Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sheer Genius

Years ago I was visiting a friend whose son was sitting at a computer nearby doing his homework. I could tell that his mom was convinced that doing homework on a computer, whatever she thought that meant, was going to result in her son being smarter, or a better student, or something. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He had a list of questions he needed to answer, and he certainly was smart enough to have figured out his technique - type each question verbatim into the Google search box, then write down whatever appeared as the first entry on the results page. He was done in 10 minutes - sheer genius!

I mention this because it's all there - the disruptive technology, the hype about computers, a teacher who probably had no idea that the answers were obtained this way, a student who never bothered to visit a single webpage other than Google.

So I think about not asking my own students questions that can be answered so simply, and I think about how to help them navigate the sea of online information. I also try to remember that I have no idea what information technology will look like years from now, but some concepts about acquiring and using information will forever be true.

Teaching or Filtering?

I have taught physics to children of all ages, from 3rd graders to high-school seniors.  Some people find this improbable - of course, whatever is being taught to, say, middle-schoolers in the name of physics must not be real physics.  Why not? I ask.  Well real physics is complicated and requires advanced math, like calculus, they say.

But aren't there concepts in physics that can be conveyed to younger students?

Concepts are fine, but physics isn't real without the math.

But math taught to middle-schoolers is real math, isn't it?

Yes, but that's different.  These students will take math for many years, getting better and better at it.

So there is no point in introducing students to the basic ideas of physics?

Well, why bother?  You won't be able to say that they really KNOW physics.

But I'm not trying to claim that they will become professional physicists through my class.  I just want them to have experienced how physicists see and think about the world.

Unless they plan on pursuing science in college, there isn't any point.  And if your students get good grades in your class, you will, in fact, be claiming that they KNOW physics.

I'll be claiming that they know what I've asked them to learn, basic physics concepts.

And that will be a misleading claim.  Everyone knows that only the smartest students can really learn physics.

That last notion is a back-handed compliment, I guess.  I certainly did learn physics in high school and college, so apparently I numbered among the "smartest" students.  As a teacher, though, I reject the notion, and if I'm so smart, why is my assertion about the ability to teach physics to everyone not accepted?

The answer lies in deeply-held but foggy notions about "smartness," and what it means to know something, about the capacity to both teach and learn.  Ultimately, the question needs to be asked; what are we doing in our schools, are we teaching or are we filtering?  Which function does our society most want from its schools?

As a high school physics student, I was the product of filtering.  Physics was a high-school course that only the brightest students were allowed to take.  The filtering process began in middle-school with students being grouped into divisions based on academic ability.  From that point on, expectations both low and high became reality.  In high school we were separated into tracks that were to guide us to the appropriate socio-economic outcome.  The requirements for taking physics were steep - we were the final filtrate, the ultimate refinement.

I completely understand my interlocutor above.  There exists a sense that physics is an elite study.  I had a friend who insisted that I must understand the whole universe if I understand physics.  But is it elite only because the bar to entry is set so high?  Is physics, or anything else for that matter, so fundamentally difficult to understand that a teacher can only throw his hands in the air in despair?  If so, then we are left with filtering - separating the wheat from the chaff, the elite from the common, the deserving from the disqualified, the good from the bad, the smart from the stupid.  Filtering may be an understandable, even natural, practice, but imagine what good, effective teaching could do.

What's so Wrong With PowerPoint?

I was looking for a social media site where I could share presentations, and a colleague suggested SlideShare. It's a very nice looking site, and it seems to serve a large community. I haven't explored the site thoroughly, but I have viewed a number of the slideshows, and they are either PowerPoint-type or PDF presentations.

I am often bored or even annoyed by most PowerPoint (PP) presentations. In response to my colleague, though, I pointed out that I wasn't sure if the problem with PP was the program itself or just how it is used. As I put it, "I'm no Powerpoint fan, but I know it's because so many PP presentations are terrible! No CARP awareness [see below], no narrative or even logical arc. I rarely use it, so I haven't learned the ins and outs. I did meet a chemistry teacher from Korea who had done some amazing things with PP, though."

Heaven knows we have all suffered through poorly designed PP presentations. Another colleague sent me a link to an essay by Edward R Tufte (2006) entitled "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint." He makes a strenuous argument against the underlying approach of PP, explaining how that approach corrupts the presentation of analytical data. PP is inherently flawed - it is PP's fault!

On the other hand, there is a well-known approach to the design of visual presentations based on four principles: Contrast, Arrangement, Repetition, and Proximity (or CARP, for short). These are the principles often violated in PP presentations, and for which PP can't be faulted (though Tufte argues that PP is almost designed to enable these violations).

I already use a presentation tool every day in my classes - SmartNotebook, which is part of the software suite that accompanies Smartboards. I don't think I'm doing anything with SmartNotebook that I couldn't do with PP, but it feels more intuitive and responsive to what I'm doing in my classroom. PP always feels static (though I still think about that chemistry teacher from Korea!)

I haven't yet played with Prezi - I guess I should try, because it seems to be a good alternative to PP. I also want to play with the screen-capture tool Jing, and see if I can record presentations and share them on YouTube. Prezi and SmartNotebook also have archives for sharing presentations.

Related links:

E R Tufte's essay (PDF)
a Prezi presentation about CARP!
Ironically enough, a SlideShare presentation on "Death by PowerPoint."
An article in PC World entitled "Anything but PowerPoint." (The main complaint here seems to be that PP presentations are boring. Most of the alternatives offered are just variations on PP.)


Tufte, E. R. (2006). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, (2nd ed.) Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.