Making physics physical

One of my favorite units of inquiry in Grade 4 at KIST, in the theme of ‘How the world works’, is titled Force & Motion, and focuses on Newton’s Laws of Motion. The unit resources when I arrived at the school included a few useful tools for demonstrations, but lacked class sets of items and structured experiences that students could use to explore and discuss.

Media

One resource we do have is access to excellent videos and online games. Some of our favorites are published by NASA and other space agencies, like Launchpad: Newton’s Laws On-Board the International Space Station (video), and the Physics Games website.

Twitter once again proved its worth as a tool for learning in the quoted tweet above, a live video of an astronaut playing with and observing a fidget spinner in microgravity. All of the media we have collected are engaging, but can’t compete with a fidget spinner for the attention of nine year olds.

Design & technology challenge

Each year, we have added materials and experiences to make the unit more visceral and fun. To kick off the unit, we introduced an initial provocation in the form of a G4 Water Balloon Drop Challenge. Using the rules outlined in the flyer, students research, design, and build their apparatuses independently outside of class. When we gather on the appointed day, I load each with a water balloon and drop them from the second floor balcony. Those that successfully protect the balloon are taken to the third floor and dropped again. The proud few that survive that are finally dropped from the fourth floor.

We often have visiting administrators and younger classes in the audience, so the event has become a well anticipated and exciting way to get our students thinking about forces and motion.

Get physical

Next, we collaborated with our Physical Education teacher to organize a tug-of-war tournament. Between each round of competition, each team reflected on one of Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to improve their performance.

My hope is that whenever these children think about physics or Newton, they will remember this event. Additionally, by systematically reviewing each of the laws during the tournament, there is definitely higher retention of the vocabulary of Newton’s Laws.

Hands-on exploration

This year, our new addition was a set of Newton’s Cradles. With enough for a pair of students to share one, I wrote a series of questions to add some guidance to their explorations, for example, ‘What happens when you raise and release one of the hanging balls?’.

While it is possible to demonstrate a Newton’s Cradle at the front of the classroom, and that would be better than watching a video, having one that every student could touch, see, and hear, up close, instantly transforms the lesson from passive to active.

Making catapults

Finally, as the culminating Summative Assessment Task for the unit, we ordered 1cm x 1cm x 90cm lengths of wood, nails, hammers, hacksaws, and safety goggles for the purpose of building catapults. The objectives were to expose the students to basic design and construction principles, explore Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical way, then hold a grand catapult tournament on the main field in the center of the school.

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Having facilitated a Maker Club in the past, I was aware of the need to emphasize safety early on, but also to trust the students to look after their own well being. I find it’s best if my role is mainly to watch out for unsafe practices and intervene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it happens rarely, leaving a high degree of autonomy for students and plenty of time for me to interact and promote collaboration among the groups.

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Children constantly impress me with their ability to creatively solve problems when they are trusted with the tools and freedom to do so.

That’s why there’s a clamp in your kit. #edu #clmooc #makered

A post shared by Bart Miller (@bartmlr) on

There were many expected and unexpected benefits of this engagement. The expected ones were quite predictable, but unexpectedly, some of my less precocious students absolutely sprung to life. Some students who tend to be distracted in typical class activities, or struggle with academic work, were impressively inspired by the task of building a catapult. This phenomenon has caused me to think that the way we tend to use class time is unbalanced.

Reflection

Observing the excited energy and positive experiences of my students interacting with concepts and vocabulary of physics has pushed my pedagogical thinking even further in the direction of Constructionism. The idea that a learner figuratively builds understanding by literally building a physical – or virtual – object gains traction for me every time I see it in action.

In terms of assessment for the catapult challenge, I think it’s appropriate to use the method I employed for our Model UN scrimmage: Every student begins with a baseline ‘proficient’ score. In this case, we start with 90%. Then, as the activity progresses, teachers use structured observation to modify students’ scores on targeted skills. For this activity, we were looking for evidence of Spatial Awareness, Cooperation, and Independence.

And as always, the students complete a comprehensive self-assessment of all elements of task and unit.

Experiences like these remind me that school should be a lot more time spent doing tasks like these, and a lot less about rigid standards within a few disciplines.

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Questions in inquiry learning

A welcome development this year in the Elementary School at KIST has been an emphasis on inquiry. It is more than likely due to feedback from our recent IB re-authorization visit and for me, an opportunity to grow in one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. I’ve blogged quite a bit about the theory and practices of inquiry learning, most recently in the post, CLMOOC Unmake: Unintroducing inquiry learning.

When it was announced that inquiry would be a focus, I sifted through articles I had read and collected over the years.

I also enjoyed gliding over memory lane and revisiting some saved tweets with choice perspectives on inquiry.

One article that grabbed my attention last autumn was Good research starts with good questions by David Farkas and Brad Nunnally. What I found most interesting was that many of the pitfalls of research questions are actually key techniques in developing questions for inquiry learning. For example, research should avoid ‘leading questions’ that may skew data in a particular direction. In teaching, we want the learners to find their ways to a common destination, either general or specific.

Erasing prior knowledge

In an occurrence I wish were more common, while reflecting on the experience, a colleague commented that one challenge inquiry teachers face is the desire of students to ‘get the right answers’, or even worse, to answer in the way they believe the teacher wants. This can lead to regurgitated prior knowledge answers rather than creative explorations of the concepts and contexts presented in the questions.

In Grant Wiggins’ article, 5 Tips To Help Students Arrive At Their Own Understandings, the distinction between Understanding and Knowledge is highlighted. It’s vital that learning in an inquiry setting begin with as close to a clean slate as possible. The more a class feels that their teacher is soliciting a ‘right’ answer, the less likely they are to develop deeper and personal understanding.

Student questions

One solution to the problem is to ask students to generate questions based on elements of the understandings we wish them to pursue. In an IB PYP unit of inquiry, the ‘lines of inquiry’ should help to define the scope of an intended inquiry, while the ‘key concepts’ provide a frame or lens through which to interpret one’s findings.

The photo above is a list of questions generated by a provocation in which students identified company logos, then considered them in reference to the line of inquiry, ‘How images, text, and music are used to influence people’s choices’.

Teacher questions

This year, we are collaborating with another grade level team to develop questions together to provoke inquiry into a new unit. The initial concept was to begin with carefully selected materials and a starting question intended to stimulate creativity and curiosity. Subsequent questions would climb the Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder to higher-order thinking skills, as well as ‘funnel’ students’ understandings in the general direction prescribed by the Central Idea and Key Concepts of the unit.

Our first meeting was to develop questions for the other grade’s lesson. Then, we observed them and followed up with a debriefing session, and to develop questions for our lesson. They attended our lesson and we concluded the collaboration with a final debriefing about the entire experience.

The process reinforced my belief in the importance of collaboration and design thinking in Learning Experience Design.

Impact on learning: Author’s purpose

Inspired by a colleague’s presentation during the KIST ‘Teach together; learn together’ professional development event, I took a more formal approach to the impact cycle than I have in the past.

First, I copied the raw data from my students’ diagnostic assessments into an Excel spreadsheet. I added a row at the bottom to show the average result of each test item as a percentage, then used conditional formatting to create a visual perspective into the data.

Reading diagnostic data

This allowed me to identify a general area of need: Reading. Then I simply copied and pasted the test items with average results of less than 50% along with the corresponding learning outcome indicated in the test documentation.

Reading diagnostic data analysis

The common weak thread, in my analysis, can be expressed by the verbs ‘describe’ and ‘explain’. Surprisingly, in Bloom’s Taxonomy, these terms are associated with Knowledge and Comprehension, or ‘lower’ order thinking.

Glaring omission

One issue involves the outcomes related to author’s purpose. Put bluntly, there is no such learning outcome in the standards for Grade 4 at KIST. The students are being assessed in a high stakes manner on learning outcomes that the school doesn’t explicitly teach. I, of course, can add standards about author’s purpose to my working documents. Indeed, that is the purpose of this impact intervention. However, it’s clear that teachers’ voices are needed in the development of the school’s assessment and planning documents to ensure that they are relevant and in alignment with one another.

Intervention

My plan for having a measurable impact on student learning is to ensure that they are exposed to the idea of author’s purpose, and explore it in a variety of ways in our guided reading sessions. This can be done by direct mini lessons and reinforced by revisiting the concept whenever we encounter a novel or remarkable example in the texts we explore.

Another approach would be through precising and close reading of a master text. For this, the grade four team selected an abridged version of Swiss Family Robinson to be integrated with our unit of inquiry in April and May. This plan might be our students’ first opportunity to read a novel together. The text uses rich vocabulary and imagery, so I believe there will be many opportunities to analyze and summarize selections, and hypothesize about Mr Wyss’ purpose for various literary choices.

Measuring impact

To avoid over-assessing my students, I will plan to use the end-of-year English Diagnostic Assessment, of the same type as the one at the start of they year, to measure impact. Throughout the school year, I have assessed and gathered data on a wide variety of learning outcomes informally during guided reading sessions, but this will be the only formal assessment of the learning outcome of author’s purpose.

World Cultures Day

At KIST we celebrate International Mother Language Day with an annual ‘World Cultures Day’ event which includes a traditional costume parade and PTA bake sale featuring delicious treats from around the world.This year, I challenged the Elementary Student Representative Council to host a ‘Mother language recordings’ booth. We wanted to provide an opportunity for students and parents to record brief video messages about peace in their mother languages.

Photo by Bart Miller via Instagram

The students made a poster and I created a form for participants to write their messages along with English translations. We collaborated with the Media Club to record the videos. In an hour, we recorded around twenty videos by community members in languages including Japanese, Russian, Turkish, English, Bengali, and three different languages from India: Tamil, Odiya, and Hindi.

We are currently in the process of deciding how to publish and share the videos, although I did make a point of obtaining permission from the adult participants to share their recordings on the school website.

The greatest takeaway for me was the encouragement we received to widen the scope of this project next year with more promotion and a larger window of time to record messages.

A few days later, the tweet above from IB World Magazine caused me to reflect on how International Mother Language Day is an essential opportunity for internationally minded people and organizations to celebrate and preserve language diversity. Hopefully, we will expand the ‘Mother language recordings’ project next year.

Edcamp Tokyo 2017

The experiences of organizing and participating in Edcamp Tokyo in 2014 and 2015 have been so inspirational, I wish to share them with all of my colleagues and teacher friends. The best way to do that is to organize an event.

Last Fall, I approached my administrators about empowering teachers within the elementary school to self organize one of our own professional development days. Strictly speaking, the event was not Edcamp, because it was a limited to our own staff. However, we followed the Edcamp model and the results were fantastic.

‘Creative Connections’ group at Edcamp @ KIST via Instagram

The only logical step was to offer to host the next Edcamp Tokyo here at my school. The process began as usual with assembling an organizing team, surveying the local community for optimal dates.

One change we made was to move the organizing team away from seemingly endless email threads to Slack. Slack is a slightly ironic update to the ‘chat room’ circa 1994. However, for facilitating communication and collaboration in a team, it is far superior to email and has the potential in my opinion to supplant social network ‘communities’ as a space to organize around events, ideas, and movements.

Community involvement

Industriousness is one of the hallmarks of Edcamp, so I utilized Twitter’s polling function to gather votes for this year’s theme. The initial ideas were gathered from the organizing team and then put to a vote.

The winner was ‘Make learning personal’. As an organizer, it is also heartwarming and exciting when the #EdcampTokyo hashtag begins to warm up on social media.

Astounded that I hadn’t made it sooner, I created an @EdcampTokyo Twitter handle, which can also be integrated with Slack to stimulate interaction and ‘buzz’. This will be useful in the future, as the login details can be easily shared with other organizers and hosts.

Given the current global political and social climate, it was also heartening to read an announcement of a new anti-harassment policy from the Edcamp Foundation.

The day arrives

Hosting and Edcamp has plenty of joys and the greatest among them is meeting curious and passionate people. Our event attracted approximately fifty participants from thirty different schools and other organizations.

Browsing and voting for sessions at #edcamptokyo! #edu

A post shared by Bart Miller (@bartlmiller) on Apr 7, 2017 at 5:42pm PDT

Student panel

One fantastic idea this year was to include a session with a panel of KIST students to provide perspective on issues from bullying to technology in and out of the classroom.

What most surprised me about the students’ perspective was how unenthusiastic they were about technology, as though only Generation X and older people are excited by carrying a supercomputer in our pockets.

Critical thinking

I was happy, in between relaying messages and ushering late arriving guests, to stumble into a Critical Thinking session which I would characterize has having a theme of ‘making the complex simple, but not simplistic’.

The most stimulating feature of Edcamp is diversity of perspectives. When many points of view focus on a conceptual topic like critical thinking, the conversation is certain to be enlightening.

Viral On Twitter

It’s a fact that Edcamp itself was born on Twitter, as was Edcamp Tokyo. Consequently or coincidentally, it’s also our favorite social network and the #EdcampTokyo hashtag hosted a fair amount of chatter around this event.

This kind of backchannel interaction is fun and provides another channel by which people, including those not necessarily in attendance, can participate.

Looking ahead

Hosting or organizing professional development is usually a different experience than participating in it. Fortunately, this year I had such a helpful organizing team and KIST hospitality team that I was able to engage in discussions without being overly busy with logistics and problem solving.

In the future, I would like to see Edcamp Tokyo grow into a community which includes more local Japanese educators as well as more enthusiasm from the international schools.

In terms of the organization, I would like to see our function transform into an advisory role empowering teachers to organize and host their own Edcamp Tokyo events with the support of our expertise and promotional tools.

Data evolution & revolution

The past

Data has been an undercurrent in my teaching since my first classroom in 2007. Of course, in that year, I struggled to gather data and there was virtually no chance of utilizing much of it to inform and enrich instructional planning. For good or ill, data is not essential to the survival of a first year teacher.

Each year after, I slowly improved, including a variety of experiments like the one shared in the post Student Empowerment | COETAIL final project. I tried different forms, organizers, notebooks, etc, until finally unveiling an integrated digital system last year. I shared it as a presenter at the GAFE Summit 2016 in Kobe, Japan, and used it for the school year to publish students’ ongoing assessment data, and other key information such as website usernames and passwords, directly to them as web pages. After celebrating and discussing the system, I felt that it was terribly unsatisfying.

The present

Inspiration came in the form of media such as Jack Norris’ keynote presentation from Strata + Hadoop World in San Francisco, Let’s Get Real: Acting on Data in Real Time, embedded below.

The concept of ‘data agility’ through converged data and processing appealed to me because what I sought a tool which would organize all assessment data in a way that could be searched, shared, and analyzed. Over the years I had been introduced to many ‘tracking systems’, only to discover that they were utterly unmanageable at scale. Ticking boxes on scope and sequence documents or highlighting learning objectives almost arbitrarily seemed like a show at best. In fact, a colleague who shared such a system with me admitted that at the end of a term, due to a lack of hard data, he would simply choose outcomes to highlight on every student’s document regardless of their actual progress or learning. To quote Mr Norris, I wanted my data to ‘get real’.

While designing my own system, I became somewhat of an amateur data scientist. The implications of the article Putting the science back in data science got me thinking about the flow from data entry to visualization and publishing. A quote from the post Can Small Data Improve K-12 Education? helped to clarify the objective for the project.

‘Small data observes the details or small clues that uncover large trends. The idea is that by honing in on the elements that make up relationships and narratives in schools, education can be enriched.’ The Edvocate

What I wanted to do was bring transparency to the relationships between myself, students, parents, and administrators. Further readings within the big data and data science trends like Data Quality Should Be Everyone’s Job  by Thomas C Redman directed my attention toward the purpose for the data. Before data is collected, it should already have a purpose, and that purpose dictates the design of the collection, publishing, and analysis tools.

 

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Copious data entry (lots of dragging)
The next piece of the design puzzle was my school’s Assessment Handbook. In it were the categories, criteria, and descriptors on top of which my system would function.

 

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Student data visualization via Google Sheets
Utilizing a system of Google Sheets, data is entered and student progress viewed in potentially real time, depending on the efficiency of my data entry. As we began using the system I shared a video, Tour of your data book, embedded below, which illustrates the details of the user experience much better than I can describe in words.

The future

This system has been remarkably effective and unlike last year, I only plan to make minor tweaks, especially to the user interface. Feedback from students and parents revealed, as I expected, that there are too many graphs and that it’s difficult to know which are more or less important.

Another feature I plan to add is a Google Form which mirrors the data entry document which would allow teaching assistants, specialists, and even parents or students themselves to contribute data to the system.

If articles like The Three Ways Teachers Use Data—and What Technology Needs to Do Better by Karen Johnson and 7 Steps to Becoming a Data-Driven School by Eric Crites are any indication of the direction that data utilization is heading in education, I’m glad to be along for the ride.

GAFE Summit 2016

A few weeks ago, I attended the Edtech Team Summit Featuring Google Apps for Education in Kobe, Japan. It was my second ‘GafeSummit’. The first was in 2013 and was a dramatic turning point in my career as a teacher and my life as a digital citizen.


The one notable difference was that this year, I would be presenting a session on Google Apps for Transparency.

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360º



My first eye opener was Jim Sill’s session, Google Views – Lessons in 360º, in which I was introduced to Cardboard. This is a realist iteration of virtual reality that could be easily integrated into schools. Although I haven’t had other VR experiences, I wonder if Cardboard offers a majority of the sensory experience.

The flow

Overall, I was most inspired by Stephen Taylor’s Formatting the Flow session. As an inquiry teacher, I have always wrestled with the impulse to manage students’ learning. What Stephen showed was how formatted documents can make processes visual and focus students on their learning rather than their presentation and reporting media.

BreakoutEDU

A photo posted by Bart Miller (@botofotos) on Feb 6, 2016 at 8:13pm PST

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My group was beta testing BreakoutEDU with augmented reality and was not able to open the box like some other groups.

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Transparency

Finally, it was time for my presentation, Google Apps for Transparency.

As a form of modeling, I shared a Transparency notes Google Doc with all participants for public note taking and documentation.

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I began with a brief introduction to the concept of transparency as it is viewed in practice in government, business, and education. Then, following a generally ‘less to more’ transparent framework according to the slides embedded below, I shared the tools that I use to make planning, teaching, and assessment in my classroom as transparent as possible.



Included in the demonstrations were my weekly planners. I use a template in Google Sheets that allows me to plan to five minutes of accuracy include relevant details including differentiation. These documents are published as a webpage and the link is shared on our class Moodle site.

Having the plans published via a link allows easy access from any internet connected device. A classroom computer at the front of our classroom is dedicated to our projector, but it also has all of our links saved as bookmarks in the web browser. Throughout the day, students check these links. This increases the amount of time that I can devote to learning by minimizing questions like ‘what are we doing next?’ or ‘what’s after lunch?’.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1v7jufrMw8HRPBCEA6CfuhsDhZKSbkts7IKBNN6cYOhc/pubhtml
Click image to view as webpage.


A teacher in the workshop asked if there was added stress from publishing all of my planning. I replied with that this level of transparency adds a component of accountability that is its own reward.

Using the publishing capability of Google Apps, I also publish slides of our daily warm ups and home learning assignments. They are embedded on our class Moodle and require no additional maintenance. They update automatically when new slides are added. If a parent or other member of our learning community uses them even once to have a conversation with their child or keep up to date on home learning, it’s worth the minimal effort to set up.


Finally, I shared my data workbook. This is a system of spreadsheets that provides me with real time data from assessments and then publishes the same data to individual pages, published as websites, for students and families.


This works extremely well for parents to keep up to date on their child’s learning and for sharing web addresses, usernames, and passwords.

All materials for the workshop are shared in a public Google Drive folder, Transparency | GAFE Summit Kobe 2016.

Strangely, as soon as my session ended, I felt the urge to develop a new data management system that could provide more possibilities for data visualization and analysis. I’ve already begun sketching ideas and look forward to designing and programming this summer.

Reflection

I’ve completed tons of online professional development, and nothing compares to the invigorating social and interactive experience of a face to face conference. Ironically, this can be especially true in technology where digitally isn’t necessarily the best way to learn something new.

The tools which I have put to work immediately are Quizizz and SafeShare. Since introducing Quizizz, my students constantly ask when we will be taking the next quiz.

Reflecting on my own presentation, I feel that I probably learned more than my participants! It is easy to feel that the time and energy spent preparing to conduct a conference or workshop session is wasted, but I found the opposite. By deeply analyzing and presenting my approaches to technology in the classroom, I deepened my understanding. Being inspired to expand my strategies was an unexpected surprise!

If you’re curious to explore the conference, follow this link to view the full schedule.

I’ve already been contacted by Google related colleagues about organizing an event in Tokyo, so I look forward to putting some of that inspiration into action.