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26 August 2018

How to teach a group the use of a new software platform

Oy.  I’ve been stuck in jail faculty meetings all week, with barely an end in sight.  Every teacher knows that simply talking at a class from the front of the room for 90 minutes is unacceptable pedagogy; however, that’s how most faculty meetings are structured.  Even though it is often the leaders of these very meetings who are informing teachers not to talk at the class from the front of the room for 90 minutes.

In four of the last five years, our faculty has been asked to learn a new software platform - from google docs to Canvas to a bespoke boarding school check-in system.  For each platform, teachers have rightly asked for - demanded - training on how to use that platform.  How, pedagogically, should that training be conducted?

I can tell you first how it should NOT be conducted:

“Hi everyone!  I have a great joke about how frustrating this software is going to be for you.  Now open your computers.  Go to the login page and input the credentials we sent you via email.”

“Wait, what page?” “This page written on the top of my browser on the screen.”

“My login doesn’t work.”“Okay, if your login doesn’t work, open this tab and click 'reset password'.”

“Which tab?”  “The tab on this page here that I’m manipulating on the screen.”

“What do we do after we log in?”  “Great, I’ll tell you in a moment.  First let’s get everyone logged in.”

“Can we change the system to account for the differing needs of the history department?”  “As a matter of fact, [five minute digression of interest only to the history teacher who asked]”

“Which tab, again?”

Does this sound familiar?  I consider this sort of faculty meeting to be educational malpractice. If our classrooms should reflect pedagogical best practice, then our meetings as a faculty should reflect the best of best practices.

But my complaint here demands an understanding of what are best practices of teaching new software.  Many of us will need to do this in our classes - how do we avoid being responsible for the scene described above?  I mean, its not like the folks running these sorts of meetings or classes have extensive experience in computer pedagogy.  Such skills must be learned.

Here’s an approach that works, and wastes no one’s time.  It will require a change in mindset... because of the persistent meme throughout every level of our profession that if information is not "covered" orally by a leader in front of the entire group, no one knows or is expected to know said information.  But, I’ll bet you thousands of dollars that the approach below will cause better retention of information as well as far, far less resentment.

"Hi everyone! We have a new software platform that we all need to use this year. Today we need to make sure you can access the platform, and that you are familiar with its basic functioning.  In the process, we the people organizing the software platform need to debug, to find out what works, what is clear... and what isn't.

I've listed five tasks on the board.  Please open your computer, and access the email that gives screenshots and step-by-step instructions for each task.  

Then, please follow the directions and finish each of the five tasks.  If something doesn't work, if you're having trouble, ask a friend; help each other.  I and my partner will be walking around the room troubleshooting.

When you've done all five tasks, please come see us and let us know.  We're particularly interested if you encountered any problems or created suggestions.  After you've talked to us, you're done - I know you have things to do in your classrooms.  That said, if you'd like to stick around and help a colleague, I know that would be appreciated.

Go for it!"

That's all that needs to be done from the front of the room.

As the leaders circulate, it's quite important to deal appropriately with frustration.  Too many people in the audience act personally affronted that they have to learn something new, that it doesn't work perfectly the first time, and so on.  (Teachers are usually worse than students, here.) 

Yes, these folks need to get over themselves.  But the frustration is real, and often unavoidable.  Think of these frustrated participants as students who are continually wrong in their first exposure to free body diagrams. The leader must be calm and patient, yet insist on everyone being good teammates working toward a common goal of learning the new software.

14 August 2018

I'll be teaching an online physics course to help with teacher certification...

Hey, all... this is an ad, but an ad for something you or someone you know may be interested in.

I'll be teaching two online physics units through the Putnam-Westchester Industry & Science Teacher Alliance (PWISTA).  Check out the Science Teacher Mastery Program.  Each class in the program is equivalent to what would be a two-to-three week content unit in a first year college physics course, but aimed at students who are or intend to become physics teachers.

The goal is to provide a convenient and useful option for folks who need content-specific college coursework for their professional development or teaching certificate.  Do you know someone who is being asked to teach physics, but is primarily a biologist or chemist and thus needs some content support?  Or, do you know someone who is familiar with physics, but needs guidance in physics pedagogy, needs to know how to help her or his students understand physics?  Either way, this course will be of use.

I'm offering two classes: one on circuits, and one on impulse-momentum.

For each, you will get access to all of my topical course material, both when I teach at the high-school (Regents) level, and when I teach at the college (AP) level.  This includes the labs, problem sets, and quizzes that I assign.  I'll give you written guidance about how to use this material in your teaching, and for your own study.

Then, I will host five one-hour online sessions on Thursday nights this fall (see schedule below).  In each session, I'll spend the first half discussing practical pedagogy, just as I do in my workshops and on this blog.  In the second half, I'll discuss specific content, problem solving, and test preparation issues.

Participants can get 15-hour CTLE certificates through Purchase College.  They can also get three graduate credits in science education through Manhattanville College - see the site for details about credits, certificates, and pricing.

I've appended the full course description via this google link.  (The impulse-momentum course has the same description.)

If you have further questions, please contact me via email or twitter; or, contact Mark Langella, head of PWISTA, through their site.  Mark teaches the chemistry courses, and has been a College Board consultant for many years - he's the varsity, in case you know anyone who wants a similar program in chemistry.

Schedule for PWISTA Physics fall 2018:

The following are Thursday nights.  The circuits course will meet at 8:00, the impulse-momentum course at 9:00, via Google Hangouts:

Sep. 20
Oct. 4
Oct. 18
Nov. 1
Nov. 15

01 August 2018

Stamp out political hyperbole in teaching: physics teachers are not "cruel."

Dad: Maybe if we tied it down so it couldn't move it wouldn't get so hungry.

Daughter: You can't do that, Dad, it's cruel!

Dad: Oh, everything's cruel according to you. Keeping him chained up in the backyard is cruel. Pulling on his tail is cruel. Yelling in his ears is cruel. Everything is cruel. So, excuse me if I'm cruel!

That's not a secret transcript of the director of the Gestapo ICE negotiating care for his family dog.  No, that's Homer Simpson discussing how to handle Bart's pet Stampy the elephant.  Homer: Now I've had my head in an elephant, a hippo, and a giant sloth.

I've been thinking an awful lot about cruelty lately... I mean actual, perpetrators-would-burn-in-hell-if-I-believed-in-hell cruelty.  For example, about how many people are willing to make excuses for sending refugee children to concentration camps.  I feel helpless and depressed.

Next, I've thought back to the times that I, personally, have been labeled "cruel" by students, parents, and colleagues.  Refusing to answer questions during a test: "cruel."  Insisting on a serious written attempt at a problem before I offer help: "cruel."

In the past, I've simply given matter-of-fact explanations for my approach to teaching, usually with a smile on my face.  "A test is my opportunity to see what my students can do on their own, not how well they can pump me for information."  "If I ‘help’ before you’ve thoroughly engaged with the problem, you won’t gain the critical experience that will help you figure out how to approach unfamiliar problems on exams.”  

I’ve let the overwrought label “cruel” deflect off of my mental armor unchallenged.  After all, who cares… by year’s end, the vast majority of students change their tune, ace their AP or final exam, and send me notes of thanks for holding them to high standards while still showing support for and belief in their ability.  

It's time to change our tune.  The more I think about it, we should *all* care about the insidious emotional manipulation of casually labeling a teacher as “cruel.”  I think we should stand firm, and forcefully correct anyone who deigns to use this epithet directed at any teacher.  I’ve got two important reasons for fighting back.

(1) Your reputation matters; Words and labels matter. When people call you cruel, they are fighting a modern political battle, using emotionally charged language alongside truth-neutral hyperbole to discredit you for their own purposes.  The endgame is to force you to reduce or eliminate your demands for rigorous intellectual engagement while delivering high grades.  This approach is the localized, small-scale version of Brexit’s “More money for the NHS” or 2016 America’s “Lock Her Up!”  Keep pounding the same talking points that hit the audience right in the feels, and then facts don’t matter.  

Colleagues and parents are already predisposed toward a negative opinion of the physics teacher.  The subject we teach is fundamentally different, as is good pedagogy in our subject.  But also, physics teachers themselves are generally different from our colleagues.  We are so often outsiders to the mainstream education community.  And as we’ve seen the past few years, it doesn’t take much discrediting nonsensical propaganda to turn a community’s outsiders into outcasts.  You might give the highest grades in the department, you might over the year assign less homework than any other AP teacher… but if the “cruel” label sticks, you’ll be in political trouble despite reality.

(2) Hyperbole of labeling a well-meaning teacher “cruel” dilutes the impact of calling out true cruelty.  Right now, powerful people are abusing their positions to direct acts of authentic, deep cruelty, and they’re doing so publicly and shamelessly.  When someone calls a teacher “cruel” they set up a dangerous false equivalence.  

You really think that me not allowing retests is on the level with harassing Sandy Hook victims’ parents until they must go into hiding?  That refusing to assign vacuous “extra credit” is the same as forcibly taking away children of asylum seekers, then lying about and profiting from the kidnapping?  Because that’s what you’re saying when you call me or my pedagogy “cruel.”  

I’m sorry your child or your advisee is going to have a harder time getting into Princeton if (s)he earns a B in physics.  I hope (s)he can turn that into an A eventually.  It is perhaps my most fervent wish that your kid’s B counted as the cruelest event to happen to an American teenager this year.  

Are you frustrated with me, with my course, with physics, with the entire hierarchical educational system?  That’s fine.  That’s fair. 

But it’s not cruel.