Sunday, April 28, 2013

Conferences, Engagement, and Ethics

I am on my way to the American Educational Research Association meeting in San Francisco. This is one area that even the best of current technologies cannot compete with. Despite the best of technology an online conference experience is still far removed from the real deal. In a way its like the idea of a pilgrimage. We need the physical distance and separation to create enough space in our goal system to allow full engagement with the conference. For online conferences to be as successful there is a need to simulate among others that separation.

Figuring this out is not a minor concern, as research and information become globalized we have to travel great distances to present and hear. This limits our ability to interact effectively, engage scholars from less affluent communities and to do so with lower impact on the environment. This important for professional development as well.

I often participate in webinars, hangouts and other digital formats and the expereinec for me is not even close. Mostly I am in my hometown, my office or home and all the daily distractions and goals are still ever present taking away from my engagement and making the experience less satisfactory.

So what can be done, well perhaps the key is creating a blended experience. First scholars and professionals in each of the locations need to be both consumers and producers of presentations. Participants are sequestered during the day in a separate location with peers say a hotel with meeting rooms. Each location can have a moderator and a tech staff making sure that tech problems do not become an obstacle to a good experience. Online informal meeting rooms can be set up for chats. Social can be used just as it is in F2F conferences to help direct traffic and enhance the participant experience.

This version of a virtual conference is considerably less cost effective than a series of webinars or Google plus hangouts- but it would be far more engaging and deeply interactive.
Until then I will enjoy San Francisco seeing old friends and my overpriced hotel room.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Grading, Creativity, and Teacher Education- Making Room fo Complexity

I caught the middle piece of a radio lab broadcast on choice. In it Gladwell (of Outliers and Blink) discusses the impact of explaining choice on the decision making process. In the battle between system 1 (quick snap judgements as in Blink) and system 2 (deliberate thinking), the latter seems to try and counter bias system 1- with the results being less than satisfactory (I borrowed the system 1 and 2 from Kahneman). In this he quotes Tim Wilson's work from VGA.

I started thinking about this effect as I was grading my students work on a rubric. I just finished grading and it dawned on me that my very specific rubrics, valued by my students, seem to encourage students to back away from ambiguity and complexity. In simple terms it means that when the rubric is specific it is economically beneficial for students to respond with simple lessons than complex ones, to choose one or two objectives than a complex integrated lesson. Going back to Gladwell (not fully Wilson's et al. point) forcing students to explain in detail may push them to make simplistic choices and shy away from complexity.

As  nation our testing system seems to be having exactly the same effect. Measuring creativity a popular subject recently may have the same exact effect. By clarifying what we mean by creativity we may be losing sight of the big picture...

Adding to my challenge is the fact that I do not control the milieu for the assignments. It is a negotiation between our students and their cooperating teachers. It is not always clear who sets the tone for the lesson- so I cannot penalize students for having simple lessons because it is not always up to them. The question is how do we make room for complexity- reward it in this context.

I suggest simply rewarding complexity (I know it when I see it) and demanding that simple lessons (like simple dishes on cooking challenge shows) are perfect. This note just like myself is a work in progress: We need more poetry! (A quote from a recent presentation by Sarah Thomas)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

On Grades, Grading, and Educational Reality

I am writing this post as a response to a blog post by Dr Bernard Bull on Five Common Reasons for the Importance of Letter Grade. I am not necessarily arguing with Dr. Bull's comments but instead I am using them as a starting point for my own thinking about grades in a teacher education program. That is I do not fundamentally disagree with the points made in the post that seem to be aimed at the overabundance of the letter grade in secondary schools.

For full disclosure I would like to point out that I hate grading. As my 9 year old son says "I hate [...]. I know it's a strong word but that is just how I feel". I know I am not alone in this. As a result I have tried to effectively do away with grading in some of my classes. I have yet to make it work. Now, about a decade ago most students in our program received A's almost always making it effectively a Pass/Fail structure. It is not like that anymore and that is an improvement.

My students seem to have been conditioned by years of letter grades. They are masters of counting points, figuring out averages and what they need to do to get the grade they want. I would love to take all that energy and turn it into a focus on mastery and field based performance. This just doesn't happen, sometimes it even backfires. So here are my five consequences of moving away from grading on an individual instructor basis.

1. External evaluation. Outside agencies (in my case NE dept of ed) have set criteria for performance defined in certification requirements. Without grades my students cannot be certified. More than that regulations prevent me from creating Pass/Fail grades in certain classes.

2. When I have a class that de-emphasizes grades my students seem to be making strategic decisions that seem to be something like this: Guy does not grade us, so, since R. P. and Q. do I will put more of my time in these classes so I can keep my GPA.

3. After many semester of frustration with the low levels of reading before class I finally asked my students what would compel them to read they answered "quizzes, give us quizzes". That for me goes back to the idea of conditioning. I think in their minds if it doesn't carry a grade it isn't important.

4. Students clearly want to be recognized for effort and hard work in ways that count. I still remember a student who thanked me for having grades that she perceived as being fair because those who were not invested actually got a grade that reflected it.

5. Students are motivated to redo assignments and reach mastery because the grade is a meaningful consequence. For me it is the reverse math from number 2.

So... Any change to grading has to be wider than any one teacher, instructor and to consider outside demands. We also must consider how to slowly change the perception of students. Moving away from grades we will essentially have to retrain their brains after 12-14 years of schooling, not an easy task. Perhaps we can borrow from the feedback that video games provide- in the form of badges, awards and small markers that signal mastery and capacity to meet standards.

I started this blog post from a this can't be done stance but as I write this I can see some potential for systemic change relying on technology as a rich and quick feedback loop. hmm...