Student questions about probability

After yesterday’s realization that I was directly the flow of learning too much in my class, I asked my students today to generate some questions they were interested in regarding probability. Here are their responses (posted also on the class blog at

  1. What are the chances of winning the lottery?
  2. What are the chances of finding a shiny Pokémon?
  3. What are the chances of the earth being destroyed by an asteroid?
  4. What are the odds it will snow tomorrow?
  5. What are the chances of winning a car in Roll Up The Rim?
  6. What are the chances of being “caller number 5” on a radio contest?
  7. What are the chances of your seat being picked for the million-dollar shot at a basketball game?
  8. What are the chances of being struck by lightning?
  9. What are the chances of finding a $100 bill on the ground?
  10. What are the chances of getting all red lights on the way to work?
  11. What is the probability that a solar storm wipes out Earth’s electronics?
  12. What are the odds of an average poker hand winning?

I’m proud of their questions. I can see that some of them will be very difficult to answer, and others fairly easy. All of them will require some thinking about possible outcomes or statistical probability (which we haven’t studied yet, so that’s pretty awesome).

Tomorrow we’re going to start trying to solve these questions. I’ll give the students the list, and we’ll start drumming up solutions in groups using chart paper to record thinking. I’m pretty excited; I hope they are too. There is a ton of excellent learning that can come out of this.

I made another mistake: missing out on inquiry and authenticity

I’m teaching MDM4U (Data Management) this semester and we’re starting to talk about probability. We’ve spent the last few weeks learning a bunch of counting techniques (permutations, anyone?) and soon we’ll be applying those techniques in this new context.

But I’m concerned about how teacher-directed everything has become, and how comfortable my students seem to be with that mode. When does their curiosity take control of our journey? How will their interests drive our learning?

On the first day of the probability section I was speaking with the entire class about the sorts of probabilities they would be familiar with: chance of rain, poker, winning a football game, etc. One student asked, “What are the chances of winning the lottery?”

And I made a big mistake.

I told him, “We’re going to look at that when we have a few more tools to work with.”

I should have said, “Let’s try to figure that out. Now.”

His curiosity would certainly have driven him and other students to pursue an answer to that question. No, they don’t necessarily have the skills to answer that yet (some would), but I also don’t need to teach a bunch of lessons before they can start.

I should have encouraged him to frame that question mathematically, identify the information that would be needed to solve it, and begin to do so.

Instead I put him off and went on with my boring talk about rolling dice and flipping coins. I missed a great opportunity for authentic learning in favour of simple, canned questions.

So, my deepest apologies to that young man and to the rest of the class. Tomorrow, I fix it. Tomorrow, you will decide what you want to learn, and then you’ll learn it, and I’ll be there to coach you along the way.

PD Day plan: Meeting with my Math department

Tomorrow is PD Day in Algoma, and I have a couple of hours to work with the math department in my school (which I newly lead). I want to make the most of our two hours together, so we’re going to be spending our time [mostly] talking about assessment.

I’ve been working here for a few weeks, so I have some idea of the nature of assessment in each teacher’s class, and in the school as a whole. Some of that comes from talking casually with teachers in our shared office; some of that comes from my students explaining what they’re used to (common practices).

I have learned something in the last few years: hardly anyone has had the time I’ve had to read about, hear about, reflect upon, and discuss their teaching practice. That’s not a criticism, of course; I’ve just had the luxury of working centrally for six years. That’s a lot of workshops, a lot of meetings, and lot of one-on-one conversations with classroom teachers from all over the board.

I have thoughts about what good assessment looks like, so I could just tell everyone how I think it should be, but I know that’s not effective. First, I could be up in my sleep, having not practiced all of the strategies I believe will work. Second, people need to own their approaches, not just follow someone else’s.

A principal told me last year that school boards often make the mistake of having senior administration learn a lot so that they can make a decision about a system-wide approach to a problem. Then the school principals are “trained” or “in-serviced” or otherwise told how to implement this approach. But almost never is there really an opportunity for the principals to become deeply familiar with the solution (or even the problem!) in order to believe it’s the right choice.

So I’m trying to be careful to not make that mistake. I’m trying to coach in the way I know is best: encourage the learner to reflect upon the current practice, to question its efficacy, and to consider something else that has reason and research to support it.

The Plan for tomorrow

We’re going to develop a Working Agreement for our meeting (lots of folks use the term “norms”; I first heard “working agreement” and I like how it feels more collaborative than imposed). I don’t know how long this will take, but it’s worth taking the time now.

Then I have some reflection questions for everyone. I’m still deciding on strategies here (for practical reasons; there could be a dozen people in the room). These are the questions I’m considering:

  • What kinds of assessment do you use in your classroom?
  • What is the purpose of each kind of assessment you use?
  • How does each kind of assessment help students to improve?
  • How are students involved in assessment?
  • How do you record assessment information?
  • What are the rules/policies about assessment and evaluation (department, school, board, Ministry)?

There is a lot of background knowledge that goes into assessment, and I don’t yet know how common that knowledge is. I’m thinking about

  • Assessment For, As, and Of Learning
  • Conversations, Observations, and Products
  • Big Ideas, Learning Goals, Success Criteria
  • Summative Tasks, Richness, Authenticity

I have about 14 hours until we meet as a group. Any suggestions are very welcome.

Teaching Computer Science online – the hard parts

This semester I am teaching my first e-Learning course (I’ve been supporting e-Learning for five years; time for me to walk the walk, eh?). It’s a split ICS3C/ICS3U course in Computer Science and Programming.

I’m using Java with NetBeans and we’re coding “desktop” applications (i.e. not mobile yet). We might later move to Android programming, but I think that’ll probably be enrichment for interested students. There isn’t really a requirement to write for mobile in the course, and it adds a lot of extra layers of complexity.

“The Range”

Complexity would be fine, except many of the students are first-time coders – zero experience with programming of any kind. That’s normal, since ICS3x doesn’t have a prerequisite, and many schools (especially in Northern Ontario, but elsewhere too I understand) can’t afford to offer ICS2O as a precursor.

Of course, many of the students do have a bunch of programming experience, some in Javascript or Visual Basic, others in HTML, and a couple in many languages.

So I have what I think is a typically wide range in starting points for learning computer science and computer programming.

Troubleshooting at a distance

Teaching online has special challenges for any course, but ICS has software requirements that are significant and unusual. You need a “computer” – no tablets, no Chromebooks*. You need an application installed and a development kit. If students are using computers owned by their school boards they may have to ask to have those items installed for them. I’m sure you can imagine how easy that is to accomplish.

Of course, many students are using their own computers. I prefer this, because they can install their own software (a useful skill in its own right) and they have a lot more coding time (evenings and weekends).

So what do you do when you get an email like this?

“Hi Mr Grasley, I can’t find Netbeans on the computer at school. I don’t know what to do.”

After several email messages, we got it all worked out. I’m sure the student was frustrated, and I felt a little helpless. The special software needs are tough up front in the course.

These aren’t Word documents

The e-Learning environment has a handy document renderer which nicely formats Word and other documents for me in the browser. It’s a fairly new feature, and it works really well.

It can’t handle a .zip file containing a Java project, of course.

So, I have to download the student submissions and import them into NetBeans or unzip them and open the .java files in a text editor. A little more onerous, but still manageable.

That’s it so far

See, I’m not complaining – it’s pretty good to have only a couple of issues that are special. I like teaching online, I get to reference xkcd in my course, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester.

*It is possible to use a cloud-based development environment, which would allow you to code using other kinds of devices. I’m not “supporting” that just yet, but I can see it down the road. I’m hoping some of my students try it out and report back.

This is me not keeping up

I was right to be a little nervous about starting my new job this fall. Not because I’m unskilled, or my students will devour me, or I’ve lost touch with the realities of teaching.

It’s because I have one foot in each world, and those two worlds both want to take over.

Case in point

I like to blog. I enjoy dumping my thinking and reflections here. See how many posts I’ve had since school started? Yeah. Ugh.

Finding time

There is more to do in a day than can be done in a day. My system-level e-Learning transition work officially takes just one period a day, but tends to spill over into 3+ periods a day. My online, combined ICS3C/ICS3U course is supposed to happen in another 75 minutes; that one mostly soaks up my evenings. MDM4U is the most manageable, probably because my class time is utterly sacred and untouchable. So I end up working 12-14 hour days and still have…let’s see…ah, down to 105 unread emails.

I’m not blaming

The new guys are learning the ropes (and rather well, if I can say that out loud), but it all takes time. It’s not their fault; not at all. I had years to learn, refine, and practice the eLC skills, so there is a lot that I’ll have to do for now while I teach them.

But it would be nice to focus…

…on just the teaching and department heading. Today I worked with the team and with Career Studies teachers using Blended Learning, and I felt guilty not being with my class (they had a solid math teacher with them today, which is sometimes a luxury, so it’s not a logical guilt). Right now I’m about to check on my ICS students and help them along so they can have a great Friday. And I’m thinking I should be emailing guidance counselors and I’m prepping for tomorrow’s BL session and then there’s that teleconference on Monday…. Definitely not keeping up.

Starting over

It’s Labour Day again, but this one’s a little different. I’m not just starting another school year; I’m starting a new role as a classroom teacher and department head.

I’ve spent the past six years working centrally and I’ve decided to return to teaching students in a school (and online, actually). I’ll also have a part of my day for central work on e-Learning.

It feels a little like starting over. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had to balance the Categories of Knowledge and Skills, plan for communication with parents, and decide whether and how to use a textbook. It took a little longer than I expected to get back in the groove, and I didn’t give myself a lot of time to do it.

That said, I’m really looking forward to it. New school, new colleagues, new students, and new learning for all of us.

See you tomorrow, everyone.