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Book Review and Further Thoughts: From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse

schoolhouse2How much does educational research affect teacher practice? Not much, according to Jack Schneider, Holy Cross assistant professor and author of the new book From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. Schneider, an educational historian who earned his Ph.D. at Stanford, picks up the torch carried by Larry Cuban and David Tyack for years. As institutions, schools are extremely resistant to change, and reliable pathways for translating research conclusions into practice are largely absent. So, when education practice does change as a result of education research, the reasons are worth close examination!

In the book, Schneider describes a model for the transmission of research-based ideas into practice, based on his study of four innovations that made the leap: Bloom’s taxonomy, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the project method, and direct instruction. Schneider is clear to explain that these four ideas represent the exception, not the norm. Also, the components of Schneider’s model for success hardly comprise a recipe. They are necessary, but not always sufficient, qualities for successful adoption. As Schneider expresses, luck plays a role.

Schneider’s conditions for successful transmission include: the perceived significance of the idea to educators; philosophical compatibility of the idea with current philosophy; occupational realism—the compatibility of the idea with practical constraints of teaching; and transportability, whether the idea can be simply explained and passed on. The four case studies share these qualities. Additionally, Schneider cleverly analyzes four other, research-based ideas that failed to gain adoption but bear striking similarities to the four that did. This provides strong support for the idea that the four identified characteristics are necessary conditions for adoption.Note that the scholarly merit of the idea does not make the list of success factors! With a positive reaction from educators, and a little luck, some research-based ideas tend to find adoption.

While a wonderful historical analysis, the book does not purport to predict the success of current educational innovations or provide a playbook for the design of future innovations. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder how the model applies to other, common educational practices, particularly those that we emphasize at U Prep. How does Schneider’s model apply to formative assessment, for example? Do we find such educational practices attractive because they meet Schneider’s criteria for successful transmission from research to practice?

Formative Assessment

We define formative assessment as actionable feedback on student work that does not count for a student’s term grade. Graded or ungraded, it provides students with insight into their mastery of the content, as well as a sense of direction for what to study more (or better) before the summative assessment. Not counting formative assessment in the term grade allows students to focus on the process of learning and deemphasizes the idea that students have fixed ability.

Perceived significance: Moderate. Teachers I have met almost universally agree that providing feedback on student work is one of their core responsibilities. However, teachers often balk at the idea that grades for ongoing work would not count in a student’s term grade.

Philosophical compatibility: The core idea of formative assessment is relatively compatible with common teacher opinions about student work. It’s hard to argue against feedback, and it makes sense that a student’s first assessment should provide signposts for subsequent work instead of affecting their term grade, which should reflect mastery achieved.

Occupational realism: The simple version of formative assessment is highly compatible with existing teacher practice. Just don’t count the first assessment of a body of knowledge or set of skills, then count the second or subsequent ones. The fuller concept, however, requires more significant change. The ideas that formative assessment should be specific and actionable represent a more significant departure from traditional teacher practice.

Transportability: The basic concept of formative assessment can be easily distilled to a few simple ideas and shared with teachers. Departures from the strategy are easy to spot in syllabi and examples of assessed student work. Authors and organizations have created a substantial body of conceptual and practical guides to formative assessments for the consumption of educators.

It might provide insight to apply this model to other educational practices, such as differentiated instruction, 1:1 student device programs, and individual teacher improvement. While these four criteria do not reflect any law of nature, they provide a helpful dose of realism when leading school change, underscoring the strong effects of professional culture.

Recent articles by Jack Schneider

‘If only American teachers were smarter…’ Washington Post

Closing the gap … between the university and schoolhouse Phi Delta Kappan

The Role of Data in School Decision-Making

Analyzing student and faculty data has added a critical new dimension to discussions of specific dynamics in our school. Teacher observations, administrator experience, and student anecdotes are all essential for the continual improvement of our school program. In addition, the trends, correlations, and distributions within our data have made our decision-making conversations more specific and helped resolve conflicts among competing, anecdotal points of view.

We have recently had success analyzing student and faculty data to better understand specific dynamics in our school. Many of these analyses become more clear through data visualization. Key questions include:

How often do we grant students’ top course requests?

Will our course offerings continue to accommodate a growing student body?

Are the foundational skills of our students changing over time?

Do standardized test scores predict academic performance?

What elective courses should we offer next year?

Do electronic textbooks save families money?

Our analyses of standardized test scores were the most rigorous. We created longitudinal charts of score means and medians, examined subscore trends as well, and calculated correlations among different scores. To confirm validity, three different groups performed the tests: myself, our statistics students, and a psychometrician from ERB. The fascinating, consistent result? The gut feelings of our community members have consistently had some truth to them, but anecdotal opinion has a tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify. Our data studies have both validated and identified the limits of anecdotal opinion. They have clarified the multiple facets of issues that people have reduced to simple statements.

Here are some examples of our data visualizations. Most are created in Excel using countif() and sumif() functions and chart tools. I apologize for obscuring much of the content for the sake of privacy. Instead of publishing it all publicly, I am presenting the full studies to the appropriate constituencies in our school community.

35 years of standardized test and GPA means

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Students’ initial thoughts about new elective courses

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Correlations among different standardized tests and GPA

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Longitudinal subscore analysis

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Print vs. Electronic Textbooks: Total Cost per Student

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Elective section enrollments

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Stanford+Connects Seattle

IMG_2572I relived a little piece of the Stanford experience and met interesting people at the Stanford+Connects event this past Saturday at the Washington Convention Center. These alumni events travel the country, featuring talks by the university’s president, several distinguished professors, and two students. I don’t ever make it to reunion events, and while I attend similarly timely and stimulating University of Washington or independent school talks from time to time, I don’t ever attend my college reunion events. I also got to learn about topics that I typically only read about or listen to through TED talks and NPR pieces. Some highlights for me: President Hennessy spoke to the many building and program development projects at Stanford, a number of which have emerged from the a recent comprehensive study of the undergraduate program. Among these: ten new joint majors that combine computer science with subjects in the humanities.

The five mini-lectures were most welcome, because of course I wanted to hear all of the speakers. These included two students: Westin Gaylord on a project that he and his friends started to write creatively every day, and Derek Ouyang on an energy neutral, pre-fab house core design competition for which he led a team. Three professors also presented mini lectures, Carla Shatz on restarting synapse generation in old age, S.V. Mahadevan on bringing emergency medicine to developing nations, and Robert Sutton on improving organizations by eliminating the bad. Dan Klein (with a nod to Patricia Ryan Madson) added an improv demonstration and three activities that got us out of our seats and meeting neighbors!

With a nod to our grad school memories, my wife and I attended David Kennedy’s historical review of water management in the U.S. west. Many alums fondly remembered Kennedy’s lectures, though this was my first! Kennedy shared a wealth of historical facts that laid the groundwork for contemporary federal water management practices, including many challenges. Did you know that the federal government owns fully 45% of the last west of the 100th meridian? This is in contrast to the east, in which the federal government sold nearly all of its holdings in the past. He painted a rather bleak picture for the future of the combined effects of rising global temperature, drought, and consumption increases.

Margot Gerritsen presented a detailed view into “unconventional” oil and gas, including tar sands and fracking. Her perspective, backed up with copious data, is that unconventional energy has already arrived, and we would be best served minimizing its negative effects than trying to “prevent” it from “emerging.” Gerritsen also demystified newspaper headlines, looking at the data to suggest that injection of chemicals into deposits during fracking is unlikely to contaminate groundwater, but water injection is in fact responsible for up to magnitude five earthquakes!

With a rare opportunity to learn outside of my field, I did not attend the one education session. However, I did take a moment to skim a paper by Candace Thille, who presented a session on big data and transformations in education. Thille is an expert on MOOCs and co-founded the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), first at Carnegie Mellon and now at Stanford. She echoes the distinction that others have noted between the original cMOOCs that adopt a connectivist pedagogy and the newer xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX) that have fueled popular interest. Thille then makes a further distinction between xMOOCs that simply put the university lecture hall experience online and those that make student data analytics available to instructors to further instruction.

Many thanks to the Stanford Alumni Association and Stanford Club of Washington for arranging a day of fun, learning, and contemporary topics.

Online Learning: Disruption or Niche Product?

Michael Horn recently delivered a webinar through NBOA, titled, “Disrupting Class: Five Years Later.” In the book Disrupting Class, Horn and Clay Christensen applied Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation to education. They concluded that online learning possessed the qualities of innovations from other industries that had started small, found a niche, developed further, and then displaced traditional practice. They boldly forecasted that 50% of all high school courses in the U.S. would take place online by 2019.

Going into this webinar, one might have expected Horn to backtrack or modify this prediction. We are now halfway to 2019, and online learning still appears to be a niche activity. In 2009, 1.0% of grades 9-12 enrollments took place online [Horn and Christensen]. In 2013, an estimated 5% of high school students took at least one online course (“Keeping Pace with K-12 Online and Blended Learning”), as compared with 13% of postsecondary students (“Changing Course:
Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States“).

In the webinar, Horn defended the 2009 prediction, stating that the U.S. was still on track to reach 50% of course enrollments online by 2019. He provided one important qualification, that the prediction now refers to online and blended learning. In this way, Horn has significantly shifted tracks from the 2009 argument. Horn also did not substantiate the claim with recent numbers, instead suggesting that hard numbers were hard to find.

The argument for disruptive innovation rests on several specific assumptions. One is that disruptive innovation follows an exponential S-curve, with slow growth at the start of adoption, then very rapid growth during majority adoption, and then slowing growth with the last adopters. Is online learning still growing exponentially, even in its early days? Even if so, early exponential growth does not by itself lead to full adoption, or else all schools might be Waldorf. Early enthusiasm for an idea can evaporate later.

The theory also requires several conditions, as identified in Disrupting Class. The innovation is much simpler and basic than the current products and services that it might displace. It meets the needs of nonconsumers, customers who would like to access education but cannot. The company or product is significantly separated from the main provider in that space, so that it can develop without being co-opted. The product or service meets an underlying consumer need better than the existing products or services.

Horn believes that online education, or more specifically blended learning, still meets these conditions. Online education continues to stand as an alternate model, in contrast to face-to-face education. Blended learning is currently less sophisticated than established, traditional schools. It is, according Horn’s examples, lower cost, due to facilities and staff savings. Horn also referred to his 2013 study of different forms of blended learning, demonstrating that a number of different models exist, though most still represent alternative forms of school.

Horn spent a considerable portion of the presentation describing the advantages of blended learning, such as personalization, individualized learning pathways, and student ownership of the learning process. In this way, blended learning might meet core student needs better than traditional schooling. Horn also believes that considerable nonconsumer populations have adopted online learning, which has helped the innovation get its start. According to disruptive innovation theory, this may provide the conditions needed for online learning to mature and compete with traditional schools.

Disruptive innovation theory has come under substantial fire for being neither scientific nor accurate, for example in a widely shared June 2014 New Yorker article. In the article, Jill Lepore excoriated Christensen for handpicking case studies, making circular arguments, and feeding off panic.

Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

In the webinar, Horn summarily dismissed these criticisms, and not even by name. He simply remarked that “a lot of people don’t understand” disruption theory and then proceeded into his prepared talk.

Private school leaders may have read Disrupting Class and rushed to plan their own online schools. Horn cited Global Online Academy and Online School for Girls, and I would add the Bay Area BlendEd Consortium to the list of prime examples. However, one might be surprised to hear that Horn does not believe that disruptive innovation theory applies to elite private schools, nor does he think that online and blended learning will displace them. Private schools are defined by a selective admissions process and a high-end product, which is likely to stay ahead of online education in perceived quality. In addition, elite private schools have the resources to co-opt online learning if they choose to do so, and as perhaps GOA, OSG, and BlendEd already have.

Horn’s new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools is due for publication in November. Presented as a practical guide, the book suggests that “blended learning is one of the hottest trends in education right now, and educators are clamoring for ‘how-to’ guidance.” Given this description, I am not confident that Horn will further explore the theoretical and empirical basis for his arguments. However, as secondary schools have relied more on practical experiences and community sentiment (as expressed by enrollment) to craft program, perhaps this book will further inform private school leaders’ strategies for online and blended learning. If you cannot wait until November, you may want to read two of Horn’s prior articles on the topic, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning” and “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to the theory of hybrids.”

 

The Smartest Kids In the World

Each summer, U Prep faculty members read a choice of three books to kick off the professional development theme for the following academic year. This year, our professional development theme is “Teaching for Understanding,” defined as curriculum design and teaching practices that lead students to acquire deep, enduring understanding of subject matter and skills. The first book, The Smartest Kids In the World, asks what the United States high school education system can learn from comparisons to three countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Written by a journalist, the book meets our summer reading criteria of readability, thoughtfulness, and connection to our professional development theme for the year.

book-photo-smartestSome authors, it seems, try to write a book from material that would have done just as well as a magazine article. The Smartest Kids In the World is no such book. Impressive in scope, Amanda Ripley explores and connects several topics worthy of a full volume. Ripley begins by explaining the origin of the PISA test, the basis for recent comparisons of student performance among different countries. In several subsequent chapters, she tells the stories of three American high school students who each study abroad for a year. The three stories weave in and out through chapters organized connected to principles from education research. Making specific connections between research and practices supports Ripley as she explores the implications of the three students’ experiences. The appendices provide information useful to parents, such as Ripley’s take on things to look for when you observe a school and what PISA reveals about beneficial parenting habits.

Ripley repeats her primary message throughout the book: national education reform is possible, because here are three countries that have made massive changes over relatively short periods of time. Finland rocketed up the standings by overhauling its teacher selection, preparation, and induction programs. Poland committed to rigor and student accountability in order to emerge from the damage wreaked by political instability. South Korea is portrayed as two systems: formal schooling that students largely ignore, plus night tutoring centers that do the real job of teaching students. Ripley, the journalist, observes, summarizes, and then concludes, lending support to her recommendations.

Ripley sees several lessons that the U.S. should learn from these three educational systems. High expectations are critical for both teachers and students. Ripley’s students find themselves behind as a result of moving from the U.S. to these countries. National testing enforces high standards, leading to rigorous study habits and high quality instruction. Each of these countries has a high-stakes, national exam toward which students are constantly working. Unlike in the U.S., the national exam has direct career implications for students, so that they have high motivation to work hard and succeed. High standards for teachers make it possible to uphold high standards for students. Finland’s teacher education programs have high entry requirements. In South Korea, a second, the most effective night tutors profit directly from these business ventures. Poland provided teachers with curricular freedom while implementing more rigorous standards.

Common Core notwithstanding, the U.S. education system is primarily directed by individual states. Can these reforms, found in other countries, work in the U.S.? Ripley finds such a state in Minnesota. This completes her argument: if three U.S. students find more rigor abroad, and a U.S. state can similarly improve, then this must be the way to go. At the same time, Ripley pulls no punches in her criticisms of the dominant mindset in U.S. education. Ripley repeatedly cites examples of a failure to commit to high standards, hold students individually accountable for their performance, and select the best teaching candidates and prepare them thoroughly for teaching.

Ripley’s argument passes the “common sense” test. High standards, teacher preparation, and accountability certainly makes a good formula for improvement in education systems. The book also serves as a useful introduction to international comparisons. As a New York Times best seller, this message has broad reach. However, her book is less useful for the purpose of making actual education reform in the U.S., as Ripley’s argument skirts a number of important additional questions required to reform education systems.

Let’s start with PISA, the foundation for these international comparisons. Does PISA predict future economic success for individuals? The path to employment in the U.S. is very different from other countries. For some industries, high school math preparation may lead directly to professional success, particularly in those professions in which accurate completion of tasks is most important. However, new, information-based industries have fueled more recent growth in the U.S. economy. Procedural, and even conceptual, mastery of high school curricula may not build the thinking skills that individuals require to be economically successful adults. Ripley does not extend her thesis to adults and their professional success.

With all of the education scholars that Ripley cites, her omission of Yong Zhao is particularly notable. Zhao also compares education systems in other countries and finds that some, like China, are actually looking to reduce their emphasis on rigor, performance, and long hours of study and emulate the U.S.’s focus on education options and creativity. While the two approaches reflect different conclusions from international comparisons, Ripley could strengthen her position by addressing Zhao’s work.

While Ripley supports her main points well with evidence, some minor points read as pure opinion. Her argument that students in other countries have gained strong conceptual mastery and critical thinking skills is not well-supported. Any standardized test is limited in its capacity to measure higher-order thinking skills such as making connections among different ideas, inventing new ideas, and identifying themes within and among disciplines. While the PISA may do a better job of assessing higher-order thinking than other tests, the format has unavoidable limitations. Ripley also does not address the subject area strengths in the U.S., for example literary analysis and writing, which typically do not receive as much attention in other countries.

U.S. education systems emphasize choice and student direction. Diverse elective course offerings are a hallmark of U.S. schools, allowing students to personalize their own education based on their interests. The emphasis on choice continues into college. Is this part of the reason why the United States has succeeded in generating dominant, new industries over time? In most other countries, students commit to a specific professional track early and subsequently lack the flexibility to shift disciplines as they learn more about themselves and as national economic needs change. Finally, Ripley’s suggestion that teacher kindness towards students undermines teaching effectiveness is suspect. While the U.S. system places the burden of motivation on individual students, and does not serve all students equally, it also offers many avenues for achievement and excellence. Many examples exist of benefits to students who have strong relationships with their teachers.

With The Smartest Kids In the World, Amanda Ripley makes an welcome contribution to popular education literature. Now the opportunity exists for U.S. education systems to give teaching higher status and support in order to achieve higher standards and student success that most would like to see.

Library Commons In Higher Ed

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Jim Mullins, Dean of Libraries at Purdue University. Jim described the process by which Purdue Libraries developed their new Active Learning Center, a concept and $70m building described as, “a learning commons for the 21st Century.” The following ideas from the talk stuck with me.

The library commons concept, a “noisy” library in which students study, work in groups, access resources, and relax has reached the university level. Purdue, with the support of the State Legislature, is transforming their main libraries to keep pace with how students now use information and technology.

Purdue feels that their concept is unique in that it more fully blends classrooms with libraries than they have seen at any other institution. At Purdue, pilot classes have their regularly scheduled meetings within these flexible library spaces. The library isn’t just a place to occasionally hold class. It’s the main space where class takes place.

The Active Learning Center project includes intensive support and mentoring of professors to make their instructional techniques more generative and collaborative for students. Each professor was provided with an instructional expert, technology expert, and librarian to support curriculum transformation. A number of teams work successively with a series of instructors, expanding the number of instructors and courses that feature active learning. The main examples shared in the presentation showed students working in small groups at tables, while instructors roamed the room listening in and providing suggestions.

Minimal user technology is provided by the school. Students predominantly use their own devices to access information repositories and audiovisual displays using their own devices. Basic needs are emphasized: food, coffee, comfortable seating, and power are thoughtfully incorporated into the physical design of the spaces.

An anthropologist provided key findings that played a large role in the design of the Active Learning Center. Hiring an anthropologist, or at least adopting an anthropologist’s mindset, is becoming more popular as a core method to inform design.

Having just finished our second year with a library commons, we at U Prep can heartily endorse this approach. The Purdue initiative to create new spaces, support teachers with instructional coaches, and fully consider student experience has the shape of a well-coordinated school initiative. At least one of our teachers has started to schedule classes in the library during ordinary weeks, not just research projects, in a manner similar to the Purdue Active Learning project.

 

Course of Study Communications

In place of the customary evening parent meetings, I have produced two videos to orient U Prep families to the process of course of study planning. I hope to ultimately reach more families by producing a talk that parents can view at any time. I’ll also leave these videos on our online Course of Study pages for prospective families to view in the future.

Data Visualization For Learning

While written and oral language dominate instruction, the explosion of visual information has created new opportunities to represent complexity, reveal themes, explore data, and communicate information in powerful ways. Here is an overview of some of my favorite examples of visual data representation for education.

Molecular Models

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Image from http://pymol.org/

Students cannot see individual molecules and are normally confined to shaded textbook illustrations and small plastic model building kits. Molecular modeling software represents data from crystallographic analysis of substances as 3D graphics. This allows students to more fully develop their mental concept of molecules through zoom, rotation, color, and different representations (line, spheres, mesh, etc.). Students can quickly load and manipulate dozens of different molecules (e.g., amino acids), or large molecules with interesting symmetries and structural regions (e.g., DNA, proteins).

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An alternate representation of water (http://pymol.org/)

Graphs and Charts

Most of us cannot discern patterns and trends in numerical data and instead rely on graphs to reveal them. Commonly available graphing tools have continued to improve in sophistication and integration with specific types of data sets.

GapMinder opened many eyes to the explanatory power of visually representing a huge variety of demographic data. Trends in HIV infection rates, distribution of wealth, and dozens of other data sets become visible through bubble charts. Animation makes visible trends as the data changes over time.

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HIV Epidemic 1980-2009, GapMinder

Logger Pro draws line graphs of experimental data collected from Vernier data probes. This creates nearly instant visual representations of physical phenomena as they happen.

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WorldMapper displays international demographic data differently, by distorting the sizes of countries based on different demographic measures. Map mashups have taken social networks by storm in the past year, whether in the more complex form that shades states (or even counties) based on different measures or the simpler form that simply labels states with words or visuals to reflect a trend.

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http://worldmapper.org

The D3 JavaScript library likely represents the future of mainstream data visualization. Anyone with a command of programming fundamentals can use the library to create stunning, animated representations of custom data sets. Such animations now occur commonly in mainstream publications such as the New York Times. The D3 website contains over 200 examples with source code, which one can download and modify for personal use. The range of visualization formats is stunning, driving home the idea that a practically infinite series of graph types exists beyond the usual bar, line, and pie charts. Interactive animation allows the user to see relationships and themes within the data in a manner that goes far beyond static charts.

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Source: http://d3js.org

Word Clouds

Word clouds represent text information in a simple way, by having the word size reflect its frequency in a body of text. Its effect is very direct, albeit limited, as single words lose a lot of their meaning out of the context of phrases and paragraphs. The word clouds of all of the State of the Union addresses is an effective example of making themes in history visible through word clouds.

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2013 State Of the Union Address, ABC News

Concept Maps

Concept mapping has been around for a long time but hit its peak with the use of Inspiration software. Learning specialists have advocated concept and mind mapping for years to allow students to visually organize concepts for pre-writing as well as conceptual understanding. When paired with high quality questions and feedback, concept and mind mapping can encourage critical thinking and direct study of the relationships among concepts in a topic.

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Example concept map from Inspiration.com

Earth and Space

I recently saw one of the old “Puget Sound From Space” posters hanging in a classroom.The qualification from space seems quaint now that our students can smoothly pinch and zoom satellite databases using their own phones and tablets. Thanks to Google Earth, perhaps we no longer consciously realize that most geographic and stellar imagery is a visual representation of satellite and telescope data. Radar and spectral data is combined with colorization to represent distant or very large objects as if we are viewing them with our eyes. We would also do well to remember that the objects we “see” are also only the mental representations of the patterns and qualities of light passing through our eyes and interpreted by our brains.

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http://frontierfields.org/

 

Dark Sky app updated

Dark Sky still gives a pacific northwesterner what he needs: expected rainfall for the next hour. The new update nudges the app in the direction of fully featured weather apps but with a design that Jay Z would love.

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Reflections on Computer Science

We at U Prep are partway through the redesign of the school’s computer science program, to reimagine it as the study of foundational principles of computational thinking, accessible to all students regardless of prior background, and inclusive of highly engaging specialities such as robotics and website development.

The full plan includes three computer science elective classes, the integration of computer science activities into required middle school classes, and advising student clubs in robotics and other technical pursuits. This way, we will give all students the opportunity to do computer science and also provide those interested in further study an array of engaging opportunities at more and less technical levels.

While we put the full plan into place, we decided to offer a computer science course to students this year, even though our new model was not yet fully developed. Student interest was very high, and teaching a class would give us first-hand experience with developing curricula around these new principles. We staffed the course by hiring a subject-matter expert to partner with me as the experienced teacher. At the same time, we began the search for a full-time computer science teacher for next year.

We designed the course to teach fundamental concepts in algorithmic processing and data structure design through programming activities, so that students would receive explicit instruction in foundational principles of computer science while also learning programming skills. Programming was the most common learning activity, and key concepts included use of functions to repeatedly perform tasks, thinking logically and sequentially, breaking a problem into smaller parts, and figuring out how to organize real world data into structured elements. We made explicit links between the problems students were solving and the underlying concepts and thinking skills that are used throughout computer science.

We wanted students to learn to program in an environment that they would be able to use subsequently in future courses and their personal pursuits, to mirror how computing is now used in all fields of study and professions. We chose JavaScript as the development language for several reasons. The web-based applications that students commonly use (e.g., Facebook, Google Drive), are written in JavaScript. Study of JavaScript helped demystify software development, as students recognized the input elements and output formats that they created. While not an entirely strict language, JavaScript has consistent enough structure and data typing that we could teach these principles perfectly well. The development environment (Komodo) is free and multi-platform, ensuring that students could develop using their own computers and continue to use what they learned after the course was complete. The output environment (Chrome web browser) is familiar, yet students gained a new level of understanding of web page structure and performance as they created website software and debugged it using Chrome’s developer tools.

Most class time was spent writing code to solve specific problems, small ones at first and larger ones later. Students analyzed grade level enrollments, Sounders FC player salaries, and animated bouncing balls and streaming bubbles. Each activity built up students’ understanding of programming constructs, input and output, functions, parameters, and return values, conditionals and loops, arrays and objects, speed and memory usage, and more.

Students completed both a substantial individual project and a self-designed group project. In each, we explored how to analyze a real-world problem and design a solution, how to create, test, and refine software, and how to bring a project to completion. The group project introduced new dynamics: how to share, divide, and reconcile project design and development tasks among team members, and how to use an online, collaborative development environment to work on a project within a team.

Students also completed an individual research activity, in which they found and interview a computer science professional and made a short presentation to their classmates. This helped broaden students’ concept of what it means to do computer science work. Not all interview subjects were software developers, and a number applied computer science to other fields. Students learned that computer science is useful in all pursuits.

Bubbles activity
Practice with arrays, objects, Canvas, loops, and functions