What is the purpose of Physics class?

I took three physics classes through a local community college last semester. From how the content was presented in each class, it would be fair to say Physics is primarily concerned with learning a set of equations and then figuring out which equation you need to use in order to find the right answer.

This is not a very useful skill. People wiser than I have pointed out similar things. So why, in high school and introductory college physics classes, do they lean so heavily on "learning the formulas?" Here are the two arguments I've heard the most often:

They'll need it in college/their careers

It could be argued, perhaps, that it is good preparation for students who will be pursuing engineering or scientific careers- after all, they'll be taking college classes and graduate classes and probably use a couple equations during their careers. However, there's a big problem with this line of thinking. Are all the students in a high school physics class there because they're planning on becoming scientists and engineers? A few, maybe. Most of them will not- and that's OK, but this realization should cause us to rethink how we present the material.

The equations explain the relationship between variables

I'm sympathetic towards this line of thinking (more on this later)- but not enough to think it's valid. Whenever I hear this argument the first question that comes to mind is "Is this the best way to explore those relationships?" In my experience, students who have struggled understanding physics often did so because they couldn't make sense of what the equations actually describe. Given an equation and all the variables but one and they'd be able to work though a problem, but they weren't understanding why that answer makes sense and any further obfuscation of the problem quickly threw them off track. I agree that the relationship between variables is an important bit. I don't believe that equations clarify that relationship for the vast majority of students.

How I'd like to teach physics

Understanding the relationship between variables, in my mind, is the key to a useful understanding of physics. If I push twice as hard on this shopping cart, what happens to the cart's acceleration? That's a tangible situation that is easier to understand than simply throwing out F = ma and hoping students figure out that relationship on their own. Further, students should discover these relationships. Give students some equipment and tools and have them measure what happens to an object's acceleration as they apply more or less force on the object (some tracking software would be really handy for this). Then have them apply the same force but change up the mass. Chances are pretty good they'll be able to discover F = ma on their own. Chances are they'll have a much better conceptual understanding of what F = ma means at this point than if you simply gave them the equation and had them do some problems. Or if you simply had them prove the formula is correct in a lab.

Why it matters

  1. I believe the focus on relationships promotes a better conceptual understanding of physics- the students can more effectively internalize the way the world around them works. A populace with a healthy baseline of physics knowledge could prevent silly and potential harmful pseudoscience such as magnet therapy from becoming an issue.
  2. There's been a focus on increasing interest in STEM careers- and a special focus on recruiting women and minorities into STEM fields (see this White House press release). An equation-focused physics curriculum can seem intimidating to students. A collaborative, constructivist approach can be perceived to be less intimidating and more welcoming (I'd recommend giving Episode 32 of the Shifted Learning podcast for some interesting bits on gender issues in STEM).

Modeling Instruction

I don't have much experience with Modeling Instruction, but it seems from my reading that the instruction I've been describing is essentially what it is. As a bonus, it's well developed, well researched, and well used instructional method to improve students' ability to construct a better understanding of the physical world around them.

If you're interested, I've found both Kelly O'Shea's series on model building and Frank Noschese's primer to modeling instruction to be great resources. Check their blogrolls for even more good stuff from teachers using modeling.

As I look forward to potentially teaching physics next year I want students who take my classes to come out with a lasting understanding of the topic. I don't want them to half-heartedly memorize equations that they'll forget two weeks after we finish a unit. I'd like to teach for all the students, not just the future scientists and engineers.

Critiquing the CAPSS Recommendations for School Reform

I want to make my classroom the best learning environment possible. Most of my posts on this site focus on lessons, assessments, or ideas on how to improve the learning environment inside my classroom. Improving our individual teaching craft is one of the easiest places (not to say it's necessarily easy) as a teacher to effect change.

However, as I've worked towards improving what happens in my classroom I've frequently run into obstacles. These obstacles were primarily exterior to my classroom. Sometimes they were school or district policies, sometimes national or state requirements, and sometimes they were the result of how we, as a culture, have historically structured this thing we call "school." Most of these policies and structures were created with good intentions in an attempt to improve our schools and our children's education.

Given my generally negative experiences with "traditional1" instructional models and structures, I've found myself more and more interested in systemic school reforms. How can we create modern schools and structures that leverage the advancements in technology and access to information to provide students with an education that prepares them to be active participants in our nation's democracy, economy, and society?

It was no surprise when an editorial in our local paper titled Major Restructuring Recommended for Schools caught my eye. In it, the author briefly describes the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) new report, "Recommendations for Transformation," a list of recommendations to transform the state education system "so it is able to meet the needs of students in the future." Naturally, I downloaded, read, and critiqued the full 36 page report (here's the official download link [pdf file], here's a version with my commentary [pdf file]).

My critique of the CAPSS recommendations

The report includes 134 individual recommendations for action across ten broad categories. I won't go into them all. Instead I'll give a brief breakdown of each broad category and get more specific around recommendations of particular interest.

The tl;dr version

This is a long article. For those of you thinking, "I'm can't read this whole thing. There is too much," let me sum up. Speaking in sweeping generalities, I applaud the CAPSS recommendations. In many ways the recommendations are progressive, forward-thinking, and focus on the best interests of students instead of on things that would be easy to implement or get through the political process. Recommendations such as competency-based advancement, standards-based assessments, and integrating out-of-school learning experiences into the formal education process suggest that CAPSS is interested in totally reworking what we mean by "school." This makes me happy. Too often reform movements are limited by the inertia of history and that-which-already-exists. CAPSS is clearly trying to overcome this inertia. Schools that followed the recommendations in the report could be student-centered environments that have a laser-like focus on student learning, support and integrate learning experiences that occur outside the classroom, remove conventions of little educational value (e.g. letter grades, traditional homework, and adult-friendly-but-child-poor assessments), and make schools an intrinsic part of their community.

And yet CAPSS puzzlingly makes recommendations that would make schools larger, less personal, and less a part of their community. Consolidating districts might save some money- which is an important consideration- but this seems to fly in the face of entire other sections of this report (For example, Section 2: Make it Personal; Section 4: Retool Assessments & Accountability; Section 8: Involve Students & Parents). Creating fiscally sustainable school districts is important, but eliminating small community schools in favor of large regional schools fosters disconnect between the schools and their community, students skating through schools unknown by their teachers, and an overall less personalized educational experience. Furthermore, many recommendations are so general that they're simply platitudes without any real meat to them (i.e. "Engage parents as partners in their children's education."). More detail and explanation is needed as to exactly what many recommendations are actually recommending. Lastly, how about some references? Surely (hopefully) the CAPSS group that created the report relied on more than the four citations included in this report- three of which are statistics on current educational practices. Nowhere do they cite sources to support their positions- either in this report, on their website, or any other report provided at their website.

I think CAPSS took a step in a positive direction by making many forward-thinking recommendations for the future of education in Connecticut. While none of these recommendations are binding, it heartens me to see an organization of this sort making progressive recommendations. It gives me hope there will be enough momentum to effect some real and positive educational reform in the near term. However, portions of the report conflict with the overall progressive theme- pointing towards deep elements of hesitation toward the large- and in my opinion needed- education reforms.

If you'd like a more detailed breakdown of the 10 categories of recommendations made in the CAPSS report, read on!

1. Raise the Bar

There are essentially two recommendations here: (1) Create "ambitious, focused, and cohesive" education standards, and (2) provide a system that measures student learning and promotes students through school based on content mastery instead of seat time.

  1. Standards. Question: There already are state education standards, how are these standards different? Are these different than the Common Core Standards? Further, the recommendations specifically focus on standards for "college and career readiness." Those are important goals, but I'd also like them to focus on helping students become effective participants in a democracy. On the whole I'm skeptical of the standardization movement. The report spends a lot of time recommending greater flexibility. In my experience standards tend to inhibit flexibility. Have students who are really interested in a topic not included in the standards? Sorry, no time for that- it's not in the standards.
  2. Content mastery. This is one of those bold recommendations that I love. Essentially, they support the idea that as soon as a student shows mastery of a topic they can move on to a new topic. 13 years in a classroom does not necessarily make an education. In this model, students would be able to advance more quickly or more slowly depending on their individual content mastery- they wouldn't have to wait until the end of the year to move on to the next topic. This is essentially standards-based grading on systemic steroids. However, they fall short on proposing what School would look like under this system. How would mastery be determined? How does it impact the organization of classes at schools? These are big questions that need some serious thought for this to be taken seriously.

2. Make it Personal

This thread focuses on creating student-centric learning environments. Of any of the 10 sections, I like these recommendations the most. The two main ideas in this section:

  1. Advance students based on mastery. This restates some ideas from the last section. I still like it. They're still vague on details, offering only, "Establish flexible work schedules," and "Allow credits to be awarded based on mastery." I have a hard time visualizing how this would work in reality, but perhaps that's because I've spent the last 27 years in the existing system. I'm worried by the recommendation to develop a variety of assessments and projects to allow students to demonstrate mastery. This sounds like they'd be state-standardized affairs, which if they're anything like existing state-standardized activites, would be horrible. These should be developed locally (while being shared publicly for other educators) based on individual student needs.
  2. Flexible learning environments. Yes. Please recognize that plenty of valuable learning takes place outside school. The integration of this informal learning with our formal education is much needed. This should go beyond counting a family trip to the Grand Canyon as an educational experience. If a student can diagnose and fix a car's electrical system, spending three weeks in a classroom learning about basic series and parallel circuits is a waste of their time. Schools should partner with and validate our students' out of school educational experiences.

3. Start with Early Childhood

This isn't my area of expertise, but I think the proposal to provide quality preschool for all children starting at the age of three is one of the biggest no-brainers in education reform. The payoff to society don't manifest for nearly two decades, but there is a seeming wealth of research that suggests preschool is a very good thing. I have some concerns with the recommendations similar to "Develop a system of accountability for providing language-rich, challenging, developmentally appropriate and engaging reading and mathematics curricula." The focus on reading and math smacks of No Child Left Behind, and suggests an emphasis on tightly structured learning environments. In the words of Alfie Kohn:

...the results are striking for their consistent message that a tightly structured, traditionally academic model for young children provides virtually no lasting benefits and proves to be potentially harmful in many respects.

4. Retool Assessments and Accountability

Now we're getting into some meat. The CAPSS report suggests standardized testing should be de-emphasized. I'd be willing to bet they'd suggest eliminating standardized tests as we know them were it not for the current national education environment. Props to them for that.

Here's a selected summary of their suggestions: (1) Provide a variety of assessment formats, (2) Assess students as they're ready to be assessed (instead of everyone at the same time), (3) Get assessment results back to students & teachers quickly so they inform instruction, and (4) Make the goals of all assessment transparent. It seems like they're saying one thing here. Yup, it's Standards-Based Grading.

In fact, they do mention SBG by name in this section, but they recommend making it "part of assessments." I'm a fan of SBG (as evidenced by previous posts), and I think this is a stellar recommendation.

I do have some hesitations with their recommendations, despite their SBG-like nature. For one, it's pretty clear from the language used they're not discussing day-to-day classroom assessment. They're discussing a new form for state standardized2 tests. I'm unclear on what this would look like, but it does sound like an improvement over the current system, though I'm skeptical it would come to pass in this improved manner. Another hesitation rests on the description of incentives for high performing schools. The report clearly recommends moving away from punitive measures, yet in my mind, providing incentives to high-performing schools is nearly indistinguishable from punitive measures against low-performing schools. Finally, the report lists subject areas for "base academic accountability." I take that to mean, "These are the subjects that will be assessed," or perhaps more clearly, "These are the subjects we think are important (things that are valued are assessed)." Notably absent are the arts and physical education- meaning the cuts to art and phys. ed. programs we see happening today are likely to continue were these measures put into place.

5. Offer More Options and Choices

Or, the section with the title that most poorly represents its contents. A better section title? "Consolidate School Districts." Their basic argument seems to be that having the current (supposedly high number of) 165 Connecticut districts creates an environment where it is difficult to align state and local initiatives, is economically inefficient, and fosters racial and ethnic isolation. While I agree that you can save some money by consolidating services like busing or food service, you also lose a connection with the community when the district encompasses many, many communities. Having worked in both small and large districts, the small district was much more connected to and valued by the community3. It may be more expensive to have small community districts- and that's not a small obstacle- but it would be worth it. It should be noted that reworking the state education system in the manner recommended by this report would also be expensive. In addition smaller districts would help schools be more flexible, personal, and transparent. Those adjectives would be a fair summary of the recommendations of this entire report, so why include this section?4

6. Reform Leadership

This section makes a lot of recommendations about the relationship between the State Department of Education and the Commissioner of Education as well as the roles of school boards and superintendents. That's a little bit outside my area of expertise, but I do like this statement from the introduction to the section:

Currently, organization and policy making for education are based on bureaucratic assumptions of hierarchy, centralized decision making, standardization and inspection. These characteristics limit individual discretion, depress creativity and foster stasis, not change.

That certainly describes my experience teaching in Connecticut. Despite completing my Master's in Secondary Education project by designing and implementing a student-centric, student-driven project5, I was told I couldn't continue the project unless all the science teachers wanted to use it. That's not exactly how one fosters innovation and creativity...

7. Boost Quality

This is a huge section with 26 recommendations for action ranging from incentives for attracting quality teachers, to improving teacher education and professional development, to revamping teacher tenure as we know it. I'm going to limit my analysis to the recommendations for professional development and teacher evaluation. I think restructuring the current tenure system is a major issue that deserves discussion, but that'll have to happen in another post so it doesn't turn this already lengthy review into a ridiculously long review.

  1. Professional development for teachers.
    • The report (rightly, in my opinion) makes many recommendations related to preparing pre-service teachers and helping new teachers grow as educators. One of my favorite recommendations suggests structuring a teacher's first year in the classroom as an internship with regular coaching and mentoring by master teachers. If it were up to me, I'd have new teachers carry half of a teaching load, giving them plenty of time during the day to observe other teachers, review and revamp instruction and assessment with a mentor, and generally work to improve their craft. Likewise, the mentors should have a reduced teaching load so they have time to both observe and meet with their mentees during the school day. The current system where exactly zero time is allocated for new teachers to review and reflect on their time in the classroom is a horrible model if we want new teachers to show improvement.
    • A second recommendation states that districts should provide professional learning opportunities for teachers as a part of their regular job- and schedules should be configured to give teachers time to collaborate with their peers. Again, I agree. If you value professional learning and improvement, you should schedule time for it- not make it only something teachers do on their own time (which most do, but it's such a valuable thing schools should be purposefully providing opportunities for their teachers). However, a word of warning: I've taught in a school where the schedule was changed to provide teachers with 70 minutes of "collaboration time" each week. Teachers (including myself) were genuinely excited for this time to share lessons, have quick professional development sessions, and critique instruction and assessment. Instead, it was mandated from above that the "collaboration time" be used solely to analyze student standardized test-prep results. While I understand the importance of standardized tests in our current system, the cost was the loss of time for teachers to share their expertise with each other, learn how to effectively integrate technology, and design cross-curricular projects- all things teachers were excited to use that time to do. The moral of the story is that simply having collaboration time in the schedule doesn't mean it's being used effectively.
  2. Teacher evaluation. As it is, the teacher evaluation system as I've known it is in need of reform. Last year I was observed by an administrator three times- each observation lasting approximately 70 minutes. Outside these official observations, administrators spent about 30 minutes in my classroom throughout the year. Okay, so that's a total of 240 minutes of observation for the entire school year by those who evaluate my performance. For some perspective, I taught four 70 minute classes each school day, and there are 180 school days per school year. That works out to 50,400 minutes of instructional time each school year. My evaluations were based on 240 out of those 50,400 minutes, or 0.48% of the total instructional time. It makes me nervous to think I'm being evaluated from such a position of ignorance6. The recommendations by the CAPSS include creating a standards-based evaluation system with regular performance reviews and including peer review as part of the performance review. As long as "regular performance reviews" includes frequent, informal observations by evaluators and "including peer review" can be expanded to provide students and parents a voice in the evaluation, then I think the recommendations are on track.

8. Involve Students and Parents

Schools give a lot of lip service to including parents and students in the education process. I've never been part of school that has done a good job at doing this. I've known teachers who were really good individually at involving parents in their classrooms and other teachers who provide students a large voice in their own education. Beyond the classroom level the furthest extent I've seen a district or (high) school involve parents is to invite them to serve on committees with little influence that meet at times untenable for most working adults' schedules.

I have no problems with the recommendations in the CAPSS report...other of course than the fact that they're so non-specific that they're just platitudes: "Engage parents as partners in their children's education," or "Create structures that encourage family involvement." Yes, those are good things- but what suggestions do you have for how to do these things?

Let me offer a few quick suggestions.

  1. Use technology to make learning and school happenings more transparent. How? Have administrators start a blog or create an online newsletter that is updated regularly sharing goings on at the school. Share a photo a day. Invite teachers and students to do the same. Let students share their learning and reflections through student blogs (or evening events where students show off projects, etc.). In my mind, these things are the low hanging fruit- They're easy to implement and can cost nothing (depending on the tools used).
  2. Form collaborations with people in the community. Examples?
    • Maybe you have an assisted living community near the school. That's a community with a huge amount of knowledge, skill, and disposable time. Provide transportation to retirees so they can read, mentor, advise, or provide academic support to students.
    • Create a community garden on school grounds that "rents" plots to community members. Have students run the administration and marketing of the community garden. Sell the fruits (& vegetables) of the gardens' labor at a farmer's market in the school parking lot on the weekends.
    • Start a hackerspace in the school for the community. Students in class such as design, computer science, engineering, or any other class where they need to build stuff could be given free memberships and all other students can become members for discounted rates. Hackerspace members can access it all day. Let advanced students lead workshops for community members.

    Ideas like these take more effort and money- but in the end the rewards may pay for themselves. In essence, make the school a community learning center and let the community share its skills and knowledge with the students and vice versa.

9. Leverage Technology

This section is surprisingly short (considering the topic), and the recommendations focus around two main ideas:

  • Students and educators should have access to educational resources at any time. They don't quite recommend making broadband internet access a universal right, they do hint at it. I'd agree- though I'm not sure how that gets implemented. The inexpensive computers available today make computer ownership possible for even quite poor families. Paying $30-$50/month for internet access is much less likely to fit into tiny budgets. I also like the recommendation to "leverage online environments [...] for two-way communication, feedback, and collaboration..." Those environments are widely used today (in the form of social network sites), but more often than not are blocked by the schools themselves. It'd be nice to see schools embracing the power of these tools instead of hiding from them.
  • Keep the technology infrastructure up to date. Of course I agree with this, but it's a matter of money. Even though reasonably powerful computers are becoming less and less expensive, it's still a major cost. I'd like to see schools use free and open source software (Open Office instead of Microsoft Office, for instance) or free resources such as Google Apps for Education. These would help keep software costs down and allow for money to be allocated more wisely elsewhere.
  • .

    10. Continue the Transformation Process

    The report makes suggestions on how to avoid reform stagnation at both the state and district level. Several of the recommendations focus on items like changing statutes or education budgets. I don't have too much of an opinion on these items (due to my own relative ignorance on the topics more than anything else). However, two of the recommendations contain a similar idea that I find extremely attractive. Essentially, they say: Let innovators innovate.. One suggests districts can receive waivers for state statues and regulations to experiment with new ideas to improve student learning. The second recommends providing systems for teachers and principals to experiment with innovative practices.

    If you let smart people do creative things- even if those things are outside the state's or school's "mandates"- you'll end up with a ton of great ideas that help everyone in the end (see: Google's 20% time). Instead of alienating smart people and ultimately driving them out of the education sector, you'd be empowering them and attracting more innovation.


    1. There isn't a single good definition for what I mean here, but think of the stereotypical adult-centric school or classroom. (back)
    2. Clearly the assessments would be less standardized than the existing Connecticut Academic Performance Test or Connecticut Mastery Test, but they'd still be the state standard. (back)
    3. I admit this could simply be due to specific situations in each respective district, but after hearing and reading about other people's similar experience, it seems to be a fair generalization. (back)
    4. For a smart person's perspective on this matter, let me recommend Deborah Meier's article, As Though They Owned the Place: Small Schools as Membership Communities (pdf alert). (back)
    5. That, to toot my own horn, was nominated for a Scholar of Excellence award by my advisor. (back)
    6. I readily admit any administrator worth their salt talks to students regularly and knows more about what goes on inside the classroom than simply what they see when they're personally in the classroom. I still think 0.48% is a pretty sorry basis for an evaluation. (back)

How to make a hurricane boring

Suddenly it's hurricane season in Connecticut. Some local schools have already cancelled the first day of school next Monday.

Natural disasters create a lot of interest among the general public about the Earth's processes. In theory, these could be powerful educational hooks to spur learning in the classroom on weather, climate, or oceanography.

Michael Doyle, reflecting on the surprisingly strong "East Coast Earthquake of 20111" thinks it may have been better that summer break was still on when the earthquake hit:

"I am glad today was not a school day in New Jersey.

Those of us sitting on the state's udder, the tip of Cape May county, got a nice ride for less than we'd pay at Morley's, and countless afternoon chats under the sun made the surreal feel real.

Now imagine if we had school tomorrow--kids would be assaulted with seismographs, joule calculators, fault maps, Richter scales, and whatever else tools teachers could find to make the real become more abstract.

All that matters, at some level, of course, but for most kids, I imagine having a spectacularly lovely August afternoon off to replay a minute's worth of otherworldliness will make this one stick for a long, long time."

I agree. The underlying problem isn't that the earthquake would simply be discussed at school the next day- it's the way we schoolify the event. I think we should include current events in our classes- especially when those events relate to our curriculum (I've written on this a bit in the past).

What to do? Shawn Cornally to the rescue (Read the whole post. I'm not doing it justice here):

The problem is that we’re schooling life-long learning out of our students. What do we do about it?



If you think that sounds ridiculous, then you’re the problem. Students are smart. Teenagers are curious. However, at school, they tend not to be. Porque?

Students are generally interested in hurricanes, earthquakes, or nuclear reactors, especially after a notable event. However, too often we (educators) use this interest as an excuse to break out our favorite "How is the Moment-Magnitude Scale differs from the Modified Mercalli scale" lecture. This is bad.

Instead, students should have time for independent investigation about the event. Have them pick a related topic that interests them. Give them the time and support to follow that interest down the rabbit hole.

While students are following their interests, they'll suddenly find they need to understand seismic waves, or logarithmic scales, or moment-tensor solutions simply as a part of their investigation.

In essence, don't just tell students about the Modified Mercalli scale and expect them to be super interested- provide an environment where they'll find they need to know about it.


image credit: NASA courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via Earth Observatory



  1. A little self-aggrandizing, no? I'm sure you West Coasters- and especially Alaskans- are all having a nice chuckle.     (back)

Science = Curiosity + Skepticism

Okay, so there is more to science than just curiosity & skepticism- but if my young students leave my class with that understanding, I'd be a happy human.

I've been grappling for awhile now with how to introduce my 14-15 year old freshmen to what it means to be a scientist. Science is too often presented in our schools as static: Here are the facts; this is the way the world works.

Our state standards push us towards teaching science as sets of information. Even the "inquiry" standards provide a fairly rigid framework for what it means to "do" science1. This is a gross misrepresentation of what it's actually like to be a scientist2.

In all reality, the official science schooling students receive is 12-16 years of scientific background knowledge that they might be able to use later. Background knowledge is important. It forms the framework for new investigations and observations. However, I've heard several research scientists note the hardest thing for them once they started their own investigations was switching from focusing on that which is known to that which isn't. Interesting and exciting scientific research happens on the border between the known and the unknown3.

I can remember a couple events from my childhood that helped foster my current insatiable curiosity for the world around me:

  • Cross-country skiing. There were literally miles of open fields behind my childhood home. I would go out skiing for several hours- out to the creek, the river, the field of tall grasses, and small forested areas- often causing my mother to worry I'd fallen into the river or been picked up by the police for trespassing. I can remember following animal tracks, sitting still listening to the snow-muffled sounds surrounding a small creek, and the shock when I encountered others out in what I considered "my wilderness." Above all, I learned how to observe.
  • Playing with fire. I was a first class pyro back in the day4. When I found some rare time alone at home I often took to burning things in the garage or shed. I was fascinated by how different materials burn in often weird and amazing ways. Did you know burning plastic drips from a milk jug make an amazing whistling sound as they fall? Or that a burning charcoal briquette is nearly impossible to stomp out? Amazingly, I never burned myself or cause serious property damage in my investigations. Looking back, I can see that what I was doing were essentially scientific investigations. They'd start with, "I wonder..." and conclude with an experiment (or quickly trying to hide what I'd been doing as my parent's car pulled in the driveway. "Smoke? I don't smell smoke!").

Michael Doyle does an amazing job on his blog communicating what's important in science education: "A few children chasing butterflies, mucking in the pond mud, and otherwise doing their best to confound our educational system." I'm giving a more investigative learning environment a go this semester. I'm not saying we equip every freshman with skis or hand them each of box of matches, but we need to do more than simply get through the standards. I was lucky to have a supportive home environment for exploration and learning (other than playing with fire, that wasn't supported much). Not all students have those opportunities at home. We can't expect a schooling system where students have to learn to be curious and investigative outside of school to be successful. We need to build it into the system.


Image credit: Myself. That's Mom & Dad skiing in the Huron National Forest near East Tawas, MI


  1. i.e. CS 9.0 INQ3: Formulate a testable hypothesis and demonstrate logical connections between the scientific concepts guiding the hypothesis and the design of the experiment.     (back)
  2. If you are a scientist, I'd love to hear your agreement or disagreement with this statement.     (back)
  3. I can't remember exactly where I heard these platitudes from research scientists, though I'm pretty sure it was a podcast: most likely Science Friday, Quirks and Quarks, or RadioLab. They're all good. Check them out.     (back)
  4. Sorry, Mom. Not that you didn't know about this already. I never did burn down the shed.     (back)

Launching "Science Cast"

I'm a little concerned by the word, "pilot."

I'm in the midst of ramping up my students for 5 solid weeks of self-directed learning related to climate change. Uncharacteristically, I cleared the proposal with my principal and the science curriculum director before going forward with the plan. I was given "permission" to pilot this program.

Despite all the recent "21st Century Skills" and "self-directed learners" talk around school, the standard-driven CAPT (our state standardized test) reigns supreme. My 9th grade Integrated Science class has a rather extensive list of content standards I'm supposed to cover. I know my 5-week self-directed unit won't cover as many official standards as 5-weeks spent teaching a traditional curriculum.

I'm attempting to more efficiently use class time by exporting some of the content delivery outside the classroom. I saw a video some time ago about chemistry teachers who did something similar, and was recently reminded of the video by a tweet from Ben Grey.

After playing with several options of how to record & publish the video podcasts (I found Wes Fryer's recent posts on LectureCasting very helpful), I created a new subdomain (http://sciencecast.benwildeboer.com), recorded video through UStream using CamTwist, then published the podcast to a WordPress blog & uploaded the video to Vimeo as a redundancy backup. I've submitted my podcast to iTunes so the video will be viewable on students' mobile devices1.

A few observations about the process:

  • It took longer to prepare, record, edit, and post than I would like. I know it'll get faster the more experience I have, but I'm not sure I have the time to do this for every section.
  • There were lots of failures. I can't tell you how many times I had to sit down and work through some issue I was having.
  • The end result is pretty boring. Some students said they parts of it funny or interesting, but I think they were just being nice. To be fair, it'd be boring in class, as well, right?

The first episode (The Periodic Table [& valence electrons]) is below. What do you think? Is this worth the effort?

The Periodic Table (and valence electrons) from Mr. Wildeboer on Vimeo.


  1. Update: The podcast has now been approved and is available on iTunes. I'm waiting to hear back from iTunes about its approval.      (back)

"Typology of non-optimal video use"

I tend to skip through reading your blog posts when I'm busy. If I'm lucky, others of you will post tweets or blog posts pointing me back towards the good stuff I've missed1.

Wes Fryer posted about potential copyright issues with showing 10 full-length films in a semester. I saw it, glanced through the list of films, and moved on. Luckily, Damian Bariexca2 did a quick post wondering about potential ethical issues when blogging about your own son or daughter's teachers. While that's not an issue very pertinent to my life, it was enough to help me discover a gem lingering in the comments over at Wes' joint.

Towards the end of Wes' post, he wonders what Renee Hobbs, who is described as "one of the nation's leading authorities on media literacy education," would think about such practices. To my (and seemingly Wes') surprise, she wrote a thorough post discussing the issue.

Surprisingly to me, it is legal to show full-length films in class, though Dr. Hobbs notes that legality isn't the same thing as being educationally sound. You should really read her post (here it is again), but she basically says it's probably more educationally sound to create a clip reel focused on the desired learning objective instead of showing a full film, gives suggestions of how to create clip reels, and also suggestions for how to broach the topic with the teacher.

More interestingly for me, Renee Hobbs drops a link to her paper, "Non-Optimal Uses of of Video in the Classroom," where she included a "typology of non-optimal video uses." I recommend reading at least this section of her paper (though the rest is quite good as well), which starts on the page 6 of the pdf document. Here's a brief overview:

  • Typology #1: No clearly identifiable educational purpose.
  • Typology #2: No use of pause, rewind, or review.
  • Typology #3: Large group viewing experiences give teachers a "break."
  • Typology #4: Teacher mentally disengages during viewing experiences.
  • Typology #5: Teacher uses TV viewing as a reward.
  • Typology #6: Teacher uses media only as an attention hook.
  • Typology #7: Teacher uses video to control behavior.

In my few years of teaching I've seen some pretty, um, "interesting" films being shown in the classroom- many of which don't get beyond typology #1. This is one of those papers I'd love to see passed out to faculty at the beginning of the school year, but I'm not sure I'd have the huevos to do it myself.

Do you use films in your classes? How do you use them?


Image credit: Hello, My Name is Inigo Montoya by oxygeon; shared with a cc-by-nc license.


  1. Which is one of the reasons I really don't like Twitter's new retweet feature. It doesn't show the retweet if the person being retweeted is someone I follow. I, for one, would like to see when the other people I follow deem posted links and tweets worth resharing. Just sayin'.     (back)
  2. Do you believe I spelled that right without looking it up? Score!    (back)

Video projects: Lip service only

n my traditional cavalier/reckless fashion, I designed a project where students would create videos as the final product. I have two video cameras1 (a Flip and my point & shoot that shoots video), MovieMaker, three microphones, and a lack of experience with the moving picture medium.

Students got into groups, randomly selected a family of elements, and got busy researching & planning. Other than the typical issues that pop up when freshmen work together in groups2 things were going swimmingly. I suggested using PowerPoint as an image editor or stop motion picture creator, but other than that I really didn't push them in any direction for how they should produce the video. I was pleasantly surprised at the creative mix of puppet shows, live video, claymation, and other ideas that they came up with on their own. Despite the lack of equipment there were very few times when a group had to sit around waiting for a camera.

The trouble starts

Students began to download their video files and attempt to work with the files in MovieMaker. That's when things got dicey. Just a few of the problems we ran into:

  • Student accounts often were not able to download files from external devices. Sometimes it would work for them, sometimes it wouldn't. Weird.
  • Despite the claims on the official MovieMaker website, the program as installed on students computers could only import .WMV files. My video cameras saved files as .AVIs.
  • I sent students to Zamzar to convert the video files. Zamzar isn't always fast. Even better, students aren't allowed to download any files from online to school computers. When the conversions were finished I had to do all the downloading & distributing of files. I mourn the large amounts of class time that were lost due to all this file jockeying.
  • On a couple random days, the students weren't allowed to save any files into their network drives. Needless to say, that caused some frustration.
  • Beyond the problem above, twice during the project the school district's network drive was too full for anybody to save anything to it.

The irony

As a faculty, we've frequently heard from our administration (from assistant principal up to the SuperNintendo himself) that we need to embrace and encourage "21st Century Skills" with our students. As part of the NEASC accreditation process we're involved in the term "21st Century Skills" also comes up in every other indicator, standard, and student learning expectation.

The end

I probably won't try another video project this year. I'm pretty skeptical about trying it next year. The sad/frustrating/scary part of it all is that the issues with this project were caused by the lack of support from the administration and institution for a creative project that embraced "21st Century Skills." The problem didn't arise from poor project design3, a lack of student ability/skill, or a lack of resources. The problem arose solely as the result of an overly restrictive network and a lack of vision from those who control those restrictions.

The solution?

  • Trust students with the network.
  • Trust teachers with the network.
  • Think about what these "21st Century Skills" that are harped upon actually mean for how students and teachers will need to use the network. Adjust network restrictions accordingly.

Despite all the issues some pretty great videos came out of it. Check out a quick selection below:


Creative-Commons image via P.C. Is2dent's Flickr stream


  1. I did encourage any students with cameras that took video to bring them in. A few did.     (back)
  2. i.e. "Johnny stole my [noun]!" "I didn't take your [noun], you're crazy!" "MR. W!!!"  [you get this too, right?]      (back)
  3. Truthfully, it's very hard for me to judge the effectiveness of the project because the end result has been so overshadowed by all the technical issues.     (back)

On programming and standards, part 2

[The title of this post is losing its relevance, since I probably won't do much more than refer to programming, but if you read Part 1 hopefully it'll make a little more sense.]

As I argued in part 1 of this series, I believe that explicit standards actually prevent the type of learning most educators say they'd like to see in the classroom. Standards make educators think they have to explicitly cover that topic. What results might be a more uniform coverage of content, but it also lends itself to teacher-focused instruction, and a lack of overall creativity and risk-taking by teachers1.

Chris Lehmann has been known to describe standardized tests as the "coin of the [US educational] realm," and as such they shouldn't simply be ignored. If they're how our school system has decided to measure success, we can't just pretend the standards they cover don't exist (as much as I'd love to do just that). How then should our schools create standards?

Currently each state generates its own standards and all schools in the state are expected to follow the standards. Many big education-policy people in favor of national standards. I'm not. The more I think about this, the more I'm certain we should be heading away from state and national standards and more towards flexible standards set by every district and ideally every school. Locally created standards can be more responsive to the needs of the students. They can be more easily changed, rearranged, improved, and fit to local issues. Deborah Meier has long argued for similar arrangements- and indeed most of my thoughts in this area come from reading her thoughts2.

Instead of mandatory standards, states could generate general guidelines for each subject. For example, they might suggest students should study climate change, the evolution of the universe, plate tectonics, etc. before graduating from high school. Individual schools could then decide how and when to teach those concepts- or perhaps decide to ignore them in favor of something they see as being more important.

The current cycle of state standards then standardized testing is unlikely to change quickly, and it may seem silly to spend time thinking about it, especially since I have no voice in the world of education policy. However, the more discussions and more awareness that exists for these issues, the more likely it becomes that those who have the ability to influence education policy start considering alternative viewpoints. I also believe it's wise for all of us to consider what effect policies have upon the educational system, to suggest alternatives, and have lively debates about the future of education.


  1. There's some research that suggests this. Liu and Szabo in their article, "Teachers’ attitudes toward technology integration in schools: A four-year study" (2009), note that educators feel pressure to prepare for state standardized tests and so were adverse to taking risks with using technology in the classroom (that was so not APA style).  (back)
  2. For a great article on Deborah Meier's views on standards, check out this article written for the Boston Review. (back)

On programming and standards, part 1

There's a lively discussion going on over at Ben Grey's joint related to whether programming should be something students are required to encounter during their time at school. This discussion started at the Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute (CMK09)- which I was lucky enough to attend. Several speakers at the conference stated that programming is something that all students should do. I tend to disagree with this1 , but for me it quickly raised a larger question.

This larger question came up during discussion with participants at CMK09 when discussing our views on mandating students experience some programming in the classroom. There is no doubt that programming can help students learn many valuable things (see Alec & ColleenK's comments, for example) and that including it as part of a school's regular curriculum isn't outlandish. However, many of the valuable aspects (collaboration, authentic engagement with math, creativity, usefulness in real life, etc.) might also be gained from students taking a woodworking class.  Why should programming be mandatory when woodworking isn't? This then led to: How do schools decide which subjects are necessary and which aren't?

This question almost seemed silly to me at first. "Schools teach classes that meet the state standards, duh."

Wait. a. minute. The more I thought about this the deeper down the rabbit hole I went:

"How are state standards determined? What is their view of the purpose of education? How does that purpose affect the standards that are chosen?"

And then: "What purpose do the standards themselves serve? How does having predetermined standards affect the education of our students?"

Your local state board of education would probably say that standards are used to make sure that every student in the state gets the same quality of education. I'd argue that standards do more to prevent real learning from occurring- especially experiences that might help students learn to become better learners.

During both my junior and senior years in college, I was required to do research on a topic that interested me in geomorphology and structural geology. This was not supposed to be the type of research where you read a bunch of articles and report back what the articles say. I was supposed to generate new knowledge, not simply reorganize old knowledge.  I actively struggled with this. In my experience as a student thus far, I had been expected to show that I knew what the standards said I should know. Brian Silverman at CMK09 noted that he marveled at the attitude of his professors toward their research. The professors got excited when their experimentation told them that what they thought was happening was wrong. It meant there was something new to learn that hadn't been discovered as of yet.

State standards make learning a checklist. In my experience as a student, I was good at figuring out how to check items off that list. However, I was a bad scientist (and a bad learner). I was uncomfortable when asked questions that might not have neat and tidy answers. I had yet to learn how to be a true learner.

How can we mesh standards with helping students become life-long learners? Can standards be made flexible enough for students to be able to engage in activities that might take them (and their teachers) down unforeseen and unpredictable paths? I don't have the answers here. I just know that standards-based assessments in areas like science, programming, or wordworking won't create students who think like scientists, programmers, or master woodworkers. Students who are instead given a challenging task (i.e., discover what food ants like best, program a kitty door to snap a picture everytime it is opened, or build a chest of drawers) and the support to help them figure things out as they go seem much more likely to have a love of learning- all the while gaining knowledge in the content area.

[UPDATE: Read Part 2 of this post]


  1. I'll save my comments specifically on this topic for Ben Grey's post since the conversation's well established over there(back)

Technology mission statement

Through some odd and not all that interesting turns of events, I'm pretty much the chair of our school's technology committee. I'll spare you the details, but it wasn't exactly where I saw myself fitting into the system this year (my first at this school). Nevertheless, it is what it is and I hope to make the best of it.

Task number one: Come up with a mission statement for the technology committee.

I'm pretty new to the school and don't have the greatest understanding of what the goals of the committee have been in the past. As I see it, the committee's job is to: (1) provide support and timely teacher professional development on how technology tools can be used to improve teaching and learning, and (2) act as a go-between for teachers and those making purchasing decisions on where technology money could be spent where it would have the greatest effect per dollar.

I'd really prefer if it sounded like a real person talking instead of sounding bureaucratic and overly wordy. However, since mission statements are pretty much solely for those people who enjoy bureacracy and wordiness, I may be willing to settle somewhere in the middle.

Here's my first go at it:

Working to support teaching and learning through the effective use of technology in the classroom.

Or maybe:

Providing teachers with the tools and training to use technology in support of effective teaching and learning.

Guess I'll try one typical wordy one too (though I won't like it):

The technology committee strives to provide technological tools to teachers, students, and the community in order to support our students and staff in their teaching and learning. Students will graduate as effective digital citizens able to contribute to society utilizing 21st century technology tools and skills.

Seeing as this post is a bit of thinking in public, what do you think of the above options? What mission statements do your schools use for technology committees (or whatever you call them where you are)?