Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Focus Trap

As an adult, it's easy to fall into a pattern. 

We all do it. Wake up, brush teeth, get dressed, go to work, drink coffee, ...

As a data nerd,
I have an irrational
craving for patterns

Patterns are fine. They're comfortable. Reassuring. We know what to expect. But there comes with patterns a hidden danger. It's easy to focus on procedures, which can take many forms. Take the same route to work every morning. Deliver the same learning in the same way. Assess understanding in the same way.

But that's dangerous. What if my pattern of assessment doesn't match my students' pattern of learning? Am I getting accurate assessment information, or am I missing something? Would I see different things if I looked at the situation in a new way?

Don't focus on one specific outcome.

Or, more accurately, don't focus solely on outcomes. Focus on the learning. How will students navigate new problems?

Are you assessing their problem-solving strategies, or are you measuring their ability to memorize?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What Your Tech Says About Your Personality

I've been thinking lately about the technology with which I choose to surround myself. If you're curious, it's an awful lot: no fewer than 4 computers, 4 tablets, 2 phones (one of which I no longer use), and various assorted gadgets. I didn't purchase these (or receive them as a gifts) to make a statement about my own personality, but it turns out that they do.

Image via PixaBay
Let me set some context: my girlfriend has an iPhone, while I have an Android. My parents are similarly divided between Android and iOS. I have both Android tablets and an iPad, both a Mac and PCs. I use a ChromeCast and Nexus Player for my TVs, but Airport Expresses to stream audio to my stereos. As a contributing author of some helpful tools for educators, I need to understand both app design and user experience, and this led me to thinking deeply about the topic.

What started this line of inquiry was a debate between my parents, using voice recognition to get information from their phones. My father uses an almost-robotic voice, and dictates the exact phrase he would use were he typing it into a search engine. My step-mother, on the other hand, has a more conversational tone with her phone, almost chatting to it and asking a question as you would to another person.

This, in my opinion, is a definitive line between two design philosophies: outcome-oriented, or experience-oriented. It took me quite a while to define those terms, so let me explain.

Outcome-experience focus

gets you what you want

as efficiently as possible.

Outcome-experience focus is design with a goal of getting a user to the exact outcome they seek. User experience is certainly not ignored, but the user is expected to behave in a certain way. A user is anticipated to understand the tool, and to be able to navigate the interface quickly. No muss, no fuss, just results.

User-experience focus

gets you what you want

as comfortably as possible.

User-experience focus is less about destination, and more about journey. Sure, it may take a little longer to get you what you want, but you'll enjoy the process. A user is anticipated to be less comfortable with the interface, but to pick it up quickly.

There is no right or wrong approach here. One philosophy is not superior to another. Rather, one philosophy is superior to another on a per-person basis. I'm very much someone who likes to get into things, fiddle around, break stuff, fix it, break it again, and eventually develop an understanding of how it works. This is especially true for me in regards to technology, where I'm not content to accept things as they are, but instead I want to mess around with making things as good as they can be.

For me, the journey is not navigating through a user interface. Nor is the journey the quick access to results. My journey is different - I enjoy exploration, confusion, and the experience of discovery. This would also explain the odd mixture of hardware devices that adhere to either of the above philosophies - I'm more interested in working with these devices to see what they can do.

Understanding the design philosophy behind technology helps make better choices about purchasing and using the right device to meet your needs. So, while your tech might say something about your personality, does your personality say something about your technology?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Say Yes First

I’ve never been a reckless adventurer. I didn’t take unnecessary risks in sports, didn’t raise my hand in class if I didn’t know the answer.

But there’s a different kind of adventure. One that I’ve embraced only after reaching maturity. One that takes that sense of reckless abandon (tempered with common sense) that can sometimes lead to disaster.

My adventure is to say yes first. If someone asks me if I can do something, the answer is yes. Even if I don’t know how, the answer is yes.

Say yes first, figure it out after.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Normal Lie

Normal Lies Under the Curve

There is no such thing as “normal.”

Sadly, this is a lesson that I learned once I was an adult, and I think it behooves us all to ensure our kids know this. Not just that they’re told this, but that we show it in as many ways as we can.

I could write many thousands of words about how I struggled with being “weird,” “strange,” and “not normal” when I was younger. But I suspect that we all have these types of stories: of struggling to fit in, of worrying about being too different. It’s nice to see society developing an appreciation for “weirdness,” even if such efforts can be sadly misguided.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Let me instead take a mathematical perspective. In technical terms, a normal is a line which is perpendicular to the surface it intersects. An average is “a number expressing the central or typical value in a set of data, in particular the mode, median, or (most commonly) the mean, which is calculated by dividing the sum of the values in the set by their number.” 1

These measures are fine if your numbers are all central (that is, pretty closely grouped together). The average will be a good indicator of an overall trend. But the big lie is that our numbers aren’t all central. When we’re talking about measuring learning, there are so many different ways of measuring, and different skills to measure. Gardner’s multiple intelligences2 are a great example of how we understand that intelligence (this big, messy idea) isn’t something that’s easy to quantify, and doesn’t have a “typical” characteristic.

The Average Family?

The mathematical model doesn't work on humans.

Instead, what is “average” or “normal” intelligence is simply a line-of-best-fit, that approximates what we have measured. When you look at how big the spread of data becomes, the average represents a theoretical rather than a practical piece of information. After all, who can have 1.1 children? In this context, the average can tell us a bit about the population, but nothing about the individual families that make up the statistic.

Normalizing against a population can tell us more about an assessment than it can about any individual student. I love using assessment as an educator to gauge my efficacy on a macro level, but in terms of individual students, I much prefer comparing growth over time. A grade of 70% can tell you much more about a student’s ability when compared to earlier results: Have they shown improvement? Are they regressing? Is the measure consistent? If not, what was different about this assessment?

These are all time-intensive questions, but they can inform teaching and learning in a deep and meaningful way. In my experience, however, spending time creating and evaluating group-wide assessment eats into the available time to spend reflecting on these questions.

There are so many problems with standardized assessments.

I could write an awful lot about standardized testing in education, but I'd much rather watch this video. (Warning: some content included in the video may be inappropriate) Jump to the 12:13 mark for yet another reason why these assessment are an invalid indicator of student learning (aside from notable issues with the selection of evaluators).

If we’re differentiating learning for our students, why are we assessing them against a normalized measure? Should we not be assessing using differentiation? When we’re looking for consistency, we should be thinking of a longitudinal sample for each child, rather than a population sample. Statisticians would riot in the streets, and parents would likely have a hard time making the change from what they experienced in school, but sometimes change is a good thing, even if people complain about it.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why Write?

Image: Wikimedia Commons
This is a question I ask myself often. Especially now, midnight on a Thursday, when I should be sleeping. Why am I here, seated at my computer (where I spend all day), still working? And not working on anything particularly useful to anyone else?

There are a few reasons I write, and why I enjoy the act of writing. It's about time I put them in some sort of order, to explain the value I get from writing these posts.


No, not discipline in the form of "not getting in trouble." I’d be fine and dandy were I not to write a single word. I’m using discipline in the sense of building a self-reliant practice, for the purpose of self improvement. It’s what I imagine martial arts is to some people: a means to develop one’s self. In my case, writing helps me put my thoughts into order, explore ideas more deeply, and find out if I’m right (or, as is often the case, to learn more about why I’m wrong).


It’s immensely satisfying to put together a thoughtful piece of work. That’s why I enjoy doing my job - it allows me to develop an idea from a hazy notion to a fully developed package. Often, when I start a project, I have a clear idea of what I want to accomplish, but haven’t yet mastered a full vision of the form it will take. Seeing something through from start to finish is a good feeling, whether it’s creating a piece of software, developing a learning experience, or just getting all my thoughts into a coherent whole. I enjoy not just the act of creating, but of then releasing my creation to the world-at-large. I suspect the “world-at-large” isn’t as large as I’d like, but I continue nonetheless.


I use the act of writing to look carefully at my own learning, and reflect on how I’ve arrived at my opinions. Through carefully explaining and revising, I can actually gain a lot of insight into how I learn. Instead of simply accepting something, I want to explore ideas deeply, investigate, and follow my curiosity, and the act of writing affords me the opportunity to follow those pursuits. I find that when I write, I spend a lot of time investigating, researching, and refining my thoughts.


When I spend time writing, it allows me to organize my thoughts. I can carefully consider the vocabulary, tone, and structure of how I put together a convincing justification of my opinion. This helps me when discussing big, complicated ideas with friends and colleagues: I have already invested effort into developing my own perspective. Since I have such a strong foundation from which to work, new ideas, challenges to my opinion, or conflicting perspectives are easier to examine. I’m confident in my own thought, so it allows me the freedom and security to explore thoughts and opinions different from my own.

And my final answer is...

Ultimately, I write because I enjoy it. I’m not writing for an audience, I’m writing as a part of my own learning process. I enjoy sharing because I’ve put effort into creating what I share. I enjoy writing because that effort help me develop clarity of opinion.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

When I Grow Up, I Don't Want to be a "Grown Up"

Cross-posted from MapleSyrupEDU.

By all accounts, I’m officially a grown-up. I have a steady job, two kids, bills, the whole deal. I seem to do an awful lot of chores, but they don’t grate on my nerves the way I did when I was a kid. Days seem shorter, my list of goals is focused, and quite often I hear my father’s words coming out of my own mouth.

Despite all the signs, I don’t want to give up certain parts of being a child. I think that’s why I chose a career that involves working with kids: I’m quite comfortable living with some of the lessons I continue to learn from children. Acting childish has some negative connotations, but I think there’s a lot of value in some childish traits. So here’s a list of things that every adult should remember about being a kid:

Image: Wikipedia

Adventure is everywhere.

Calvin and Hobbes taught me that from an early age, and I still venturing off the beaten path. Quite literally, I will actually being walking through the woods at times, and decide to just take a left turn and see where it goes. You may not actually want to traipse through a bunch of scratchy thorn bushes, but remember that you don’t always have to take the shortest route to your destination. Sometimes the distractions are worth the time.

Image: Matt Newfield (Flickr)

Getting dirty can be fun.

This is one that I too often forget. Sometimes, it’s worth it to get your hands dirty, rip holes in the knees of your pants, or just splash in the big puddle. My own children remind me of this quite frequently. There’s always hot chocolate, fresh clothes, and a warm bath waiting for you if you need it.

Image: James Petersen

Creativity can be its own end.

Sometimes starting a project without a final destination in mind is actually more fun that working toward a goal. It can be refreshing, and even liberating, to begin a project without a plan. Adjust things as you go, and let your vision of the finished product evolve. It's a great way to learn.

Image: PDPics (Pixabay)

We’re all a “work in progress”

The only thing that’s worth striving for is to be a better version of yourself when you go to sleep, than you were when you woke up. Competition among peers isn’t a way to self-fulfillment (at least, it’s not for me). When you don't compete with others, you start to enjoy their successes as much as your own. Life is not a zero-sum game: We can all win.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Learning is supposed to be fun.

Take the time to play around with things. Explore. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? You could be wrong? See #4 if that happens. But if you're right, or you discover something new, it can be so rewarding. Give yourself a sandbox, and allow yourself to play in it.
In all honesty, most kids have a lot of “adult” traits, even if it’s in a slightly less robust form.  Kids are responsible. Kids are honest. Kids are kind, caring, thoughtful. They can certainly lose these traits if we don’t nurture them, but I believe that every child aims to be a good and happy person.

We can do all of these things as adults, but we don’t need to do them exclusively. Adulting is hard sometimes - don’t be afraid to stop adulting and just enjoy life in the moment. Being a grown up means a lot of responsibility, but don’t forget that it also means that you have the freedom to retain the great things about being a kid.

Friday, January 22, 2016

How Questions Can Make Your Classroom More Democratic

Image: Pixabay

What makes a good question a “good question?”

I've been thinking a lot lately of questions. Not specific questions, but the nature and purpose of questions. The purpose and characteristics of finely crafted questions. Ones that do not have easy answers, but instead provoke curiosity. If you’re impatient, skip the following section on democratic education and jump right to the question section (and I hope you’ll be interested enough to come back and read the first part).

How does this relate to democratic education?

Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of democratic education:1

"Democratic education is an educational ideal in which democracy is both a goal and a method of instruction. It brings democratic values to education and can include self-determination within a community of equals, as well as such values as justice, respect and trust."

John Dewey
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Take a moment and let that sink in. There's a lot going on in just two sentences, and it's worth reading carefully and critically. In fact, it's worth reading the entire page on Wikipedia (for many of us, it will probably be a refresher for things we've studied).

Obviously, examples such as a democratic committee to decide on hiring fall outside the control of classroom teachers. However, we do have a significant amount of influence on how we educate democratically within the four walls of our classrooms. To be able to do this, we need to know the answer to the question “what are characteristics of a democratic learning environment?”


Real democracy in the classroom requires an awful lot of confidence, both from a teacher and from students. This might be surprising, but it’s certainly true that voicing opinions that may be unpopular can be a challenge for many of us. I put myself squarely in that group: I’m a people-pleaser, and most people aren’t pleased to hear that I think they might be wrong. It’s also pretty hard to hear that you might be wrong. Even harder is to truly listen when you’re being told why you’re wrong. All of those things require a lot of self-confidence, but also a specific kind of self confidence. You don’t need to be confident in your opinions, but instead, you must be confident in your ability to learn, grow, adapt and reflect.

Being wrong is okay. Staying wrong isn’t.


Image via Flickr
A lot of democratic interaction can be uncomfortable. Going against the popular opinion can be… unpopular, to say the least! Every single person in a democratic classroom must keep a positive perspective: both in attempts to explain your own opinion, but also in hearing critical analysis of it. We’re not disagreeing to be disagreeable - there’s a purpose to disagreement: resolution and growth. It’s easy to have an opinion, but it’s a lot more difficult to defend it without getting defensive. It’s important to have positive intentions, but also to assume that others have the same positive intentions, even if their methods, opinions, or decisions are counter to your own.


Are you noticing a theme happening here? Confidence and positivity are key to the good type of dissent. Dissent leads to dialogue (at least, in a democratic classroom, it should). Typically, dissent is seen in a negative light - something that’s motivated by frustration or anger. In my opinion, that frustration and anger can usually be attributed to the fact that opinions aren’t being heard.

Still with me?

Good, because it’s been a bit of a meander to arrive at the answer to my earlier question: what makes a good question a “good question?” Also, how do good questions relate to democratic classrooms? I believe good questions are at the heart of a good democratic classroom, in many ways. Questions are key - answers, not so much. Ever try to compete against the internet as a source for answers? You’ll likely fall short. As teachers, we don’t really need to be skilled answer-givers; we need to be skilled question-askers. We need to teach students to be question-askers, and we need to model effective questions. Questions that can exist because of a confident, positive and respectful classroom culture that welcomes productive dissent.

When we ask questions…

As teachers, when we ask questions, we have the opportunity to start students on a path of curiosity, to develop intrinsic motivation, and to encourage deeper inquiry. We need to ask questions that respond to a student’s needs, but also that have no easy answer. Questions that require students to investigate, form an opinion, and defend that opinion with fact.

Here’s an example of what I mean, in the context of math class. It’s certainly challenging to ask opinion questions in math class; ones that do not have a single, easy-to-look-up correct answer. Instead, we need to ask questions that require mathematical reasoning and investigation. Here’s an example of what I mean:

When I go to visit my parents (who live 500 km away), should I drive or fly?

There’s no easy answer to that question. It is, at its heart, an opinion, but I want students to justify their conclusions. They need to determine the variables that they consider important. They need to explain what factors influence their decision. They need to investigate the topic further. This is, on the surface, a simple question, but when it is critically considered, it becomes much less clear. It’s a big, messy problem without an answer key; a fuzzy concept that will ask students to work to define the boundaries of the question and the concepts it involves.

I love questions that don’t have an answer key included.

When students question us…

It’s important to remember that kids have a lot less experience than we do with good questions. In fact, I suspect that the bulk of their “question experience” relates to low-quality questions. Ones that make few cognitive demands, and can be quickly and easily assessed as right or wrong. Questions with an answer key. They might not be easy (especially in a test setting where you can’t just Google it), but they’re lousy.

Given that assumption (and if you disagree with me, you’re more than welcome to dissent in the comments), it’s important to remember that when students question you, it’s not personal; it’s professional. It’s a matter of teaching students not only good questions, but good practice in answering questions. I have a story that I often tell as an example of this:

I was doing a history review before the final exam. It was long. It was lecture-style. The kids were bored. Even I was bored. It was, plain and simple, not a good lesson. I had a student raise her hand, and she told me “I’m really not feeling this.” I thought for a moment, and then answered her honest expression with my own honesty: “I’m not either.” I changed tactics, and instead of lecturing, had that student lead the group in a game to review the content.

This was an example of a question (okay, loosely speaking, it’s a question) that I could have taken as a personal attack on my teaching. However, it wasn’t. Even kids who make it personal usually aren’t making it about you, personally. I always keep in mind that, as an educator, it’s not about me: it’s about my students.

My favourite question (right now) is the one at the top of this post: “What makes a good question a good question?”

I think that’s a really good question.