Friday, May 27, 2005

A Canadian Ambassador

I caught this diary about our new Ambassador to Canada at Daily Kos, and thought that our random, disgruntled, conservative, Canadian commentor might appreciate it. Perhaps a guy who's never been to Canada will be able to go up and fix things the way that W has fixed things here.


What Did We Really Learn?

A thought occured to me while I was in the shower this morning. . .

Imagine that 100 students go through the typical physics/astronomy professional track (i.e. they major in physics as undergrads, go to grad school, and at least make it through the masters/comprehensive exam phase). Even though it would be hard to agree on a measure of the physics/astronomy knowledge that each of these students posses (some might say the ability to answer questions on a comp exam, some would say the ability to carry out a research program, some would say the ability to ask an interesting research question, etc.), we could all agree that there would be a fairly wide spread in skill level regardless of the measure selected.

However, there is one skill that all 100 students would be able to use at a very similar level. What is it? Giving a lecture.

Giving a lecture is the one skill that all physics/astronomy students know how to do equally well, because it was the one skill that was modelled for us most consistently. Day in, and day out for 6 or so years, we all saw lectures. None of the skills like problem solving, research, synthesis of information, or writing are given that type of exposure to students by way of modelling.

For example, professors may work through a problem on the board with the input of students, during a class. But it's not pure problem solving. The professor knows what the answer is, and he's (pardon my reality based sexism) just guiding the students. How many times does a student ever see a professor truly stumped? And not in a, 'I forgot what step I was on in this problem that I've done for 30 years', but in a stumped 'this research question seems to be too big for me,' way. Probably not until the final stages of dissertation research, if that.

Some would argue that there are better lecturers than others within the field, and I would have to agree. Some people do have naturally louder vocies, better voice control, better body control, and can wrap their information up in a more interesting way. However, if you go to a large collection of physics/astronomy research talks, like the AAS Meeting, and look objectively at all the talks, you'll find that they are strikingly similar. The style of presentations are the same, the order of presentations are the same, the structure of the powerpoint is the same, and the use of body and voice is the same. Often we give too much credit to the speaker of one of these talks for being interesting, when really it was just the information conveyed that was interesting to us.

Physics/astronomy programs teach lecturing well, because it is the one thing they model for all students without fail. It would be interesting to see what could be taught if we focused as much energy on modelling other traits.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Crazies Come Out in Edweek

(updated 5/26)

So it seems they left the barn doors open at Edweek in this issue. Yeah, most of the issue was actually pretty decent and informative, and I should be happy, but they developed some problems at the end.

First, there was the nit picky stupid. Yeah, I tend to discount studies that use the wrong verb with data, too. Whatever. My advisor tended to have the same problem with this word as well. I adapted, just so that I could avoid the conflict everytime I wrote something, but it seems like one of the most elitist, condescending critiques of writing possible. Only smart people know the latin declination of datum. Screw that. Data is as data does.

Sorry for the rant. It will get worse.

We advance to this article in which the author thinks we're not doing enough for the 'smart kids'. He's got a point. I don't think schools are anywhere near challenging enough. Only a select few in high powered, upwardly mobile districts really push all their students. And that would be the problem, wouldn't it? How do we go about finding all these smart kids? Should we use the time honored tradition of selecting the children of the rich? Maybe we should use the children of the already smart? But of course, alot of them were the children of the rich themselves, so let's just go back to step one. The one thing that I've found visting schools and talking to kids, is that there's a whole lot of smart kids out there who never get the chance.

In the same issue, we see that this kid did get the chance. He's smart, he's driven, but as much as the article wants to use that word, 'genius', we can't deny that his dad's an engineer, his mom stays at home in order to cart him around, and he goes to one of the best schools in the country. What happens to the kid with the same genes living in South Central? The influence of adults on kids learning is of the utmost important, as shown in the link from Wired posted by Maki-girl right above (below?)

High level education can be given to all children and most likely, all children will end up performing alot better than they do right now. Calls for the improvement of gifted education are simply elitist and classist in my book. When the kids are recognized as gifted, we do know how to teach them well. We just have to do that for alot more kids.

And finally, here's a letter to the editor from someone who's just not gifted. I got several words for Michael Mcneece of Fulton, Mississippi: 'Go fucking learn something, and then go ahead and fuck yourself.'

(I told you the rant would get worse)

Why doesn't he just come out and call us freakin' Nazis? That Edweek would go ahead and publish this crap is beyond me. How is this reasonable debate? As I've posted before, our defense of evolution is published in dozens if not hundreds of journals. You see, we scientists, we don't burn books, we make them.

La Vida Robot

You would think that it's clear that we're not doing enough for ALL kids, but I guess not everyone has realized that yet. Here's a story from "Wired" magazine--La Vida Robot--about the sort of talent we are missing out on because these kids are "underprivileged" and "undocumented." It's one of my favourite magazine articles this year.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Oh Canada part 2

My apologies for just posting the link to the NY Times article about Canada earlier. I got a phone call right when I was starting the blog entry and I knew it would take a long time ... but I digress.

I have mixed feelings about this article. I do agree with you, hoagieboy, that it seems a little strange for the NY Times to now be writing a "hit piece" on Canada. At the same time, and as much as it pains me to say so, I think it is somewhat needed. Many Canadians (including me) go around talking about Canada as if it's the land of milk and honey (soymilk and molasses?) and convince most Americans that our nation really is superior to theirs in many ways. And the Americans take it all at face value because most (not you, hoagieboy) don't know anything about Canada. They don't know about this sponsorship scandal. They don't know about our terrible record with the First Nations Peoples. They might have heard about the seal hunt but they don't know what we're doing in Alberta with the oil sands. I think sometimes it is good to see the blemishes that other countries have. HOWEVER, that doesn't mean you can forget about all the good things coming out of Canada right now. Toronto is the most multi-cultural city in the world. I am not making this up. I really noticed this last time I was visiting my family and turned on the Toronto news and TV shows. Wow. Only in Hawai`i have I seen so much diversity on TV.

Is Canada going to hell in a handbasket? No. Could it improve? Yes. Should it still be a model for other nations? Absolutely.

Education Carnival

The Carnival of Education is at Science and Politics this week. Perhaps there will be an interesting article or two.

The 51st (and most evil) State

As seen in the last post, our previous random, disgruntled, Canadian commenter has, apparently, been hired as a writer for the NY Times.

Why now, of all times, to write a hit piece on Canada? WTF? Yeah, Martin's government is having some 'difficulties', but the tone of the piece seemed to me to imply that all Canadians are generally a bunch of hypocrites, and if given the chance they would probably sign up with Al Qaeda. Ok?

Really, though, if the MP representing jilted lovers hadn't switched (and really, what does that tell you about the conservative party in Canada, that one of it's founders would switch for a cabinet post, even knowing that her vote could bring down the government? Sounds like a sinking ship to me.) and Martin's government had gone down, it's not as if a new era of conservative dominance would have followed. The liberals are only being challenged by an even coalition of the bloq and conservatives. Are they forming a government sometime soon? I think not. The Liberals are the dominant party for the forseable future.

But instead of exploring the intracacies of Canadian government, the "World's Greatest Newspaper" would rather spend a few 1000 words taking our neighbors and best friend's down a notch or two. Now, if you had only gone to Iraq like our good little doggies the English. . .

Oh Canada

Oh Canada.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Freedom has an Equation

Canada fails in the equation of freedom. Got anything to say, Makigirl?

The interesting thing about the equation of freedom is that if you don't torture any people who aren't supposed to be tortured, your freedom factor goes immediately to zero. Perhaps that's similar to how if you don't break any eggs, your omelette factor is zero. Who's running this country anyway?

Monday, May 23, 2005

A Beautiful Story

This story about the horrible troubles faced by a mother and two daughters (Warning: audio file) is depressing, but beautiful all the same. I just happened to be out driving on Saturday and heard it on NPR. I can't imagine going through the struggles that these girls did. And it's amazing to me that their mother would have the courage to produce this story in a way that is very favorable to her daughters.

You'll cry, but you'll be better for it.

And while you're at it, check out everything else at This American Life. It has to be one of the best shows on the radio.

Nucular Option Coming Tomorrow

Will the world end? Here's everything you need to know. Depending on my work load tomorrow, I may live blog the CSPAN coverage.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Culture of Compassion

A teacher in a Christian School was fired for bad teaching.

No, just kidding. That would make sense. She was fired for having premarital sex.

The reason give was thus:

"In our school system, our teachers are expected to be a positive spiritual example for our congregations and youth," Nickless said in a prepared statement. "When she (John) chose behavior contrary to those values, she was placed on administrative leave."

Yeah, and its a fucking positive spiritual example to fire a 4 month pregnant woman and essentially call her a whore. Oh, the church did say that they were being compassionate. Apparently, they're paying her for another month instead of kicking her to the curb right now. I'm sure Jesus would be proud.

And it wouldn't be positive to allow her to become a good mother and be a good example to her students. No, it wouldn't be positive to have an adult admit that they might have done something that they hadn't planned to do. Who knows, maybe she even had a reason for getting pregnant when she did.

And, even worse, I'll bet you $10 million that if the teacher were a guy and his wife was a little further along than she should be, he wouldn't be getting fired.

How the hell can you goddamn call yourself part of a 'culture of life', when you fire pregnant women?

Bastards. Every last one of them.

Vilsack Gets it Right

Yesterday, at a hearing in the House, Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack, blamed Iowa parents for not creating a more academically challenging environment in the state . Those are pretty strong words for an elected official (yeah, but he is term limited), but still very much right.

As much as I, and people like the Ed Trust, talk about the importance of good teachers and principals, ultimately, schools are a reflection of their communities. Communities that believe in achievement, rigor, diversity, and success, will see those qualities show up in their schools. Granted, it may not be easy to get there, and many communities may not be able to conceptualize those terms easily, because of a lack of examples. However, if a community can come up with definitions for those words and others like them, that community is already well on its way to success for its children.

I think too often, people on the left have a very technocratic view of schools, than they otherwise should. We know that participation is important in many aspects of life, but often, we think that if we put some smart people in charge of the school, then everything in the school, for the most part, will take care of itself. But, a liberal education (pardon the metaphor) is a very tender flower, an orchid perhaps. To get the qualities mentioned above, and have them apply to all students, a school has to be nurtured by the whole community at all times. We know that when we ignore school board elections, crap like this happens, but even gentle neglect without the presence of bible thumpers can be bad for many students.

I think I'm getting closer to answering the question about what a perfect highschool (or maybe a whole school system) should look like. Certainly, I think now, one component is has to be the presence of the community in the school(s). I think that will be one of the big concepts that has to change when you move towards educating all children.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Rebel 4 Year Olds

One last thing for the day:

Here's a story about how pre-K kids are getting tossed out of school at a higher rate than school age children. What exactly is going on here. Some 'experts' in the story are blaming it all on video games. But I wonder if alot of it has to do with just more kids going to pre-K than ever before, and young kids spending less time with their parents than ever before too?

Well, which one is it?

So, the Carnival of Education apparently did lead me somewhere. Right into a very odd website . Apparently, in the instructivist's world, all our hands-on ideas are leading students down the primrose path to failure.

What was it I said a few posts ago? Oh yeah, 'Shut up while I teach you some mass, damn it!'

Yeah, apparently, lecturing and rote memorization are the correct way to go. You better fire me now, Makigirl. I guess your students learned nothing this past year.

But it's interesting to see how such a strong, black and white, position, can't hold up its own self-consistency. Check out this post about individualism and this post about biblical literalism , and then tell me how they fit together in a coherent world view. I really doubt that hands on science has been around long enough to cause a majority of Americans to start beliving every last word in the bible. Science education has been failing a lot longer than Gardner.

You want to point a finger. You point it straight at all those math/physics/science teachers who would rather present their material in such a way (lecture) as to weed out students as opposed to teaching them.

Frankly, why don't you go into any physics grad program and just see how much science and math the first year students have learned from their high school and college math/science lectures. You won't be impressed.

The Education Carnival

So, I came across the Carnival of Education recently, and decided to start linking it. It seems to move around from site to site each week, but The Education Wonks seem to run it the most. I'm not entirely sure how many of the articles I'll read from it, but if you can stand the all the bolding it's probably worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Who Do the Simpsons Make Fun of?

I'd like to admit that I have this nasty habit. I've never taken myself off of the group email list at my old academic department. Call me crazy and sick, but I actually enjoy reading the mad-cap going on's of the place. In fact, I think there's a pretty cool book in there someday if I actually took the time to collect them all. But I'm not that crazy.

Here, however, is an interesting exchange:

Astronomer 1: in case you didn't see the simpsons last night, it went something like this....
bart: "look at me everbody, I'm a grad student. I made $600 last year"
marge: "bart, don't make fun of grad students, they just made horrible life decisions"

Astronomer 2: They also made fun of NASA for spending billions of dollars to
send probes to Mars. I was rather disappointed by both comments.

Astronomer 3: They've also made fun of...everything and everyone (or did you not notice they made fun of Christians, Jews, and Budhists the next episode, which
is only a few billion people). Its supposed to be funny, not a serious
commentary. The grad student thing was hillarious!

You know, if there's one thing that bothers me, it's when a scientist starts gettin' way too uppity for their own good. Astronomer 2, thus, severely bothers me. Awww, poor baby was made fun of by the Simpsons for something that's demonstrably true. Perhaps he has a nice stipend being in trendy research science, but the vast majority of grad students are just plainly poor. And well, Marge is probably right about alot of us too.

As far as being annoyed at the Simpsons making fun of spending money on space, if there isn't another show out there that's more friendly to science than the Simpsons, I don't really know what it is. Suck it up and take a joke. Routinely, reality based science and economics are shown to be much more effective than their faith based competitors. (That doesn't mean that the reality based traits always win. But that's part of the satire.) The Simpsons live in a world where being reality based and knowledgable about the world are givens. This is opposed to that other unwatchable conservatarian show on Comedy Central. Really, how many times was Stephen J. Gould on the show? You gotta know something about the reality based world to know who Stephen J. Gould was, and appreciate his cartoon form.

But the sad part is that I think Astronomer #3, besides understanding how to take a joke, doesn't understand much about the world. And too many people are just like him. They don't get that the commentary is serious.

Just because it involves colorful cartoon characters doesn't mean you stop paying attention. Just because the humor is sarcastic and biting, doesn't mean that it's not also uplifting. I find Southpark unwatchable exactly because there's nothing uplifting there. It tears down, and makes people tune out. I used to not like the Simpsons for that reason. But then I got older and smarter. Sometimes in order to build a world up, you have to examine every little piece of it. And sometimes when you do that, it hurts so bad you have to smile.

And Yet More Updates

I've had tons of ideas lately, but just no time to write. But, I've made a couple more updates to the links section on the right. One change was made only for the purpose of placating makigirl.

The other, however, is a link I've been meaning to make for a while. I just love the Rude Pundit. Now maybe not all people can take the testosterone dripping, curse word laden, tounge whuppin' he gives out, but I kind of like it. A tasty sample from today:

The White House wants Newsweek to be the beheaded corpse outside the Fourth Estate - a warning to all who would fuck with them. This is a blood game, and, motherfuckers, if you're not doing the cutting, you're the ones bleeding to death.

And there's plenty more where that came from.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A Couple Updates

Since I was planning on joining this site to some others in the near future, I made a couple of additions to the side bar. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Shut Up While I Teach You About Mass!

I promised you some Astronomy Education about a week ago, so here it finally is.

Zeilik and Morris-Dueer present an interesting review of what astronomers believe should be in an Astro 101 . But, as per usual, I have a bone to pick with the leading lights of astronomy education. They just don't jump out of the box enough for me.

The basic idea for the paper is this: The authors made a big list of every concept they could dream up that might go into an Astro 101 class, attached a Likert Scale to it, and asked a couple groups of astronomers to pick out what they thought were the most critical concepts to a class. One group they asked were "expert" astronomy educators (I'll bite my tongue on that one. You find me an expert college level astronomy educator, and I'll sell you a bridge in Brooklyn. Yeah, some people have been doing it for awhile, but expert?) And the other group appeared to be a bunch of random astronomy educators at a AAPT meeting. It's interesting to note (down in the appendix) their agreement on the fundemental concepts of Astro 101 classes.

Zeilik and Morris-Dueer also do this interesting cognitive mapping deal to see what the brain patterns of the "expert" educators are. They draw out some sort of concept map (even though it's not a concept map) to show how the experts are thinking about their class. Apparently, there are four main nodes about electromagnetic spectrum/photons, stars, mass, and cosmology. Even though one would have been naively able to come to the same conclusion, it is nice that they actually did the research and laid it all out.

And so there we have it, but what does it mean for the rest of us.

Any fool could tell you that the EM spectrum is vitally important to most instructors. There is always a chapter about EM radiation in all intro astronomy books, and there is almost always a section on the topic on professors' syllabi. However, the cognitive map thingy would seem to imply that this is a dumb way to go about teaching astronomy. The cognitive map thingy shows that EM radiation is buried under a complex net of other topics and subjects. It isn't approached by the instructor's mind directly, it is approached through any number of different contexts.

In the author's (MZ) comments about his own teaching, you can see this is the case.

I also do not cover astronomical technology as such, but do examine results (many of the cooperative learning team activities are based on real data.

(Don't I just love a blockquote these days?)

The author doesn't teach about decontextualized telescopes and the properties of mirrors, he actually goes ahead and uses (fake) telescopes to get data and then is able to bring the cognitive web back in on how telescopes and the EM spectrum might be useful to astronomy.

Another quote:

These ideas imply that a novice's knowledge structure will be simple and contain misconceptions (Goldsmith, Johnson, & Acton 1991), and that as novices become more knowledgeable during a course, their representations will become more structured overall and more similar to the expert consensus.

Exactly. But simply because the novice's structure contains misconception is no reason to simplify the whole structure for them. Let them develop misconceptions and then try help them figure out how they're wrong. These are adults we're talking about here.

If we want to teach that ideas in astronomy are deeply connected, then we best show that they are through our teaching. This is why all the workshop based classes work. The idea that connections are important is actually taught, and thus the idea that connections are important is actually learned.

It'd just be nice if the authors called out bad astronomy teaching for what it is.

One further note. If you go scrolling through the list of topics that the instructors were asked to evaluate, you'll find one big omission. There ain't nothing there about the structure of science. There's one entry about scientific models, but nothing else. Thankfully, the scientific model one scored fairly high in both groups, but it really does say something about how Astro 101 classes approach the basic principals of science. They don't. They worry about teaching the decontextualized foci of their web instead of showing the whole web.

At the risk of redundancy, teach the web!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

One More Post

Here's a very nice article by one of my friends. It really sums up the liberal argument in favor of NCLB.

It's interesting to me though, about how small the education world is that in the course of two weeks, I can site two articles about or by people I know in the major newpaper of education. That's really unfortunate, I think.

Speaking of Wasting Everyone's Time

In Kansas, their having their hearings on Evolution this week. How exactly are three uneducated school board members supposed to decide the validity of a complex and detailed theory?

They aren't. They're just going to sit and listen, and then cut evolution from the standards anyway. Real scientists, they are.

I like this little bio:

Kathy Martin, member of the Board of Education. Martin, of Clay Center, is a former teacher. She said she accepts microevolution, or small changes within a species, but not macroevolution, or changes that create new species.

I'm glad that she really does have an open mind, accepting microevolution and all. I'm glad that she has the background to make such a distinction. I'm glad that she has the audacity to say such a stupid thing. I'm glad that Kansas voters could give a shit about who represents them.

It Don't Matter if You're a Dem Sometimes

Stupidity seems to abound in Texas no matter what letter you put after your name.

Apparently, sexually suggestive cheerleading is the cause of teen pregnancy, drug use, drop-outism, and probably terorism too. Here's the text of the bill. Somehow, it seems that the State Commissioner of Education might have better things to do, rather than review dance performances and tattle on the lewd ones. Oh, maybe like making sure that less than 1/3 of Houston students don't fail the TAKS in reading and math next year.

Although, I guess if I were the State Commissioner of Education, this might become one of my favorite parts of the job.

To make matters worse, the bill was introduced by a Dem . Of course, there were three GOP co-sponsors on the bill. They aren't quoted, though. Leave it to the GOP to waste everyone's time, and then hide behind other people.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Geniuses, You Say?

Apparently, we missed the National Science Bowl this weekend. And I have to say that I'm glad for these kids from Miami who did very well, but I wonder if the coverage is a bit overboard:

There are places that lie on the other side of straight A's and flawless scores and unblemished grade-point averages, places where FCATs and SATs are so easily aced that the results lose their meaning. Geniuses go to those places for the same reasons runners seek ever-faster opponents and climbers seek ever-higher peaks: Without them, there is no challenge.

Geniuses, the high peaks of Everest, the Olympic Marathon, upwards to the Moon . . . Ok, let's calm down now. How about we call memorizing for what it is:

Here's some sample questions for the competition. If you want to do well, you'll have had to memorize a ton and be very quick at doing math algorithms. Science, heh.

--As a special bit of irony, I particularly like the question about Stephen J. Gould and Carl Sagan. Putting the two best science popularizers (and great scientists) of their generation wrapped up into a multiple choice question reserved for "geniuses" is rather rich. I would imagine that both of them would place creativity and an appreciation of the natural world's beauty on a much higher plane than the recall of their names.

Let me make it clear, I don't have any problem with the kids. I think it's good for them to have an activity to keep them off the streets. I'm glad these kids did so well. Hopefully, some of the knowledge that they picked up in studying for this test will help them in the future. My problem is with the people who call this competition "science" and the people that call kids who do well at memorizing "geniuses" (their parents/grandparents are allowed to call them that, not a major newspaper.)

Real science (and real life) don't have multiple choice questions. Real science is not studied for. Real science is determining what questions need to be asked, figuring out how to answer those questions, and then proceeding to answer them.

We do ourselves a great disservice when we allow science to be equated with memorization, and further memorization with genius. Why would someone want to become involved in science, when in order to be good at "science", you have to be able to remember that the symbol for Enthalpy is "H" quicker than anyone else (a question from the sample competition)? Why would most people want to play that game?

Because of the way we look at science, memorization, and genius, the science professions becomes populated by masochists, sadists, and overly competetive geeks, instead of people who are interested in the natural world and interested in communicating that interest to others.

And yet I still wonder why Edweek has to publish the 3,000,000th article on why girls don't want to study math. Guess what? It has nothing to do with brain function. It has to do with poor teaching, and belief in a false concept of genius.