Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ravitch Ravages Reforms

Prof. Diane Ravitch has written a piece on education reform that has been reproduced in the Washington Post's blog by Valerie Strauss:

You'll find the original here:

There's much truth in what Diane Ravitch says and some exaggeration. She puts every single effort at improving our educational system in the same pot, tars them with the same brush. However, education is not so simple.

What's so bad about having some core standards that we can adopt nationwide? Only one thing -- that these might be the beginning of ever tightening national controls instead of a set of basic standards that can be adjusted periodically to allow for changes and to adjust based on feedback. We have to start somewhere. Our current Babel of standards is confusing to everyone and very costly. It's easier for states and districts to build on a foundation than to do all of the work themselves.

What about charter schools? These were intended by the most altruistic educators as laboratories for new ideas. They quickly morphed into a new way to make money. The average charter school has results similar to the average public school. Charter schools should remain a small percentage of the overall number lest our public schools be turned into places for our most challenged students to fail.

How about online education with ratios of 1:100 or even 1:200? I know of online teachers with 1:450. A high school teacher with five classes of 30 has a ratio of 1:150. The ratio of 1:100 doesn't seem so scary any more. Technology does allow more students per teacher without loss of quality, but not all technology delivers on this promise. Some even worsens the situation. There's no reason why education should not gain from advances in technology. It should free our teachers from much of the drudgery of teaching to become the inspiring mentors that most long to be. It should allow our best teachers to reach and influence and inspire more students. That outcome should be considered a good thing.

Teachers' unions have been demonized to a greater degree than they deserve. However, by the expedient of putting job security ahead of pay, they've contributed to this perception. There's no easy answer here, but neither removing teacher unions nor enshrining them is the answer. I'd like to see some try out a sliding scale of semi-tenure. You might give teachers longer contracts as they accumulate seniority, for example. At fifteen years, you could provide a ten-year contract, essentially until retirement.

Prof. Ravitch is right to raise the alarm about "reforms." These reforms are often about some political goal and have nothing to do with improving education. However, she should reduce the volume by a few decibels and not toss every possible change out. Doing as we have been doing is not the solution either.

© 2012 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Flaw in America's Lab Report

In 2005, the National Research Council published America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science ( This report delivers a scathing indictment of the “typical” lab experience for high school students. It also provides solutions to this sorry situation in the form of a definition for a science laboratory experience, seven goals for the experience, and four integration goals to ensure that science labs fit well into the overall student learning experience. The report covers a great deal of ground including the history of science labs in education.

In discussing science laboratory history in education, the report makes a mistake. This mistake may appear trivial. However, it unveils a serious flaw in how people perceive the history of education. We should not focus only on education errors in the early years but should also examine the successes. There's another problem as well with the following two paragraphs that are taken from pages 19 and 20 of the report.
In these early years, American educators emphasized the theoretical, disciplinary goals of science education in order to prepare graduates for further science education. Because of this emphasis, high schools quickly embraced a detailed list of 40 physics experiments published by Harvard instructor Edwin Hall (Harvard University, 1889). The list outlined the experiments, procedures, and equipment necessary to successfully complete all 40 experiments as a condition of admission to study physics at Harvard. Scientific supply companies began selling complete sets of the required equipment to schools and successful completion of the exercises was soon required for admission to study physics at other colleges and universities (Rudolph, 2005).
At that time, most educators and scientists believed that participating in laboratory experiments would help students learn methods of accurate observation and inductive reasoning. However, the focus on prescribing specific experiments and procedures, illustrated by the embrace of the Harvard list, limited the effectiveness of early laboratory education. In the rush to specify laboratory experiments, procedures, and equipment, little attention had been paid to how students might learn from these experiences. Students were expected to simply absorb the methods of inductive reasoning by carrying out experiments according to prescribed procedures (Rudolph, 2005).

The references are to the following cite: Rudolph, J.L. (2005). Epistemology for the masses: The origins of the “scientific method” in American schools. History of Education Quarterly, 45(2), 341- 376.

It's easy to be arrogant about people's ideas from over 100 years ago. We know so much more now or think that we do. Prof. Hall was the person who discovered the Hall Effect. He developed a series of experiments for students and published them in a pamphlet issued by Harvard University in 1887. The final, revised edition of this pamphlet appeared in 1889 and was superseded by a book, A Text-Book of Physics Largely Experimental (Hall, E. H. and Bergen, J. Y., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1895) with an original copyright date of 1891. The quotes herein are taken from the 1895 edition.

The number of “exercises” in the book taken from the pamphlet is 46, of which Prof. Hall suggests that any six may be omitted. Numerous additional exercises fill the book, which runs to about 390 pages including appendices and index.

The introduction, addressed “To the Teacher,” describes his approach to teaching physics through experimentation. Extensive quotes from this introduction will demonstrate that Prof. Hall was not so focused on “prescribing specific experiments and procedures” as America's Lab Report (ALR) and, by reference, the Rudolph paper indicate. Instead, they illustrate that Prof. Hall was very concerned with avoiding that path and providing some real opportunities for scientific thinking among the students using his experiments.

The fact of having a list of experiments that might be done has a definite purpose. Prof. Hall writes, “It soon became evident, in view of the inexperience of teachers and the very different standards and methods likely to be adopted by them, that a special course of experiments, carefully thought out and described with much detail, was needed to make the new plan a success.” (Page iii) His problems were associated with the preparatory school teachers, not with the students.

He goes on to explain, “There could be no doubt that, if the course was to be kept from degenerating into mere perfunctory trifling with apparatus, there must be a backbone of quantitative work, ...” Interestingly, given the historical sequence provided by ALR, Prof. Hall chose his experiments based on “practical utility.” He writes, “An attempt was made to bring together such experiments as would have the most frequent and important applications in ordinary life, in the conviction that these would be, on the whole, quite as interesting and important in every other way as any that could be chosen under a different program of selection.” (p. iv)

In the early 1900s, according to ALR, “[Charles] Mann and others attacked the 'dry bones' of the Harvard experiments, calling for a high school physics curriculum with more personal and social relevance to students.” This statement directly contradicts the intent of Prof. Hall as quoted above. Perhaps, the Hall experiments simply, as so many other efforts in education do, became dated in the eyes of some.

Again, according to ALR, “Students were expected to simply absorb the methods of inductive reasoning by carrying out experiments according to prescribed procedures.” Yet, Prof. Hall takes particular pains to avoid this approach.

This book is intended for the use of the student, to enable him to derive the full benefit of his experimental work; to guide him in his thinking, but not to relieve him from the necessity of thinking.” (p. v)

He points out that conclusions to be drawn from experiments by students are deferred somewhat in the book “in order that the student may have an opportunity to frame one for himself; as to numerical results of the various exercises the book gives little or no hint.” (Page v) Finally, on this same page, he puts the lie to the idea that he's produced a cookbook for physics. “Hence the apprehension that some teachers may have, lest the book may give too much assistance to the students, will probably be dissipated upon careful examination. (p. v)
With regard to the detailed nature of some of the experimental directions, Prof. Hall makes the following statement, “The directions given in this pamphlet are in some cases very minute. They are, however, intended to show how the experiments may be done, not how they must be done.” Without detailed directions, some teachers would be lost, whether or not the students were.

He goes on to say, “... the student ... is placed, so far as this is practicable, in the attitude of an investigator seeking for things unforetold. But this attitude, if rigidly maintained, would be likely to keep him for an absurdly long time upon the study of one set of facts, or induce the habit of loose and hasty generalization. ... He should not be told what he is expected to see, but he must usually be told in what direction to look."

In many ways, we see in Prof. Hall quite a modern approach to teaching science. Students work on experiments that connect to “applications in ordinary life.” They are not told the answers but are left to discover them for themselves. Their inquiry is not “open” nor “directed” but is “guided.”

Prof. Hall concludes, “... the main value of the student's inferences, in themselves, is that they will enable him to understand, and without undue stretch of faith to accept, the established conclusions of physicists, and these conclusions should in the end always be made known to him.” (p. xi) He does not prescribe a method for discussing the student inferences. Today, that might be a class discussion in which all students are invited to contribute their inferences, and the teacher guides to the class to talk about the differences and, ultimately, allows for comparison with the current state of the art.

On an earlier page, he provides a summary of his objectives.

The objects to be sought in the course of experimental physics ... may be stated thus: 1st, to train the young student by means of tangible problems requiring him to observe accurately, to attend strictly, and to think clearly; 2d, to give practice in the methods by which physical facts and laws are discovered; 3d, to give practical acquaintance with a considerable number of these facts and laws, with a view to their utility in the thought and action of educated men. (p. vii)

Thus, the conclusion in ALR that, under the Hall approach, “students were expected to simply absorb the methods of inductive reasoning by carrying out experiments according to prescribed procedures” fails under scrutiny of Hall's actual writing.

There's a larger context here as well. ALR uses a secondary source (Rudolph) in place of a primary source (Hall). Scientists all know that such a procedure is dangerous because it puts the filter of the author of the secondary source between us and the actual material. If the secondary source has some particular bias or even simply has limited the scope of the paper, then important, even critical, material may be left out. The preceding discussion shows that, in this particular case, what all scientists know is certainly correct. The ALR authors should have taken the extra time to complete the research rather than relying on a secondary source.

More importantly, the way in which the history is related suggests that the science teachers of old (100+ years ago) didn't know what they were doing. The implication is that although we may learn from their mistakes, they don't have much in the way of positive ideas to offer to 21st century education. Edwin H. Hall is not the only person of his time thinking along the same lines. An important science education writer in England, Frederick W. Westaway, also wrote extensively on teaching science. Others were also active in the pursuit of ways to implement an inquiry-based approach to learning science.

These people were quite successful in graduating students who could think. The reasons for the lack of success of their methods in taking science education by storm is found quite readily. Westaway writes eloquently about the requirements for teachers using his methods, and you'd be hard-pressed to locate any secondary science teacher who could fulfill them today. The requirements include a broad understanding of many areas of science along with deep knowledge of the history of science and thorough comprehension of the philosophy of science.

Hall says, “Not more than half as many pupils at a time can be directed to advantage as can be heard in recitation: perhaps the number twelve is a fair limit.” (p. vi) Where can you find today a class of twelve or fewer science students? How can we expect in today's circumstances to limit every science class's size to twelve?

Hall makes a point that remains germane today. We can remake curricula, set standards, deploy new science labs, train new teachers, retrain current teachers, and make all of the other changes and interventions we'd like. However, we'll never be able to achieve the ideal of oversight for guided inquiry without a breakthrough of some sort. Twelve is not a viable upper limit for class sizes. Few teacher candidates can reach Westaway's ideals for a science teacher in any reasonable number of years.

ALR makes clear that using simulations as lab experiences fail the students miserably. Yet, computer and Internet technology provides our greatest hope for reaching the Hall and Westaway ideal in today's schools. We must find ways to utilize this technology that will work in classes of 30 or so students and that do not require extreme teacher training.

The goal of adequate student science investigation experience for all students in every science class must be realized. As ALR clearly shows, we are failing our students today by not doing our best to reach this goal. We have the means and a road map (ALR). We simply must choose to succeed.

© 2012 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What is Innovation?

The new administration talks frequently of innovation as being one of the key ingredients to recovery and future success. It sounds great, but what is innovation?

Would you consider it innovative to add a PDF export button to your word processing program, for example? I wouldn't. Yet, we often see just such sorts of incremental changes being touted as "innovative" or even "groundbreaking." The dictionary definitions (there are many) seem rather bland and run to something like: "a new invention or way of doing something." This sort of definition tends to equate change with innovation, an invalid equation.

I prefer to measure whether some change is an innovation by its impact. Does it make a fundamental difference in the way that things are done? Microwave ovens began as a curiosity that was used at a post office where I worked over holidays to heat vending machine sandwiches. Ultimately, they have really changed how we handle food both at home and in restaurants. The microwave oven is an innovation.

Going way back in time, you will find that the invention of the wheel was innovative. The issue here is moving things. The change was from being able to carry relatively small masses by hand from here to there to being able to move much larger masses more rapidly.

The first step must have been using rollers. You had to constantly pick up the rear roller as it came free and carry it to the front. Someone must have noticed that rollers with smaller middles moved stuff farther before having to more the roller from the back to the front. At some time, the idea of smaller middle was replaced with the idea of larger ends. Once the tools were available to do so, wheels were fashioned and added to the roller, which became the axle. Only one more step of adding a platform with the wheel-axle assembly permanently attached was required to reach the true innovation.

The wheel and axle not only allowed people to move larger masses, they allowed people and goods to move about more rapidly and over longer distances. Commerce was transformed.

In education, we see few innovations. Most classes are still taught as they were 200 years ago. We have books and teachers. Students read books, listen to teachers, do homework, and take tests. The ability to play films in classrooms basically added motion and sound to the textbook (and made it easier to fall asleep in class), but did not innovate. Some films were just better lectures by better lecturers than the teacher, although without being able to interact with the lecturer.

The role of computers has mostly been to make typing, charting, and presenting take less time. These effects are not transformations of learning.

Online learning looks like it may truly be an innovation. Students can learn at their own pace and at convenient times. It's possible to track student progress and success and intervene as necessary. We've passed through the "curiosity" phase of online learning but have not yet reached the full potential of this new mode of learning.

Science labs in secondary education began in the second half of the 19th century. Their emphasis was on practical skills: equipment manipulation, safe lab practices, making observations, collecting data, presenting data clearly, and so on. Still, this approach was an innovative step forward from the previous lecture and read only mode of learning science. Students could, for the first time, experience a part of the life of a scientist instead of just reading and hearing about it. This innovation also paved the way for the next step.

Around the end of the 19th century, science educators such as Frederick W. Westaway and Prof. Edwin H. Hall began to use science labs to help students understand the nature of science and to develop scientific reasoning skills. With this simple change in emphasis, science classes with their labs became a valuable experience for all students, not just those who planned a life in science or affiliated fields. John Dewey recognized this point in the 1920s.

Thus, science education was transformed from a specialty to a core discipline for all students.  Today, we accept that science labs are a necessary part of science learning.  Too few truly scrutinized this assumption.  In 2005, the National Research Council published "America's Lab Report" examining the role of science lab investigations in high school science.  They called for change: more and better labs.

However, shortening instruction time and dwindling budgets have pushed us in the opposite direction.  We can respond with innovation, and I have.  Now, students can run real lab investigations on their own and at their own pace.  I claim that the technology of prerecorded real experiments (PRE) with interactive data collection is a revolution in science education and represents its future.  It's a real innovation in science education that allows teachers to "flip" the science lab.

Support this innovative new idea.  Leave a comment or go to for contact information and to learn more.

© 2012 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.

Simulations Created for Expensive and Dangerous Experiments?

Simulations were invented hundreds of years ago to test models.  That has remained their purpose in science ever since.

Science education is another thing entirely.  Simulations were not invented for education but adapted to it.  The earliest science education simulations that I saw were for projectile motion, hardly too expensive or dangerous.  It was merely convenient for the purposes of visualizing trajectories under different circumstances.  I have reproduced in real life many trajectories without great cost and with no danger.

Some point to the Manhattan Project and the space program as examples of using simulations.

The purposes of the Manhattan Project and the space program are quite different than those in a science classroom.  This analogy fails completely.  Space engineers are not attempting to visualize something for the purpose of learning a new concept.  They're designing equipment.  Ultimately, they do as much real-life testing as possible before committing their devices to space.

Here's my approach to when it's too expensive or dangerous to do the real thing.  Have someone else carefully plan and record those experiments, just as I have.  Do the recordings in such a manner that students can take data from them interactively.  Don't bother to figure out the model because the real world IS your model in this case.  That's the best possible model for science.

You don't have to worry whether the model on which your images are based is correct or not because the real world is always correct.  When you drop an object, it accelerates at a rate determined by mass, shape, size, air resistance, gravity, wind, and any other parameters that may be involved without writing one line of code or using a single equation.

Simulations are great tools for visualizing the unseeable.  They can also be an adjunct to or replacement for videos of difficult-to-understand concepts.  They are not a replacement for good science lab investigation experiences.  Many people think that they have to be that because they're the only alternative to hands-on.  BUT they're NOT the only alternative.

One, very limited, alternative is remote robotic labs.  They don't have interactive data collection and work only on a limited range of experiments.  But, they're real and are online; they do provide access to expensive equipment.

My alternative is to record the experiments ahead of time.  Theoretically, you can record every parameter combination likely to be chosen by students.  Although you've time-warped the experiment, it makes no difference to the students.  They cannot tell that the experiment was performed in the last minute or month or year.  Once those bits get onto the Internet, they become virtual and can be stored for recall at any time.

However, just watching the experiment is not enough.  With simulations, that's all you get, and you get it in an unreal world that I'd even call fake or cartoon.  The real experiment begs you to take the data yourself.  The data are not known beforehand as with a simulation.  Your taking of data has real meaning to you.  It's your data, not the data some programmer set up with an algorithm (possibly flawed and definitely imperfect as a representation of the real world).

So, you get to choose.  Would you have your students investigating an algorithm non-interactively or investigating the real world interactively?  In both cases, they do it online with all of the benefits that flow from that medium.

© 2012 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.