Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Next Best Thing

I was thinking today, when I attempted to tackle some yard work with a 2 year old and a 3 year old in tow, that we don't always get to do exactly what we want to do. I can have a bunch of energy, and set out to pull every weed in the lawn, cut the lawn, trim every bush, sweep the patio, etc., etc., and I will pretty much always fall short.

You know that sick overwhelming feeling that comes when you see the weeds choking out the garden, and the patio covered in pine needles?  It's a tough one to overcome.  "I can't do this." "It's too much." "May as well just not start."

Then, at the end of the day, we ask ourselves, "have I done enough?" @tina_zita covers this question in her blog post, "June Comes the Same Time Every Year."  Doubt tends to creep in, and negativity. 

Teachers know this: we sometimes come in to work with to-do lists as long as our arms, a set of "must be dones", that don't get done.  Parents know this-dinner to cook, laundry to do, kids to put to bed.  Baseball players should know this, but they often swing for the fences when a base hit would do. 

There can be kind of an analysis paralysis associated with trying to get things done.  Too many things to do, too little time, nothing gets done.  But those who say just getting started is the biggest thing are probably right.  

I'm no expert with lifehacks for all situations, but today, I asked myself, "if you can't do everything you want to do, what's the next best thing?"

Cutting the lawn and pulling all the weeds became cutting the lawn close so the weeds didn't show.
Whacking the weeds down in the garden as much as I could took the place of weeding the whole garden. 
The patio got swept, but there is still a bit of loose debris. 

So try this thought exercise the next time you feel overwhelmed.  Take your perfect world set of goals for each day.  We are humans, and we dream big, so some of them may be a bit out of reach. For each one, figure out what the next best thing is, that you can live with.  

Mark 2 sets of essays instead of three.  Finish 3 items on your to-do list instead of 5, but do them really well.  Adjust your expectations, and be careful of your perfectionism.  

The lawn looks fine.  There's still weeds, but it's done. (For now...)

CC image by katerha.

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Put them in a line and count them": Comments from the Real/Fake World of Math Class

I used this problem with grade 6s yesterday:

I am not sure where this problem came from.  I do know that it stumped me for a while, although a decent number of students eventually got it, and the solution makes sense.

The first thing to note is that we are distinctly operating in the "fake world" here. No such club exists. There is no pressing need to do this particular math. There is no inquiry that can be done here. I defer, as always, to Dan Meyer on this topic.

 The problem is "word problemy", in the fact that it is asking for something simple- a single number of people, which it obscures through the design of its words.  That said, there are no dirty tricks here- it's a fraction problem, of the sort that uses a fraction of a missing whole, then a fraction of a slightly larger whole.

So why give this problem?  Here are some of our usual reasons:

1.  We are doing a fractions unit, and this problem can get us to think about fractions.
2.  To see what kind of thinking our students do on this problem.
3.  This problem is useful in its applications in the real world.
4. Because it's interesting, or beautiful.  These are our best reasons to do math, I think.

#1 didn't apply here.  #2 I am always interested in, although slightly less so when the pressure is off us in late June. As to #4, this problem did hold our interest for a while. It is a tricky one, and it engaged our desire to "puzzle it out".  There were some arguments interpreting the language of the problem, and trying and discarding some possible answers. Multiples of 4 and 7 were clearly involved, somehow.

As to #3, I will defer to my student's comments on the problem.

-you would just line the members of the club up in a line and count them. That's the solution. 

It's difficult to argue with that logic.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Reading, Writing, Coding, and "Absolutes" in Our Education System

I have taken a critical stance on the role of coding in schools.  Whenever I read an article with an underdeveloped thesis like "all kids must learn to code", I immediately ask "why"?  Often the articles are little more than a buzzy few paragraphs touting a great app. The "why" so often seems to be missing.

It doesn't help that these articles often come through aggregators like ASCD Smart Brief, Flipboard, or Zite with preposterous headlines like, "Is Coding as Important as Reading and Writing?"  Not only do the articles never make such grand claims, but also such absolutism tends to detract from the argument in the article.  (has anyone else noticed how headlines are little more than Buzzfeed style "clickbait" these days, even on reputable newspaper websites?)

I'm of the mindset that we never teach without the "why" in mind.  If we can't identify the critical skills, habits of mind, or plain old reasons for doing something, we probably shouldn't be doing it in the classroom. This post is an attempt to unravel the "why" of coding in the classroom.

My own experiences consist of a lone programming course in the Pascal language.  I am not sure that I finished my program for my project (a Minesweeper clone, that the teacher gave the perhaps politically incorrect name "Drunkard's Walk".) I do remember unraveling the mysteries of binary and other non base 10 number systems. That's a strong math connection right there. I would consider learning to write code for iOS, if I thought of a good app idea. Maybe that is a growth goal right there.

I've found lots of inspiring examples of code in the classroom, creative work in Scratch, for example, in primary.  My working theory, having seen but not worked in Scratch, is that it's an interesting and "new" form of visual storytelling.  I also think we should be listening to the words of people like athlete Chris Bosh, who talks about his formative experiences with code. I also usually tend to listen when the President of the United States stands up and asks all Americans to consider learning computer science.

This Mother Jones article is probably the best and most detailed read i've found on the topic.  The "why", if you accept the argument, and I do, is that we will all be the better for using the particular computational logic we can learn through becoming more computer literate.  Beginning from a "feat of imagination", and bringing creative, flexible and logical thinking leading to a task.  I think this is the true argument behind bringing coding to schools.

My colleague, @cashjim knows a lot more about this topic than I do, and here's what he has to say:

And further:

I am left thinking, like I often am, about the role of "non-negotiables" or "absolutes", particularly in the elementary grades.  There is a long checklist of curriculum expectations that every student must work on, at the same time as everyone else in their grade.  The breakdown of traditional subjects still holds-math is still math, geography still geography, history still past.  Everything stays in its little container (except when true inquiry learning takes root, and new branches grow).

So should coding be added to a list of non-negotiables for the 21st century learner?  What would it replace? Or should we be giving children as young as Kindergarten choices about things to learn, including coding? I'm of the mind that more choice is always better, and yes, I advocate for giving young children choices in what they learn.  So we wouldn't always do "coding for coding's sake", as Jim said: rather, give kids a problem to solve, and let problem-solving with code be one of their options.  Keep it about questions, and the constant process of inquiry (across all subjects), and let computational thinking be one of our solutions.