Student research I want to read

My Grade 12 Data Management students complete a research project as part of the course. They create a questionnaire to help answer a question they’re interested in, or to look for relationships that bear further study.

While working with one student today to help develop that question, we talked about how she started to take guitar lessons but didn’t stick with it. She said that she regretted stopping the lessons, but that a part-time job and her own laziness got in the way. She expected that she would have been quite skilled by now had she put in the time over the past year.

I asked if she thought that experience was common, and how the music school offering the lessons might have made it easier for her to stay with it. She figured that a lot of people start lessons but don’t continue, and she had some suggestions for improvement that seemed reasonable as well.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know what the most common reasons are for quitting music lessons (and for sticking with lessons), and if there is a correlation between some other variable and perseverance? For example, do students without jobs stick with music lessons longer? What other factors play into persistence?

She might pursue this area of research for her project. I hope she does. I want to know the conclusions she draws from it, because it might have an impact on the way I teach math and computer science.

Learn-practise-perform cycle limits learning in CS

Like many courses, the beginning of my current computer science e-Learning class looked like this:

  • Teach small skill
  • Teach small skill
  • Give feedback on practice work
  • Teach small skill
  • Teach small skill
  • Give feedback on practice work
  • Evaluate performance task

This separation of learning from graded performance is intended to give students time to practise before we assign a numerical grade. This sounds like a good move on the surface. It’s certainly well-intentioned.

But this process is broken. It limits learning significantly.

If the performance task is complex enough to be meaningful, it requires a synthesis of skills and understandings that the students haven’t had time to practise. In this case I’m evaluating each student’s ability to accomplish something truly useful when they’ve only had the opportunity to practise small skills.

If instead the performance task has many small components which aren’t interdependent, students never develop the deeper understanding or the relationships between concepts. In this case I’m evaluating each student’s small skills without evaluating their ability to accomplish something truly useful, which isn’t acceptable either.

And there isn’t time to do both. I can’t offer them the time to complete a large, meaningful practise task and then evaluate another large, meaningful performance task.

The barrier here is the evaluation of performance. It requires a high level of independence on the part of the student so that I can accurately assign a numerical grade.

So I’m trying something different.

Instead of these tiny, “real-world” examples (that I make up) to develop tiny, discrete skills, I started teaching through large, student-driven projects. I got rid of the little lessons building up to the performance task, and I stopped worrying about whether they had practised everything in advance.

The process looks more like this:

  • Develop project ideas with students and provide focus
  • Support students as they design
  • Provide feedback through periodic check-ins
  • Teach mini-lessons as needed for incidental learning (design, skills, etc.)
  • Summarize learning with students to consolidate

I couldn’t design a sequence of learning tasks that would be as effective as my students’ current projects are. They’re working hard to accomplish goals they chose, and they’re solving hundreds of small and large problems along the way.

They couldn’t appreciate the small, discrete lessons I was teaching with the small, artificial stories. They didn’t have the context to fit the ideas into. It was only when the project was large and meaningful that my students truly began to grasp the big concepts which the small skills support.

And now I don’t have a practise/perform cycle. It’s all practice, and it’s all performance. It’s more like real life, less like school, and it’s dramatically more effective. It’s much richer, much faster learning than the old “complete activity 2.4” approach.

Evaluation is very difficult, though.

Stop being selfish: adult brains need helmets too

I spent part of Sunday afternoon riding bikes with my kids on the Hub Trail in Sault Ste. Marie. It was a good time, and we all enjoyed ourselves. Here we are about halfway through our 5K trip, taking a break on a bench:

We passed a few other cyclists along the way. The Hub Trail parallels Queen Street, a major road, for a portion of our route. Queen Street now has a bicycle lane, for which I’m sure many cycling enthusiasts are thankful. Unfortunately, my non-scientific survey of those pedaling people indicates they either (a) vastly overestimate their skills, or (b) vastly underestimate their mortality.

Hardly anyone was wearing a helmet.

Queen Street has a posted speed limit of 50 km/h, which means most cars are hovering around the sixty-click mark. At that pace a cyclist in the bicycle lane can’t do a whole lot to prevent injury if there is an accident, whether it is caused by a motorist or the cyclist.

Unless, of course, that prevention was enabled prior to the journey. Like, you know, putting a helmet on.

We know helmets work. We even have a law that says kids have to wear them. Why don’t adults have to wear them too? What is it about adult brains that is less valuable than kid brains? As far as I understand it, adult skulls aren’t significantly more durable when negatively accelerating due to asphalt.

Some people claim some sort of obscure “right” to not wear a helmet, in the same way that it’s an obvious right to ride a motorcycle sans cranial protection at 70 mph on an interstate. “It’s my life” and all that nonsensical garbage. Your decision to not wear a helmet is outrageously selfish. When you make a tiny mistake, or when a driver makes a tiny mistake, your decision to not wear a helmet might amplify that error from minor to catastrophic.

“I grew up riding my bike without a helmet, and I turned out fine! We weren’t so reckless because we knew we didn’t have helmets on!”

The fact the you’re alive and uninjured says nothing about all of the people who have been injured or killed in these sorts of accidents. Your random survival is a single data point. I’m happy you’re alive, but I’m so disappointed that you’re being so careless with your life and the future of that anonymous driver you might share an accident with.

While I’m talking about it, start wearing a helmet when you’re skating with your kids. I don’t care if you played hockey. Accidentally hitting your head on the ice is stupid.

(If you do a quick Google search about the efficacy of bicycle helmets to prevent injury you’ll find a lot of ideologically-driven pages saying that they don’t really work. Read a lot further than that if you want the truth. Helmets reduce injury in the event of a collision. The larger, more complex question is whether legislation is effective in preventing overall injuries.)


My students told me what’s going on in my class

I talked to my data management kids today about the not–so-great class we had yesterday. We pushed all the desks aside and put our chairs into a (sort of) circle for this conversation. I explained how frustrated I was with the lack of feedback I was getting during class, and that I was concerned that my goals did not align with their goals for the course.

I asked them why they were taking the course, and what they were hoping to get out of it. My speculation last night was partly on target: their primary goals are to get a high school diploma, with a good mark in this course, so that they could get into “the next thing” (university programs for most of them). Some mentioned that they thought statistics would be helpful for their planned program. Overwhelmingly the course is seen as a means to an end. It’s not 110+ hours of learning; it’s more like a long tunnel they must pass through to get on with life.

This is what I was afraid of, and yet sitting there with my students I can’t blame them. Our school system (through post-secondary as well) trains them to focus on achievement, which is measured by task completion and marks. Our system doesn’t (can’t?) train them to value learning over these other goals, because the system itself doesn’t value learning over task completion and marks.

We had an honest conversation about what really matters in a math class. We talked about how they all learn exactly the same things even though they don’t all have exactly the same plans for the future. We talked about how we have a “just-in-case” curriculum: you must learn these skills just in case you need them someday.

And the most frustrating part for me was that they all know that a lot of what we do in class doesn’t really matter in the sense that it doesn’t really change them. They haven’t been improved by learning how to use the hypergeometric probability distribution. They will forget it when the exam is over because it doesn’t matter much to them. It’s not something that they’ll use, likely. And if they need it, it’ll be because they’re steeped in all the math that goes along with it.

But not everything we do is like that in my class. Some things do matter. And I’m feeling a bit guilty tonight because I think I should have focused the course a bit differently, spending more time on the parts that will change my students. We’re only a few weeks from the end of the course and we don’t have the luxury of a slow, thoughtful pace that the remaining topics deserve. I can’t fix that now, but I can work on it for next year.

I grabbed the Chromebook cart and sent my kids to a Google Form with three paragraph-response prompts:

  • Start
  • Stop
  • Continue

They each wrote anonymously about what they think we should start to do in our class (perhaps an approach they like from another class), stop doing (approaches I’m taking that aren’t working for them), and continue doing (class components they don’t want to lose if I change things). Their responses were fascinating, and I’m going to read them over a few more times to make sure I get it all. It was pretty clear they don’t want any more audio clips, though :)
Our conversation also revealed that I misinterpreted their silence as a lack of interest or understanding. What I learned from them today was that there were portions of yesterday’s class that they did enjoy, but I couldn’t see it. They didn’t provide feedback I was expecting and I didn’t adjust my teaching to suit their needs. It was a difficult conversation for me (and probably them), and it took some time, but it was worth it. I understand my students better now, and I think I can be a better teacher.

It’s not all fixed, but I don’t feel quite like I did yesterday. I’m going to go to class tomorrow with a plan to improve my teaching and their learning at the same time.

I wouldn’t be disappointed if I weren’t working so hard


I taught a class today that didn’t go well. Actually, it went pretty badly.

I tried to engage in a discussion with my students that required critical thinking about statistics in the media, and they mostly didn’t engage with me. It took me a long time to plan out the lesson, carefully choose my resources, and prepare everything to guide them to a deeper understanding an appreciation.

And it mostly crashed and burned. You can read the play-by-play on the class blog, if you want (link).

Each day I write a post explaining what happened during class for anyone who missed it, and for the reference of those who were there. Today I shared my frustration with their stance in the room. From that post:

You’re not here to “do school”. You’re here to develop skills and learn to think critically. Calculating medians is not a way to develop your brain. Completing tasks is not the point.

I need you to be able to analyze, interpret, draw conclusions, and make decisions based on data. Any spreadsheet can calculate medians, but Excel can’t tell you whether three minutes of exercise is enough each week or whether e-cigarettes are a good thing.

I’m fully aware that our school system tends to prioritize finishing activities over real learning. Math can be particularly vicious because of the number of discrete, technical skills required to even begin to “see the big picture” of how everything relates and works together.

But I’m trying hard to break outside of that mode. Really hard. I’m trying to make real learning the priority. And I’m not above admitting that I made a mistake here. This lesson wasn’t designed well, or I didn’t prepare my students well for this approach today, or maybe both. But here’s what I need next:

I want what’s best for each of you, and that means actual learning, not just task completion. If there’s something you need in this class to make that happen and I’m not providing it, I need you to tell me. Today didn’t work, and I don’t want a repeat performance tomorrow. None of us does, I hope. Help me out.

I really mean that. I was so much more disappointed today because of how much planning and time went into this failure. And worse: I don’t know what I’ve learned from the experience. I’m now counting on my students to tell me what they really need to meet the goals I’ve set out for them.