Saturday, February 28, 2015

What can we learn from the Million dollar teacher?

Richard Spencer's a science teacher from Middlesburgh, who teaches biology using dance, songs, games and so on. He’s up for the $1 million Global Teacher of the Year Award. I’m not sure about these awards, another is the WISE Prize for Education at $500k. For me it’s all about the learning not the teaching. By focusing on the teacher, the articles read like lottery winner stories with no real analysis of what they do. Most teachers will know about the $1 million prize and Richard has had lots of publicity, but how many teachers actually know, in detail, what he or his students do? How many are replicating his methods?
Theory and practice
Richard's work does surface some important pieces of learning theory that fly in the face of those who see teaching as a craft, not to be polluted by science, research or learning theories. He teaches biology which, at A-level, has some pretty complex language, structures and processes, primarily in molecular biology. Rather than stand and talk at his sitting students, hoping that this stuff will stick, he 'elaborates' the concepts so that they really do stick, in the practical sense of retention and recall. In short, he uses some pretty basic psychology and learning theory to blend his courses.
Blended learning
What does he do? Well it’s neither new nor radical. It’s a ‘blend’ of experiments, videos, models, role play, games, poems, songs and dance to make his lessons more memorable for students. He refuses to just lecture, although he does include some straight talks in his teaching. Cleverly, for some complex processes he recognizes that role-playing those processes will result in higher retention and recall. For example, in his songs and dances, they wear coloured bibs to represent chromosomes and DNA neucleotides. In his DNA Boogie, the structure is made explicit by becoming part of the molecule and in the Meiosis Square Dances, students act out how chromosomes are shared between cells as tissue grow. The students become the chemical structures, then move and interact with each other to represent what happens in that biological process. He claims that, “years down the line they can still recite the songs, even after 15 years”.
What is actually going on here? In terms of learning theory his method could be summed up as the use of blended learning that includes lots of ‘elaboration’ to improve retention and recall. He is optimising his blend, matching elaboration techniques with the learning outcomes. For simple naming the learners stand and chant the structure using their bodies and arms as cues. For processes, they line up and move around. For chemical interactions, they start to interact with each other in groups. This is not blended teaching, it’s blended learning. There's a difference.
What helps here is a simple understanding of Declarative (semantic & episodic) and Nondeclarative (skills, priming, conditioning) memory. Put simply, the difference between knowing that and knowing how. Once you understand these different forms of memory you can blend more successfully, even using one form of memory to help another. Elaboration, along with spaced practice is little understood in education but it can be incredibly useful for novice learners, who, despite what we think of the curriculum, do have to retain and recall large amounts of knowledge across a wide range of subjects.
Body as a cue factory
In singing songs and using your own body as a “basic memory trigger’ Richard Spencer is using the theory of ‘cues’ to improve memory. This theory was expanded by Tulving and others to show that recall is aided by ‘cues’ which are a bit like the handles on suitcases, in that they can be used to haul out larger amounts of content. Cues can be things that you already know, such as your own body, episodic memories such as the route you take to school or the layout of your own house. In particular, the body can be used for a huge amount of any biology curriculum. The advantage of using your own body is that this is the one thing you can take with you into any exam. It’s a travelling cue factory. 
Learn by doing
Then there's a well researched area, that is largely ignored in teaching practice, learning by doing, The simple idea that ‘doing’ results in deep processing, by using other channels and forms of memory, is well known. Yet we insist on getting students to sit down for hours on end while we ply them with information that appeals to only one form of memory – semantic. What Richard is doing here is linking semantic information ‘words, concepts and processes’ to songs and dances that act as cues for recalling that semantic knowledge.
An additional benefit of Richard's blended, elaborative, cued approach, is that the learners can go off and practice these songs and dances themselves, even if it is just recall and rehearsal in their heads. They offer ample opportunity for rehearsal and practice, leading to reinforcement into long-term memory and better recall.
Richard is not charismatic, he’s enthusiastic. In fact he’s so ordinary, if you watch the videos, it all seems a little gauche. As he says “It’s not about creating a celebrity teacher but good teaching…. getting people to talk about teaching globally”. But the key issue here is that it’s not about him, it’s about what the learners DO. That’s why I think these prizes are misplaced. This is not about great teachers, it’s about better learning. This is not about blended teaching, it’s about blended learning by DOING, with a hefty dose of elaboration – well known and researched topics. The problem is the lack of good theory informing practice and relying on excuses, such as 'teaching is a craft or practice'. This simpely begs the question - what practices? Wouldn’t it be better, not to send Richard careering round schools, teaching other teachers his dances, but to capture this stuff and share it through online CPD? To this end I’ve tried to collate a few links that may be useful.

DNA Boogie dance

Meiosis Square Dance

For a step by step explanation of the dance:


Friday, February 27, 2015

Holy shit – swearing in conference presentations works!

If you know me, or have heard me speak at conferences, you’ll know that I’m partial to the odd swear word. This is never planned, it is part of my everyday speech. I should add that I’m Scottish, which far from being an excuse, is simply a description of a culture more attuned to swearing than more mild-mannered England. Billy Connolly, a genius when it comes to oral delivery, could never have come from England. Ireland maybe, England never.

Swearing study
Let me start with some science. I’m not saying this study is definitive but it is at least one study, with a control, that shows the beneficial effect of swear words in presentations. A speech about 'lowering tuition fees' was delivered to three groups :

Group 1: Used ‘Damn’ at the start
Group 2: Used 'Damn' at the end
Group 3. No swearing at all

The swear word at the start or end had the most effect (defined as the ‘persuasiveness’ of the speech). It also enhanced the perceived intensity of the speaker. Interestingly, it neither enhanced or damaged their credibility.

Why I swear
I don't swear because this study gives me an excuse to juice up presentation style. I occasionally swear because I’ve always felt that swear words add something special – they’re the magic dust of language. 

First, when unexpected, they jolt people to attention. Who would deny that this is useful in the anodyne and often mind-numbingly, boring world of lectures, conferences and presentations. Second, attention is a necessary condition for learning – it aids retention.

Third, they have meanings which other words do not have. Shakespeare is full of filth and swear words. When I described Gove as someone who fitted his job like a ‘prick in a codpiece’, I felt as that this was a pretty good analogy.

Fourth, they’re emotive terms and if, like me, you argue that lectures and talks are hopeless on the transmission of knowledge or skills, but strong when affective, attitudinal or emotive, then they can play a vital role.

Fifth, it is time we started to puncture the pomposity and break the sheer boredom we witness at conferences and lectures. I’m not fond of those that cower behind lecterns, reading from pre-typed notes. Above all, I’m not fond of being bored. Which of us has never experienced the excruciating, almost painful levels of boredom at lectures and conferences?

Sixth, if you’re ‘offended’ by the occasional swear word, I’m offended by your lack of sensitivity toward freedom of speech and the cultural/linguistic norms of others. I find the censorship of ordinary language offensive.

Seventh, I don't give a fuck.

Having often sworn in presentations, I’ve received blow-back for swearing. At ALT, many moons ago, I was roundly tweckled for daring to suggest that lectures are an ineffective form of teaching (how radical). All I can say is that this talk led to me talking on this subject for a number of years ar universities all over the world. The YouTube versions reached over 25,000 people, and on the whole, it stimulated a pile of debate.
A second example was in a webinar for an Americal learning organisation about VR, where I wanted to show a video of a girl swearing while killing zombies in a VR game. They wanted it out of the presentation. As I was doing this for free, I said no. They came back and said, let's do it with  warning at the front. I said fine, as long as it's not me doing the warning. In the end we went ahead and there was no warning. What a load of baloney.

My friend, who was at the time a Board Member of Channel 4, told me of an instance of a game, where you have to get a pre-agreed word into your conference speech. At the annual Edinburgh TV Festival he told me of a speaker he knew who had to say ‘cunt’, which he did by asking the audience what words were banned by the BBC. See what I did there – swore at the start and the end – that’s science folks.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The problem with Maths is ‘English’ - 'twenty' examples

Maths is difficult to learn and hard to teach. But one BIG problem, which few parents fully understand, is language – the use of English.
Jack, do you know what volume means?
Explain it to me.
Ok, it’s the button on the remote control that makes your TV go louder.
English is irregular
English is a magpie language, highly irregular and puts more load on working memory and that leads to more errors. Beyond working memory it is important to know that irregular terms have to be stored separately in memory, regular forms don’t have to be. This extra work, and extra steps, places an extra load on working memory, which has a limited capacity in terms of ‘registers’ and manipulation within these registers.
1. Number words
Chinese (Japanese & Korean are similar) has just nine number names from which larger numbers are generated, compared to English, which has more than two dozen unique number words.
2. Words shorter
Chinese speakers can easily memorise this sequence of numbers 7,3,5,6,9,8,4, compared to only 50% of English speakers. Why? Our working memory has to cope with words that are longer. Their number words are short, sharp sounds, like si and qi, not long-winded words.
3. 11 & 12
They say ‘ten-one, ten-two’, rather than the unique eleven and twelve. ‘Eleven’ and ‘twelve’ come from ‘ain-lif’ and ‘twa-lif’, meaning one-left and two-left (after counting up to ten) in Old German.
4. 13 & 15
English number names are more irregular than you’d think. For example, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen. Wouldn’t it be easier if we also had oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, and fiveteen?
5. 20, 30, 40, 50
In counting by tens, we have a similar discontinuity. There are sixty, seventy, eighty and ninety but there are the irregular twenty, thirty, forty and fifty.
6. Teen reversal
With two figure numbers, if we keep counting up, the numbers above twenty will have the tens first (e.g., fifty-six), whereas for the numbers below twenty we put the ones first (e.g. thirteen).
7. Place value
So, rather than ‘twenty eight’, they say ‘two-ten-eight’. This hurdle for English speakers is ‘place-reversal’ as the English language reverses mathematical place: six-teen rather than ten-six, which causes problems when dealing with double-digit calculations. Partition, or breaking numbers down into parts then adding, subtracting, multiplying etc. is much easier if ‘making a ten’ is easy linguistically.
8. Hundreds & thousands
Take the number one hundred and four. The child may know one hundred is 100 and that four is 4, then say that one hundred and four is 1004. Similarly with one thousand and eleven and so on. This is not a problem in some other languages.
9. Addition & subtraction
In adding eighteen plus seventeen in your head you have to reverse both numbers first then add them. If you ask children to add seven hundred & forty eight and forty two, in English, they will need to convert those words to numbers (748 + 42) and then do the addition. In Japanese, this would sound like, “seven-hundreds; four-tens; eight plus four-tens; two.” There are far fewer things to interpret, hold in working memory then manipulate as ‘place’ is reflected in the structure of the language.
10. Numbers are not just numbers
I have a two baths of water at 25 degrees centigrade. What is the temperature if I pour a bath of water into the other? Some children will say 50 degrees. Why do kids double when they're meant to square? Because that little number hovering up tere is a '2'. Confusing or what?
11. Division & multiplication
Multiplication means things get ‘bigger’ and division means things get ‘smaller’ – right? No. if I multiply ten by a fraction the numer gets smaller and if I divide ten by a half the number gets bigger. It’s easy to teach surface maths, that teach real maths. This is just one of many examples where you have to ‘see’ the problem.
12. Fractions
Take the fraction four ninths in English, the same number in Chinese is ‘one part out of nine, take four’. The language literally unpacks the fraction, this makes the fraction not only easier to understand but also makes the addition, subtraction and other manipulations of fractions easier.
13. Shapes
The Finnish language has a lot of words which are easy to understand, if you're a native, even if you don't know the word originally. An example ss the shape ‘Hexagon’ in Finnish is ’kuusikulmio’, which means ‘a shape with six corners’. This allows the child to imagine and recall the shape with greater ease. In English, we’re lumbered with obscure Greek and Latinate prefixes.
14. Alphabet
Maths may seem like an exact language but its ‘conventional’ use of alphabetical letters can be confusing:
a,b,c tend to be constants (fixed values)
A,B,C points on geometrical figures
i,j,k,l,m,n tend to be integers for counting
x,y,z unknown variables
This can cause confusion in the interpretation of problems and geometric images images.
15. Share & straight
These two words seem straightforward but research shows that children often interpret these words differently when learning maths. If I said ‘Ten sweets are shared between Rob and Jack but Jack has four more than Rob’ responses such as ‘But they’re sharing so they must have 5 each’ are not uncommon. Similarly, when children hear the word ‘straight’ they may interpret this as just vertical and horizontal and not regard a sloping line s straight. These linguistic traps are difficult for adults to spot but easy for children to fall into.
16. Instruction
You can be asked to: find, calculate, work-out, how many
Addition: Add, make, total, plus, addition, make, sum, altogether, fewer
Subtraction: Subtract, take-away, deduct, minus, leave, less, difference between
Multiplication: Multiply, by, times
Division: Divide, into
Surveys, where children voice their difficulties have uncovered many problems around the use of these terms for mathematical problems.
17. Literacy hits maths
Low levels of literacy may lead to poor or no understanding of the often convoluted problems that mats teachers and textbooks set in maths. Most are unlikely to ever have been heard by the child before, many using language that is beyond their reading age.
18. Poor, wordy test items
Many maths problems, set in exams, are more tests of complex literacy than maths. This is why over reliance on word problems may hold children back as they fail to untangle the linguistic traps that are inherent in English and poor assessment items. Too many obscure, word-based, test items involve unpacking tense, comparison and change models that are beyond the actual testing of addition or subtraction.
19. Vicious circle
Asian language speakers, from an early age, get more success from their efforts, This creates a virtuous circle, where learners get quick results and feel as though numbers are easily manipulated. Compare that to the vicious circle of English learners, who have to cope with the irregularity of the language problems and cognitive overload.
20. Culture of ability not effort
One last, but seriously fatal, cultural difference may be the fact that some cultures see failure in maths as a lack of effort, not ability. We have a culture that all too often uses the language of ‘talent and ability’ not ‘effort’.

Appearances are deceptive in maths. For most children it seems like a subject full of traps, deliberately set to fool you. The problems set are often badly worded, convoluted and unrealistic and often not enough variety of problems are used. This is exactly why teachers need professional training, as the effective teaching of maths needs a deep understanding of what has to be learned.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Only 60% attend lectures & plummets across semester & week – and that’s at Harvard!

Whenever I hear the word ‘pedagogy’ in HE, I reach for my gun. Again, institutions that have the ‘one hour lecture’ as their core ‘pedagogy’ need to have their heads examined, or at least read some basic psychology on attention, storage, practice and recall. In short, lectures go against everything we know about the psychology of learning. Of course, if you do question it, you need to duck as the stones from glass houses come at you like hailstorms. I know – I’ve been there. That’s why this Harvard study is a killer, but first some reflections.
University rankings are a lie
University ranking tables are perhaps the most mendacious form of marketing known to man. They are, quite simply, a lie. Why? They say nothing about ‘teaching’ the reason for most of this marketing effort is to attract students and funding (monetising). The reason they say nothing is that they don’t measure anything. It’s all proxies. The Times rankings are a case in point. They claim that their ranking scores include teaching. In fact, only 30% is based on teaching but they use NO direct metrics. The proxies include student/staff ratios (which is skewed by how much research is done) and, even more absurdly, the ratio of PhDs to BAs. It is therefore a self-fulfilling table, where the elite Universities are bound to rise to the top. There is no direct measurement of face to face time or student satisfaction. They don’t even measure how many students turn up to lectures, their primary form of delivery. Imagine a restaurant that doesn’t record the number of customers that eat its food or the film that doesn’t measure its box office numbers. This puts paid to the idea that HE is anywhere near the Big data world. It is closer to the no data world.
When you then ask why they don’t measure this stuff – the reason is clear – they’re scared. Studies on lecture attendance are rarer than dragon’s teeth. Even when you do find one, it is usually flawed by being self-reported data on both attendance and reasons for non-attendance. In addition, they are usually single courses and the selection of those courses does not eliminate bias in the selection process. In short – they’re fatally flawed.
We lecture because we always did
Schank, a major academic and learning expert, has been looking at this issue for over 30 years thinks he has the answer, and I agree. Fundamentally, we lecture “Because we always did. No one wants to change this really. We are all just used to it.”
Lectures are lazy
Beyond this “Lecturing is a lot less work for everyone….they are the lazy person’s approach to education. Both lectures and listeners agree that neither of them wants to do much work. Real work, and real doing, and real conversation, is all that matters for learning, but education is really not about learning”. Read this piece for further elaboration.
Harvard study
For once we have a solid study that covers a wide range of courses and relies, not on self-reporting but actual attendance. It’s smart, as they use a camera to identify and count the attendees. Go Pro cameras were used in four lecture halls on time lapse, with software that was verified as accurate in counting attendees. If you are in any doubt here, the count was validated against manually counted images and found to be astonishingly accurate.
10 courses were studied:
1. Only 60% (average) of students attended any given lecture
2. Attendance declined over the semester, from 79% to 43%.
3. Attendance declined over week
2. Incredible variability between courses (38%-94%)
Why the difference between these two sets of courses? Attendance on the top three were graded.
Given the fact that Harvard has some of the best academics in the world, consistently hits a top spot in university rankings and that it costs somewhere north of $70,000 a year to attend, you’d think the students would be pretty full on when it comes to lecture attendance. If these numbers are true, imagine how bad the rest are!