Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Finally, a Renewed Focus on Math

It's great to see an article like this highlighting the importance of math education, emphasizing the need to prepare students for challenging, 21st century jobs with a strong foundation in math skills. With a title of Technology helps ratchet up math instruction: Combined with real-world approaches, tech helps turn kids on to math, I would expect to learn of many new and unique ways that technology is being used in instruction. However, it concerns me to see so few math focused technology initiatives discussed. Regardless, the article is full of excellent quotes and provokes much thought.

A few highlights from the article:
  • "K-12 institutions are looking for ways to help students understand--and even appreciate--tough math concepts. And it's technology, not textbooks, many experts say, that will make much of this transformation possible--along with a shift in teaching strategies and an emphasis on professional development.

    "Used well, technology can open the door to mathematics for more students than it ever has in the past," said Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)."

I couldn't agree more that technology needs to be used to reach and teach students. And, that the only want to make this transition is to prepare teachers with effective professional development that allows them to experience this new way of learning first hand, while learning how to create lessons using these technologies. My concern is that I have not seen a lot of really great technologies specifically focusing on math. I've seen/used a few great software programs---but teachers are limited in how they use these because they require a computer lab. Realistically, what technology can we put in every math classroom that is going to be used to teach the majority of math concepts?

The article highlights two: the show NUMB3RS and the awesome educational materials created that support teaching math concepts and Carnegie Learning's math related technology programs. While I'd love to see more technologies highlighted, these are a start.
  • (Relating to NUMB3RS)
    "The idea, according to TI's Linda Beheler, is to take what students often see as abstract mathematical concepts and make them more relevant to their daily lives. The television show, she said, serves as an example of how math is used every day to solve real-world problems."
This is exactly what we need more of: tools teachers can use to make the abstract concepts tangible for students.
  • "Looking to the future, experts agree a majority of the jobs that will be in high demand are likely to have a strong technical focus. From computer engineering, to science, to design, Seeley said, math plays an increasingly central role in all facets of the modern workforce. But while educators in foreign nations have been aggressively pursing curricula with a focus on higher-level, 21st-century-type math skills such as calculus and engineering, U.S. institutions, by and large, have been slow to adapt, she said."

I'm not sure that there was ever a time when math wasn't important or a foundation for good careers..... but it is definitely hugely important now. Excellent time to plug the book The World is Flat. Why is it that the US has been "slow to adapt"???
  • "Seeley expanded on that point, saying that if America is going to remain a leader in the global economy, it's imperative that educators find effective ways to reach even the most reluctant students. And more and more, this involves the use of technology tools."

These are the kids I worry about most: the reluctant learners. Math is not beyond their reason. However, we must cater our instruction to their learning styles and needs. Math needs to be real and applied to their lives, it can't be boring at all, it has to be living and breathing. Students need to be challenged with real-world problems. Students need to be taught to question and wonder. Most importantly, they must be willing to take a risk, then if it didn't work, try something else. Teaching students these 'soft skills' comes from the classroom environment, not textbooks or technology.

  • "Teachers are going to need to change the way that they teach...to use technology well," she said. "We need to use the tools that will allow us to teach better, smarter."

Enough said! ..... but this requires a lot of training and very effective training at that.
  • (Relating to Carnegie Technology software) "Born in 1992 out of a research lab at Carnegie Mellon University, the technology-centered educational services provider operates under the philosophy that students learn best not simply by memorizing methods of operation, but by understanding the process through which answers to mathematical problems are achieved."
Excellent philosophy. However, memorizing basic facts and rules in math still has a place. The most frustrating experience for me is to see a student on a roll with a problem who gets stuck when he/she doesn't know basic math facts and then forgets what he/she was doing to solve the complex problem after finally getting the basic problem solved. Students must be held accountable for memorizing their basic math facts in the early grades so they can rely on them as the construct a thorough understanding of mathematical processes.

  • "The biggest challenge in mathematics is getting to the deeper understanding of how and why do I want to solve a particular problem," Ritter said. "Why is a particular operation the right thing to do?"
Again, couldn't agree more. I think this comes from effective questioning strategies in the classroom. Again something that is not taught to pre-service teachers--- in the context of math instruction. Math classrooms are often very focused on answers. Kids are happy to just get an answer.... they don't want to take the time to think too much about it. We have to slow them down, make reasoning part of the think-alouds that kids observe teachers doing when the solve problems.
  • "For teachers, he said, the key is to identify the difficulties faced by each individual student--and then teach to those weaknesses. And that's where technology can help, he said--by differentiating instruction."
BINGO! I've seen a product that helps do this for science. I worked with one for math, but it was dependent on every student having access to a computer. Unfortunately, our schools are not at this point yet. At least we are thinking about the right ways to use technology effectively for math instruction...we still have a long way to go though.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Where's the Math?

A very interesting uprising of parents, educators and community members is happening in Washington state. According to this recent article, "A group of students, teachers and parents rallied at the Capitol Monday to draw attention to what they say is the state's failing math education system."

Where's the Math?, a non-partisan advocacy group in Washington, has committed to taking a stand and demanding change. (Their site is definitely worth checking out) Residents in Washington are so outraged that legislators are supporting bills that would create an over-site committee to review the state's math standards.

What caused this uprising?? -- "Nearly half of the state's juniors failed the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning last year." While this is significant, unfortunately, it's not uncommon. Math scores on state, national and international tests have become quite a concern in recent years. Not only are scores falling, things become even more complicated knowing that finding qualified math teachers is becoming increasingly difficult.

In local news, the Baltimore Sun published an article in January mentioning the discussions surrounding the idea of shifting the scope and sequence of mathematics curriculum to allow students to explore fewer topics more deeply each year, hoping that they will gain a solid foundation in the necessary skills before advancing to the next grade level. This would be dramatically different from the curriculum currently in place in this country that teaches (and reteaches) concepts every year.

Personally, I like this idea a lot. When each year has it's own focus that builds on the knowledge gained previously (and has supports in place to help remediate as necesary), math is new and interesting and students have time to master skills. When I was teaching 6th grade math, I would have given anything if the incoming 5th graders would arrive with certain skills solid (ie basic number operations or fractions), so that I could advance their skills and teach them something new. Instead, students arrive with a wide range of skills, with the majority struggling with basic math concepts (multiplication and division, adding fractions, etc). They feel that they've seen almost everything before --- and they have (that's where it was helpful to have taught 5th grade math for a few years prior to 6th!). While there are some brand new skills in 6th grade and some skills that we would take to the next level (ie dividing by fractions for the first time), the majority of the year is a comprehensive review of basic math concepts. Students begin to lose interest in math when they feel like it's a repeat of that they learned last year. Not only do they lose interest, they never truly have time to master all of the skills we are requiring they know.

It's time to re-evaluate how we teach math in this country. More accurately, it's time to re-evaluate what math we teach and when we teach it. Will it require legislative intervention to require an inspection of our courses, standards and teaching practices??

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Finally... some clear thinking about internet safety

I was thrilled to see Steve Dembo mention a proposed law in Illinois regarding the Internet Safety Education Act. It's about time that we proactively address this serious issue instead of reactively ban sites (while inadvertently blocking really good content in the process) in public access location (schools, libraries, etc...).

Proposed by Senator Dan Kotowski, this legislation:
Creates the Internet Safety Education Act to inform and protect students from inappropriate or illegal communications and solicitation and to require school districts to provide education about Internet threats and risks. Creates the Internet Safety Education Alliance under the authority of the Office of the Attorney General. Amends the State Finance Act to create the Internet Safety Education Fund. Amends the School Code to mandate the provision by every public school of instruction and discussion on effective methods by which students may recognize and report inappropriate, illegal, or threatening communications on the Internet on or before the start of the 2008-2009 school year.
Not only good thinking, but also financial backing! I love it. Hopefully, we'll see legislation like this proposed, (funded and approved) around the country in the very near future. It's time we educate kids about the dangers on the internet instead of pretending that they don't exist by removing them from sight in schools and libraries.

When digging deeper into the legalize of the proposed act, I discovered they intent to:
  • examine and certify Internet safety curriculum
  • consult with regional and national experts
  • recommend additional topics for Internet safety instruction
  • provide training for local law enforcement and educators on effective preparation of you for existing and emerging Internet threats
Here's one final excerpt identifying what should be covered in the curriculum:

Each public school shall adopt a curriculum f0r:

Internet safety instruction of students grades kindergarten through 12. The curriculum must be age appropriate and providefor a minimum of 2.5 hours of instruction on each of the class following subjects:
(1) Safe and responsible navigation and communication on social networking websites, chat rooms, electronic mail, bulletin boards, instant messenger, and other means of communication on the Internet.
(2) Recognizing and reporting solicitations by sexualpredators online.
(3) Dangers of transmitting personal information on the Internet.
(4) Recognizing and avoiding unsolicited or deceptive communications received online.
(5) Recognizing and reporting -bullying.

Way to go, Senator Kotowski. I sincerely hope this act passes and starts a national trend for educating our children about the dangers of the internet without trying to solve the problem with ineffective band-aid solutions that limit the effective use of instructional technology available to educators and students.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Just Around the Corner --Educational Technologies to Watch

Over the past year I've had the opportunity to explore emerging technologies from an outside-the-classroom perspective. I feel that my mindset is still close enough to that of a classroom teacher that I evaluate each new technology in the same eyes of one on the front lines (wondering where I'll find time to implement it, how it fits with the standards and state assessments, devising a plan to conquer the computer lab far enough in advance to be guaranteed enough time to complete the activity, etc...). As I've watched blogs, wikis, and podcasts jump into the scene, I've waited to see how far schools and teachers will take these technologies, while wondering what 'new' technologies are just around the corner for students.

Today while scanning the eSchool Newsletter for this week, I saw a headline that caught my eye: Report identifies ed-tech trends to watch. To summarize, these are the 6 identified trends are:

•User-created content;

•Social networking;

•Mobile phones;

•Virtual worlds;

•New scholarship and emerging forms of publication; and

•Massively multiplayer educational gaming.

With these technologies just around the corner, the potential for changing what happens in the classroom is exciting! I am curious to know how long we will have to wait to see these fully implemented into instruction. Personally, I think we have a long way to go before these trends become a reality.

The questions still looming for me:
~ What are the technological needs necessary to implement these emerging technologies into instruction? Will we need to move to a 1:1 computer to student ratio? Are hand-helds a possibility? Will computer labs disappear?
~ How long will it take to get clear, universal guidelines in place that will allow such technologies in schools? As it stands, many districts have blocked all social networking sites, etc...
~ What about staff development?! While many of these technologies are nothing new for students, many teachers will struggle to learn and implement these without strong, effective staff development.

These issues aside ...... the possibilities are exciting!!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Students Request More Technology Classes

Our new superintendent here in Anne Arundel County recently met with middle school students at Severna Park Middle School (the last school I taught at while with the county). I recently caught part of the recorded discussion while scanning cable channels.... I was very impressed with the entire event: the format was well planned, the student questions were thoughtfully crafted and pointed, the confidence of the students in understanding the importance of expressing their concerns and desires. I was further impressed that Dr. Maxwell carved so much time out of his schedule to meet with these students.

While the students' topics varied widely a few were more passionately discussed or mentioned multiple times including more interesting teaching methods (pleading for less 90 minute lecture courses), more choices in elective courses, and the elimination of semesterized social studies and science classes. However, I was most persuaded by their plea for more technology courses. Among other things, they want to know how to type and how to make PowerPoints. I couldn't agree more with their plea. In the technology era that we live in, we are providing a major disservice to students if we don't train them in basic technology concepts... and frankly, I think they deserve far more complex skills.

Our students need to know the basics of internet safety very early in their academic career as well as continuously throughout their schooling. In addition, every student should learn strong research skills and habits -- citing and saving their sources, evaluating and verifying the content they find, etc... I also firmly believe that young students should constantly be creating presentations using technology effectively and learning to present to their peers and school community.

Ultimately, it's a question of when and how? What do you take out of the current school day to accommodate such a course? How is it possible to provide students access to the technology resources they need? (For the students at this discussion, the 2.5 computer labs servicing 1400 students simply won't cut it.) Not to mention, who would teach these classes and what is the sequence of skills they need--- personally I think those two questions would be resolved quickly.

While I think this class should be a stand-alone course, I feel that it should tie into the grade appropriate curriculum, to be an extension of their learning experiences in their core classes. Wouldn't it be great if the teachers could plan together to collaborate on projects so that the students could apply their skills to a project that they would present in their core class?

Does anyone know of a school or district that has implemented a course like this?? I'd love to see examples of effective models.

KUDOS to the students at Severna Park Middle for expressing their concerns, to the staff for listening and arranging the meeting with the superintendent and to Dr. Maxwell for making time to meeting with them. I look forward to seeing what steps are taken to address their concerns.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Thursday, February 8, 2007

PSP's in the classroom

While catching up on my Bloglines account, I saw that my friend Steve Dembo had recently posted that "Teachers at Maplesden Noakes School in the UK are using the Sony PSP in the classroom for a variety of educational purposes." His post reminded me of an article I read in January about a PE teacher who had secured a grant to get PSP's into her classroom. What a great idea.... get the kids sweating without them realizing that they exercising. Here's the link to the article.

This is all very timely given the near national crisis we are beginning to hear a lot about: childhood obesity. Poor eating habits combined with inactivity are leading to an epidemic of negative health consequences. It's all over the news these days (did anyone else see Richard Simmons on The Today Show this morning talking about this very issue?). Doctors are talking about it, parents are talking about it, schools are talking about it.... how do we get kids more active and how do we train them to make better food choices? Here's a great example of thinking outside of the box. With only a $550 grant, this teacher was able to bring new life into her class by reaching the kids through a game they play in their free time and view positively, as something FUN to do.

I think this is the new challenge in education. We don't need to change the fundamentals that need to be taught. We need to change the context in which are teaching those fundamentals. When I was teaching, my favorite lessons were those that took on a life of their own... the energy in the classroom would build and build, the kids were excited, they started asking questions about the concept (not about how it would be graded, etc)... they truly WANTED to know more about the concept (ie... to learn), but didn't realize they were learning because they were having so much FUN.

Kudos to Sandy Hopkins, PE Teacher at Delaware Trail Elementary School and to the teachers of Maplesden Noakes in the UK for making learning fun by bringing PSP's into instruction! It's so exciting to see these creative, innovative approaches to learning.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Inagural Blog~~ Welcome!

Welcome to Excursions in Education!

So I'm finally here... I'm entering the 'blogosphere'. I'm not sure I have a good reason for delaying my entry into the blogging world, but my honest hang up was finding the right name. After reading, seeing and discovering many neat education related stories and issues this week, I really wanted to blog about them.... which propelled me to come up with a name for my blog. After enlisting the help of a few friends (thanks Aaron and Dawn!) and a handy online dictionary/thesaurus, I've finally settled on Excursions in Education.

A little bit about the name..... I started with words like ponder, muse, reflect and moved to words like journey, travel, meander (great word, Aaron!), and ended up with excursion. [ ik-skur-zhuhn: -noun- a short trip or outing to some place, usually for a special purpose and with the intention of a prompt return ] Excursion seemed to fit well for for two reasons... a) I love to travel and b) my intention for the blog entries here is that each will 'journey' to a different part of education (more on that in a minute) and then promptly return to the general topic of its impact on education.

A little bit about the theme/topics to be covered here.....
As an educator with experience teaching in grades 5-8, having served as a Mathematics Department Chairperson at the middle school level, then moving into the professional development side of things (with a focus on instructional technology), I am passionate about all things education. The purpose of this blog is summarized here:

Excursions in Education highlights current events, innovative ideas, or otherwise noteworthy topics in the ever-changing world of education. Journey around the block, around the world and into cyberspace with special emphasis on instructional technology and mathematics education.
I intend to post (frequently) about the follow topics (and many others):

  • education in general -- new initiatives, interesting things happening, noteworthy news
  • mathematics education
  • instructional technologies and emerging technologies
  • global education issues
  • local education
  • .... and anything else that captures my attention!
Well, that about summarizes my introduction to this blog! As we all know, people thrive on comments.... so drop by and share a comment! And, keep checking back frequently for more Excursions in Education!