Posts Tagged ‘science’

A Three-Step Guide to Getting your Kids Watching Science Documentaries

April 27, 2012

Perhaps your children are different, but mine tend to prefer more straight-up entertainment when it comes to their TV watching.  The Amazing Race is about as close to a documentary as it comes.

If your kids are like mine, sometimes you need to connect the dots a bit in order to get them excited about more straight-up educational programming.  So here’s a little tip that might help out, courtesy of a couple of claymation features.  Here is my fool-proof three-step method:

Step 1: Take your kids to see The Pirates! Band of Misfits this weekend: The great team of animators at Aardman just released their latest.  Rotten Tomatoes is giving it a more-than-solid 87% fresh rating.  I hear it may not be their best, but it is still full of silly fun and wonderfully animated.  Seems like a great treat for children of all ages.

Step 2: Watch Wallace & Gromit at home: Let’s take for granted that your kids dig the movie.  Whenever that happens, my boys are always eager for more. Nick Park’s classic characters are still the cream of the crop for Aardman.  I would recommend the full-length feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit, an absolutely hysterical flick with the likes of Ralph Feinnes and Helena Bonham Carter joining the cast.  If you can’t find that movie, Netflix is streaming both the three original W&G short films, and the most recent, a half-hour feature called A Matter of Loaf and Death.  All are great fun and will likely hook your kids on both Aardman and the gang.

Step 3: Watch Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention: Assuming your children are clamoring for even more W&G, it just so happens that just released on Blu-ray is the six-episode series that originally aired on BBC.  I got mine at Best Buy for $14, so it’s not a major investment.  It is a classic frame series, as W&G host a news show that sends viewers to segments done by real people.  The man-dog duo have some sort of classic invention-related gag in each episode, like feeding a pet elephant brussel to bring electricity to the studio through “wind power.”

The actual stories themselves are very well produced and interesting (though make sure to explain the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit, as they don’t) .  I watched the one that looks at how people are taking designs from the natural world and shaping man-made inventions out of them.  From taking a page out of the manta ray for transportation to machines eating bugs for power, to a man who may have just figured out how to build Atlantis, it is a great way to see how nature, science, and engineering can work together to bring creative solutions.  And with an elephant fart joke built in, how can you go wrong?

So there you go.  I hope everyone has a great weekend, and if your child ends up becoming a great engineer due to my three-step program, remember I get dibs on the first flying car ride.

Are Coaches Better Teachers Than Teachers?

April 25, 2012

A couple of days ago, I came out of a joint meeting between the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington County Public Schools that I serve on, and the Science Advisory Committee (SAC).  We came together because we recognized that in the County’s focus on bumping up student math and reading scores on state standardized tests, our two subjects were, more and more, being pushed to the side at the elementary school level.

Book improved, but I learned the key is HOW the material is taught

I had initiated the idea of the two committees getting together because I had heard the SAC’s presentation to the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) on which I also serve (Note: This makes me sound like an education expert—I am not.  I’m just a Dad who got involved in the PTA and got pissed that my son’s Social Studies book stunk).  During their presentation, I was struck by the fact that, despite the significant differences between the two subjects, there were core similarities in the way historians and scientists think. Ask a question (“Why is the sky blue?  Why did the Allies win World War II?), form a hypothesis based on a base-level understanding.  Research to confirm or refute hypothesis.  Present evidence and conclusion as argument.

Such a process not only applies to drawing conclusions, but thinking creatively.  Whether it is presenting ideas on how best to feed the most people with the least environmental impact, or arguing whether the world would have been better off had Weroance Opechancanough had driven the English invaders out of America in the 1600s, this process of thinking is essential to teaching children how to apply knowledge.  Time and time again, the business executives of today are clamoring for employees not with encyclopedic knowledge of a particular area, but the intellectual curiosity to learn, a capacity to work well in teams and think creatively in driving toward new solutions.  Indeed, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has coined the term “21st Century Thinking” to promote the importance of just this approach.

Loewen uses Virginia's standardized tests as example of how to do Social Studies wrong

And yet despite the obvious expertise and experience far beyond my own in the meeting, I could not help but feel frustrated that we spent most of our time talking about the standardized tests and how to help kids meet required levels for subject retention in elementary school.  While I understood the need to look at these tests to at a minimum ensure that Social Studies and Science are taught at all at the elementary school level, I found it frustrating that the base thinking skills that these two subjects can teach, and when taught together can reinforce, really played second fiddle to learning the content.

Frankly, that feels backwards to me, especially at an elementary school level.  While learning basic arithmetic and reading are fundamental building blocks for learning, those are no more important—and no more teachable—than the thinking skills that subjects like Science and Social Studies can instill in young minds.

So what does all this have to do with my rather provocative title, you might ask?  After the meeting, I ran into a fellow ACI rep and friend from back in my arms control lobbying days Natalie Goldring, who is now a professor at Georgetown University.  Natalie sits on the Gifted Services Advisory Committee.  Always a font of sound information and ideas, Natalie brought up a key issue that their committee is looking at, that of differentiation.  She noted that this was not simply a process to figure out who the gifted kids were, but to get a sense of the relative level of each child in order to ensure that they are deriving an educational benefit no matter what level they are on at the time.  Standardized tests and the “race to the middle” often robs advanced kids of the ability to explore beyond the norm, and makes struggling kids feel like they simply cannot learn.

courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

It was then that a light bulb went off in my head.  As a baseball coach, I am all about differentiation.  In teaching the kids an appreciation for the game, I can plainly see how much kids know about the game itself (how many outs in an inning, where is your play with runners on first and third, etc.) and their relative skill level (fielding, throwing, hitting).  My goals have always been constant.  Teach them to understand and love the game, improve to the best of their abilities, and learn to think and act like a team even in this, perhaps the most individual of team sports.

But, of course, I do not have to test my kids…or do I?  Games are actually the ultimate tests—they put our practice into demonstrable effect.  But what defines success for one player (catching a fly ball) may be different for another (allowing the ball to drop, but keeping it from getting past).  Failure isn’t permanent, but transient, as other opportunities are always in the offing.  Supporting your teammates, talking to each other about defensive positioning, backing them up in case of overthrows are all crucially important.  And counter-intuitive thinking (swinging harder actually slows your bat down, pitching slowly can actually be more effective than pitching fast) are crucial to understanding and improvement.

In other words, one can make the argument my coaching approach teaches my five-to-eleven-year-olds more of the 21st Century Learning Skills better than the conventional education system does.  Not only that, but kids at all skill levels derive benefit without being subjected to the often damning law of averages.

Of course, I’m hardly the first or only person to have this revelation, and as I noted I’m no education expert.  So I will practice what I preach and provide evidence to support this hypothesis.  In the education section of the book Abundance (Yay, finally working it into a post!), authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler cite a number of provocative examples of both the problem with the current educational methods, and the potential solutions of shifting to a more coaching-oriented method.  Here are some of the most notable ones:

The Grandmother Method…: Indian physicist Sugata Mitra tested children at a slum nearby to his office by putting a computer out for public use.  He found that without instruction, they were learning how to use the computer and find information off the web by working together well enough to score 30 percent on a subject test—amazing evidence of the power of team-based self-motivated learning.  But when he added on another layer he coined as the “grandmother method,” in this case a slightly older girl who had no knowledge of the subject, but encouraged the kids with positive feedback like “Wow, that’s cool, that’s fantastic, show me something else!” the test scores jumped to a 50 percent, which as the same average as high-school kids studying the same subject at the best schools in New Delhi.

… Becomes The Granny Cloud: Bringing that same method to England, Mitra created a Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLES) method where four children always share one computer at school.  In areas where there are a lack of qualified teachers, he created a “Granny Cloud”—a corps of grandmothers from all over the UK that agree to tutor the kids for an hour a week on Skype.  Test scores on average increased 25 percent for students being urged on by coach grandma.

Focus on Retention=Less Retention: Our current educational emphasis on fact retention is not actually ending up with students retaining knowledge.  Two fifths of all high school students need remedial courses upon entering college.  In Michigan alone, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy estimates that remediation costs college and businesses about $600 million a year.

Gaming Makes Learning, Testing Fun: Dr. James Gee, a linguist at Arizona State was stunned to find out while playing the video game Pajama Sam with his six-year-old the surprising complexity and difficulty of the game, and the fact that despite failure and frustration, it somehow held his child’s attention.  He concluded through study that a game-style system where learning is integrated in an interactive, problem-solving environment, and grades are cumulative based on your progress (like a video game), rather than a zero-sum game penalizing both a lack of knowledge (an F) or putting an upper boundary on what can be achieved (and A), kids were entirely more motivated to learn at their level, and integrated creative thinking and problem-solving into their work than in more traditional environments.  Schools like Quest2Learn in New York are integrating this philosophy into a curriculum where activities include creating graphic novels based on ancient poems, and playing strategic board games such as Settlers of Catan.

Technology Frees Teachers to Coach Rather than Lecture: Salman Khan, a successful hedge fund analyst in Boston decided to help out his younger cousins in New Orleans by creating some short YouTube videos teaching basic math and science facts using a digital chalkboard.  He soon discovered that his cousins actually preferred the video version of Khan to the real one (at least for learning) because they could pause and rewind where they didn’t understand, skip ahead when they already got the point, not feel embarrassed if they didn’t get something the first time, and, if they really had an issue, would only then ask for personal help.

Sorry, just couldn't resist.

The result is the Khan Academy (which just released its current library of 2,200 videos in App form) and a whole new style of teaching.  Partnering with the Khan Academy, the Los Altos School District in Northern California are assigned to watch Khan Academy videos as homework, and the class time is spent solving problems provided by Khan.  Correct answers earn points that are in turn traded in for merit badges.  As Diamandis and Kotler say, “This lets teachers personalize education, trading their sage-on-a-stage role for that of a coach.”(emphasis added)  In the first twelve weeks of the project, students doubled their scores on exams.

Yes, in a number of cases I am ironically using the example of traditional test scores— something I railed on earlier—as an example of the success of a coach-style, process-over-content approach to learning.  Yet in conflict resolution, one of the steps is to find the “win-win” scenarios.  In an environment where standardized tests on all subjects are likely be a major part of the educational landscape for some time to some, using the proof that a different approach to teaching not only helps create the kind of more adaptable and employable thinkers that today’s employers desire, but actually better satisfies the baseline educational tests seems to me the definition of a “win-win” solution.

Of course many teachers are already doing many of the things that I am talking about, including several that my sons have had at their school.  But until the 21st Century Learning Skills have been elevated right along the “Three Rs” in the way we teach our kids, we will not institutionalize the kind of education that is most valuable, empowering, and, just as importantly, just plain fun for our kids.