Category Archives: UNIVERSITY

The Scientist In The Crib: a review


Cover of "The Scientist in the Crib: Mind...

Cover via Amazon

The Scientist In The Crib is a well written book on the intellectual development of children from birth to about three years old.  The three authors are experts in this field and have children on their own.  This combination shows in the easy connection they make between research and real life.  As the book is intended for the layman, it makes for a pleasant read.

It is also soundly researched and provides a solid understanding for teachers and other professionals.  For those who wish to learn more, there are footnotes, a bibliography, an index and an index of researchers cited.

The authors postulate that children are born armed and ready to be powerful learners.  They have not only powerful learning abilities but innate knowledge.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favorite party tricks with newborns has been to stick my tongue out at one.  To everyone’s astonishment, the baby will do the same back.  Sometimes she pokes it in and out, sometimes she sticks it out in a different  shape.  It turns out that this knowledge was confirmed by one of the authors about 20 years ago.  He tested newborns as soon after birth as possible; the youngest was 42 minutes old.  They all responded by copying him when he stuck out his tongue.

Why the tongue?  I suspect as babies are born knowing how to nurse, they have the most conscious control over their tongues.  As a nursing mother can tell you, babies use their tongues to help them get milk from the breast. What is more interesting is that the babies recognise at sight someone else’s tongue and identify it with their own.  It is excellent evidence that babies are born with innate knowledge.

This also demonstrates the third thing which contributes to the rapid progress that babies make: adults are innately motivated and able to teach their babies.  As they stick out their tongues at babies and watch the babies’ reaction, they are teaching the infants.  The adults and babies are also having fun.

My parents are so crazy, I just can't help lau...

My parents are so crazy, I just can’t help laughing… (Photo credit: Ed Yourdon)

This kind of interaction continues throughout childhood as children learn about the world and how to use language through games, exploration, play and mimicking the older people in their world.  The book makes it clear that children do not need enrichment or any extra stimulus to flourish; all they need is the opportunity to interact with loving adults who have the time and will to play with them.

Isn’t that reassuring?

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It has been a long time since I last posted – too long!


IMG_5504I  have been busy because I have decided to write a book on education.  My subject is research-based education and does it exist?  Here in Ontario we are big on research based or brain based education.  I am always a bit dubious about this as there are at least three things that need considering in implementing education based on research.

The first is the reliability of the research For readers like me who don’t always remember the difference between those two important pillars of good science, reliability and validity, I will explain.

Reliability refers to whether an experiment can be done more than once and by other researchers and still get the same result.  If your dog eats a tablespoon of peanut butter and then lies down and rolls over twice, can you get the same effect the next day when you feed him peanut butter?  If you can, can your friend in the next city get her dog of a different age to lie down and roll over twice after he has eaten a tablespoon of peanut butter?  Will it work with different breeds or only black dogs weighing more than 60 lb.?   The more often replications of the experiment end up with the same result, the more likely it is to be reliable.

The second pillar of research is validity.  This is not as simple a concept to explain.  Validity requires that the thesis and experiment make sense i.e. they are designed using both logic and fact.  The conclusions must be interpreted logically, too.  As the saying goes: “data is not the plural of anecdote.”

One mistake we often make is confusing correlation and causation: a classic example is the woman who believed that it was the sign “deer crossing” that caused deer to cross at that particular spot on the road.  She thought this was very dangerous as she had hit a deer three times just after passing the spot.  Her solution was to move the crossing.

The mistake this woman made was to mistake the correlation of a deer crossing sign and the deer crossing the road with the sign causing the deer to cross the road.   Some careful thinking about the nature of deer and their abilities would have brought the realisation that deer can’t read or follow traffic rules.  The deer’s preference for crossing the road at that point was the reason the sign was posted, not the other way around.

We can laugh at this person’s logic, but how often do we see similar thinking in

World Health Organization building from the So...

World Health Organization building from the South-East, Geneva (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

our lives.  Think of your friend who won’t get her child vaccinated because she believes that vaccinations kill children.  The World Health Organization (WHO)

clearly outlines the faulty logic as it applies to the DPT i.e. Diphtheria, pertussis (whooping-cough) and polio:

Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis (DTP) Vaccine And Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

One myth that won’t seem to go away is that DTP vaccine causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This belief came about because a moderate proportion of children who die of SIDS have recently been vaccinated with DTP; on the surface, this seems to point toward a causal connection. This logic is faulty however; you might as well say that eating bread causes car crashes, since most drivers who crash their cars could probably be shown to have eaten bread within the past 24 hours.

If you consider that most SIDS deaths occur during the age range when three shots of DTP are given, you would expect DTP shots to precede a fair number of SIDS deaths simply by chance. In fact, when a number of well-controlled studies were conducted during the 1980s, the investigators found, nearly unanimously, that the number of SIDS deaths temporally associated with DTP vaccination was within the range expected to occur by chance. In other words, the SIDS deaths would have occurred even if no vaccinations had been given.

In fact, in several of the studies, children who had recently received a DTP shot were less likely to get SIDS. The Institute of Medicine reported that “all controlled studies that have compared immunized versus non-immunized children have found either no association . . . or a decreased risk . . . of SIDS among immunized children” and concluded that “the evidence does not indicate a causal relation between [DTP] vaccine and SIDS.”

Looking at risk alone is not enough however – you must always look at both risks and benefits. Even one serious adverse effect in a million doses of vaccine cannot be justified if there is no benefit from the vaccination. If there were no vaccines, there would be many more cases of disease, and along with them, more serious side effects and more deaths. For example, according to an analysis of the benefit and risk of DTP immunization, if there was no immunization program in the United States, pertussis cases could increase 71-fold and deaths due to pertussis could increase four-fold. Comparing the risk from disease with the risk from the vaccines can give us an idea of the benefits we get from vaccinating our children.

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more information on vaccines and childhood illnesses go to Global Vaccine Safety:

Six common misconceptions about immunization.  This is a much more serious case of correlation = causation than the Deer Lady’s confusion.

The sample used should be a reasonable size and reflect the population in question.  How many samples, people, classrooms or animals are needed can’t be defined theoretically, but scientists and most sensible people should know when the sample is not enough.   For example if one wants to know the death rate from measles, the best sample would be all the reported cases of measles in an area or all the confirmed cases of measles.  The latter would be better, unless one can safely assume that doctors are generally accurate in diagnosing measles and therefore their reports won’t skew the data.

One of the cruellest results of poor research is the myth that the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine causes autism .  The research was published in 1988 and retracted by the eminent medical journal, Lancet in 2012.  Not only was the research retracted but the author was also reprimanded by Britain’s General Medical Council and stripped of the right to practice medicine in Britain.

The doctor used only 12 children for his research, taking the blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party.  There were other flaws in his work; for more information see the sites below.

After his results were published in 1988, some British parents refused to get their children immunized with the MMR vaccine and the incidence of all three diseases increased.  Measles is highly contagious and can lead to more serious illnesses or death.  For example: one in twenty will develop pneumonia (a common cause of death from measles) and one in a thousand will develop encephalitis, putting them at risk for convulsions, deafness, mental retardation or death.  By 2008 there were enough measles cases in Britain to declare it an epidemic.  See web sites in the bibliography below for a discussion of MMR vaccination from at least two opposing perspectives.

Even when research is well done, there are two more pits for the unwary: drawing conclusions and applying the results correctly. If your dog rolls over repeatedly after eating peanut butter, is it to please you in order to get more peanut butter or does peanut butter put his belly in such agony that he needs to roll over more than once to relieve it?  One might argue that the dog’s motivation doesn’t matter; the important thing is that the dog rolls over.  It does, however, make a difference to dogs and to dog lovers.  They care whether pain or delight is causing the new tricks.  This is another case where the researcher will have to explore the connection between the incidents in order to do good science.

Research intent on testing the results of other studies is not glamorous and doesn’t get the headlines (or the grants, sometimes) but it is as important as the initial work.  In fact, without it, we would have more drugs with disastrous side effects, more collapsing structures and poorer educational systems.

The third thing that needs considering, besides reliability and validity and the conclusions draw by the researcher, is the interpretation of research by the layman – or woman.  It is easy to misunderstand research if we don’t read the work or summaries without a critical eye.  I find myself increasingly wondering who did the original research, how valid and reliable it was, if the researcher had a bias towards the results and what other research has been done. Education needs good research to inform good teaching practices and teachers need to know how to read the research, question it and implement what has been learned.

I have not covered everything you need to know about scientific methods and the methods of science.  My intention here is to draw attention to the layman’s need to understand scientific thinking and reflect critically on research before applying it in the field.  For a more thorough analysis, go to:  The Scientific Method vs. Real Science at http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm.  It does require some thoughtful reading but it is worth the effort.

So, I am writing a book about the relationship between education and what we really know about the brain and relevant psychology.  I am still in the research stage.  Instead of doing my own original research, I am reviewing other peoples’ studies to understand the results and their relevance to education.

My blog will probably have a different flavour, as it is likely to reflect my thoughts and discoveries as I learn.  I hope you enjoy accompanying me on this journey.

Bibliography

Donna, The Deer Lady

http://www.webpronews.com/donna-the-deer-lady-learns-what-deer-crossing-signs-are-for-2012-10

The MMR Vaccine Discussion.

Autism-vaccine study retracted Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 10:08 PM ET CBC News  http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2010/02/02/autism-mmr-lancet-wakefield.html

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism/index.html

http://www.infection-research.de/infectious_diseases/measles/

http://www.vaccinationnews.com/why-do-pediatricians-deny-obvious

http://www.vaccinationnews.com/measles-united-kingdom-wakefield-factor

http://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/

 

Scientific Method:

http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm.

Problem Solving and Ill-Structured Problem Solving


Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.   Roger Lewin

Cadets at BRNC participate in a team problem-s...

Cadets at BRNC participate in a group problem solving exercise. Image via Wikipedia

If school were to prepare children to solve the problems of real life, we would have to consider the nature of real life problems.  So let’s look at two.

REAL LIFE: THE PASSPORT OFFICE

At the passport office in Ottawa there is a guard who sits at the door.  His job is to check whether applicants have everything they need to get their passport.  He then directs them in one of three ways: to the right because they have all their paperwork done, to the left because they need to pick up paperwork or sort out a problem or home because a signature or a photograph is missing.  It is very efficient and saves everyone a lot of time.  Whoever thought of this had carefully considered what the bottlenecks are at this point in the bureaucracy and how they could be resolved.

What I think is interesting is the likelihood that a good percentage of those people who don’t go to the right, could have been spared the trip altogether if they had carefully read the instructions and the followed them with equal care.

REAL LIFE IMAGINED: THE NEW JOB

A single healthy young woman who has been working for a year and lives in a city has been offered a new job.  The new workplace is awkward to get to.  What should she do?

Most peoples’ response would be that we don’t have enough information to answer the question.  In fact this may be all the information the young woman might have.

To solve this problem she and we need to ask questions to get useful information.

What other information do we need to answer the question?

What makes it awkward to get to?

Is it close enough to walk?

Is cycling an option?

What bus route options are available?

Could she take a bus that comes close and walk the rest of the way?

Would using a car help?

Could she afford a car?

Is car-pooling an option?

Is moving an option?

The answers to these questions may create other questions such as costs in time spent traveling, distance from favourite activities, whether the new job is worth the difficulties, are there trade-offs such as walking becoming part of her exercise program?  From our own experiences we know it is rare that immediately we have a problem we will have enough information to solve it. We also know that sometimes there is not one right answer and we are left deciding between two or more equally acceptable but different answers.

ILL-STRUCTURED PROBLEM SOLVING

This is the essence of what is known as ill-structured problem solving.  Students are given a problem to solve.  In solving it, they discover they need more information and sometimes as they acquire that information, they discover that the problem is not quite what they thought it was.

In the problem above, the young woman may realise that the issue is not how to get to her new job but whether the extra costs and difficulties make it worth taking the job in the first place.  She may be able to negotiate working part time from home or working flexible hours.  She may decide the increase in salary and opportunities for promotion are worth the difficulties and hope that later she can find either an alternate means of transportation or closer accommodation. Some are solutions that are not obvious in the statement of the problem or in the information supplied.

With the same information available to start with and the same information available through research, different people or groups of people may solve the problem differently and may also take different paths in accumulating facts and applying logic to arrive at a solution.

ILL STRUCTURED PROBLEM SOLVING AS A TEACHING TOOL

This kind of problem solving as a teaching tool was first used at McMaster medical school* in Hamilton, Ontario.  While it didn’t change the retention of information by much, it did improve diagnostic and other skills in the embryo doctors.  It was so successful it was soon copied by Harvard’s medical school.   In browsing through the Internet I noticed that ISPS seems to be most used in higher education and sometimes in secondary schools.  It is also seen as something appropriate for academically talented students.

This is the kind of problem solving that will be a permanent part of our lives and good decision-making will rely, in part, on our skill in dealing with it.  The question arises, can we teach it earlier? How old do children have to be before they will benefit?

CHILDREN AND PROBLEM SOLVING

TRIZ process for creative problem solving

One model for solving problems Image via Wikipedia

Take a look at most math books. The word problems often follow the same structure for each concept taught.  If the unit taught were subtraction, most of the word problems would follow a pattern:

 

Owner        has X  things.    If   it gives away Y things, how many will be left?

Harry              has 7 puppies.     If he gives away 5 puppies, how many will be left?

The teacher   has 25 cookies.    If he gives away 5 cookies, how many will be left?

The merchant has 10 free cars.  If he gives away 7 cars,    how many will be left?

After a couple of questions, the students look for the numbers, plug them into the formula without thinking about the problem: X-Y= right answer, and move on.  To be sure we now require students to write down what the problem is, the method and the answer, but these, too, are formulaic.

Should we throw in a question such as:

Collector has Y whatsits but needs X whatsits, how many more does he need to find?

the child who hasn’t truly grasped the concept of subtraction will be confused.

Adam has 5  flat smooth rocks, but needs 13.  How many more does he need to find?

Should the subtraction problems be mixed with other word problems, such as addition, the child who hasn’t grasped the concepts will be completely stymied.  If she has also not learned her number facts, she will be so slowed and frustrated that arithmetic will become difficult.

CHILDREN AND ILL-STRUCTURED PROBLEMS

These problems are not ill structured because all the information necessary to solve the problem is available, but the issues I have described are part of the skills involved in being able to solve an ill-structured problem.  The child needs to understand what kind of problem is in front of her, whether she has all the information she needs to solve it and what tools she could use to solve it.  She needs to have the confidence to examine the problem to see if she can extrapolate or calculate the information she needs and especially the confidence to declare that there is not enough information.

If one of the problems read:

 Justin needs 13 smooth white stones.  He found some beside the river and 6 in the schoolyard.  How many more does he need?

the child should recognise what she needs to do solve the problem and that she cannot do it without a certain piece of information.

Depending on her age, it might not be essential that she can voice the necessary operation; it would be sufficient to demonstrate the difficulty using drawings or beans.  She might say:

He has 6 stones and some of the 7 he needs to make 13.  That means he must have at least 1 stone.  The best estimate I can make is that he needs between 6 stones and none to make up the 13.  

Or she might say:

I know that 13 – 6 = 7 so the stones he got in the school yard are between 1 and 7.  If the number of stones he found in the schoolyard is subtracted from 7, the answer is the number needed. 

There are lots of ways for a child in grade two or three to talk about a problem like this.  The point is that she is considering the problem itself, rather than plugging in a formula.  I am not knocking learning formulae or number facts; I believe they are worth the effort, but without learning to play with ideas to solve problems, a student is only being trained to be a calculator.

It also really doesn’t matter if she is using mathematical terms.  In fact it is probably too much to ask her to use what is new vocabulary for her.  What matters is that she is solving the problem to the point where she can see her way through to an answer or why she can’t reach an answer.

TN2020: Problem solving through storyboarding

TN2020: Problem solving through storyboarding (Photo credit: Zadi Diaz) There are many processes that are useful in solving a problem.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

In many grade 11 and 12 academic math and physics classes today, students complain that the teacher is unfair if she gives problem sets on tests or exams that are not more or less identical to the ones they studied in class.  In other words, they expect not to have to figure out a problem, but simply recognise it, match it with the correct formula and plug in the numbers.   They want this in order to get the highest possible marks to aid their applications to universities. This is neither math nor thinking.

This story astonished me when I first heard it, as I naively assume that the last two years in an academic stream should be used to hone students’ analytical abilities.  I wondered how these students would cope if they were given and ill-structured problem in science or in math.  How would they cope if it were their summative?

These students do not see variety in their problem sets, much less ill-structured problems.  They arrive at universities unprepared to think, expecting to memorise facts and formulas.  Professors who expect them to think are resented and courses they expect to be bird courses are unpleasant surprises when the professors demand thought.

The professors are distressed, too.  They expect to teach concepts that the students will take away and make an effort to understand.  They expect to have embryo scientists and mathematicians in front of them, eager to learn and understand; they do not expect clever calculators waiting for more formulae and numbers.

Math and the sciences aren’t the only subjects where students are allowed to slip through using formulae.  It is not uncommon for students to leave high school for university never having progressed beyond the five-paragraph essay.  For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, the five-paragraph essay is another formula.  I won’t go into it as you can find it on the Internet.  Suffice it to say that no student starting first year in the Humanities should be stuck knowing only how to write a five-paragraph essay.  For a start, their ideas should be too complex and too subtle to be expressed in such a crude instrument.

Problem Solving PDCA

Problem Solving PDCA (Photo credit: Luigi Mengato)

BUT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT UNIVERSITY STUDENTS

It isn’t only true for academics.  What kind of job is a plumber or electrician or cleaner going to do if their only thinking is formulaic?  How will parents deal with their children and the school or medical system if they can’t think things through to ask the questions that will help their children or themselves?  Just because students are not going on to university is no reason to condemn them to simplistic thinking.

Going back to our grade two student: if every year she is in school she is taught and expected to think and apply the facts she has also learned, consider how she will be empowered to make good decisions for her own life.

If she has the talents to go on to university, imagine how little time she will waste as she engages with new ideas.  The same applies no matter what post-secondary education she chooses because she will have learned to look beyond the obvious. In a world, we are told, where she can be expected to change jobs and learn new skills with some regularity, isn’t that what her education system should do for her?

English: Mimi & Eunice, “Problems”. Categories...

Image via Wikipedia

* McMaster Medical School:  the Little School that Could and Did  http://www.scribd.com/doc/20150938/McMaster-University-Medical-School

Harvard Dean Gives McMaster an A   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1491910/pdf/cmaj00138-0091.pdf

McMaster’s Innovations in Medical Innovation Honoured in NewsWeek   http://fhs.mcmaster.ca/main/news/news_archives/newsweek.htm

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Interrupting School Work and Sleep


From 2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report as quoted in Backbone November/December 2011

In a given hour of school work, 90 percent of [Canadian university] students (84 per cent globally) reported being interrupted at least once by instant messaging, social media updates and phone calls.  Twenty-three (19 per cent globally) reported interruptions six times or more.

Most university work that is not tested with multiple guess exams requires a period of uninterrupted thought to understand what is being learned.  In math, it is the understanding of the problem, then the working out of the answer.  The more difficult the math, the longer that period can be.  In the humanities such as English or history, it can be reflecting on patterns until you see a bigger or smaller pattern e.g. a metaphor that emerges over the length of a novel or correlations of epidemics and war.

Interruptions of those periods of thought waste a student’s time and may lose her the concept she was just beginning to explore.

The Chronicle of Higher Education as reported in the Globe and Mail, Tuesday, November 22, 2011 tells of a study of 200 university students and their use of cellphones. The students were losing an average of 45 minutes of sleep each week due to the cells.  One student, woken by a text message, reported that she felt her friend might be upset if she didn’t answer.

I won’t go into what lack of sleep does to the ability to think, perhaps in another post, another day.  I am astonished by the power given to social media by intelligent people to disrupt the most important parst of their lives.

Perhaps I am making two assumptions: that their studies are more important to students than their social lives.  I am also assuming that these students are both intelligent and of an age to make mature decisions.  In fact neuroscientists seem generally in agreement that brain development goes on until age 25.  At least one has speculated that the frontal lobe which among other things, is responsible for making judgment calls, may continue developing for another five years.

This does make sense of the British tradition of giving children the key to the door on their twenty-first birthday and the medieval apprenticeship tradition that had children working and learning with a craftsman until the age of 21 .  That there are similar traditions in other countries and that versions of the apprenticeships are being revived in many countries is probably no surprise.

So what does this mean for parents of teenagers?  Remember who has the fully developed brain and whose brain is almost there but still in training.  Help your children create a habit of nothing interfering with study or sleep time.  You will have to model it yourself by letting people know that you won’t answer calls after a certain hour.  Letting the phone ring when you are working can be irritating at first, but the mantra “it can wait an hour (or whatever the time is until you take a break)” will help. After all, that’s what the answering machine and caller identity were created for: your convenience.  In my household we also have specific rings for certain people so we know who we must interrupt for and whose call can wait for an hour.

The computer is easier as most instant messaging can be turned off and ignored as can your email and messages from Facebook.  Recording TV programs for recreational time will make it easier to turn the television off when the members of the household are working.  I hope you take regular breaks and can use that time to return messages and calls.  How long a period you allow yourself to work without a proper break is a personal thing.  For most people it varies between 15 minutes and an hour and a half.  Fifteen minutes is for things you really don’t want to do (for more on this see Fly Lady) and most people can focus much longer on other things.  Things that really get my attention will keep me going for an hour and a half so I set a timer for a couple of mini stretch breaks in between (check out Time Out).

When you are doing what you expect your children to do, they can’t cry “no fair” and they will see this is what adults do.  Self discipline and using social media instead of letting it use them is the lesson you want to send with them to any post-secondary education.

Technology and Education


Technology and the Author

While I have to confess to losing my temper and being rude to the first microwave that took up residence in my kitchen, in general I am a technophile, especially when it comes to things that make my life easier.  Typewriters were a gift to this dysgraphic child; electric typewriters were even better but the advent of word processors and personal computers made my life much easier.  Suddenly I could write nearly as fast as I could think, have a machine catch most of my typographical errors and revise my work often and quickly.  Paragraphs flew from one end of a composition to the other, split, spliced with other paragraphs, were deleted, then reintroduced almost unrecognisable in new vocabulary, style and brevity.  Gone were the days of double spaced writing on yellow legal pads, cutting up pages, numbering paragraphs and setting up a new scheme.

I was among the first teachers to pounce on computers as an aide to drilling arithmetic.  I taught my older students to type, save to disc and do their essays on the computer as part of a history/English course.  Before the word summative began to haunt the dreams of high school students and teachers, my grade seven students researched certain topics and wrote essays under controlled conditions (the library and the computer lab) to demonstrate they had learned the skills taught in English and history.

Electronic devices make a difference to students with learning differences:  blind students can hear text using text-to-speech software, the partially sighted can do homework using machines that magnify textbooks, the dyslexic can use spelling dictionaries and word processors, the deaf have access to FM broadcasters, the physically handicapped have access to a number of tools to help them learn.  The electronic devices do not level the playing field, but they allow these students on to it.

I love my MacBook, my Kindle and my iPod Touch because they allow me to write, read, store information and photos and organise myself within a minimum of space.  The Kindle has its limitations, but it still reduces the number of books I need to carry on vacation.

Technology Good …

You hear the BUT coming.  Yes, here it is: technology can do a great deal for students and educators but sometimes we are dazzled by its magic.  Technology does not teach reading, writing or arithmetic.  For that we need only very simple tools such as paper, pencil, literature and counters of some sort such as stones, buttons or beans.  I have put paper bags over students’ heads to demonstrate unknown variables when teaching algebra and created a dance to demonstrate the relationship between high pressure, low pressure and rain.  Everything else is extra and not necessarily helpful.

Before we invest in tools for schools, especially expensive technology, we should ask why we are buying the tools.  What, exactly, will it help us teach and how will it help us teach it?  Will it be used frequently?  How flexible is it?  How will the kids respond to it?  Finally, is it truly good value as a teaching or learning tool for the money and time that will be spent on it?

When I was learning to teach ESL we were given the rule of thumb, teach new grammar using old vocabulary and new vocabulary using old grammar.  When we use technology are we using it to enhance what we are teaching or are we using skills the students already have to teach them how to use the technology.  Both are valid.

What are the School’s Computer Labs for?

For example, we have computer labs.  Why?  We have to teach children how to use the Internet.  What do they need to learn about the Internet?  How to find information is probably the first thing you think of.  The biggest problem with information on the Internet is the variability of the quality.

When children start visiting the computer lab in kindergarten what can they learn about assessing the quality of information?  You laugh; you know that kindergarten kids just play games on the computers.  The games are chosen to improve the children’s knowledge of letters and numbers, to acquaint them with the keyboard, to improve their manual dexterity and for a number of solid educational reasons.  The games would not be in the lab if they were not educational.  We hope.

By grades four and five they are doing research but the research is usually on sites handpicked (by their teacher) where the job is to find the information required and make notes or answer questions Taking notes and answering questions are important skills.  Doing them in a lab does create a stimulating change of pace from writing notes in the classroom.

However, the students do not have to determine how good the site is as their teacher has already done that.  They can not be allowed the freedom to roam the Internet and assess what they find as some of it would be entirely inappropriate.  When my sister was concerned that my niece might have scarlet fever, I typed those two words into the search engine and the first site I found had nothing to do with medicine.  The difficulty is that by the time students are free to roam the Internet at will, they still have not learned to assess the sites they find.

One Way to Integrate Technology and a Number of Forms of Media:

Starting in the Library Using Indexes, Chapter Headings, Catalogues and Key Words

So how could you teach children of that age to search for and assess the quality of the information they find?  You could take them to the library and teach them what they might find in an encyclopaedia, a dictionary, a book on the topic or a thesaurus.  Many students don’t realise that if they want to know something about cows, a book on farms might have something.  They don’t know that if they have five books in front of them, perhaps only two have a lot of information and the other three should be searched using the index or the chapter titles for a few salient facts.  What kind of words should they use to look up information in the index?  If they were studying cows, how about bull, calf, cattle, beef, milk, leather, ranches and so on.  This is often a new idea to them, but when they start using the Internet knowing how to come up with good keywords will be essential in their searches.

I like to give students an adult crossword to solve after pointing out the encyclopaedias of pop culture, space, writers, sports figures and other specialty references.  It becomes a bit of a competition to see who can figure out the answers, using only books. The crosswords are at their most effective if they are difficult.

Assessing the Quality of Information

Once students know how to find information you can teach them to think about what things should make them sceptical about the quality of the knowledge.  Which might be more out of date: a book on cows or a book on rockets ships written in the 1950’s?  Would a book about farming written by an astronaut be as informative as one written by a farmer?  Would a farmer who had studied physics and math at university be able to write a good book on rockets?  What kind of books is most likely to provide information?  What would you find in a book labelled fiction? Biography? Non-fiction? A search on the online library catalogue has turned up:

It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English Lucy Rogers

Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam

Rocket Science: 50 Flying, Floating, Flipping, Spinning Gadgets Kids Create Themselves Jim Wiese &Tina Cash-Walsh

 Sesame Subjects: My First Book about Airplanes and Rockets (Sesame Street) by Kama Einhorn and Christopher Maroney

The Rocket Mike Leonetti & Greg Banning

Now ask the students which books are not likely to help them learn about rockets.  What helpful information is missing that they should expect to find in a library catalogue? What other information will they find only by looking at the book? Of the books they think might help them learn, which do they think might have the most information?  Which one would they prefer to start with (not always the same one).

Ready for the Internet, More Skills and Boolean Logic *

All of this thinking applies to searching the Internet.  Once students have learned how to search for information and having found information, examine the source with a critical eye, they are in a better position to make good use of electronic sources. They will now need to learn how to search effectively using Boolean logic* and how to navigate web sites.  Just because they can navigate their favourite web sites doesn’t mean they know how to navigate those which will provide useful information

Students researching cows and rocket ships are just one example of how some of the skills needed on the Internet can be taught and honed elsewhere. Skills like these are transferable and not just from the library to the Internet.

From the Internet to Media Studies

From the Internet the skills transfer neatly to media studies.  Here the added value is learning how language, graphics and sound are used to influence consumers. You can show this on Internet sites as well as magazine and television advertising. In fact, it is important to teach detecting bias on Internet sites.  In teaching your students you will bring them through the skills of searching for facts and analysing sources to looking for bias and observing how bias can subtly affect people.

Your students will be better equipped to look beyond the razzle-dazzle to the message. This is use of technology in education but not technology for its own sake.  This is examining how to use technology and how other peoples’ use of it affects us.  With luck you could leave your students with the most valuable lesson of all, the inclination not to take information at face value no matter where it comes from.

*Don’t know what Boolean Logic is?  I won’t tell.  See this site for a good explanation in how to use it in Internet searches:

Boolean Searching on the Internet: A Primer in Boolean Logic by Laura B. Cohen.  Part of Internet Tutorials: your basic guide to the Internet http://www.internettutorials.net/boolean.asp If you teach math, set theory and Venn diagrams, you will be able to do a two for one lesson or reinforce one concept in the other class.  Show your students how even the weirdest math has real life applications!  How cool is that?


Once More Into the Blog, Dear Readers


The Remains of the Dock

Events have rendered me unwilling to think about education and despairing of teachers in Ontario ever being treated as more than technicians in the near future.  I have not written about education for many months now, but the little girl next door is leaving her Montessori school to start grade one at our local school.   My niece is half way through high school and two young cousins are returning to the francophone primary school.  We talk about school:  what their parents like; what works for the children; the inequities; the little miracles wrought by their teachers; the rules, ridiculous and important; the children’s biases and prejudices.  For the most part both the parents and children recognise that compromises have to be made in what is essentially still an industrial model of education but sometimes I hear frustration in their voices.

I am surrounded by teachers, too.  Primary, Montessori, kindergarten to grade 8 French, high school language, supply, university psychology, adult ESL teacher trainers, graduate supervisors.  They all have their delights and concerns as they return to the classroom.  Sometimes one or two will honour me by turning over a problem with me or asking my advice and I get some insight into their particular corners of the teaching profession.

All of us see things which don’t make sense, which hinder teachers in their teaching, students in their learning and parents in their support of both.  So inevitably I want to write again to point out the illogical, the wasteful and the effective events taking place in our schools.  I want to talk about what does work, especially the simple easy techniques.

I have been looking over the many thoughtful comments I have received from readers.  Please keep them coming; even when I disagree with you, they provoke me to think and consider other possibilities.  Writing in a vacuum is a dangerous thing as the writer may begin to believe everything she writes.

Watch this space for more about equity for the learning disabled, sense in teaching second languages and reflections on morality.  I hope to eventually have some comments to make on university teaching, too.  One might say that teaching is a new discovery in all university faculties, except, perhaps the education faculties.  And I am not too sure about them!

Rebuilding the Dock

What WERE they smoking?


My last post was simply Ontario’s Grade Five music curriculum.  In fairness to the Ministry of Education & Training, the grade five curriculum assumes that the earlier elementary music curriculum has been followed.  If we assume that these children were properly instructed in the grade one music curriculum, of which the sample below is a small part, and in all the grades in between, it might be reasonable to hope that grade five students could accomplish the goals of their curriculum.

Part of the Grade One Music Curriculum

ELEMENTS OF MUSIC to be acquired in Grade 1.

duration: fast and slow tempi; rhythm versus beat; two and four beats per bar ( and metres);

quarter note (oral prompt: “ta”), eighth note(s) (oral prompt: “ti-ti”), quarter rest; simple rhythmic

ostinato (e.g., “ta, ta, ti-ti, ta”)

pitch: high and low sounds; unison; melodic contour; simple melodic patterns using the notes “mi”,

“so”, and “la” (e.g., the “so–mi–la–so–mi” pitch pattern in some children’s songs)

dynamics and other expressive controls: loud, soft; a strong sound for a note or beat (accent); smooth

and detached articulation

timbre: vocal quality (e.g., speaking voice, singing voice), body percussion, sound quality of instruments

(e.g., non-pitched and pitched percussion), environmental and found sounds

texture/harmony: single melodic line in unison (monophony)

form: phrase, call and response

If you wish to see the whole elementary arts curriculum for Ontario, go to: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/arts.html

Learning this music curriculum would enhance the academic curriculum.  One obvious example is the way music teaches and requires the recognition of patterns, a skill necessary in mathematics and science.  The skills acquired in paying attention to each other and the music would transfer to other classroom work.  And music, like the other arts is just plain fun when you have some skill.

What’s the Problem with the Music Curriculum?

The difficulty is that there is no requirement that teachers have any knowledge of music before they start their preservice training, nor is music a mandatory course during that training.  Even if a student teacher were to take the music course, it might amount to a half-year course (as at the University of Ottawa) and be focused on the teaching of music, not the learning of it.

Nipissing University cleverly offers a course on music education through technology using MIDI soft and hardware.  See below for details.  This is practical and helpful to willing and non-musical teachers.  It is, however, a makeshift solution to meeting the demands of the curriculum without a teacher who is a specialist in music.  It also depends on the technology being available in the school.  When overhead projectors are becoming scarce and specialist music teachers are even scarcer, it is hard to imagine the technology becoming available.

How much Training is Needed to Teach the Curriculum Successfully?

Even some musical training is not adequate to the task; after a year of singing lessons, I would find it very difficult to teach the music curriculum without support.  So what do teachers do?  What they can.  They select the elements of the curriculum that are possible for them to teach and do those.  For some teachers it may only be music appreciation, for others it may include rhythm or even a smattering of the technical requirements.  My guess is that only students whose teachers have had a strong musical education will come close to meeting the curriculum expectations.

Why Propose the Unrealistic?

Why did the ministry set these expectations?   As Glen Brown points out in his comment, there is a huge assumption that all the resources are available.  The expectations look great on paper but nobody cares if they are implemented, except the overly conscientious teacher.  I wonder how long it has been since the writers set foot in a classroom and  – what they were smoking as they wrote.

Nipissing University

Music Education through Technology – This course will introduce students to basic music concepts through the use of MIDI technology.  The primary goal is to provide students with the rudimentary skills necessary to teach music in Junior Kindergarten to Grade 8 classrooms.