Is this the best High School in America?

It’s not my question, it’s The Daily Riff’s.  And it’s probably not the correct question to ask – there are certainly many different ways of doing school that will work well. So, maybe a better question would be “What makes a great school?”

Let this video about High Tech High in San Diego be the conversation starter. Here’s the opening question: “What is it about High Tech’s approach to education that makes it a great school?”

Math is dead. Long live Mathematics!

Recently I watched a TED talk which got me thinking about Mathematics in a way I hadn’t before. To cut straight to the video, scroll down.

Let me be clear at the start of this post: I’ve had a difficult relationship with the academic subject area called “Math”. I did well in it until high school, when math work became a fairly complicated process of memorizing and calculating. I wasn’t very good at committing formulas to memory or at seeing how they had application to anything real.

So I became a Math Dropout as an upperclassman in high school, surrendering to the complexity of Trigonometry and Pre-Calculus. I instead doubled up on History, Social Science, and English classes and joined that group we call “Humanities kids”, or the ones who aren’t “good at math.”

From what I can tell, my experience in math class isn’t unique. I hear many students say that math is hard – they get long lists of problems to solve using complex computation, none of which they see as relevant to their lives, and by the time they’re in 10th grade many start self-identifying as “dumb” when it comes to math.

That so many students leave high school thinking they aren’t smart enough to understand math is really a shame. “Mathematics” comes from the Greek máthēma which means learning, study, and science. It is a way of deducing truth – an absolutely essential human ability. Yet when a smart 17-year old kid says to me “I can’t do math”, I never think he’s really telling me “I can’t learn”, or “I can’t think scientifically”, or “I don’t know how to seek truth.” Rather, I think he’s saying he isn’t good at calculating answers from book problems. The capitulation to the false dichotomy of smart/dumb in math is in fact a misunderstanding of what math actually is. But it is a misunderstanding that I hear math teachers and policy-makers reinforce all the time. How has education so tragically misunderstood math?

Conrad Wolfram explains in his TED talk that math education has become nothing more than a multi-year practice of hand and paper computation. He suggests that what we need is a return to the understanding of what math actually is: a way of thinking quantitatively to solve problems:

Mathematical thinking is an important way of problem-solving in the real world. Math education should take both common and extraordinary problems humans encounter today, and teach how these can be seen quantitatively: “Should I buy a house?” “What is the most sustainable way to power our city?” The 21st century may require more quantitative thinking than any before it and yet we rarely present math in real-world terms in education – most high school math classes spend an inordinate amount of time (or all the time) in computing answers to book problems, and never get to the bigger picture of using math in a real world context. Math has been reduced to simple computation, divorced from its larger purpose and removed from real-world context. Is it any surprise that many smart people conclude math isn’t for them?

Wolfram suggests that by using computers to do Step 3 above, we can free up math education to be more effective and authentic to its purpose. Computers are an incredible tool for solving numeric problems, so why not use them? Why shouldn’t a Calculus class be about learning how to use it in the real world of Engineering, where engineers use computers all day long?  If Engineering is about using math to solve real-world problems (i.e. “How can we better build levees in New Orleans?”), why don’t we create math classes where students use computers to do the time-consuming computational steps thereby freeing up their time to focus on identifying, quantifying, applying, and verifying?  Wouldn’t math be a more engaging and wholly valuable experience if it mimicked the real-world? I agree with Wolfram that we must revise our thinking of what math education should be. Much less time should be spent teaching computation and much more time should be outside the room, finding real math problems and testing solutions for them. We must transform math class so that it becomes a place where the focus is on learning to identify those real-world problems which might have quantitative solutions, and to suggesting and verifying solutions for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying computation is not important, rather I am saying that computation is an essential process for which a powerful tool has been created, and should be used. There are basic abilities and concepts of computation which must be mastered, of course. But when math education recognizes that computers can do the more complex and difficult computation and therefore help the larger quest for solutions to meaningful problems, I think math class will be transformed into a more authentic version of itself – a discipline that is engaging to students and preparatory for real life. It will become a discipline that doesn’t leave so many smart people tragically mislabeled as “dumb” or under the delusion that math doesn’t matter.

Enjoy Wolfram’s talk. I welcome your comments.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

PBL, Real-World situations, and Reflection using ePortfolios

When I think about the best learning experiences I’ve ever had, I find that they share several important elements, including:

1. They were based on a problem that seemed important to my life outside of academia. That’s not to say these learning experiences didn’t have relevance to school, rather it’s to say that the problems could have existed in the “real world”. “How do I swim out from the beach past the waves and into the calmer open water?” is a physics problem that really mattered in my life, and was the problem that really made me understand Newton’s second law of force, mass, and acceleration.

2. They required real-world tools. I had to figure out how to do something using the best technology for the situation. “Design a process for real-time feedback to the Model U.N. Conference headquarters from 100+ small sessions” was a problem that led me to Google Docs – an important tool I now use daily.

3. They asked me to innovate, to think about a situation differently. When my high school government teacher Mr. Garcia asked me “What is the best way to draw single-member district lines for the House of Representatives?” I didn’t even know what gerrymandering was. I found I had to invent something called proportional representation, and though I later learned PR was already working in places in Europe, my interest was piqued and my creativity was fostered.

4. They were collaborative. I spent most of my youth in teams or groups, tackling all kinds of real-world challenges and learning from them. It’s funny when I look back on school and realize that the really valuable learning came from those situations during which I was working with others.

5. Reflection was explicitly required. “What did I just do?”, “Did it work?”, “How can this work better?”, “What should I do next?” are all questions that any problem-solver must ask to succeed. If I don’t reflect, how can I learn? Through reflection, I control my understanding and am able to transfer a lesson from one problem to the next.

Problem-Based Learning that focuses on Real-World situations is the gold-standard for instructional design. When done well, students must be creative, innovate, and reflective in their thinking. I know that my best teaching comes when I can design these authentic learning experiences for my students.

David Stinson’s approach to instructional design reflects these important principles. By using ePortfolios and allowing students to identify and solve real-world problems, he’s creating authentic learning – the kind that transfers not just from one class to the next, but transfers from school to life. The ePortfolio allows him and his students to see the process of learning and not just the products. Within that process are ways of thinking that are relevant to life outside of school, and fostering and habitualizing these ways of thinking should in fact be the purpose of schooling. Stinson’s class is one place where this is happening in a powerful way.

David Stinson’s approach to technology is altogether human: he learns alongside the children instead of instructing them the traditional way. At Sullivan upper school in Holywood, Co. Down, secondary-level technology students have fully embraced the brave new world of the e-portfolio.

Electronic files, images, multimedia, blog entries, hyperlinks and soundbytes are all “dropped” into documents and PowerPoint presentations in David’s technology class to explain an “entire” process of learning, not just the end product.

I really wanted a break from the hammering-a-nail philosophy to what technology could be,” he says. “Five years ago, I got involved in the whole area of e-learning and I’ve been running fast after myself ever since.”

By using video and audio diaries and much more besides, the kids can reflect on trials and tribulations they’ve encountered during the learning process,” says Stinson. “I will set a project that sounds simple enough: build a model of a stage, design a bird-cage, and so on, but how the students apply themselves to that process is where the real curve learning is.”

I am very open-minded when it comes to the students’ ideas,” he says. “Once I give them the basic learning tools, skills, confidence and approach, they can then innovate. Even if ideas are wacky and original, even if they fail, I respect their decision to go ahead. Students also need to fully write up these projects too, at a later stage, but you want the creative juices to flow without any impediments.

We didn’t have a big blue wall here in school, so the kids used a type of Blue Peter approach and brought in blue sleeping bags, pinned them to the wall and filmed themselves miming instruments. Music was added later and the entire thing superimposed on to their stage model for use at the press of a button. It was brilliantly impressive.”

The real benefit of using e-portfolios is that every student, regardless of ability, can adapt to the dynamic nature of recording their thoughts and emotions in video and audio, removing some of the anxiety involved in pen and paper communication. For students with special needs this can be especially constructive, as the unique nature of expression in e-portfolios takes away the need to endlessly compare to their classmates.

Sound files and video clips are used throughout the project. “I wanted to make an additional safety feature on my bird feeder,” explains the boy in an embedded sound-clip that accompanies the design drawing. “I wanted it to be safe from cats, but in no way to spook the birds. So I thought about having the birdfeeder sitting well away from the house, suspended from poles … I got my idea from an episode of You’ve Been Framed – seeing a cat climb up a brick wall.”

The corridors outside the technology room are chock full of children’s designs, drawings, roadmaps and “virtual models” used in technology portfolios. One virtual model is the sitting-room of a house where the window works as a wide-screen TV in its own right.

“These are the kind of forward-thinking ideas we need,” says Stinson. “This design makes a lot of sense: TVs in our sitting rooms are often very bulky and eat into the design space of the room, while in fact the biggest glass screen in the room is already ‘naturally’ there in the window, so why not base the design around that idea?”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/02/teaching-awards-david-stinson