Teaching the physics of ‘Angry Birds’

Video games have become teaching tools, reports the Wall Street Journal.

At a private school in Houston, eighth-graders slingshot angry red birds across a video screen for a lesson on Newton’s law of motion. High-school students in Los Angeles create the “Zombie Apocalypse” computer game to master character development. And elementary students in Hampstead, N.C., build a virtual city to understand spatial reasoning.

Teachers are using games such as “Minecraft,” “SimCity” and “World of Warcraft” to teach “math, science, writing, teamwork and even compassion,” reports the Journal.

In Chicago and New York, entire schools have been created that use the principles of game design in curriculum development.

Video games let students try, fail, reassess and try again, says Joey J. Lee, an assistant professor who runs the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “This creates a positive relationship with failure, especially because the stakes are so low.”

Games “provide rapid feedback that forces students to rethink and alter strategies,” advocates say.

image

Geovany Villasenor, a senior at East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy, uses “Minecraft” to build virtual cities. He learned the game in an after-school club but it’s now used in his architecture class. The game lets his “imagination run wild,” says Villasenor.

Not everyone is happy to see video games in the classroom. “Some parents worry that children already spend too much time in front of glowing screens, while others argue that the games are based on rewards, corrupting the idea of learning,” reports the Journal.

The newest games are “aligned” with Common Core standards — or so the makers claim.

The case against grades

Grades lower self-esteem, discourage creativity, and reinforce the class divide, argues Michael Thomsen on Slate.

. . .  the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn because of its negative reinforcement, encouraging those who do well to gradually favor the reward of an A over the discovery of new ways of thinking, and reinforcing harsh class divides that are only getting worse as the economy idles.

In Ed Week’s Teacher, Kimber Larson, a sixth-grade teacher, advocates grading students on what they’ve learned, not on their behavior.

She doesn’t deduct points for late work or assign zeroes. However, “every assignment must be turned in, even if that means sacrificing their recess, special event, or class party until it’s completed.”

Instead of giving extra-credit points, she lets students redo assignments to show what they’ve learned, belatedly.

She grades only end-of-unit assessments.

It is a wonderful thing to see that my students feel safe to make mistakes as they discover, create, and grow throughout the learning process. Because I provide feedback instead of grades on their practice work and formative assessments, they aren’t focused on a score that will haunt them on their report card. The comments and corrections on practice work are much more meaningful than a grade, so they focus more on learning and appreciate the freedom to learn from their mistakes.

My daughter’s journalism teacher let students rewrite their stories, two or three times if necessary, to raise their grades. It was more work for the teacher, of course.

Broward County, Florida is considering eliminating the zero, making 50 the minimum grade for an uncompleted assignment.

Should grades be abolished? Based on learning rather than behavior?

Gates: Measure to improve

Measurement matters, writes Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal. His foundation fights child mortality and polio in desperately poor countries. It also funds education reforms, such as improved teacher evaluations, in the U.S.

You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal in a feedback loop,” writes Gates.

At Eagle Valley High School in Colorado, he observed the 12th-grade English class of Mary Ann Stavney, a master teacher. The Gates Foundation is funding a three-year evaluation and feedback project in Eagle County.

Drawing input from 3,000 classroom teachers, the project highlighted several measures that schools should use to assess teacher performance, including test data, student surveys and assessments by trained evaluators. Over the course of a school year, each of Eagle County’s 470 teachers is evaluated three times and is observed in class at least nine times by master teachers, their principal and peers called mentor teachers.

The Eagle County evaluations are used to give a teacher not only a score but also specific feedback on areas to improve and ways to build on their strengths. In addition to one-on-one coaching, mentors and masters lead weekly group meetings in which teachers collaborate to spread their skills. Teachers are eligible for annual salary increases and bonuses based on the classroom observations and student achievement.

“The most critical change we can make in U.S. K–12 education . . .  is to create teacher-feedback systems that are properly funded, high quality and trusted by teachers,” Gates concludes.

Trust will be a challenge.

This infographic looks at how data mining and can improve education.

Teaching to the (good) test is good

Teaching to the Test Is Good – if the test is good — writes Walt Gardner on Reality Check.

When he studied journalism at UCLA, students practiced writing news stories in a three-hour lab. The professor provided immediate feedback. Students practiced the skills needed to pass the final exam — and to work as reporters.

When I was teaching English, I took great pains to provide my students with practice writing what I thought would serve them best in the long run. I concluded that making a persuasive argument would meet this need. Therefore, I gave them ample practice writing persuasive essays in which they had to take a position and support it with evidence. It’s not that other forms of writing were not important, but I had to prioritize. Was this teaching to the test? Definitely. But students never knew which topic they would have to write a persuasive essay about.

As a speech teacher, he developed units based on speech tournament categories such as humorous interpretation and dramatic interpretation.

After each speech, students were asked to make constructive comments based upon a sheet that I handed out. This was my version of what my journalism professor taught me: appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback. The result was that students won a host of trophies and placed high in state tournaments held on college campuses.

Gardner would prefer to use standardized tests only to diagnose problems, but that’s not going to happen, he writes. “Therefore, I suggest we use our time and energy to design standardized tests that are sensitive to effective instruction involving the most important material.” It’s the only to build public support for public schools, he concludes.

Kohn: Failure’s not all that educational

Do kids really learn from failure?  Alfie Kohn, writing on The Answer Sheet, has his doubts.

Kohn, who’s argued that self-discipline is overrated, is reacting to belief that “what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power.” Children experience plenty of frustration and failure, he writes, and there’s no reason to think it leads to learning.

In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure.  (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.)  In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure.  Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities.  What happened?  Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion.

“Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning,” Kohn concedes. But quitters may be rejecting challenges that “aren’t particularly engaging or relevant.”

Or it may be that schools have focused students on grades, test scores and being the best rather than learning, Kohn writes.

If the goal is to get an A, then it’s rational to pick the easiest possible task.  Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion.  “I’m no good at this, so why bother?” is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.

We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information,”  said Jerome Bruner, Kohn quotes.

That’s a marvelous way to think about reframing unsuccessful experiences:  My experiment, or my essay, didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and the reason that happened offers valuable clues for how I might take a different approach tomorrow.

But schools aren’t structured that way, Kohn writes. Students see grades and test sores as rewards and punishments because that’s what they are.

How can schools teach students to learn from failure?

Khan: Tech-powered teachers can do more

Khan Academy videos — and interactive exercises — will empower teachers, not replace them, writes Salman Khan in Education Week.

Khan Academy’s free videos now cover every subject from algebra to art history for grades K-12, he writes. In additions, students can practice math skills, move forward at their own pace and receive feedback while teachers monitor their students’ progress.

Teachers are struggling to meet students’ different “abilities, motivation levels, and incoming knowledge,” Khan writes.

Some are ready for grade-level content, while others have not fully mastered the prerequisites. Still others have already learned the grade-level material and are ready to move on to more advanced concepts. Ideally, teachers would like to meet all those needs simultaneously, but it is only humanly possible for them to teach one lesson at a time.

. . . when used appropriately, technology can enable teachers to lead differentiated and interactive classrooms. When teachers have real-time data and a clear understanding of every child’s needs, they can use their precious classroom time more effectively and flexibly. When students are learning at a pace and level appropriate to their individual needs, they are less likely to disengage or act up.

. . . Technology will give teachers valuable real-time data to diagnose students’ weak points and design appropriate interventions. It will enable teachers to more quickly gauge students’ comprehension of new topics so they can adjust their lesson plans on the spot.

Khan Academy’s latest platform teaches computer science as a “creative art,” he writes. He hopes to use the platform to “create interactive virtual labs with simulations of projectiles, pendulums, and the solar system.” In addition, a new feature lets users ask and answer each other’s questions, increasing the sense of online community.

Study: Teachers go soft on minority students’ work

After reading a poorly written essay, teachers offered comments and advice. Those who thought the writer was black or Latino provided more praise and less criticism, according to a Rutgers study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology (JEP), reports Science Daily.

(The study) involved 113 white middle school and high school teachers in two public school districts located in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, one middle class and white, and the other more working class and racially mixed.

“Many minority students might not be getting input from instructors that stimulates intellectual growth and fosters achievement,” said Kent Harber, Rutgers-Newark psychology professor.

George W. Bush called it “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

If not value-added, then what?

“Would-be reformers for getting waaaay ahead of themselves” in building systems around value-added data, writes Rick Hess. But value-added can be a useful tool, even if it’s not perfect. And what’s the alternative to value-added? Principals observing teachers in the classroom? Value-added haters don’t like that either.

Only peer review — teachers evaluating teachers — has support from “self-styled teacher advocates,” Hess writes. And peer review rarely has teeth.

. . . few peer review efforts have lived up to their billing. For instance, as Steven Brill has reported, the lauded Toledo peer review program — which has been credited with aggressively weeding out bad teachers — turned out, when studied for The New Teacher Project’s “Widget Effect to have removed just one tenured teacher (in a fair-sized, low-performing system) during the two years studied.

“Public educators who are paid with public funds to serve the public’s children ought to be responsible for how well they do their jobs,” writes Hess.

Low-stakes value-added analysis can provide useful feedback to teachers, writes Matthew Di Carlo on the Shanker Institute (affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers) Blog. Teachers need disaggregated data, he adds.

For instance, if a teacher is told that her English language learners tend to make less rapid progress than her native speakers, this is potentially useful – she might rethink how she approaches those students and what additional supports they may need from the school system. Similarly, if there are strong gains among those students who started out at a lower level (i.e., their score the previous year) and stagnation for those starting out at a higher level, this suggests the need for more effective differentiation.

In a few states, teacher education programs are analyzing graduates’ value-added data to identify weak areas writes Stephen Sawchuk on Education Week.

“It was frustrating at first. Based on earlier assessments, we always had exemplary status, and then to get these data showing some weaknesses—well, it was a shock,” said Gerald M. Carlson, the dean of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “But we ultimately said, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and see what we can find out.’ ”

. . . the school set up teams of faculty to look at the curriculum, switched the sequencing of elementary math courses, and is now requiring faculty members to spend more time observing student-teachers, Mr. Carlson said.

Students taught by the university’s elementary teachers struggled with essay questions, the value-added analysis showed. “The university’s teacher-educators have worked with colleagues from the liberal arts department to require more writing instruction in introductory English composition courses.”

 

Teach to students’ commonalities

Instead of always trying to individualize instruction or teach to different “learning styles,” teachers should spend more time teaching to what students have in common, advise Daniel Willingham and David Daniel in Educational Leadership. For example, all children need factual knowledge, practice and feedback from a knowledgeable source to learn.

‘Lesson study’ catches on in Chicago

“Lesson study” — a Japanese technique for honing teaching — is being tried in Chicago schools, notes the Hechinger Report.

Math teacher Michael Hock  teaches about the distributive property as 30 teachers observe. 

After a lesson is taught and students dismissed, teachers analyze what happened. They’re like scientists looking back at their experiment, figuring out what went right, what went wrong.“You can see [it] everywhere in Japan,” says (Toshiakira) Fujii. “In Tokyo in the case it’s Wednesday. Wednesday [we] usually finish at lunch time. Then one class stays, and the other classes dismiss. And then every teacher comes to that one class and observes. Even the school nurse and school counselor also join to watch the lesson—that’s our traditional way.”

One teacher asks why Hock didn’t ask students to draw a model of the equation. Another says,  “I didn’t see much evidence that they felt challenged.” adds another, citing his extensive notes.

The teachers discuss whether it was more successful to use concrete examples or abstract ones and whether the illustration Hock used helped students understand the concept being taught.

Hock says he loves the constructive feedback, but it requires a thick skin.