Anti-Exams: A different approach to final exams

(Please note, this idea was also the idea that I submitted for my application to the Microsoft Expert Educator Program for which I was selected. Here is the video I submitted as part of that application. I presented about this topic in Barcelona, Spain in March)

Ahhhhhhhh, it’s that time of year, and if you’ve read my BLOG posts over the years you know I am not big on standardized tests and exams, but instead of dreading the upcoming exam “season”, I am so excited because it’s one of my favorite times of the year.

WHAT?! Better let me explain

I do have exams in my classes, but they are different than you are imagining.

Students present and demonstrate their expertise in robotics, game design, and hardware.

In my 9th grade classes, students pair up and put on a demonstration/presentation table for two of the topics that we studied this semester in class. They prepare an entire table display area as well as an engaging hands-on presentations to show-describe-present about-explain-teach what they’ve learned. They dress professionally and for an hour one evening, we invite all the parents in as our guests. So, we’ll have 40+ parents and 20+ students in our library with sounds of robots, sound effects from programmed games, and various clankings of computer components being put together and taken apart as parents build computers piece by piece. Lots of proud moms and dads who are charged by us to ask lots of questions and find out “why” as often as “what”, but also to enjoy their own hands-on experience with their children as teachers. Parents wander around and interact with other students, parents, board members, and other teachers. Truly a wonderful night! What a great chance to finally find out the real answer to the dinner-time question, “What did you do in school today?,” “nothin”. Uhm, I beg to differ. And, you know what the hidden secret here is: They spend so many more hours preparing for this evening than they ever would studying for a normal exam. And I’ll argue that most students forget within hours what they crammed in their head for exams….yet my students will remember their presentation for years(and for some a lifetime).

Finally, students really do know more than their parents

In my 10th grade class, students will again have their parents involved in their final exam, but this time the students will actually be leading their parents through an learning workshop. Each student will choose to lead their parent(s) through the entire process of either 1) building a small XBox game , or 2) building a small website with SQL database and data entry form. Students are not allowed to touch the mouse or keyboard, so pressure is on them to explain and teach well, so that parents can not only design it, but understand how they did it. As any teacher will vouch, it’s one thing to do something; it’s an entirely different thing to teach someone else to do it. In preparation for the event, students spend the week before designing the entire project and practice “teaching” the entire project to a fellow student–that way when mom and dad get there, it’s not their first time. When students start to realize that they have to lead their parents without any notes or cheat sheets, they start to dig in! And because they are all “in this together”, the collaboration that occurs during that week before is amazing. As in the previous year, students spend so much more time preparing for this than they ever would for a paper exam. The look on the faces of mom and dad when they complete the project is worth all the time and energy that goes into this. Now, when dad asks, “What did you do in Computer Science today”, he gets a dramatically different answer. That’s what I’m talking ‘about. This year, I added a small component which I really liked: students are allowed to bring in a TweetCheat: 140 characters of anything they want to have at their fingertips during the workshop…otherwise they have to lead the entire project from their head. Some use it to list steps, others to jot down hard to remember code samples, some use it for notes.

A student demonstrates her Kinect interactive simulation: a CSI crime scene investigation where you collect evidence, extract DNA, process the DNA and use that data to determine the culprit.

In the 11th grade classes, students present yet again, but this time it is to a panel of expert Venture Capitalist judges who will hear their presentations, run the projects themselves, and evaluate each student’s performance, code, and project. Students spend an entire semester working on one project (a game, activity, or simulation for the Xbox game system using Kinect, Dancepad, and/or hand controller) In a science fair-like scenario, judges tour the room spending time with each student, where students can present however they see fit depending on who the judge is. The presentation they give to a successful entrepreneur business executive is very different than the one they give to the Marketing Director of a company and even more different than the one they would give to a professional game designer. At the end of the evening, our “Venture Capitalist” judges panel will be investing money into the projects in which they saw potential. Each judge gets $5000 that they can distribute as they like. (The panel consists of one high school senior, one alumni from our Computer Science program, one professional game designer, one game design firm marketing director, one Computer Science teacher, one math teacher, one Microsoft executive, 1 professional from the IT industry, and two successful entrepreneurs from the community. Throughout the semester, we also discuss about the business side of Computer Science as well, so students think about marketing, promotion, target audience, demo and phsycho-graphics, and elevator pitches as it relates to their own project. Because each judge is looking for something different, students have to determine the best way to present and demonstrate. The Computer Science teacher wants to hear about the challenges they faced in order to figure out how to overcome programming problems, the game designer wants to hear about the sound effects, and graphics of the game, the marketing director wants to hear about the storyline of the project, the gamer wants to experience the “flow” of the game, the college student wants to hear how they programmed their game, etc. At the end of the evening, just for fun, we announce how much venture capital investment money each project received. What we see is that an average project with a great presentation can be effective…and in the same sense a really great project with a mediocre presentation can be ineffective. We try to help students have well-done, unique projects and that they determine the best way to present to each judge.

Some of the most amazing projects we’ve had over the year are:

  • 3D Flight Simulator using the human body as the wing control device, and the DancePAd for the flap controls.
  • Track and Field simulation with the player actually running down the track as they answer questions about history.
  • DNA Crime Science CSI investigation where you collect samples, extract and analyze DNA with your hands.
  • SAT Vocabulary Practice using the Dancepad.
  • A discus throwing motion analysis program complete with demonstration videos.
  • A bow and arrow hunting game where you are hunting math problems as they fly across the sky.
  • A air piano style of music maker where you use your hands in the space around your body to play music

But, were these really exams?

Well, if we define exam as a culminating experience that requires students to bring in what they’ve learned and apply that to use it in new ways; if we define exams as a rigorous experience which really “tests” to see if students have learned the material and requires them to demonstrate that understanding; if we define exams as a chance to synthesize a large quantity of information….if the allow ourselves to let the exam itself be a learning experience which is actually something students look forward to and enjoy and take great pride in….

Then I’ll argue our exam not only meets all those criterion, but exceeds them. Students will spend 2-3 times longer preparing for this kind of effort than they would “studying” for a traditional exam. And because they cannot cram for this; because they can’t fake it; because we are not asking them to regurgitate a bunch of words but use them as a vocabulary to demonstrate , teach, and explain; because they are forced to create an entire presentation , it allows us to bring creativity, expression, visual, presentation, written, motion, language arts, fine arts, and Computer Science together in true cross curricular nature

The exam itself is a learning experience on its own.

Imagine if every exam they took was like that? I imagine the impression people have of exams would be very different than what most people have.

I’m getting a few hundred hits per day on this BLOG, so I know there are people from around the country (or world) reading this right now steaming with disagreement and anger, full of reasons why their objective multiple choice exam is better than this…still grasping onto the coat-tails of a long since outdated & shredded & broken & ineffective exam process. And this in-your-face BLOG post like this is not going to persuade them.

But, do I believe there are teachers, administrators, political leaders, community members,……even students out there who think there is a different way to look at education.

If something you read here makes sense, we should connect.

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The Changing of the Nerd

Finally being a nerd is cool. Being a nerd is marketable, profitable, and even sexy. It’s also finally realistic and advantageous and certainly needed by society.

oldcomputerThere was a time where access to electronic and digital tools was non-existent for “regular” folk; using electronic tools to collect and analyze information was not something you or I could reasonably do; the cost of gadgets and digital equipment was so high that only elite scientists, hard core engineers, prestigious universities, government agencies, and large corporations could even afford it, much less use it. Being part of the world of science, research, and discovery was just not possible for the layman.

But over the last few decades, our world had changed. You can send in a swab and get a DNA analysis in 2 weeks. Most people have more electronic gadgetry in their houses than the US Government had total in 1945. My phone can analyze my brainwaves while I sleep. Your wristwatch has more capacity than the computers that helped get us to the moon in the 1960s. We’ve gotten better at manufacturing, which means the quality and quantity of instruments, toys, tools, and gadgets are better, cheaper, and easier to find. So more and more people suddenly have access to a world they never did before. So we’ve seen what used to be only found in university research labs now available at Best Buy and Walmart.

tech gadgetsAs I look around my house as I write this, I see a 32” LCD TV, an Apple TV, a computerized telescope that can pinpoint a galaxy 200,000,000 light-years away, and my son playing FIFA soccer on his smartphone on a screen that is clearer than his eye can actually interpret. I see a cable modem which connects my house to a network that goes across the entire globe called the World Wide Web (that still amazes me!). I see a device which lets me change the channel or volume of my TV without any physical wiring. I see a camera which records 4 hours of live video as I run my obstacle-course races. I see 3 laptops that can each hold over 1 TB of data which, by the way, is more than the entire internet in 1991. In just 15 years the internet has gone from a single webpage to hundreds of millions of websites today. My 11-year old daughter commands her own digital device with more confidence than her 2 grandparents.

My point? Science and technology is main stream. Anyone can see it, afford it, buy it, make something with it, design/redesign with it, sell it, and use it to learn and discover. And because of this–everyone does! It’s normal to have the same gadgets which, in another time, would qualify you to be king/queen of the nerds but now it just makes you cool…I mean normal.

Think about it. Kids all over the world woke up Christmas morning and screamed with joy when they opened up their new smartphones under the tree. Dad smiled enthusiastically at his new 10” tablet with an accelerometer. Mom loved her new GPS unit for her electric car, and grandparents took hundreds of pictures with their new wireless digital cameras which posted automatically to their Facebook account. It’s cool to be excited about nerd toys.

interMy son Cade and I went to go see a movie, Interstellar, built around the idea of time dilation due to gravity near a black hole. He says it was the best movie he’s seen in 5 years. (If you also loved that, read THIS best selling book.) Most people don’t even know who Alan Turing is, yet there is a top movie The Imitation Game made about his life. Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most talented scientists in history, has a movie made about his life. He did not invent the car or airplane or some other item which we can all relate to–he studies black hole event horizons and theoretical physics. And who did not either read the biography of or see the movie about Steve Jobs, CEO of a big software hardware company we all know as Apple? Bill Gates might be more popular than the most famous professional athlete. Mark Zuckerberg broke out of the nerd shell by being the focus of a blockbuster “The Social Network” which was seen mostly by non-nerds. Barnes and Nobles has an entire section in the magazine area dedicated to gadgets and devices. girls with technology(comons wikipedia) I know several of my non-techy-friends’ kids got Lego Robotics kits to explore and they were on cloud 9 (get it? Heehee). My daughter loved spending some of her Christmas money on the professional version of Minecraft for her iPhone, so she could design interactive 3D worlds on her iPhone to share with her friends. Uhm…hello…did I just say a socially minded 6th grade girl spent her money on an app that she used to design interactive 3D worlds? Yes I did. That’s my girl. minecraft-v2My department’s middle school teacher, Bob Irving, is bringing Minecraft programming into his 7th and 8th grade curriculum this spring. In fact, his Minecraft club is the largest club in the middle school and they are currently designing our entire school campus in Minecraft. Over 90,000,000 people in 180+ countries joined the Hour of Code movement and wrote their first computer program.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are there. The world is officially different. Kids of today for the first time ever are truly living in a world that is fundamentally unlike the world in which we grew up. What used to be the world of the nerds is now called life of a typical person.

Why is that important? Because it means that we are now going to have a wide variety of people entering the world of science and discovery who may not have before. The gadgets we have had over the last several decades were created by one type of stereotypical person, but now we are seeing people of all colors, religions, races, and genders enter this world thinking differently. They will find things we have not yet found. They will look at problems with a new twist. They will create and design with different goals. They will bring into the world that which has not yet been brought simply because they CAN.

In the beginnings of the digital age, we saw the world of users of technology. Now, we enter into a new world of creators. If you thought that the world had changed dramatically in your own lifetime—get ready…we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

The world of the nerds has just become the normal everyday world that we are all part of it. Our schools are finally starting to embrace this instead of fighting it. STEM education is becoming something that is not just extracurricular, but a core component of education. Parents are starting to demand that schools have this as a fundamental part of their child’s education. Computer Science is finding its way into classrooms in every country, at every grade level. Students are signing up for classes and entering degree programs in engineering, technology, and science fields unlike any other time in history.

Yep. We have arrived. And as a Computer Science teacher in high school and at the leading edge of the charge, I am loving every second of it.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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National Association for Women in Technology

National Association for Women in Technology

Congratulations to hundreds of high school girls around the country who have just been recognized by NCWIT( National Council for Women in Technology) at the national and/or state level for their accomplishments and participation in Computer Science. In my home state of South Carolina, we’re so excited that 6 of the 12 awards were from Porter-Gaud! I love that our school embraces Computer Science, and our students see that value in their own core education.

But, I am especially honored that girls are an integral part of our CS classes at every level. In many schools, Computer Science classes tend to be all-boys clubs. In industry, the perception is that it is male-driven. But if you look deeper you find that perception is not necessarily reality. In fact, over the last many decades, there have been some tremendous contributions from females(i.e. to name a few: Marissa Mayer, Radia Perlman, Fran Bilas, Helen Greiner, Lixia Zhang, Christina Amon, Anita Borg, Ada Lovelace, and Mary Lou Jepsen). They don’t necessarily get much credit or recognition for that leadership, but they were invaluable to us being where we are now. In many of today’s top companies (i.e. HP, Yahoo, Facebook,, we are seeing female leaders at all levels of management. And as images of females in those types of roles become what girls in school see and hear, we will start to see the gender-percentage inequalities even out.

…and not only is this crucial for industries related to technology, but also to you and me–the consumer.



In the CS program at my school, we are now seeing about 30% female. If you look in one of our classes, you might confuse it with a typical liberal arts history or English class…it will have boys and girls of all races, interests and backgrounds—-not the stereotypical super-techno make-up one might expect in traditional Computer Science. And I get why there have been inequalities: when you(a student) look through the window of a classroom, you want to be able to picture yourself sitting there with people you can connect with. I remember recently being crushed when one of our graduating female students took the “Computer Science” tour at one of better universities in the southeast, and was disheartened when she looked into the Computer Science lab on a tour—99% male, and the two females who were in their did not even look up. While there are some universities that have changed the way they do business–and are actively recruiting females–Carnegie Melon, University of Washington, Georgia Tech, University of Texas, Wofford–the majority have traditional recruiting , which means they attract the exact same student they attracted 15 years ago. The world is a different place than it was when computing devices (as we know them) came onto the scene. Now the world around us is dynamic and interactive and engaging. Girls are just as savvy with their tech devices as boys. Technology and it’s place in society, who uses it, who creates with it, what it does, and where it can help us….is completely different. What was once a discipline for the engineering-minded elite, is now an attractive major for those people who might never have been have even given it a second look. Now we see biology students, business majors, educators, and political scientists who need a different set of skills to help them solve the problems in their industries—and that skill set is called Computer Science.

So, it’s working. I am not sure exactly why or how….but it is. Just the conversation itself is a start. Not just Computer Science, but girls in Computer Science as well. It’s all over the news, in our schools, on TV, in movies, and in books they read. CODE.ORG’s Hour of Code initiative has reached millions of students across world. The girls in our program are as excited to be there as we are to have them. And the world needs more females in fields in which females have been underrepresented for far too long. Not really sure if it is a nurture or nature thing, but regardless, we NEED females to be leaders in the world of digital creation. The software, hardware, tools, devices, and gadgets that come on the market need some fresh and different thought processes behind them. We need fresh design ideas from different perspectives. Thank goodness for the different viewpoints, interpretations, and priorities the female mind brings to class. I know our girls are better for the experience…but I’ll also argue that our boys are better off as well. Classes are more balanced. Problems are approached differently. Collaboration happens differently. Boys also see females as a regular part of their technology-creation experience. They see their female peers as significant contributors to class. They see females as skill leaders and as techno-equals.

Creators vs. Users

Creators vs. Users

And that translates to the marketplace, when those students find their way into business, they expect to see the same multi-gender environment there. And they value that mix. Society then reaps the benefits because the new technologies we get solve new problems in new ways, allowing us to make the world a better place.

We are in the infancy of the technological digital age. We barely know where we are, much less where we are going. At our current rates, we already know that there will NOT be anywhere close to enough students of ANY gender to fill the many roles needed in this area for the United States to be a leader. Elementary, Middle, and High schools really have no idea what Computer Science is, much less how and where and when it fits into the educational systems. Business leaders and parents can help by pushing those schools to be more proactive and innovative. And we want females part of this revolution. Colleges and Universities: you have to help by demanding that your incoming freshmen are well versed in Computer Science,

Research indicates that around the 8th grade is where we see dramatic drop-offs in girls being part of the sciences, especially Computer Science. It is crucial that girls get a good dose of Computer Science BEFORE THEN, so they can actively choose to make it a part of their education as they move through school. We have to start early and let our girls experience Computer Science as a regular part of their education earlier and not as something extra-curricular. I am excited when I hear about amazing things happening in schools all over the country (public, private, big, small, lower income, higher income, rural, urban). Programs such as Microsoft Expert Educator program, NCWIT(National Council for Women in Technoogy) ,Grace Hopper , CSTA(Computer Science Teachers Association)

Microsoft Expert Educator program

Microsoft Expert Educator program

and innovative teachers with a CS edge to them such as Becky Keene, Jamie Ewing, Melanie Grace, Alfred Thompson, Lou Zulli, Mark Guzdial Don Wettrick,Andi Li , Robyn Hrivnatz, Bob Irving, Darko Sadler , Todd Beard, Adam Michlin, Aaron Maurer, Barbara Ericson are leading the way, breaking down stereotypes, and storming through barriers to help technology, but more importantly creation with technology, be an integral part of classrooms.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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Why Computer Science?

In celebration of National Computer Science week, I am republishing this post. ENJOY!

What will the world look like in 10 years?

The digital world is such a dynamic world. That’s what I love about it. But how can we possible know or even imagine what our world is going to look like 10, even 5 years from now? We do not know what technologies will be available or even what kind of problems the world will be facing. How can we possibly prepare our students for that world?

Regardless of what country we come from, what culture we grow up in, and what economic conditions we live in…we all must solve the problems in our world……our local world…and our global world. We need tools in order to do that. And the tools of today are digital. The people who are in command of those digital tools will be the leaders of academia, research, business, politics, entertainment, and philanthropy.We’ve got to teach the students now how to learn to design, build, program, and reprogram their own digital tools so they can solve those problems.

What is Computer Science?

So, how do we do that? One of the greatest digital “tools” available in our world today is Computer Science. It is central to all subject areas and vital in almost every known industry. It is the cross-curricular by definition. And solving problems is what it does.

Computer Science teaches students how to use build something, maybe a new tool, using technology, computation thinking, imagination, logic, problem solving, and creativity. I tell my students if they can think of it and describe it, we can make it happen on the screen in front of them. That might be a new game to teach difficult concepts to kids, a mobile app for the smartphone to help better manage business inventory, a new data analysis software program for the medical research lab, maybe….. even a design for an entirely new device. It gives people the power and ability to build their own digital solutions to solve their own problems. They can program, or reprogram whatever device is available to accomplish what they need. Computer Science gives you the tools to do that yourself, right there, with your own mind, with your own hands

Students can develop apps for any of the mobile platforms

And what’s great about many of the Computer Science development tools…they are (mostly) free. Many international level companies (such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple) and universities (Carnegie Melon & M.I.T.) provide almost everything FREE of charge. So, schools with limited economic resources can actually design and implement a good Computer Science program.

Educators love to say that we embrace failure and that we’ve got to let our students fail. But, in reality we do not do that. When a student fails a test, we send letter home to the parents, the advisor is notified, the teacher writes on the test “Johnny, I was expecting much better than this”. The student’s average goes down. Johnny probably gets grounded at home and the parents start asking about tutors. That low grade may keep him from entering honors and AP classes. It may keep her out of certain colleges. It may keep him from receiving certain awards. Hmmmm….far from embracing failure, huh?

Can we embrace failure?

The Computer Science classroom has no choice but to embrace failure. When we write programs and work with various devices, we’ve got to rely on trial and error and failure to help us figure things out. The messages we get, the things we see on the screen, the incorrect outputs we generate, and the crash reports are our tools for success. In a typical class a student will “fail” 20 or 30 times. In fact, it’s hard not to fail. Most computer programs can be solved in a variety of ways; rarely is there a “right” way to do it.

If you talk with successful project-based Computer Science teachers, you’ll get the same stories about how kids love class, enrollment numbers are going up, the energy in their classrooms, the collaboration, how they create some incredible programs, how they also come up with solutions and strategies that we never expected. Why is that? Well, think about it this way–for most students they are told what to do every day of their life. From the moment they wake up, they are told what to wear, where to go, when to go and when to stop, what to do when they get there. When they get to class, the teacher tells them what to do and for how long. At practice after school, coach tells them exactly what to do. At home that night, mom and dad make them study then say when to go to bed. The Computer Science classroom offers an escape from that. We say come into our room. Here are some challenges to attempt. There is not necessarily any one answer to our problems and projects. In fact, even what we are assigning can be interpreted differently. Finally the students are in control… not just of their own life, but of their own learning. They get to decide exactly what the computer will do, how it will do it, how long it will do it for, and how it will communicate that it did it. And they can change it right there and instantly see the effect. They can fine tune it, or they can overhaul the entire project. All right there.–right in front of their eyes. They are encouraged to “try it, let’s see what it does” It’s one of the few times in a student’s life like where they have complete control. That’s partly why they love Computer Science.

Ok, I’ll bite. I get it and I see your points…..So, what are the first steps?

Are our graduation requirements outdated?

First: recognize what Computer Science is, why it’s crucial in our world, and consider Computer Science as a fundamental core component of education. What I mean is we have to value Computer Science as central to education as we do language, math, chemistry, and history. In an academic career, students should have as many Computer Science projects as they do essays is English and history class. Programming a computer or device must be looked at in the same way we look at reading and writing. Middle schools, high schools and universities must make it required for graduation. Universities must require Computer Science courses in every major.

Applications such as Microsoft Office, blogging, and photo & movie editing are excellent tools in the various subject areas we teach in our schools. But, those applications must be taught in subject area classrooms, not in the Computer Science classroom. Subject area teachers MUST embrace those tools as much as they value the pencil, paper, and book. Expertise of those applications must be part of the science, math, science, and language classroom experience. Teachers at each grade level must all agree that students mastering technology is a regular part of the day.

That allows us to start Computer Science early. In my school, we’ve got Computer Science introduced as early as the 3rd and 4th grade. If they choose, students can take Computer Science every year until they graduate high school. It cannot be something they take above and beyond an already determined academic path. To accomplish that requires us to ask some really tough questions. Do we really need to teach history, foreign language, and math so many years? Do all classes really need to meet every day? Do all classes really need a full year or even a full semester in order to accomplish their goals? Are the standard required courses in all divisions still relevant?

We must prepare students for the world they are going into, and that world is digital. We are still stuck preparing the students for the world that we went into a generation ago. Students of today see the obvious need for Computer Science in their future. They “get it”. Some of the parents “get it”. Some teachers “get it.” But education in general does not. There will be a time in our future where we will look back and say, “…what took us so long?” Why must we wait for that time to change?

Taking your exisiting passions to new levels

What I am NOT suggesting is that we abandon other disciplines, subject areas, and majors. In fact, quite the opposite, we need those doctors, entrepreneurs, engineers, vets, small business managers, and lawyers to follow their passion and be leaders in their industries, but to also have a Computer Science edge to them…..the ability to create and modify their own tools. As they look to be innovative and distinguish themselves, they will be able to design their own tools, exactly as they need. They will be able to embrace and use new technologies as they develop. Technology and the ability to use, program, and reprogram that technology is what will allow them to be leaders in their fields.

The ability to be in control of and in command of technology, not the other way around…is such an obvious need to me. Yet, I am amazed that colleges don’t require it of incoming freshman; few high schools really teach it; few high schools actually requite it to graduate; almost no middle schools teach it; and it is nonexistent in elementary schools. Sometimes I feel like I am standing over a wooden maze in laboratory. Inside is a rat making the same wrong turns, going backwards, hitting dead ends. And because I am standing over it, I can see the exit right there, just one corner away. It’s so obvious the correct way forward. And “winning” is so close, yet so unclear to the rat. The rat does not even know that it is in a maze, or that it is trying to find its way out. It’s just wandering around. Eventually, when the rat does accidentally find the exit, then it will be obvious to it as well. That cannot be how we educate our students.

I would give credit if I knew who said it, but in the end…..“…program or be programmed…”

update(Thanks to Alfred Thompson)…….That is the title of a book by Douglas Rushkoff

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Out-of-the-box scheduling for schools

As we look deep to analyze our education system, we usually tend to focus solely on obvious targets such as curriculum, testing, standards, and teacher evaluations. But, there is one additional aspect of education that might be worth taking a hard look at.


Now, be careful! I am going to bring up some ideas and suggestions which go against main stream traditional thinking. These ideas may not coincide with the status quo. Implementing ideas like this would require some change; in some cases major change. And of course when I suggest these ideas, I am not suggesting that we throw out the entire current system. We keep the elements which make good sense and work great. But, we have to be willing to let go of some of the outdated and irrelevant “traditions” which are there, not because of best practice or because of success, but more simply because we have always done it like this—and change would be hard. And yes, there would be things we’ll have to figure out in order to get them to work. And yes, society would have to change to accommodate major shifts like these. That is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact—that is what is so exciting to think about.

Let’s talk about some areas where we can look differently.

First—- some classes do NOT need all the time they are given. “WHAT?! How dare you suggest that!” What I mean is that we tend to give a typical core class 1 full year of time and then those teachers fill that time with content. That is what we have always done. We should be asking a different question, “How much time to you need to accomplish the goals you have for the class”. What we may find is that there are some classes which might not need the full duration, and others which might be able to take advantage of some extra time. There might even be enough freed up time to offer an entire new class. Some classes don’t need to meet every day, others might take advantage of extra time each day. But, I think what we’ll find is that there is no typical schedule that works all year long. So, I suggest we have different schedules at different time of the year.

What does that look like?

How about a few weeks of the year with fewer, but more intensive classes. For example for 2 weeks, two class each meet 4 hours per day, or even one class all day. It would not have to be a complete class, just two weeks “in the middle” where the meeting schedule is different than ordinary, providing time and space and energy to engage with the subject differently. Or perhaps for 2 weeks, all students have homestay or other intensive language study in the country where the language is taught. Art classes might spend a week going on a museum tour. Fine Arts programs might visit a series of performances around town. Physical education and nutrition classes will attend professional and college sporting events, interview athletes, but also the people behind those teams, city officials who are part of the sports leagues and recreation departments. History classes study civil war in the mornings, then go visiting historical sites, taking walking tours with professionals, even offering tours by students. Would those departments be willing to give up days and weeks at other times in the school year for that type of learning environment? I bet they would. Or maybe a math class wants to have a few weeks in the second semester where students work together on an intensive group project. They need a few weeks of long block periods, but would be willing to give up 2 weeks during early August so English classes can have them longer for an intensive writing lab.

Maybe some weeks students meet every day in every class, yet in other weeks they rotate through a portion of their classes. Maybe those rotations, and the length of time and frequency changes depending on the time of year.

What we have to be careful of is assuming that a schedule won’t work in your discipline for cliché reasons. For example, my kids need to have math every day in order to retain knowledge, or foreign language saying kids have to have it every day or they will lose it, or the Computer Science teacher suggesting that they cannot live without JAVA every morning. Just because they are not in-person with you does not mean they cannot be interacting with your content. You will have some options on how you handle that. Yes, if you give them worksheets to do and the questions at the end of the chapter –you will find them not much engaged with your class during that out of class time. Yes, it will require a different type of out-of-class experience. Foreign language teachers will have students recording interviews, acting out role playing parts, and attending cultural events in town and in the area, even traveling. I remember hearing one story of a school which had a short 2-3 week intensive class mini-session. The first year the foreign language department wanted no part of that, thinking it was not long enough for grammar and vocabulary to sink in. Yet after trying it one time the following year, they fought to be part of those mini-sessions.

If we had some time slots throughout the year, different subject areas could take advantage of those times to lead an interactive, hand-on, real-life experience related to their subject area. Because, our role as teacher is NOT to teach content, it is to inspire students(see my video post about this) to learn and help them develop connections with your subject area—-so don’t discount those incredibly valuable out-of-class experiences. And certainly don’t waste your valuable homework time on something that should be done in class—have them do something amazing and interesting and real.

While the corporate business world revolves around a Mon-Fri business hour schedule, the rest of society does not. Why not take advantage of that? Why not offer classes in the evening? There might be teachers who would LOVE teaching in the evening. It might allow them to pursue other ventures during the morning and daytime. Why not take advantage of weekends. Their might be teachers who would LOVE to teach only on weekends.—there might be students who would LOVE to take classes on weekends, freeing up the workweek to pursue additional interests. Yes, society would have to change to accommodate. And that is what is so exciting. Think of the awesome possibilities.

I’ll argue that the days of typical summer vacation should be gone. This old agriculture–based schedule has little relevance today. Yes, society would have to adapt if we changed it—and—-YES , it would. Who knows how we might structure the year without that limitation.

Yes, society would have to accommodate. That is what is so exciting. What an awesome time for internships throughout the year. Students could spend 1-2 weeks on several occasions throughout the year working in the community in areas of their passions just to get a taste. Who knows, students could be inspired to refocus their academic efforts because of their interaction with amazing people doing the things they are interested in

With most universities offering online classes and many colleges even offering entirely online degree programs, perhaps it is time to have students take more advantage of online education. Not every class is good for this type of learning environment, but there might be some that are perfect. Not every teacher has a personality and comfort level that would be good in an online learning environment, but there might be some that are perfect for that. Online learning is a real part of our educational system, even (and especially) in the corporate world—why not have our students embrace that style of learning, not as an elective classes the spring of their senior year, but as a regular part of their curriculum. Online education, in some cases does levels the playing field for some students in some areas. It can also be 24/7. Why not have core classes such as 9th grade English, or Algebra 2, or Ancient History offered online. How about a class that is offered during spring break? Or a short intensive class offered fall break? Woah! How about a class that is offered during the “Christmas” holiday! “WOAH, but that is Christmas”. Let’s not forget there are many religions for which that time is not part of a religious celebration. Let us not forget, that not all students celebrate Christmas in the same way. Yes, society would have to change to accommodate. And that is what is so exciting. Think of the awesome possibilities.

And what an interesting opportunity to recruit good and talented people into the teaching profession. Choose your hours. Choose the times of the year when you would like to teach. Choose the times of day you want to work. Departments could organize their faculty to provide teachers at all the available teaching spots. Each teacher still teaches the equivalent of 5 classes per “semester”, but does so on a varying schedule. And what is awesome is that schedule might change year to year. I am getting my Master’s Degree and might love to have afternoons free now, but next year, I need my evenings free so my spouse can put some extra time in the evenings into her own small business venture. Students might even pay for the chance to take class outside traditional times & places. Yes, society would have to change to accommodate. And that is what is so exciting. Think of the awesome possibilities.

Imagine if we, as a country, had the guts to address our education system and really take hard look at some of the things we can do to raise the bar. Bring together passionate educators and ask them to design a school year from scratch . Who knows what might come out of that.

I think a great place to start the discussion is simply to start asking questions. Take a hard look at the status quo and start asking why? or perhaps why not? What if? How could we? Should we? Why can’t we? And instead of finding reasons we cannot, find ways to say yes.

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The thing no one talks about

our grand parents did it

our parents did it(although I really cannot picture that)

we did it

God knows teenagers do it

…..ahhhh yes….

of course, what else could I have been talking about?

Ahhhhh homeworkIt’s tradition. A right of passage. Teachers assign it, students hate it, but do it…or more than likely–not. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it will always be.

Really? Is that it? Is that why we do homework, because we always have? Simply because it’s tradition?

Ok, if you are entrenched in the status quo, I beg you — STOP READING NOW. Otherwise, the following 10 minutes of your life is going to have you pissed off, insulted, and defensive. (and hopefully reconsidering your ideas on homework)

Do we ever ask ourselves what is the actual goal of homework? I mean, really, what is the goal? And you cannot say to learn math and science and history and language, because that is what your class is about, so in that spirit everything you do falls under that umbrella. Is homework really necessary in your class to accomplish what you want? How do you know?

Is your class lecture-heavy, so the homework is where they actually get to try it out and think about it? I might suggest flip your classroom. Let the kids see(or hear) your lecture(read a section, or whatever) at home the night before, then do problems–make connections-infer conclusions-synthesize ideas in class. That lets you see who is doing it and getting it, common mistakes and misunderstandings, lets you show(discuss) harder concepts on the board. Just in time learning at it’s best.

Is this what you look like at 11:00pm?Do you assign 20 problems at the back of the chapter for homework. Why? does it really take 20 to get it? 5 won’t do? How about 5 together in class, then 1 or 2 at home? After all, you are going to see them again in 24 hours.

There are some cliche “strategies” (also impractical) that some have followed, but let’s look at those as well. (ugh)

Let’s say that we agree that 30 minute a night for a high school class is legitimate. And lets assume all of the classes are rigorous(and yes we have to include that some teachers and parents define a class as rigorous by the amount of homework assigned. ugh again. and gag). So, for a typical student, they will have 3 solid hours of homework per night. So, let’s do the “math” for one night. Students spend 8 hours going to classes, meetings, assemblies, and other school activities. Then many spend 2 hours in rehearsals or sports practice. An hour to get home. No idea where a part time job fits into this or maybe reading a favorite book for fun or God forbid–thinking about their future. That takes us to an 11 hour total workday.

Is this what you want dinner time to look like?

Is this what you want dinner time to look like?

Some say that having dinner together is important, so we get an hour break for that, maybe time enough to shower or just sit for a moment. Then 3 hours of homework. And if this is a rigorous school, we can assume that the homework is itself something which requires intense focus and concentration, so it should be the kind of homework which cannot tolerate distraction.

So, from 7:00pm-10:00pm – they do homework. Are you ok if I put in there a 5 minute break in between subject areas? Ok, that takes us to 10:30. Let’s hope Gramma did not call which would add 30 minutes to this. Or Let’s hope Dad did not want to hear about soccer practice and hear the new song you’ve been working on, because there is no time for that. Let’s hope there is no boyfriend or girlfriend that they’d like to talk on the phone or FB chat with. So, a typical high school could then ideally get to bed by 11:00…which gives them 7 hours of sleep. Interestingly enough, some recommend students get 8-10 hours of sleep per night in order to be at their best the following day. Hmmmmm.

Homework should not just be a repeat of what you did in the classroom

Homework should not just be a repeat of what you did in the classroom

Where in that schedule is the time for a student to stay after practice to shoot extra baskets, or talk with the coach? Maybe checkout the new audio equipment for the upcoming stage production? Where in that schedule is the chance to work on the bigger outside-of-class assignments, such as research papers, science fair, or other major projects as part of regular class.

Where is the time to read the first chapter of their favorite author’s new book? Where is the time to just sit back and let it soak in. It does not exist. In the scenario I describe above, there is no room for extra. And we all know the “extra” ends of being a major part of any schedule. That extra is what Jim Collins says is the difference between good and great.

How many teachers out there have the students come into class and talk about the fun they had doing their homework? Has that ever happened? I HOPE I am wrong about that. I hope you are fuming right now because you DO have kids come in who really were engaged with your assignment.

Students can interview people for homework

Students can interview people for homework

So, we are back to the original reason you give homework, or even a higher question, why are you a teacher? To help them memorize formulas, dates, code syntax, and vocabulary and “get through class”? Or to help them see your discipline in a light they have not before. To turn them on to science. To help them LOVE math. To let them see why you are such a history buff. Help them create something in code. To read for enjoyment. Write their first real poem. To But, are all of your assignments “academic”? Are they all rote? Where is the chance to connect to the real world? When do they reflect on real world events occurring on the news that night? Have they found an online article that talks about something cool related to your subject area? Did you have them watch that TV special that talks about? Have they ever seen a TED talk? There are TED talks in every area, with amazing speakers and presenters. Have they ever had a CHAT assignment? Have they ever read a short story outside of English class? Have they ever written a short story outside of English class? Have they ever taught their parents something? Have they ever been required to take some pictures with their phone as part of a homework assignment to show your subject area in real life. Have they brought in real examples of geometry all around them. How often do they bring in real election results of other countries and talk about them. Heck, do the kids create an online election system as part of class? Have they ever responded to a famous BLOGGER in your subject area? Do they go see speakers at libraries, colleges, and societies around town? Do they go see professional sporting events, concerts, and plays?
Maybe time out of class could be spent preparing for this?

Maybe time out of class could be spent preparing for this?

How about visiting the zoo, the dump, the ocean for homework? Do they interview professionals in industry, activists, or politicians? Do they interact via SKYPE with students in other countries? There are teachers in other countries begging to connect with other international classrooms. Are your students preparing for their TEDClub presentations?

If you ever go into the lab or library in the morning, what you have is many of your students doing the homework they should have done the night before. At this point, any value the homework might have offered is officially gone.

One option to address this: have homework due by midnight on the due date. Wait. Whaaaaaat? That’s crazy. And always give them 2 days to do it. Woah. Stop that. And let them do it in class if they want. If it’s important, that should be ok. And don’t give them same type of homework twice in the same quarter; each one should be a different style..keeping it fresh and interesting.

Homework can be used for collaborative work. put them in groups and in a shared document in google docs. they can work together. Stronger kids can lead the way. weaker kids can contribute as well. Set expectations high and keep them to the standard. A bit of peer pressure can be used for students who do not contribute. Groups can be reassigned as needed by teacher. This kind of exercise can be done in math, language, history, computer science, art, even physical education.

Depending on what the goal for homework is also has a tremendous impact on how you grade, when you grade, why you grade, how often you grade. And if you spend 10 minutes going around the room checking homework, is that really the best way to spend 1/5 of class time?

How about define homework as a necessary and valuable part of class. Include as criteria for the “A” in class as “always attempting homework”. But, make sure your homework is in fact valuable. If every kid does the homework without much effort, then I’ll argue there was not much value. If every kid could not do it, I’ll also argue there may not have been much value. If your “brighter” kids did it easily, and your weaker kids did not, what does that show you?

Homework is one of the truly “unknowns” of the educational system in the US. Everyone gives it. No on talks about it. No one plans it. Students hate it; and many don’t do it and certainly don’t get out of it what we want. But, we do not discuss it as grade-level teams. So, we really have no idea what a typical evening looks like for kids. Even within departments, we use homework very differently and really have no idea what each other are doing or WHY. Some teachers give homework just because. Some give it to communicate that their course is rigorous. Some give it as punishment. Some blindly give it with little or no thought. Some grade it. Some don’t. Some check it daily. Some don’t. Some look for effort while some check answers. And even worse, we also do not agree on what percentage of the final grade homework should count. If we really value it’s importance and we want to give value and appreciation for the effort and time spent doing it well, why would it not count dramatically more than it does?

This is one of the topics that desperately needs thoughtful discussion. There is research on both sides of the argument. Some research suggests thoughtful and intentional and limited homework does have value, while other research suggests that the benefit is not what we hope.

Either way, no matter what you believe, it’s a discussion worth having. And if the worse thing that comes from that is that we all take a few moments and consider how and why we use homework in our own class, then I’ll still suggest it is worth it.

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GRADES – Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

stressGrades are a major source of stress for every person involved in education: teachers, students, parents, and administrators. But, is the effort that goes into “grades” worth it? Is the benefit there? First, let’s make sure we do not confuse grades with feedback; they are very different. And, since we are here stirring the pot, let’s also make the point that grades do not always reflect the learning that takes place in the classroom. I know students who make great grades in AP and Honors classes but tank the standardized test. And don’t we all get frustrated with the kid who does not make much effort but who dominates at test time?! One of my top students got a 1 on the AP test because it was his last after 2 weeks of testing and (I quote) “my brain was fried.” He actually called me to apologize. I know students who are in the Honor Society who do not do well on the SAT test. The cliché response to grades is “we need them” and “we have to have them” and “how else can we compare students to each other”. Don’t even get me started about the BELL curve.

There are points to be made on both sides of the argument—and those arguments could take pages and pages of writing—-at some point I’ll attack that in my BLOG, but not today. (although you can read an older BLOG post that I wrote)

Today, JUST TO GET THE CONVERSATION STARTED, I am going to offer 3 scenarios where grades do not work(well). I’ll argue that these scenarios are probably more common than we like to accept.

Scenario #1
Consider the student who starts slow and so for the first 2 quarters of the class does not do as well. That student continues to work hard and improve. By the end of the class, that student has mastered the material, can demonstrate that mastery, and performs at the highest level possible on all final evaluations and examinations.

But, let’s look at the grade
Q1: 70, Q2: 80, Q3: 89, Q4: 100, Exam: 95

So, the student earned an 84 ( below mid “B“ ) for the year, an 87 with the exam grade. That average would NOT qualify for National Honor Society, Dean’s List, or other grade-centric reward system.

But, hasn’t the student done exactly what we wanted? Isn’t (s)he a success story of what education can be? (S)he learned from mistakes, made improvements, got better, and finished with complete understanding. Shouldn’t that student have earned an “A”, even “A+” ?

What does a grade really mean?

What does a grade really mean?

Well, it really depends on what the grade actually represents. Does it represent the total perecent of content that the student has mastered and demonstrated? Does it represent the entire year’s effort as compared to just the last half? Does it represent what percent of the required assignments, tasks, and projects that were completed according to the syllabus of the class? What does it represent? Well, actually, that ONE number(84) has to represent all of that. “But that is not possible,” you might say. Correct: that is not possible.

Scenario #2
Consider the student who worked hard all semester long, completing all homework assignments, projects, handouts, worksheets, readings, essays, discussions, tests, and classwork efforts. The student participated in class and was well behaved.

But, for this student, nothing came easy. (S)he had to work harder than most to have that level of success. (S)he was pushing herself to the limits in all classes and so when exam time hits and she has 6 exams during one week, all of which are incredibly challenging, there are going to be 1 or 2 which she does not do well on.

Let’s look at the grade
Q1: 93, Q2: 91, Exam: 77

So, the student, who earned an “A” all semester long finishes the course with a “B”. All semester, every day, (s)he gave her all demonstrating expertise and “success” on various types of assignments and evaluations, then during 1 two-hour instance lost all of that. Yes, one option is say “tough luck.” As a teacher, I am not sure I could say that.

Scenario #3
How about the student who is one of those kids who just “gets it”. (S)he does not have to work as hard as most, and so does not. The class is boring for the student, so there is not much engagement during class. But, (s)he aces all of the quizzes, tests, and exams.

Let’s look at the grade
HW: 0, Participation: 70, Quiz: 100, Test: 100, Exam: 98

feedback and grades are not necessarily the same thing

Feedback and grades are not necessarily the same thing

So, the student earned an 87 (“B”) for the year, an 89 with the exam grade.
So, in this case if the student has demonstrated full mastery of content, did not need the HW in order to get to that point, what then is the value of this grade? Yes, the student made a choice to do this, but isn’t the reason for HW to help understanding? And so in this case, is the grade a way to punish the student for not following the rules of class?

I’ll argue that these scenarios are probably accurate for more students than we might realize.

There are those who say that the grade in every class means something different— I agree;it does and it should— but if that is the case then it is in direct conflict then with the “standard grading” A,B,C,D, F model that most schools use. If a “B” in one class does not have the same meaning as a “B” in another class, then how can that grade have meaning outside of that class? Even teachers within the same departments and divisions at schools use grades differently. The problem with that is we use those grades in a standardized arena as well (college admissions, scholarships, awards, grants), and that can have unfair, inaccurate, and unintended consequences.

In my classes, which are heavily project-based, collaborative, and where my “homework” is not content-based(more context-based for connection to real world), every semester when I enter grades, I say to myself there has to be a better way. I have not yet had the guts, although seeing some of the work that Mark Barnes and Starr Sackstein are doing is really pushing me to try something.

I am not suggesting we throw out grades completely; I am sure there are some teachers who have found ways to use grades in an effective, productive, and accurate manner. It is those people from whom I want to hear. Let’s take the best of what they are doing and bring that into the conversation.

What I do not think is the best solution going forward is doing it this way “because we’ve always done it like this.”

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open; but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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Are you irrelevant?

(attention to my international friends: This post is very much targeted at an American audience)

I hope the words in that question terrify you. It does me.

This terrified me

This terrified me

I want to take a moment to bring your attention to something which is crucial for us, as leaders and educators and administrators and parents to understand.

I have one real fear in my professional career. It is not fear of failure while in front of a classroom of students. It happens sometimes. It is not fear of something out of my control happening in my class. On a daily basis things happen at school that affect my classes-but over which I have no control. It is not that students will shy away from a class they want to take-even though it is time consuming and demanding—in fact we are seeing our numbers rise. It is not that I may submit a proposal to a conference and get rejected. That happens. It is not that students are going to strongly react to a really challenging project or test. They do. It is not that I am going to get a surprise visit from my boss to observe my class. The door is always open. It is not that I might try a project or explore new technology that fails miserably. It can. It is not that I might have an off-day and lead a bad class. Last semester I had one of the worst classes ever! (and it was my fault). It is not that a planned speaker cancels at the last second. They could. It is not that I might miss an opportunity to recruit an awesome kid into my program. I do miss those on occasion (and I still kick myself)

Nope, none of those. Everything I just described above happens, and has happened, to all of us(hopefully)

My fear is of a different magnitude.

Students might be angry at me

Students might be angry at me

Here is what I do NOT mind: If a student is angry (at me?) because a project or test was so tough that (s)he was not able to complete it in the way in which (s)he hoped. A student might take my class and not appreciate or like the way I lead a project-based student-centric class. A student might want to take another class instead of mine. A student may not be willing to put in the work necessary to earn a spot in our program. A person might have been offended by something I said or did in class. A student may have heard that the class was too time intensive and chose not to apply to be in our program. A student may not relate to my personality. A student may quite simply not like me. All of those I can handle.

The fear that I have is that one day I might be irrelevant.

And that terrifies me. Because what that means is that what I am doing, what I am offering, the time and energy I put into my classes is not even noticed, not even on the radar of those around me. It’s not that they don’t like it, but that they don’t even have an opinion about it because they don’t notice it.

Yes some of that might be because of factors out of my control.

But there are some things we can control.

One way in which we become irrelevant to students is to be so out of touch with the current life of a student that they simply tune you out. I am not talking about a student after lunch who dozes off during class, or the day before spring break your kids are dreaming of beach volleyball. I am talking about something much bigger–I am talking about students who don’t even consider your class, or you as a teacher. I am talking about fellow teachers who do not even ask your opinion because your response is not valued. I am talking about not even being part of the conversation.

And that is WORSE that being a mean teacher. It is worse than being a bad teacher. It is worse than having a colossal failure in class. It is worse than having colleagues perturbed with you. It is worse than having your boss call you into the office because of something you did or did not do.

In computer science, we have a word for this….it is called “null”. It is not negative or positive. It is not 0. It is not infinity. It is not true or false. It is not right or wrong.

It is just “nothing”

And there are lots of reasons it might happen. I’d like to talk about one.

One of the key elements of this in our schools today is technology. Not any technology but the technologies that are important to our kids. Smart phones, tablets, laptops, iPads, Smart watches. We, the current “middle-agers” all remember a time when we did NOT have them, and so we still appreciate them in ways that others cannot. I am one of those. I remember dad and I getting Compute Magazine and entering in pages of pure hexadecimal code in order to play a game or run a program. It took hours, even days. I remember starting to “load” Jumpman from a cassette player into my Commodore 64—that would take a couple hours, so by the time I can home from school, I could play it.

But kids of today, students of today, do not want to hear about the days where we did not have that. In the same way you can’t relate to your parents going to the picture show for a nickel. In the same way you cannot relate to even seeing a silent movie. It is such a difference in experience that not only can we not relate to it….they cannot even really imagine it, much less appreciate it. They don’t want to hear about the card catalog in the library or the Encyclopedia series in the shelves. And don’t show them your slide collection. Don’t say things like

I am not good with technology.

….because for them there is no “good or bad with technology”….it is just something that is part of you, like your wallet. I don’t hear people talking about having difficulty with their wallet(although I do get frustrated when someone cannot figure out the debit card machine at Wal-mart) When your mouse acts up, don’t freak out and give up the entire lesson. When the projector does not work, don’t act like when your car does not start. When the sound is off, unmute or plug in the speaker wire. Right? Just fix it in the same way you would plug in the lamp next your chair at home. In fact, the kids might even enjoy helping you troubleshoot. Technology of today can be troubleshot. If your car does not start, there is not a bunch you can do, but if your laptop acts up, there are many things you can do. Teachers doing things the old way “because I don’t get technology” or “I tried it once and it did not work”–those days have to end. awesome tools in the classroom, one of which is technology itself If you need to get a book and read it to learn—DO IT. If you need to take a class -DO IT. If you need to spend the summer practicing–DO IT. Get to a point where the technology is one of the tool you use as a regular part of your class, like markers, homework, erasers, , projects, textbooks, light switches, discussions, desks, chairs, presentations, and whiteboards. Let it help you bring to life your content in ways the other tools cannot–and that is why you are using it. Get to a point where the technology itself is not amazing, but what it does for your class, FOR THEIR LEARNING….that is what is amazing.

We are still having conferences and discussions about whether or not to integrate technology. WHAT?! People, we are past that. We are passed the day where Facebook was evil. We are passed the point where you cannot get email on your phone. In fact, FB for many students is yesterdays news. We are passed the day about whether or not we will. WE WILL. WE ARE. WE HAVE BEEN. It is not a fad or a trend. It is here to stay. I am not suggesting that EVERY technology be part of a class. I use my car to get work, but I do not have my students sit in my car during class. I have several tools in my garage that I do not bring to class every day(although I imagine Kael Martin does). Find the tools that allow you to do WHAT YOU DO BETTER. Think about the lessons, or chapters, or content areas where the kids always struggle the most (or you struggle)…is there technology-based idea or device that might be able to enhance the learning?

Imagine your facilities manager doing a presentation about whether or not to, or how we might, incorporate electricity into our classroom. Gosh the things we could do in our classroom if there were power! Then the human resource director is going to do a presentation about the value of using our cars as tools to get to and from work. Then the English dept is going to do a short presentation on the value of using paper and pencil to record ideas, opinions, and statements in permanent form on this “paper” thingy. And we’ve got an entrepreneur businessman coming in to talk about this new technology called radio where you can hear voices from people located in different locations as you. Ridiculous right? That is what some of the conversation schools have sound like to students. We are becoming irrelevant.

I went for advice on health insurance and there were 2 people there. One was savvy with new vocabulary of the industry, could get around their website with ease and control, and could pull up anything you needed quickly and effectively, and spoke in language that made sense in relation to the current climate (Obamacare, HMO, HSA, major medical, etc). That was not the guy I got. I got the guy who had been trained in the old school way, was using expressions that were not really part of the discussion today, using statements and vocabulary that was just not relevant. He did not seem up to date on current offering. He could not use the “new technology (called a web-page). He even struggled to get the mouse to work correctly. We were not able to find the information we needed. In the end, he leaned over and asked the other guy for some information, which was the most valuable information I received that day. A complete waste of my time….and his. That man, that experience, was irrelevant to what I needed. The “other” guy was not even a particularly likeable man, but he was effective and in command. I wish I had gone to him instead.

Administrators: Have your students said this about classes your school offers?

Recently. I asked my students to do a daily 2-3 sentence summary of progress they made each day during their capstone project. I really wanted to them to do it on a piece of paper so I could collect them and staple them together and read them all at once—-and flip through as quickly and as needed. They begged to do it digitally. One students said he would even print them out for me, staple them as I wanted. I was blown away. Something so simple to me, yet so important to them. So, I created a blog page for them to enter, as we had done before. They thanked me several times. They wanted the ability to edit on their phone, their laptop, wherever they are. they did not want to be tied to a single sheet of paper. I did not get that but they did. But, I heard them and learned my lesson. And I did not let an anthill become a mountain. I understood what they meant–and now they were connected with my assignment. All of that happened in less than 5 minutes.

Question. if psychologists and scientists did a study that said using red pencils had some huge type of effect on students such that they were in tune with their learning better, or helped them write better? The stores would be sold out of red pencil. We would have closets full of red pencils. Every student would have one.

blog, chat, discuss, evaluate, share, collaborate

blog, chat, discuss, evaluate, share, collaborate

Well, the red pencil of today is internet, cell phones, tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices. Every kids has 1, many have several. Heck, they sleep out in the BestBuy parking lot to get one. The option we have now is to figure out a way of reconsidering how we look at these devices. Students do not even consider the device in their hand a phone. It is the way in which they connect with the world around them, their friends, school, sports teams, clubs, hobbies, and family. And much of what they interact with is images. Can we not take advantage of that? They love video and images and commenting on each others comments. Your students may already Tumblr BLOG? Gosh, is there some hidden value in texting? They love responding to someone else s thoughts. They love the instant communication. They love images of faces. Is there not someone out there that can look at all of that and design some learning environments where that is PART of it, instead of exact opposite. For example, have your students pretend to be a historical figure, or author and send out Instagrams and Snapchats about their life. Have them have an online discussion on FB between two historical figures discussing their decisions and issues. Have them post their essays or short stories to a common area and each kid responds, not to the whole thing, but to parts of it. And then other students respond to those responses. Those examples were far from innovative but it is what I came up with as I was typing without thinking much about it. Imagine what an entire department, and hey ask your kids to help design something, might come up with. Do your students lead online discussions? Do they evaluate each others work. Do they post their work for the world to see. Do they accept criticism or suggestions?

I think there was a time when the only option for content delivery, in a typical classroom was one-directional lecture. When there was no internet, no smartboards, no cell phone cameras, no Powerpoints, no email. There was only 1 way to get across ideas and connections. Then as modern technology started to offer some alternatives, we suddenly had other options. Those options were very different than we experienced when we were in school, and so for those who were going to take the leap, it required learning an entirely new paradigm, pedagogy, and learning experience. And if they embraced that and took advantage of the technologies, then it also allowed for a different experience for the students. It allowed them to be more active, they could “find”, discover, and interact with the content instead of just receive it. Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park said, “You can’t suppress a million years of evolution…..TRex does not want to be fed, he wants to hunt”. The same can be said for students. They don’t mind working for it if the reward is there. And yes, understanding and accomplishment can be rewards–in fact HUGE rewards. The human spirit thrives on curiosity. It is what drives us, sometimes even gets us into trouble. How do we know this? the moment you tell a teenager not to do something, the first thing they do is THAT THING. Not because they are rule breakers, but because you have sparked their curiosity. And they do not want to be told, they want to experience it, even at the risk of a negative consequence. Can we not do better at tapping into that energy. We can set up our learning environments such that their are lots of opportunities for that discovery?

I fear that if we do not, our schools—our teachers–our classes-our educational system—becomes irrelevant.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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This is my second “Questions” post. The first was so well received that it warranted another. (and by well received I mean I definitively got some passionate responses coming from all sides) The following questions are specifically asked here because the “cliché” expected responses which we tend to hear is exactly what I want us to consider.

I’ll ask you to think about what you might expect people to say, then really think about what I am asking—-I think you’ll find that there are some different responses that we might consider if we dig deeper

READERS BEWARE: Be very careful reading past this point. These questions might challenge decades old paradigms and educational philosophies in our society. By asking these questions, we have to be willing to look beyond the cliche answers, we have to be ready to really hear the responses we get. That it might be time to make some changes—-is not a bad thing. Our society has changed dramatically in so many ways….perhaps there are new ways of looking at our education system and making improvements where they make sense

There is no right or wrong when having these discussions. The discussion itself is the goal.

RSVP if there are some huge questions left unasked

Ok, let’s just dive in head first… we go….

  • Consider our current A-F grading system. If a student starts slow in the class, but by the end of the class has mastered the skills of that area, shouldn’t that student have the highest grade possible?
  • Grades: Is a grade a reflective measure of how much content was learned in the class? or a measure of how that knowledge can be used or demonstrated? or a measure of how hard the student worked? or a measure of how well the student followed directions? or an arbitrary measure?
  • Are there effective evaluation tools other than quizzes and tests?
  • ….speaking of which, what exactly are we trying to evaluate anyway?
  • What are we trying to accomplish through nightly homework?
    ** Consider your response to this question. What do you think is the “cliche” response from the schools? from society? Do we actually accomplish that goal?

  • Why have we learned to associate rigor with amount of homework?
  • …and what is rigor anyway?
  • Do departments and schools ever discuss homework, the value of homework, the expectations of homework, the amount of homework, the evaluation of homework?
  • Is the value that we think is there for semester/year ending exams really there?
  • Have we considered how many hours of time are spent by schools preparing for, administering, and grading exams?
    ** Consider your response to this question. What do you think is the “cliche” response from the schools? from society? How does what we say we are trying to accomplish compare with what we actually accomplish with exams?

  • Is a long summer break the best scheduling option for schools/teachers?
  • Is a long summer break the best scheduling option for students/learning?
  • Is a long summer break the best scheduling option for families?
  • Is the daily schedule going from class to class to class over the course of 7-8 hours the most efficient use of our time?
  • What if there was a different daily schedule in the fall, spring, and winter?
  • Is there any value to offering classes during the evening? weekend? holidays? What if students could choose to take classes during that time? What if teachers could elect to offer classes during those non-traditional times
  • Is there value in capstone-like, large, multi-week projects at the end of a semester?
  • Why are AP exams offered 1 month before the end of school?
  • Why do we offer AP exams? Is the reason students take AP classes the same reason why we offer those classes?
  • Why is it a given that students will incur debt as a natural consequence of going to college?
  • Is the price of college/university worth it?
  • Is the process by which students apply and are admitted to college an effective system?
  • Is there value in standardized college entrance examinations such as ACT and SAT? Is any of that value supported by the test itself?
  • What is the goal of elementary (Lower) school?
  • What is the goal of middle(jr. high) school?
  • What is the goal of high school?
  • Consider your responses to the previous 3 questions. What do you think is the “cliche” response from the schools? from society? Do we actually accomplish those goals?
  • woah…this is gonna sting….has school becomes irrelevant? Has school gotten in the way of education?
  • Consider the traditional “core” classes as determined by your state curriculum committees. What subject areas are included as core classes? Do these reflect the values and needs of your community? Do these support the goals of our school system? Do these reflect what is valued and needed by business in order to innovate and lead in the upcoming decade?
  • Do you as a parent, through your comments, actions, and behaviors, support the expectations of the school your children attend?
  • Do you, as an administrator, take time to ask these types of questions…or do you primarily focus on the day to day issues of running a school?

I look forward to the discussions these questions might spark.

If you liked the style of questions posed here, consider reading my previous Questions (part 1) post.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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Hour of Code and National Computer Science Week

(December 8 – 14)

Do we really need to dedicate an entire week dedicated to bringing attention to our discipline?


Do we really need to try engage an entire planet in just trying out our “discipline” for an hour?

hmm Yeah.

Are we really at that point? In a world where most people probably have several digital devices near them at any time…how can we possible not even know what Computer Science is

90% of the school in the USA DO NOT teach Computer Science.

Watch This(it’s awesome):

Well, first I’ll argue that Computer Science is not a traditional discipline in the same way that History is. It’s a way of thinking, and a set of skills with a blend of creativity and building, and a set of tools that are “behind” not only every other discipline, but behind virtually every aspect of life. And you can like that or not like it but you cannot deny that. In the same way that language is part of what we do all day, every day, wherever we are, whatever industry we are in, whatever grade we are in, or economic status we live in.

So National Computer Science week is a nationally designated week that was created to give schools and communities a chance to focus on and plan learning events and teaching opportunities centered around Computer Science…especially in schools, or cities, or even countries that don’t necessarily know what Computer Science is, nor it’s value to their own business and economy.

..the perception of Computer Science in the 1980s..

..the perception of Computer Science in the 1980s..

One of the biggest problems is quite simply that we have a ton of 1960-1980 “baggage” we are digitally dragging behind us. There was a time where you had to be a top engineer/mathematician/research scientist in order to have any chance of interacting with a computer and putting it to work for you. The world still has this image in their mind when they hear Computer Science. It was truly an elite group of people , super-smart, nerdy, and typically social loners.

Additionally (and sadly) , we still have schools teaching keyboarding and Microsoft Word, and calling that Computer Science. They are truly draining the digital life out of their students. Their students come to them eager to explore, create, and learn—they LOVE the technologies that are in their hands and on their desks. They don’t want to type letters and insert clip art pictures.

Initiatives such as Hour of Code encourage, allow, and enable people (who are willing) to explore Computer Science “along with” their students. We don’t need(nor want) 1980 nerds; we don’t need Computer Science experts, we don’t need you to already know how to program. We just need you to want to try something new. But we warn you–your kids are gonna love it. You yourself may actually find that it is addicting. Yes, it’s hard…but not hard like memorizing a complex Physics formula or BC calculus equation, but hard like “oh man… I really want to make my program function like this, my game go “like this”, my app do that…..and there are so many ways to do it…I just have to figure out which way is best” kind of hard. I joke with my parents of our students, “Your child will learn integral calculus or advanced gravitational equations in order to have their alien bounce across the screen and shoot a green laser blaster.”

So, what exactly is the Hour of Code?

Well, it was started by CODE.ORG (if CODE.ORG was a for-profit start-up, everyone there would probably be millionaires) and they have taken the lead on providing resources and advertising and mass marketing —with a very simple goal: To help the world understand what Computer Science is and help bring it into our educational system. One of the ways they do this is by simply trying to help introduce what it is to as many people as we can—even if just for one hour.


CODE.ORG Hour of Code

CODE.ORG Hour of Code

There are numerous self-paced, interactive, fun and engaging, “no need for a Computer Science teacher” online tutorials for EVERY grade level. All that is needed is for a school, a parent, or a teacher, to be willing to take small chance and “let go”. Let the learning happen by actively doing, instead of passively receiving. Difficult concepts are actually introduced, communicated, and reinforced, through the activities themselves. Maybe you learn how to build an app, a small program, or even a small game. Especially with research leaders such as Jane McGonigal leading the way, we know that games and gaming are huge attractors and motivators for people (not just students), so we tap into the built-in energy that exists around games, and we use that to let a first Computer Science experience be an engaging one, full of interaction, creativity, accomplishment, and understanding…. and a desire to know more.

Any Computer Science teacher will tell you that we don’t even pretend to be only expert in the room when there is Computer Science happening . There are far too many languages, technologies, gadgets, and tools to be in command of all of them. On any given day, I learn 5 new things from my students and through my continued exploration. In my school, our projects in class are advanced and complex, I have to work just as hard to help students with their project as they work doing their project.

At our K-12 school, we have Computer Science , real Computer Science, happening as early as 5th grade…and we hit it harder starting in 7th and 8th, and then we just open it up full volume in 9th-12th. So, our kids are getting hundreds of “Hours of Code” each school year, so our “Hour of Code” actually focuses on our parents. They are the community leaders, business owners, politicians, and outspoken citizens who can be of huge help in trying to get the word out.

I mean…WORDS

What words?

• What Computer Science really is.
• That Computer Science is needed.
• That Computer Science is not for the academic elite.
• That Computer Science does not require tube socks and pocket protectors
• That Computer Science is as much ART as it is Science
• That Computer Science is fun
• That Computer Science gives you tools that allow you to express ideas
• That Computer Science can enable you be better and stronger and more productive in whatever industry you desire–and wherever your passions lie.

Because most school don’t have Computer Science, or don’t even offer it except as a 12th grade elective, it has not become part of the academic journey for our best students. By the time they get exposed to it, it’s almost too late.

“….So, are you suggesting that because a kid spent one hour going through a tutorial for how to make Angry Birds and (s)he can have a bird flap around on the screen, that they have had a Computer Science experience?…”




Are they qualified to work in the industry designing software? Of course not. But, did they find themselves understanding the basics of how to build something using commands, seeing how to manipulate the technology in front of them, and explore the different ways of breaking down a problem into step action steps, and being willing to “try this” and “try that”. In order to have Angry Birds hurl across the screen into Pigs, they will explore concepts and constructs such as conditional statements, looping, variables, data storage, and graphical display—all of which are part of Computer Science. Those exact same techniques and skills are used in every industry in almost every programming language in order to help design software for banks, small businesses, factories, websites, restaurants, engineers, real estate firms, tax returns, and schools.

Perhaps because of an unexpected & engaging one-hour experience a student might decide to take a class, explore a club, read a book, or even try an entire online tutorial and see if it is something they can engage with. They might open their eyes to an entirely new world—-one that has been right in front of them their whole life that they just did not see.

Is it even working? well, if you consider over 47,000,000 have tried an “Hour of Code” so far, then YES

Yep the demand is there.

That’s why I say “Yes, making that Angry Bird game was not only worthwhile, but critical for our future”

Keep an eye out for schools in your community who might be offering events centered around the “Hour of Code”

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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