structure of sitting kids down in rows and having them listen to a series of adults (at the secondary and tertiary levels) talk at them hour after hour after hour, day after day after day, year after year works.  (Yeah, I know I overuse that line).  Whatever the hell works means.

For so many, it’s clear by whatever measure, schools don’t work.

Quoting Gladwell (who is quoting Moskowitz):

All Americans fall into one of three groups:  There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain.  There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like their spaghetti sauce extra chunky.

The third of these, Gladwell goes on to say, is the most significant because at the time Moskowitz made his case, there was no extra chunky spaghetti sauce (my personal favorite).  Prego filled the unknown need of a third of the spaghetti sauce consuming population and made millions.

The need for extra chunky educational choices is greater than the need for extra chunky spaghetti sauce, because it’s not really a matter of want but a matter of need.

Classes are like wheat.


Celiac Disease, also known as gluten intolerance.  For most folks, wheat is a nutrient.  For those with Celiac Disease, wheat is a toxin and it’s a toxin that sweeps nutrients out of your system that you may have consumed along with the wheat.

For many folks, especially the ones who are weird enough to be reading this, they’ve probably had some classes that nourished their minds and maybe figured out how to get some nutritive value out of all or most of the classes they’ve taken.

But for a great many folks, classes are a toxin that inhibits the ingestion of whatever bits of educationally nutritous bits that may spice up the class.

For that large section of the population, we need extra chunky educational choices.  (Maybe pesto, as it’s an even more fundamentally different kind of sauce?)

I’ll point you back to the previous post and the video that inspired it and ask you if I’m contradicting myself.  Am I?

It seems to me that the most important problems don’t involve maximization or minimization but rather optimization.  How do we come up with an appropriately sized set of educational options?  Or (as Sarah suggests) a way to navigate through a large set of educational choices?

My gut says we should have enough choices to keep it interesting but not so many as to catch analysis paralysis.

A closing note: I write this from a National Science Foundation Principal Investigator’s meeting on transformative educational research.  It strikes me, as it’s struck me many times in the past, that the most powerfully educative research features aspects that make classes look less and less like the image that comes to mind when we think of classes.

We are getting some ideas about how to make those extra chunky options.



Stuck between too much and not enough choice

Again, this pondering begins with a TED Talk:

Barry Schwartz lays out a compelling argument on how the affluent are afflicted by too much choice.  He describes the problem of having too many choices for salad dressing, jeans and cell phones.  And more importantly in medical care.  And when to marry and have kids.  And how to save for retirement.

Historically, we didn’t have conspicuous choices about any of these things.

Schwartz also briefly touches on the problem of having no choice. That’s not the focus of the talk as it’s not the problem of the affluent folks he’s talking about and to.  Americans, generally, have too many choices in a lot of things.

In situations without choice, Schwartz notes, we’re miserable but we can blame the world for our misery.  In situations with too much choice, if the choice doesn’t meet our expectations, we blame ourselves.

In schools, we have the problem of too much choice compounded by the problem of not enough choice.

We have effectively no choice about what to teach — a New York State Earth science teacher must teach the content on the Earth Science Regents Examination.

On the other hand, the array of materials and methods to help us teach more effectively can lead to either analysis paralysis or more straightforward disappointment.

It also seems that if we want kids to learn this stuff, we have to teach them in a class on the stuff, even though we know that it typically doesn’t yield durable understandings. (Watch Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk and consider the need for extra chunky educational approaches (and consider how Gladwell’s talk is seemingly in direct contradiction to Schwartz’s)).

So, we have no choice on either the content or the the fact that we’re supposed to make something like 25 kids at a time understand it in roughly 180 forty minute blocks (plus, in New York State an additional 1200 minutes of lab time).  But we’ve got scads of choices on materials and methods we use within those constraints.

We are stuck between no choice and too much choice — what to do?

We want neither to maximize nor minimize choice but rather to optimize it.  As we go about the work of our grant, we need to consider how to make our materials and programs to be not only the best choice to fit their niche, but also the easiest choice to make and a choice that leads to further options that are both manageable and desirable.

We want to make some choices for our teachers and provide heuristic and logarithmic ways to help them make other choices from bounded sets of choices — and still allow for their own creativity to enrich the project and their teaching.

A choice we’re making is that it makes sense to use the local to understand the global.  We assume that participants in the project have made that choice too.

We need to:

  • Create and/or compile a set of conceptual and technological tools that help students and teachers learn about their local Earth system science (and to do so with the collaboration of teachers).
  • Create a scaffolded approach to move outward from the local.  The emerging database should be a central part of this.
  • Remain ever flexible and able to respond to what we learn from our work and our collaborators.
  • Describe and teach how big ideas meshes with the need to optimize choice.

What kinds of choices do you, as a teacher, want help in making?  What kinds of choices do you want to make without much input?  What else are you thinking?

An aside:  If you only listen to the audio of this talk, you miss several amusing visual aids (but it’s still good).

Bringing the non-scientific to science class?

In looking through a fairly recent issue of the journal Science, I came across a brief blurb describing how Michael Reiss, the Education Director for Britain’s Royal Society, was forced out after giving a talk titled, “Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?”

Note that I’ve blogged about related issues before as part of Blog Against Theocracy. I hope I had something new today.

It looks to me that Reiss was very unreasonably pushed out.  The people who did the pushing, I’m guessing, didn’t actually read the text of the talk.

Here’s an excerpt:

Many scientists, and some science educators, fear that consideration of creationism or intelligent design in a science classroom legitimises them. For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine asserts “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support”.

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

In an interesting exception that proves the rule, I recall one of our advanced level chemistry teachers scoffing at a fellow student who sat with a spoon in front of her while Uri Geller maintained he could bend viewers’ spoons. I was all for this approach. After all, I reasoned, surely the first thing was to establish if the spoon bent (it didn’t for her) and if it did, then start working out how.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time. However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works such as ‘how interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories’; ‘that there are some questions that science cannot currently answer, and some that science cannot address’; ‘how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas change over time and about the role of the scientific community in validating these changes’.

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said. The DCSF Guidance suggests: “Some students do hold creationist beliefs or believe in the arguments of the intelligent design movement and/or have parents/carers who accept such views. If either is brought up in a science lesson it should be handled in a way that is respectful of students’ views, religious and otherwise, whilst clearly giving the message that the theory of evolution and the notion of an old Earth / universe are supported by a mass of evidence and fully accepted by the scientific community”.

I too can pull interesting exceptions from both my own schooling and my own teaching.  My high school physics teacher was the very highly regarded Dick Sentman.  We sometimes watched Wile E. Coyote breaking the laws of physics. I think it helped me understand school science content about as well as anything I did in school.  He didn’t make claims, of course, that we could pause while falling.

Obviously, this is a different ball of wax — there aren’t many people out there who think that the physics of Warner Brothers is the physics of the real world.  There are a lot of people who believe that the creation story of the Bible is how the world was created. And we, as teachers, don’t want to make light of that.

It is different.

But we also know that the research on how people learn is clear.  If we want durable understanding to develop, we must engage existing conceptions related to the scientific conception.  The National Research Council’s Committee on How People Learn put it this way:

1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.

Pretty clear, if you ask me.  (There are links to research on how people learn on the Learning Links Page of the blog).

How can we forbid talking about these key conceptions about the origin of life on Earth and expect kids to understand evolution?

It’s essential to remember what we’ve been doing for a very long time has failed miserably.  Close to half of Americans think the world is several thousand years old (as opposed to about 4.5 billion years old).  The reject evolution.  That suggests to me the new to do things fundamentally differently.

Ironically, Reiss also notes:

One very rarely changes one’s worldview as a result of a 50 minute lesson, however well taught.

I guess the same can be said of the Royal Society’s worldview.

Some things I learned at the Scientific Applications with Google Earth Conference

Last week, I attended the Scientific Applications with Google Earth Conference at the University of Michigan.  Here are some things I either learned or learned that I need to learn:

Basic Technical Tips & Info:

  1. Gigapan stuff is cheap and looks easy to do.  I’ll order the unit.
  2. You can copy a Google Earth placemark into a text editor and pasting it will yield all the code which you can manipulate and paste back in to Google Earth.  This also works with polygons, paths and overlays.
  3. You can use Google My Maps to create placemarks with rich text, embedded youtube videos and pictures easily then download the placemarks into Google Earth.  (I already knew about the ability to upload pictures into Picassa, geotag them and download them as a Google Earth file).
  4. GPS cameras are coming in more and more options.  This Ricoh camera looks dreamy.

Things to ponder/explore further:

  1. Making phylogenetic trees in Google Earth is cool.  the link takes you to a project where Avian Flu’s mutation and movement is being tracked.  The ‘About’ page has a quick introductory video.
  2. Google Earth Pro licenses appear to be given away relatively easily to non-profits.
  3. It’s possible to make bar graphs in Google Earth where countries (or other regions) can stick out as bars on a spherical base (the Earth).  These can pull data from the web and change with the data.  See:, for example.
  4. I need to follow-up with the guy from Wisconsin who does this stuff: (which didn’t work for me in Firefox, but did in Safari).
  5. Education was oddly represented – Steve, Roberta and myself were nearly the only folks who had any obvious grounding in K-12, though there were some other folks who did some professional development.  There were others who wanted to do things but were perhaps naïve – i.e., “I wanted to work with kids to do _____, but NSF wouldn’t fund me because I don’t speak Educationese.”  The odd (thin) representation of education at a Google-sponsored conference where education was a strand represents opportunity.
  6. Most of the people who were vocal in the sessions were interested in doing tremendously cool but typically very content specific things that took a long time to create (things that required substantial technological skills).  What our project needs is the power to create things that are pretty cool, local to the teacher and can be created very quickly.  Google Earth has great power to serve both kinds of projects.

Things to do soon:

  1. I need to investigate Google Base; Google’s database program.
  2. I need to make a template for a Powers of Ten lesson in Google Earth.  This would be a good starting place for teachers who are Google Earth novices — based on Eames’s Powers of Ten, but with a local center.  As I relearned last year, a shocking number of high school kids can’t locate themselves, their city or their state on a map.  Starting out the school house door and zooming to maps of progressively larger area can yield epiphanies — I could see the light bulbs come on for several kids.

Other things that don’t fit under the above headings:

  • The virtual fieldwork poster was well received.  I had good conversations with about ten people and all feedback was positive.  One strong suggestion was to make the keywords in the database “True keywords.”  I understood this to mean a system that recognizes typos and suggests corrections.

The value of fiddling and the power of amateur work

This post deals encourages you to revel in being an amateur.  The first bit introduces a video on why we don’t understand things that we should (and some videos that support that assertion) and the second bit discusses what that has to do with reveling in the amateur.

The First Bit: “Why we don’t understand as much as we think we do”

A while back, a link to Jonathan Drori’s TED Talk “Why we don’t understand as much as we think we do” was posted on the Earth science teachers’ listserve, ESPRIT.  The video is a good one.  If you’re familiar with the Private Universe Project, you probably have some understanding of the first two thirds of the video.  Here’s the video (If the video doesn’t play, click the link to open in a separate window.):

Jonathan Drori: Why we don’t understand as much as we think we do

Drori references the Private Universe videos and if you’re unfamiliar with them, they are very much worth a look.  Note too, the list of ‘Related Resources’ on the page.  Minds of Our Own has more videos of the Harvard and MIT grads.  You need to log in to to watch these videos, but registration is free and simple and gives you access to a fascinating library of materials.

The Second Bit: Reveling in the amateur

What I liked about Drori’s video was praise of the amateur (and the partial dismissal of the professional).   He says that good scientific interpretation — good science learning — is grounded in the amateur in the best sense of the word; from the root of the word, meaning “of love and passion.”  He also noted that the overly polished presentations in some science museums actually obscure the science

In developing educational materials, I can’t help but worry about slickness. We need enough of it to, as they say, attract eyeballs.

But I think it’s a min-max problem.  You don’t want the student-curriculum or teacher-curriculum interaction to be about the slickness.

If you go to the exhibit hall of NSTA, slickness rules.  It’s cool, in a way.  If a science geek (like me) wants to have fun on the exhibit hall floor, there’s plenty of fun to be had.  But we shouldn’t be enticed by the shiny baubles.  (I hope that flashing LED necklaces don’t really help the sales of textbooks, but I strongly suspect that they do.)

I think there’s great advantage in teacher made materials and I think that teacher made materials can beget student made materials.

And student made instructional materials are the bees knees.

In developing educational materials like Virtual Fieldwork Experiences, slickness needs to be subservient to pedagogy.  The value of familiarity and pride that comes from creation often trumps the value of spiffiness.

This post, perhaps, is a long way of saying: Just do it.

Make the stuff — whatever the stuff may be — labs and worksheets, curriculum maps, virtual fieldwork experiences and whatever kind of equipment you can.  Revel in being able to do it even if it isn’t all that spiffy.

Of course you don’t need to make everything — there is a lot of good stuff out there — but probably not enough stuff that’s relevant to the science that’s local to your school or home.  Homemade equipment or curriculum is almost always cheaper too.

So, revel in being an amateur:

  • Take pictures of the science you can see.
  • Make VFEs.
  • Make equipment.
  • Write curriculum materials that are focused on where you live, learn and teach.

The learners you work with will see you as someone who immerses themselves in stuff that matters and you can better figure out how to immerse them in that same stuff.

Pondering Initiatives for Earth System Science Big Ideas

I just posted the below in the feedback forum here:

Here’s the introductory paragraph from that site:

Draft Document Now Available!

As of October 1, 2008, the first draft of the ESLI Document is now available!


The Earth Science Literacy Initiative (ESLI), funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to gather and codify the underlying understandings of Earth sciences into a succinct document that would have broad-reaching applications in both public and private arenas. It will establish the “Big Ideas” and supporting concepts that all Americans should know about Earth sciences. The resulting Earth Science Literacy framework will also become part of the foundation, along with similar documents from the Oceans, Atmospheres and Climate communities, of a larger geoscience Earth Systems Literacy effort.

I am pondering the purpose and scope of the initiative and how that maps onto real world action.  It would indeed be wonderful if all Americans understood all of these big ideas and concepts, but I don’t see how a document this extensive has any hope of being understood by even a large minority of the population.

We can point to no other examples of a set of commonly held understandings this broad and deep.

I can’t think of a set of understandings that is commonly held that is extensive as one of these big ideas and its supporting concepts.

If we wish to have different results from our efforts than the similar efforts that have come before, then we need a different strategy, or a different set of strategies.

If our goal is an Earth science literate populace, then I see three possible strategies (or kinds of strategies):
1.  Fundamentally change the nature of teaching.
2.  Fundamentally change the nature of what is taught.
3.  Create and implement a process of learning that replaces teaching.

Piece of cake.

My point is not that the good work done to create these literacy principles was for naught.  I think they do represent what every American ought to know, but without some profoundly different strategy, we won’t get there.  This work (and the parallel work in ocean, atmospheric and climate science) is a logical step in the process.

In my view, it makes sense for this group to work on fundamentally redefining what is taught.  That requires at the very least a repackaging of these ideas.

If the effort is to have the desired impact it needs to repackaged with attention to how people learn.  The National Research Council’s Committee on How People Learn have issued a series of reports all of which are attentive to three key research findings.

The second of those findings is the most relevant to the work on Earth systems big ideas.  That finding is:

To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must:
— have a deep foundation of factual knowledge,
— understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and
— organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.

The organization and presentation of these ideas really matters.  Those at the CESE meeting heard me talk about this and I’m attaching a revised slide from my presentation that is an attempt at providing a framework connecting the ideas from the different Earth science disciplinary groups.

I look forward to the town hall meeting at GSA.