The Plastic Brain


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Notes from a day with Steve Francis.

Today’s Student Free Day was led by Steve Francis, and focused on a strategic direction of the school:

Student Engagement

I took some notes which barely scratch the surface, and may only acts a prompts for people who were actually there. Where possible, I have hyperlinked to his original sources. Here they are:

A survey of Year 10 students has found that the main characteristics for good teacher are:
  • Positive relationships with students
  • Fairness and equity
  • Passionate about their subject and teaching
5 levels of engagement (Schlechty, 2002 ) See also here (pdf).

  • Authentic engagement (flow)
  • Ritual compliance
  • Passive compliance
  • Retreatism
  • Rebellion

7 Reminders for Good Teaching
  • They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Passion sells
  • It’s not about US. It’s about THEM
  • High expectations and the self-fulfilling property
  • Maximise time in the Learning Zone
  • Make it meaningful
  • Show students how much they need to learn
Live the reputation you want to have.
You should have been doing so already, but if not, the second best time is now.
Cores of Credibility (Covey 2008)

  • Integrity
  • Intent
  • Capability
  • Results 
 
Working on the Work (Schlechty)
  • Content and substance
  • Organisation of Knowledge
  • Product focus
  • Clear and compelling standards
  • Safe environment
  • Affirmation of Performance
  • Affiliation
  • Novelty and variety
  • Choice
  • Authenticity

 

Summary

I take away many new ideas, but mostly it was the resounding reminder that teaching is all about relationships. Engagement, trust, integrity matter. Passion matters.

At the end of the day we are teaching our students, not our subjects. The human element makes it messy, but it also makes it thrilling and rewarding. Don’t be afraid to expose your flaws and admit your mistakes. At the same time strive to improve, and demand the same from your students.

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10 Ways to Use Lego Robotics to Teach Things Other Than Robotics

I met Rob Torok today at the Google Digital Curriculum Summit. Along with Damien Kee, his online resources helped to kick-start my learning journey with Lego NXT Robotics. I was talking to him about some of the things we have done or could do at my school, using NXT robotics in the curriculum. He challenged me to provide a list of 10 things we could use robots for, that wasn’t primarily about teaching robotics. Challenge accepted!

[1] Mathematics: Coordinate Graphing – program robots with y=3x+2 equation. Each group gets a different x value. Robots drive forward y rotations. What pattern do they end up in?

graphlabels

[2] Physics: Energy transformation – Use sound sensor to record the sound of a bouncing ball. Use peak intervals and decay to discuss conservation (and loss) of energy (hat tip to Damien Kee)

[3] Art/Maths: Drawing systems – attach pens to Domabots and program to drive in complex, recursive patterns.

[4] Biology: Coordination of Body Systems – combine an NXT kit with a chemistry kit to control the flow of liquids. Model bladder fill/empty feedback system (see here)

[5] Mathematics: Interpreting graphs – Use light or sound sensor to record input over a long period. Analysise data retrospectively. What do you think happened in the room over time, when? (hat tip to Damien Kee)

[6] Biology: Ribosomes – The ribosome is an amazing piece of biochemical engineering which translates messenger RNA codons (three-letter sequences) into a strand of amino acids to make protein. I have planned, but never built, a device which would take a paper strip as an input, and read grey scaled boxes (light sensor) or colour patches (colour sensor) in groups of three, then translate them into an amino acid letter sequence. The hardware build wouldn’t be too hard and the program should be fairly straight-forward. It would use the ‘genetic code’ as its reference.

[7] Chemistry: Reaction rates – We already have reactions which turn cloudy, and students use a black cross under the beaker to determine when it is too cloudy to see. This gives you a single time point used to estimate a reaction rate. Using the light sensor on one side of the beaker, and an LED on the other would give a data log of the whole process of precipitate formation (in real time).

 

[8] Physics: Sustainable energy – When teaching Year 7 students about sustainable energy they came up with the idea of using the light sensor to track the sun across the sky. By using this to rotate a solar panel, maximum power generation can be achieved.

solar

[9] Computer Science: Data transmission – Encode a message in binary and send out bits using the light or sound output. Use the corresponding sensor on a recipient device to record the signal, then decode.

[10] Earth sciences: Building Earthquake Test-table. This device was used to generate oscillation for a shake table. We tested different building designs for their ability to withstand increasing levels of vibration, controlled by the NXT device (see video for full set-up).


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Google Digital Technologies Curriculum Summit

I sent in an application at virtually the last minute, but it seemed like too good an offer not to throw my hat in the ring: Flown to Sydney to participate in a two-day summit discussing the implementation of the Digital Technologies strand of the Australian Curriculum, hosted by Google.
The application required the usual details, some short sections on how you use technology and, here’s the kicker, a one minute, vision-statement video.
I’ve made videos before, I know how long it can take to make even just a short one. This was a long-shot, and I didn’t want to waste much time. I threw something together, uploaded it to Youtube, and pressed submit. It’s embarrassing, but I suppose I should link to it.
Miraculously, my application was successful, and here I am, at Google HQ in Sydney, about to meet some great folks, learn a lot and hopefully pick up some great ideas.

Day 1

Keynote: Maggie Johnson
  • Computer  science is an important skill in our society
  • The demand for people with CS skills is greater than the number of graduates
  • We can address this by teaching computational thinking (see this seminal article)
  • Computational thinking is as important as literacy and numeracy
  • Google has done a lot of work defining what computational thinking is, and how we can teach it
  • The core of their definition is Abstraction: the ability to take a complex situation and reduce it to its important features
  • Pattern recognition was the other key skill she discussed
  • Combining these allows you to take a pattern-to-program approach to coding (at Google they have students code in python)
  • Interestingly, for teaching purposes they also had students work on program-to-pattern problems: run numbers through commands and investigate patterns in the output data

Digital Technologies Update: ACARA Julie King

  • Digital Technologies will form part of the Technologies stream along with Design and Technology
  • Core of subject is around: Computational Thinking, Design Thinking and Systems Thinking
  • Aim is take make students creators of technology, not just users.
  • Will be taught F-8 to all students, and as an elective subject from Year 9.
  • ACARA will be working closely with Scootle to produce resources for teachers

From e-learning to free learning: Dr Chris Tisdell
  • The future of education is: online, on-demand, mobile.
  • Youtube is a powerful tool for scaling teaching and allowing students to control their consumption of his teaching content
  • Doesn’t require a lot of know-how or equipment to get started
  • Analytics helps him to data mine student learning activities
  • However, lacks the personal touch. So Tisdell uses Google Hangouts to provide live webinars where he can respond and give feedback to students
  • He has also written a large, free text book to accompany his Youtube channel
CS Unplugged: Tim Bell
  • Computational thinking does not require computers
  • Foundational core skills (which can be very sophisticated) can be taught through simple and fun activities
  • There are some excellent teaching resources through CS Unplugged and CS Field Guide

Unconference Sessions

  • Computation thinking and digital technologies should be embedded across the curriculum
  • We can use new language and approaches (possible moving away from coding) as ways to engage with reluctant students
  • Need new models of professional learning (primarily face-to-face and buddying) to help colleagues upskill
  • Focus, as always, should be on good pedagogy
  • Student-centered learning and project-based learning are important directions
  • Transparency in syllabus design and providing student voice and choice
  • School structures (logistical, administrative and even physical) need to change to facilitate, rather than impede these changes
  • Open classrooms with observation as the norm helping teachers learn from each other
  • Need to sell the message to get parents and communities on board

Day 2

CS Unplugged 

  • Activity 1: Using “bit cards” to explore how numbers and letters are encoded in binary.

DSCN0938

  • Activity 2: Treasure Hunt (Finite state automaton)

DSCN0939

Can be drawn for stopwatches, microwaves, DVRs, etc, etc

  • Activity 3: Information Theory. How much information do you need to define a number?DSCN0940
For a number less than 8, it is only 3. But, in compression algorithms we can use assumptions about the data in order to narrow down the range. The assumptions are based on context – what does the data (eg colour in an image) look like around the one you are encoding.
  • Activity 4: Sorting Algorithms. Pairwise comparisons (select and sort).
DSCN0941
DSCN0945
Chris made a great time-lapse of the process here.
Nick Falkner

Nick is an academic at Adelaide University, doing amazing things in the School of Computer Science. He is part of a team launching a new program with Google which will “help teachers encourage the next generation of students become the creators rather than consumers of digital technology”

 He asked us to explore:
  • Ideas
  • Resources
  • Community
  • Scale of effort

Nick asked to consider where these things have come together for us. How did it work for you?

This is what our group put together:

DSCN0946

Key take-home for me was encapsulated in the central diagram: PD should happen in classroom, to students and teachers at the same time! Great idea Phillip.

Why do computer science? Fun, change the world, be ready for the world.

FIRST Robotics

Just the setup looks exciting. Can’t wait to have at it!

DSCN0948

Such a great session that I didn’t get a chance to take many process shots, but here are some of the robots our groups put together.
DSCN0966
The EV3 systems (both the hardware and software) are a great incremental improvement on NXT and Mindstorms, but a still completely intuitive for people experienced on the old platform. Had a blast.
Finally
HUGE thanks to Google for an amazing Summit. It was great to meet up with so many passionate people and share ideas. Much to think about (and implement!).

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(For conference tweets, search the hashtag #googledigiteach on Twitter. Storyfied here)


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Striving for Happiness is Futile. Try Curiosity

It’s going to sound like heresy but when we make our objective of life to be happy it’s problematic… I think it’s the wrong objective in life and this is something that’s become very clear to me as someone who’s taught classes and been studying wellbeing for 15 years.

I’ve been listening to an All in the Mind podcast (MP3 and transcript), in which Lynne Malcolm interviews Todd Kashdan. He’s the Professor of Psychology at George Mason University in Virginia and author of Curious: Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. His thesis is that rather than pursuing happiness, we should embrace curiosity as a guiding principle. In the interview he discusses how being a curious explorer of the world allows you to be present in the moment, and enjoy the wonder of life. A key theme is embracing uncertainty: we cannot immerse ourselves in curiosity if we feel we cannot handle a sense of not knowing.

…we think that curiosity is all about just something new and mysterious walking into our field of vision.  But there’s another part of curiosity that people miss: it’s besides whether we think there’s something new or uncertain or mysterious. We need to believe that we can handle that novelty and that uncertainty, and if we don’t feel that we can handle it we’re not going to feel curious; we’re going to feel confused or we’re going to feel threatened.  And often the reason people don’t feel this sense of wonder is because they don’t feel like they can handle or tolerate any of the tension that comes with the unknown.not handle a sense of not knowing.

Kashdan explores the connections with positive psychology, neuroplasticity and growth mindsets. In particular, he has strong views about fostering curiosity, and how we should interact with children. He is essentially talking about our own children, but it can be easily extrapolated to our students.

…there are some studies of people in New Zealand following children at adolescence for four or five years and showing that even when you account for how intelligent children are, the more that they seek out stimulation the more that they’re curious explorers the more intelligent they become over time, the better they do at school, the more satisfied they are with school, the better relationships they have with teachers.


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Five Lessons Learned from a Week in Industry

Recently, I’ve had a lot on my mind. In the last week, I have been taken out of my usual context, and been given the opportunity to look my teaching from a new vantage point. The results have been profound.

But before I talk about this week, I’d like to look back at the last month. I’ve been reading a lot of literature, attended a conference and had discussions with colleagues on pedagogies, mindsets and positive education. It has been revolutionary, and changed the way I approach my teaching. It has coincided with a particularly busy phase in our pastoral care program: course counselling for our Year 10s as they head into their final two years of schooling (the SACE). This, in a way, sets the scene.

In separate part of my  job, I have been working in a team to develop innovating and interesting projects to increase student engagement in STEM subjects. In particular, our STEM team has just finished our second 10-week course for primary students. The STEM Initiative aims to introduce students to our high school, and provide enrichment and extension for students interested in Science, Maths and Technology. Funding to support the STEM Initiative has come through the Advanced Technology Project (sponsored by the Defence Materiel Organisation). As part of their work to link teachers with industry, they recently awarded me an Industry Placement, which brings me back to this week.

My placement is at SAGE Automation, a national company (founded in SA) which provides automation solutions for a variety of projects and industries, including the Arnotts, SA Water, Southern Expressway, Holden, Mining companies and big defence contracts like the Air Warfare Destroyer. When I started my week-long placement on Monday I expected to learn about their business, and take some ideas back to school about what industry employers are looking for and hopefully generate some authentic Maths and Science tasks. However, I had no idea how the concepts of mindsets and positive education would link to the engineering and management practices at SAGE.

Here are some of the lessons I will be taking away with me:

1. The Importance of Mindsets

One of the key goals of my placement was to find out from industry what they need in graduates, and what we can do to better prepare our students for the work force. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time this week talking to employees (“What do you think got you this job?”) and managers (“What do you look for in your employees?”). Without exception, every answer has centred on the attributes outlined by Dweck in her work on growth mindsets. The ability to grow, adapt and learn from mistakes in key.

mindset_sm

“SAGE…only hired people who shared the passion to drive exceptional outcomes for our clients….

Loyal and diligent employees live our core values and are empowered to deliver certainty for our clients. It’s an exceptional culture and one of which we are fiercely proud.”

Founder and MD, Andrew Downs.

The other area of my reading which is implicitly practiced in the workforce is Seligman’s Signature Strengths. Every person I’ve met at SAGE seems to embody the notion of working with your Strengths to generate meaning and purpose. Each member of their teams is passionate about what they do, and is given the opportunity to work with their strengths to make their contribution to the overall project. All of this works synergistically to promote that ever elusive state: flow.

2. Attitude and Adaptability

Sounds like a great place to work, doesn’t it? So what advice do they have for students who want to land a job in such a hi-tech, innovative industry? Work on your attitude. Being persistent, but friendly, reliable and punctual are the keys to the steely gates of HR. Form emails just don’t cut it. Pick up the phone, meet and greet, put yourself out there and do whatever you can to make a good name for yourself. Also, don’t expect to always have the same job. Employees in industries like this need to be flexible. Projects can be short or long, come from a range of sectors, and require a range of skills. While the managers do an excellent job of tracking expertise and allocating human resources, every job involves a degree of learning and adaptability. What’s more, clients can be temperamental and change specifications mid-project. You need to be able to adapt and rework your solutions. In teacher-speak, they are looking for life-long learners. [As an aside, I was talking with one of the managers, only half-jokingly, about how changing the assessment criteria one week into a summative task would be a good life lesson for students.]

3. The Maths that Matters

SAGE employs a lot of software, electronics, mechatronics and robotics engineers. Engineers are heavily into the maths subjects at school and university – in fact engineering courses are the most prerequisite-heavy courses in the SATAC guide. We can’t hope to, or should even try to, teach middle school students the maths they would need in some of these high-end career paths. However, certain skills seemed to stand out as key foundational requirements:

  • Ratios, rates and conversions: this week I’ve seen a lot of this: Gearing ratios, scaling, flow rates, belt speeds, pay rates, converting Bars to kPa, microseconds to milliseconds and Euler angles to Quaternions (yeah, look it up, I had to).
  • Boolean logic: Despite its ubiquity in all computer science, which is fundamental to the way we live today, Boolean logic is virtually absent in the Australian Curriculum.
  • Schematics: The process of reducing complex visual information down to schematics, and the reverse operation of reading diagrams and applying understandings to complex systems is fundamental in engineering. Align with this are the skills of reductionism and integration.
  • Interpreting data: In the Maths classroom, numbers usually float freely, only occasionally being linked to context. In industry, numbers are data. They always have meaning and significance. They may be money, dimensions, hours worked, rates, flows or instrument readings. Knowing if the numbers are within an expected range matters and being able to identify trends and investigate patterns is paramount.

4. Project Management and PBL

One of the biggest things I’ve been learning has not been what they do at SAGE (which has been very interesting and informative) but how they do it. As you may have gathered from the above, SAGE’s business runs on the basis of Projects. Each has a unique number,  a Project Manager, a number of engineers and other staff assigned to it. In order to keep everything running smoothly and everyone on the same page, they use a defined set of procedures called the TEP (Technical Execution Practice). The TEP is based on the “V model” below.

V model

The V model starts by looking at your requirements, and designing a solution. On the downside of the V, you break that down to smaller and small tasks which you achieve. In the instance above, that relates to developing IT solutions. On the upside of the V you integrate those small pieces, constantly check back to your design and requirements to see that you are meeting those initial requirements. The final stage is the delivery of the finished product – in this case a finished IT platform.

I’ve been interested in Project-based (PBL) learning for a while, and I’ve completed a couple of units which may be considered PBL (although everyone seems to have a different definition of what qualifies as PBL). One of my key reflections has been how difficult it can be for the students to know what is required and where they are up to. This would lead to major issues in industry, so naturally they have developed structures to avoid this (hence the V model and the TEP). Inspired by the TEP, I have been working on generating supporting documentation and a new “project vocabulary” for managing PBL. It also ties in beautifully with the trend for using design-based thinking and the IB MYP Design Cycle. Not only should adopting these models improve the PBL process, but can be used to explicitly teach highly transferrable workforce skills.

5. Change management

SAGE is a business which is interested in growth and innovation. Change is an essential part of their operations. One of the most valuable sessions I had during the week was with the Engineering Operations Manager. He ran through the process of change management which he had learnt from his guru, and which he was enacting at SAGE. It seemed simple, but therein lies the genius:

  1. Set a clear and common vision for the organisation
  2. Have short-run (in this case 100-day) Strategic Projects (SPs) which take you closer to that vision
  3. Work in teams to achieve projects in a transparent way*
  4. Celebrate your successes.

* Everyone knows what the teams are, what they are doing, and why, and can see the progress they are making. This is achieved by literally printing the SPs on A3 sheets and pinning them up in a common staff area. Online seems good – but people just won’t check it.

Even if the aims of each SP are small, incremental progress is evident, morale grows and directed change is happening.

Lasting lessons

I will certainly come away with what I was hoping for. I have some great videos and resources, contact with potential guest speakers, and am writing new activities and assessments. However, I will also come away from my experience at SAGE with a new outlook on not only what can be achieved in the classroom, but what can be achieved within organisations. The company expertise is in making things work effectively and efficiently. Their practices provide a model for both students and teachers.

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Thank you to all of the staff at SAGE, who have been so welcoming, patient and generous.


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Murder on Detroit Avenue: STEMxCON13

I will presenting at the STEMxCON on Saturday morning in Adelaide. However, since it goes out to a global audience, I am hoping that some participants will be checking in on Friday afternoon from the US.

So, what is STEMxCON? From their website:

Welcome to the Global 2013 STEMx Education Conference, the world’s first massively open online conference for educators focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and more. The conference is being held over the course of three days, September 19-21, 2013, and is free to attend!

STEMxCon is a highly inclusive event designed to engage students and educators around the globe and we encourage primary, secondary, and tertiary (K-16) educators around the world to share and learn about innovative approaches to STEMx learning and teaching.

You can view the schedule in your own timezone here. Check it out, there are some amazing talks that will be happening 24hrs a day.

Case cover

My own talk is titled: 

Murder on Detroit Avenue: An interdisciplinary STEM Unit

…and a link to the full description is here.

As a courtesy to STEMxCON participants and readers of this blog, the Case Notes which I wrote for my murder investigation role-play can be downloaded here: Case file. The slides from the talk are here: STEMxCON Final

I am looking forward to presenting, as well as attending as many of the talks I can. Some to look out for are from my colleagues at the the Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS).

Finally, to keep up-to-date, check the STEMxCON website and follow @stemxcon on Twitter.

[EDIT]

My session went really well, and I am so grateful for those who came along and got involved in the back-channel chat. The full recording of the session is available here, using Blackboard Collaborate (MP3 Audio and MP4 Video also available).
Two great outcomes for me were:

  1. The positive feedback really gave me the drive to further develop unit and ensure that I run it again next year.
  2. We had a discussion about including more literacy skills, and bringing in an English teacher. The unit provides a perfect platform for a persuasive writing piece. It could also be the springboard for a creative writing piece.

Tracy Watanabe followed up on Twitter with a couple of great Tweets, which really made my day. The second tweet includes links to some pretty amazing programs, in which the Police and Journalism students are involved in Forensic Science units. Love it.


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“Journeys to Flourishing” Positive Education @ Seymour College

I had one of the best and most inspirational days of professional development today, exploring the world of Positive Education with expert speakers and like-minded educators. There were so many highlights that it would be impossible to summarise them all here.

Instead, I have provided below a summary of some of the key points from the opening Keynote address by Assoc Prof Lea Waters, who looked why it is so important to understand Positive Education, and try to incorporate it into our practice.

“The Why of Positive Education”

Assoc Prof Lea Waters, University of Melbourne

Looking at why Positive Psychology matters

The key driving factor for “why?” is the statistics which show mental illness and depression in young people. The severity and youth of sufferers are also increasing. Of great concern also is the likelihood of underreporting and the number of subclinical cases.

These issues were brought into focus by a poem which Waters showed, called The Lost Generation. Watch it now.

Waters described the poem as “a lovely palindrome to reflect the field of positive psychology”. I think it is genius, and it certainly produced an emotional reaction.

Research, PP and Education

Waters presents Peterson’s (2008) of definition of PP

Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology that conducts scientific inquiry into the factors that help individuals, communities and organisations thrive by building on their strengths and virtues.

She then looked at research in the field, including her own, highlighting that schools have a unique reach to support young people.

One of the main windows into understanding PP is Professor Corey Keyes’ Two factor theory. On the left are the more traditional strategies of removing negative states – the usual focus of psychology. On the right, the more rarely used strategies for promoting positive states.

Removing negative states

Promoting positive states

Take away obstacles

Bringing in enablers

Waters’ research shows that in 1992 only 1% of articles in psychology journals focussed on promoting positive states. In 20 years that has risen to over 4%. Still, more that 95% of research published focuses on removing negative states.

PP, as a field, is interested in bringing both of the factors together. “Why do we wait until something goes wrong?” Seligman talks about PP as a psychological immunisation. The aim is to turn psychology into a profession of prevention, rather than reaction.

Benefits

Promoting positive states has clear clinical benefits. It was also made clear that absence of illness is not the same as wellness. This means that it is beneficial for all students. Not just those who are ill or at risk.

Another key point is to be aware of what PP is not. Positive psychology is about resilience thinking, not positive thinking.

Literacy, numeracy and wellbeing should be our aims aim primary school. Wellbeing, like the other two, is teachable and learnable. It not only supports the others, but also so many aspects of education and child development.

The academic benefits of PP programs were also reviewed by Waters (link). Students enrolled in social and emotional learning programs ranked 11% points higher on achievement test (controlled for many variables)

Programs are useful, but infusing wellbeing into your practice is the key.

Conclusions

It seemed clear to me that this is an area well worth exploring. It has far reaching implications, can make real differences to student wellbeing and academic outcomes, and is evidence-based. What’s more, it feels right and is easy to start. Personally, I have identified language and practice changes which I can make on Monday.