By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries from August 2015
Posts 1 - 5 of 5

Monday, August 31, 2015

Check for use

It is common practice to check for understanding after a student has been exposed to new material. And despite the complaints that too much time is spent in classrooms preparing for high stakes tests, frequent testing is one of the most effective ways to improve student performance.

I am in favor of another kind of check: check for use. Does the student understand how to apply what she has learned? Is she aware of where it should be applied and where it should not? I am enthusiastic about project-based-learning because it starts with the notion of putting new learning to use. Projects put new knowledge and skills into context and they are strong motivators for the student to fill in gaps and improve skills.

When I was a junior in college my major was engineering physics. I was drawn to it by the "engineering" but after more than three years it was quite clear that the emphasis was on the "physics". I complained to my faculty advisor that after all that time I still didn't even know how a trasistor worked. (What I meant was, how to make a useful transistor circuit.) He, a physics professor, replied that transistors are really complex so I shouldn't expect to know how they work in so few years of schooling. (He was right from a quantum mechanics point of view.)

Transistors are complex at the quantum mechanical level which makes them work but that complexity is unnecessary to understand if you are just building an amplifier or digital switch. You can build these by connecting the battery plus to this wire, minus to that wire, and put a resistor there and there. You have made something useful.

Use is one of the great advantages of learning online today. In most cases it seems that learning starts with use. I want to replace my car's a/c fan or make orange chicken or improve the effectiveness of advertizing...the first thing I'll do is look for how-tos online. My online learning is guaranteed to be related to use.

A course usually starts from the other end: here is a body of knowledge that will be imparted to the student through the course. There are learning objectives. But to be really effective, there should be use objectives as well. And just as checks for understanding should be made frequently through the course, so should checks for use, both to ensure that the student knows what to do with what he has learned and to motivate learning by emphasizing its value.

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Keywords: check for use, PBL


Monday, August 24, 2015

Was Isaac Asimov an educator?

"Isaac must have been one of the greatest educators who ever lived, with his almost a half thousand books on virtually every aspect of science and culture."
                                              --Aurthur C. Clarke on Isaac Asimov

I am one who learned a great deal from Isaac Asimov's many books. But I am uncomfortable with thinking of Isaac (as my friends and I always referred to him, we thought we knew him so well) as an educator. He was a first rate explainer, to be sure. And his writings were so interesting to me I always wanted to read more. And I always came away from reading his work with some new information, new insights and even new inspiration.

I wanted to be like Isaac. I wanted to know as much as he did and be able to come up with clear explanations and clear and convincing insights like he did. And did again and again and again.

But I am uncomfortable about the word "educator". I don't think of an education as being a miscellaneous collection of facts tossed into memory, regardless of how affectionately you recall the source of the facts.

An education, to my way of thinking, is more like a mental tool or a machine in your brain to be put to use. In my chosen field, engineering, the putting to use is pretty clear: the engineer uses the knowledge, skills, habits, etc. to make things that work. But the same applies to one whose education is intended only to make her a better citizen: an education should help her understand, reason about and influence others in deciding what to do about the issues of the day.

Can a miscellany of facts do that? Random facts can give the illusion of an education, especially if there are a lot of them. But random facts can't do the job that a structured body of knowledge can.

Teachers, schools and boards of education provide the guidance of a curriculum, a structured body of knowledge sufficient to the task (ideally) of putting that knowledge to work. That's how they differ from Isaac and his books. They go beyond the quick job of making a subject entertaining. They make the learned subject useful.

Of course it doesn't always work out that way. I have taken too many courses that were neither entertaining nor useful. So the mere fact that material was presented by a teacher or presented in a classroom does not necessarily mean it will end up being educational.

It works the other way too. You can start with the entertaining and inspiring works of Isaac Asimov or another author of your choice and decide to create an education on your own. For example, you could start with Isaac's robot stories and expand your learning to the point where you build your own robots.

I do not want to diminish the reputation of Isaac Asimov in any way. I admire him and envy him and appreciate all the great times we spent together through his books. He has easily been one of the most influential people in my life. But his skill in learning and explaining does not make him a plumber or a chef...and it doesn't make him an educator either.

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Keywords: education, Isaac Asimov


Monday, August 17, 2015

Will educators be the next class of super rich?

James Martin believed that educators would become a new class of the super rich. He was a very successful technology author and consultant. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I had the good fortune to interview him several times and I read many of his more then 100 books.

He had good reason for believing his theory about super rich educators: he was a living example! At the time I spoke with him he had homes (that I was aware of) in Bermuda, London, Stowe, Vermont and a couple of floors in the John Handcock Tower in Chicago. He was consulting for my employer at the time for $25,000/day back then. And they were happy to pay it.

He was a prolific author, consultant and conducted extensive week-long one-man technology technology seminars all around the world. But he told me he considered himself an educator.

So, how does an educator find himself among the ranks of the super-rich? Obviously he was hard working, prolific and had extraordinary endurance (week-long one-man seminars? It impresses me but if you're a teacher you may think, big deal, I do that every week!)

But what made him such a rare talent was his ability to learn in depth a broad range of new information technology, then explain it both in technical detail and in executive overview depending upon his audience. And he was adept at describing compelling scenarios about where the technology was likely to take us in future years. 

Corporations then and now spend a lot of money on information technology because, when properly applied, it can have an enormous impact on their business. Information technology changes rapidly so there is a lot of uncertainty over whether these large investments are the right ones to make. It was worth it to them to pay the leader in the field to give them the confidence that they were about to spend their money wisely.

Are you an educator feeling that your chosen profession limits you to great psychic benefits of helping children develop but that you are limited to a lifetime of modest financial compensation? It's not true! Educating the right students on the right topics can be very lucrative indeed!

Here's how: select an important field that isn't yet too crowded. Become an expert...writing books can be a big help. Writing can force you to thoroughly learn a subject. Build a sterling reputation: make yours the most highly regarded books in the field (how exactly to do that is left as an exercise for the reader). Build on your reputation by giving great seminars where people get to hear from the person himself or herself behind those great books. The seminars also help put a price tag on your time: e.g., $4,000/attendee for a week, 50 attendees = $200,000/week or $40,000/day. Not a bad consulting rate. That's the rate you give when the big wigs want you to come in for personal consultation.

And that's how an educator like you becomes the newest member of the super rich.

What about the other way around? I was fascinated all week long in his seminar but I was very interested in the info and I enjoyed his knowledge and enthusiasm. But how would James Martin have done in a K12 classroom? Maybe not so great. His one instructional mode in seminars was a firehose of Powerpoint slides. No checks for understanding, no application of what's been learned. I fear his students would not do so well on their standardized tests. Could he keep order in a middle school class? If his topic was the latest in game technology, the class might be swept up by his knowledge and enthusiasm. But for a topic with less intrinsic to the students? There could be some problems.

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Keywords: super rich educators


Monday, August 10, 2015

The after action review rubric/checklist run chart

I am a big fan of the after action review (AAR)...taking the time to talk about the plan, what went right, what went wrong and what to do differently...after each significant action. It is a simple and effective improvement tool from the military. We use it here at Edclick after tradeshows, big customer meetings and so on.

I am also a big fan of the checklist...a simple tool to ensure you don't skip any steps in a process. One place we use checklists is in setting up systems for new customers. We don't want to inadvertantly leave any steps out. But what about situations where you have to respond on the fly and referring to a checklist would be awkward? For example, we have used checklists for the perfect discussion with a prospect at a tradeshow. It goes from what is the prospect's job to did you ask for their contact info for a follow up demo. You would be amazed at how easy it is to forget the basic stuff in the heat of the moment. For situations like this, the checklist can't be pulled out to check off items. It must be internalized. Well, how good a job do we do following an internalized checklist?

I'm a big fan of the rubric. Checklists with yes/no answers are simpler so are preferable to rubrics. But in cases where a yes/no answer isn't good enough, the rubric is the thing. Rubrics can give a score to each line item.

And I am a big fan of the run chart. Run charts are a great quality tool to show how you are doing in a process over time.

Can we put them all together? You bet.

Create a spreadsheet page where each action (as in after action review) or each assignment (as in writing assignment in school) is represented by a column. Each item in the checklist is represented by a row. If a checklist item didn't get done in a particular action/assignment, mark the corresponding cell. If you're using a rubric instead of a checklist, color code the cell green-yellow-red for a three level score or lighter to darker shades of a color for more score levels. Weather maps and topographical maps have worked out color codes to represtent a wide range of values if you need them.

There you have it. The after action review rubric/checklist run chart. You can see at a glance whether you're improving with time (the run chart benefit) if your color codes are getting better as you move forward in time, left to right on the chart. You can also quickly see the rubric/checklist item that is giving you the most problems, which is the one that should receive special attention until you have it mastered.

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Keywords: continuous improvement, run chart, checklist, after action review, rubric


Monday, August 3, 2015

Show progress with run charts

We all want to know we are making progress. It's not just putting in the time or being busy. We want to know we are getting closer to a worthwhile goal. The game designers are fully aware of this. Progress bars, badges, levels...players are continuously reminded of their progress. And that's one of the reasons games are so compelling.

A simple way to show progress is the run chart. A run chart shows the cumulative progress toward a goal over time. For example, a run chart we use in Edclick shows cumulative revenues per week. At the start of the school year, it restarts at $0. We add the payments we receive each week for the next 52 weeks. The total increases as it goes through the year. It's superimposed on the run charts for the previous several years.

Another run chart is for improvements. We have a goal of 100 improvements per year. The chart is very simple: just a spreadsheet where each column represents a week. As we make an improvement we enter a brief headline for it in the column for the week it was done. Each improvement gets its own row. As we approach row 100, we close in on the goal. By distributing the improvements horizontally in columns, we track that improvements are being made on a regular basis.

Does it apply to teaching? Sure. Some teachers supply students with a list of facts that students should learn in the course. Weekly formative quizzes can include questions from any of these facts, not just what has been covered this week. Chart the student's scores weekly and she sees her progress: a set of scores that increases from left to right. And since quiz questions can come be about any of the facts in the course, students are motivated to review everything before each quiz, inproving retention.

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Keywords: continuous improvement, run chart

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