Our Youth Deserve Better – Computer Based Learning

There has been a push for computer-based learning in public education for about a decade or so now.  The thinking is that students can go at their own pace, have optimally focused and differentiated remediation and instruction, and thus, students will perform better.  That’s the sales pitch, anyway.

I teach remedial math courses part time at a community college (the observations made here pertain to all of education not just math), the shift was made so that 100% of these remedial math courses were taught on such computer programs.  Students take placement tests where their strengths and weaknesses are accurately identified and they then work their way through lessons and assignments, with help along that way that addresses their specific short-comings.  If students grasp something easily they can move quickly through the curriculum.  Students that need more time can go at their own pace.  At the end of the section (or chapter), students take a test and must show a predetermined level of accuracy before they’re allowed to move forward.

It sounds great, but it doesn’t work.  Even if it did work and students could pass these classes in a way that prepared them for higher level classes, it would be a failure.   The purpose of education is not future education.

The ugly truth here is that we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education.  Education has become a numbers game where schools receive funding based on graduation rates and percentages of students passing multiple choice tests that have mysterious grading schemes behind them (70 multiple choice questions will be graded on a scale of 450 points, for example).  We lull ourselves into believing we are servicing our students if they graduate or our school surpasses the state average on these tests.

The truth is that the quality of education is rapidly decreasing, seemingly in direct response to the remedies that seek to reverse this trend.

The question often asked by students, in minor rebellion to the tasks at hand in class, “When am I going to use this in my real life,” needs to be carefully considered, with honesty, by the public and by educators.

The particular skills and facts being tested are of little to no importance.  What is important is the ability to be teachable, the ability to learn, which requires a lot of maturation, determination, focus and effort.  The purpose of education is to create an adaptable person that can readily latch onto pertinent information and apply previous learning in new ways.  An educated person should have the skills to adapt to an unknown future, a future where they are empowered to make decisions about the direction of their own lives.

Absolutely none of that happens in a computer course.  The problems are static, scripted and the programs are full of basic “If-Then” commands.  If a student misses this question, send them here.  There’s no interpretation of why a student missed.  There’s no consideration of the student as a sentient being, but instead they are reduced to a right or a wrong response.

What do students gain from computer courses?  They gain those specific skills, the exact skills and knowledge that will serve little to no purpose at all in their lives after school.  But, they’ll gain those skills in a setting with a higher student-teacher ratio (fewer teachers, less students), and where the teachers need not know the subject or how to teach.  That’s right, it’s cheaper!

But the cost is enormous.  Students will be trained how to pass tests on the computer, but will not be receiving an education. They will not develop the interpersonal skills required to be successful in college or in the work place.  They will not develop as people.  They will miss the experiences that separate education from training.  They will be raised by computers that try to distill education down to right and wrong answers, where reward is offered for reciting facts and information without analysis, without learning to consider opposing points of view, without learning how to be challenged on what it is they think and believe.

Our youth deserve better.  They deserve more.

Not only that, our young teachers (and we have an increasingly inexperienced work force in education), deserve better support from within education.  Here in Arizona the attitude from the government is that the act of teaching has little to no value, certainly little to no skill, and that anybody can step in and perform the duties of teaching in a way that services the needs of young people.

And while those in education throw their hands up in disgust, they follow suit by finding quick, easy and cheap solutions to the ever-expanding problem of lack of quality education, especially here in Arizona.  Instead of providing meaningful professional development and support for teachers, teachers are blamed for their short comings.  Instead of being coached and developed, they are being replaced by something cheaper and quicker, something that is fully compliant.

I fully believe that a teacher that can be replaced by a computer should be.  I also believe that a computer cannot provide the inspiration, motivation, the example, mentorsing and support that young people need.

The objection to my point of view is that teachers aren’t being replaced, they are still in contact with students.  This is true, the contact exists, but in a different capacity.  Just like iPads haven’t replaced parents, the quality of parenting has suffered.  The appeal of having a child engaged, and not misbehaving, because they are on a computer, or iPad, is undeniable.  But the purpose of parenting is not to find ways for children to leave them alone.  Similar, the role of education is to to find ways to get kids to sit down and pass multiple tests.  Children are difficult to deal with.  Limiting that difficulty does not mean you are better fulfilling your duty to the young!

The role of a teacher in a computer-based course is far removed from the role of a teacher in a traditional classroom.  While students are “learning” from a computer, the role of the “teacher” is to monitor for cheating and to make sure students stay off of social media sites.  Sometimes policies are in place where teachers quantitatively evaluate the amount of notes a student has taken to help it seem like a student is performing student-like tasks.

Students learning on computer are policed by teachers.  The relationship becomes one of subjects being compliant with authority.

The most powerful tool a teacher has is the human connection with students.  That connection can help a student that sees no value in studying History appreciate the meaning behind those list of events in the textbook.  A teacher can contextualize and make relevant information inaccessible to young learners, opening up a new world of thinking and appreciation for them.  None of that is tested of course.

A teacher inspired me to become a math teacher, not because of her passion for math, but because of how she conducted her business as a teacher.  Before that I wished to work in the Game and Fish Department, perhaps as a game warden.  That would have been a wonderful career.  Consider though, over the last decade, I have had countless students express their appreciation of how I changed their thinking about math, how I made it something dynamic and fluid, something human.  Math went from a barrier, in the way of dreams, to a platform, upon which successful can be realized.  Those things happened because of human connection.

We owe our youth more.  They deserve better.

It is time to unplug.

Confuse Them So They Learn

I recently did a lesson on the basics of reading and writing in Geometry.  You know, dry, dull stuff...what's a point, line, ray, segment, how do you write an angle, what types of angles are there, and so on.

While preparing all of this information I was thinking:

How can I expose misconceptions about such material so they learn it?

Remember, just seeing the facts is comfortable for students, but not only do they not learn, they somehow find confirmation that their held misconceptions are in fact correct.  It's not as wild as you think, and it's not limited to kids.  I took a psychology class in college and was unknowingly part of an experiment.  I was asked a question, a seemingly throw-away type.  But it's trickier than it looks and nearly everybody answers wrong.  But it was of such little consequence that I did not remember my answer (you weren't supposed to).  Then, I was shown the correct answer and asked if that's what I had said.

Turns out the vast majority of people mis-remember that they answered correctly.  That is, they answered it wrong, but it's hard for us to imagine we're wrong, and they latch on the to the idea they were right...even when it's quite obvious they weren't.

This is so powerful that to be wrong and be aware of it, being confronted with things we don't understand and such, is very uncomfortable and unpleasant.  Yet, that's what is needed for learning to occur.  (And I'm talking the type of knowledge where understanding is paramount to success.)

My assertions are that what Derek Muller has unconverted here goes beyond science and film.

Students are not void of knowledge in your content.  They have ideas.  Teaching them is more like part repair work on the frame of a house before roofing.  Presenting students with correct information will not shore up their misunderstandings.

Also, students need to experience some level of cognitive discord.  In education, nearly all of the "best practices" work hard to do the opposite of this.  There are things like Content/Language Objectives, or SWBAT, word walls and graphic organizers.  I'm not saying those things don't have their place, but that's it, they have a place when balanced with quality instruction that explores misconceptions and such.

When you can deliver a lesson that explores the misconceptions the students will be confused.  But if it is student lead, they won't be lost.  The amount of mental effort required is much higher than a typical delivery of information and note-taking style.  However, they'll learn!

So, how to create this tension and expose misconception over some pretty dull information?

Start by asking questions and exploring answers.  Do not use your authority in the subject to state if an answer is right or wrong, initially.  Instead, have students share their thinking on what other students are saying.

For example, a particularly nasty question that dealt with the boring definition-based lesson I just gave was, "What is an angle?"  To someone versed in geometry, this isn't a big deal.  But to a kid who hasn't taken geometry, this is monumentally difficult to describe.   The best response I received was, "Measuring the space between two lines."  So, of course, I drew to parallel lines and asked for explanation.


Now, this is just something I wonder, but is it possible that on these boring, just the facts, type lessons that exposing misconception is more important than ever?

Regardless of how that fleshes out, challenge yourself to challenge the thinking of students by exposing misconception through dialogue.  Be brave enough to explore misconception and encourage students to seek understanding by challenging the think of themselves and others.  If students understand the purpose of your methods, they'll play along.

Give it a shot, let me know how it goes.

Once again, thank you for your time.

How to Be a More Effective Teacher

How to Teach Well

Why do students struggle so much?  Let’s break it down and see how perplexing this really is.  If you’re teaching High School or higher you’re presumably an expert in your content area.  You know what you’re teaching upside down, inside out, front, back, and so on.  Not only that, if you’re an experienced teacher, you know how to disseminate that information in clear, concise and easy to follow.  You also know exactly what the hang-ups will be for students and how to remediate in response.

As an expert teacher you can lay out the path to understanding clear for all to see.  And yet, they struggle.

You might think, well, the students are probably at their threshold, their potential is being pushed here.  Maybe they lack background knowledge, they forgot the prerequisite knowledge required for this new learning to occur.

Well, let’s step back a little here.  How do we know if they learned it anyway?  I mean, yeah, they passed the previous class with another teacher, maybe it’s the teacher’s fault.  Surely, that doesn’t happen with your students, when you teach them, right?  You know when they know it, don’t you?

If they can pass a test, or some sort of formal evaluation, they got it, right?  If kids pass your class, they got it, right?


Go back to one of our original contentions about why students struggle…because of prerequisite knowledge.  How many of your students move on and struggle because they do not really know what they should know from your class.  I am not a betting man but I would lay down a lot of money that it is a higher percentage than you believe.  Only those with the pre-emptive disappointment outlook would be unsurprised to find out how many of their students passed their class, with good marks, only to struggle with that same material in the future.

There’s good reason that happens, even to the best of us teachers and with our best students.  It happens because when they’re passing a test, it’s your test.  They’re demonstrating they know what you want.  They know how to show proficiency in the markers you’ve set up that should reflect understanding and knowledge.  They hacked you.

It’s not with ill-intent, it’s well within the structure of education today, the world-around!  It is not the fault of the student, our system made them this way.  It’s not our fault either, the system made us this way!

I say that if a student cannot readily apply what they learned in my class in a future event then they don’t know it.  How then, can I assign an appropriate grade?  Grades should be a reflection of what they know.  We must assign grades regularly, without the perspective of time that provides such insight to future application and adaptation.

What can be done?

There is a YouTube channel, Veritasium.  The host of that channel earned his PhD by researching the effects of learning through video.  Students would take a pre-test, then watch a video that discussed the information on the test.  Students would take a post-test.

Students, actually I’d like to call them observers, reported that the videos were clear, concise and generally good.  They liked the videos.   When they took the post-test, there was no significant growth.

With another group he did the same pre and post-test, but the video was different.  The video addressed and exposed misconceptions.  Students reported the video was confusing and unpleasant, unenjoyable.  The post-test scores doubled the pre-test scores with this group!

I’ve said it a million times before, students do not need us to be resident experts, the on-site answer-spewing reference resource.  It is easy for us to do that, it is comfortable for them.  But they don’t learn that way.

I tried to put this together in that same spirit:  Expose misconception before proposing a solution.  Otherwise, it is likely you would just latch onto the proposed solution as though you already knew that whether you actually did or not.

All of education, it seems, pushes hard to relieve confusion, to make the path to learning clear and clean, and most importantly for the stability of schools, repeatable.  But the more we push in this direction, the deep we dig our hole.

There are nods towards creating interest and the power of cognitive dissonance in education texts and professional development.  But, they’re pretty empty words because they’re given in a way that is poor teaching.  The best teachers, with the best ideas and the most experiences epically fail to teach others because they do not employ the same quality teaching strategies when teaching other teachers.

Here’s the information, make it your own, doesn’t work.

I hope that I have sufficiently exposed the nature of the problem with teaching so that my solutions will find a home in those exposed gaps.  You see, in teaching, in person, the way this is done is very important, but a video or blog post does not allow someone like me, with limited resources and an even smaller collection of talent, to demonstrate.  I can only describe.

To teach well students must have their misconceptions exposed.  The anticipatory set (bell work) is drivel if it does not contain a twist that either incites curiosity or exposes a conceptual flaw held by the students.

This is key, it’s the first step.  The thing you want them to know cannot be tackled head on.  If the objective of the unit was to have them paint the wall blue, for example, you could not just tell them to pain the wall blue.  They might get it done to your standard, but all of the thinking and discussion amongst peers that makes them understand (which leads to retention) is stifled.  Instead, they’ve been taught protocol, they’ve been programmed, trained.

An example of a good question to introduce a topic that seems, well, goofy, might be:  Which came first, goofy the word or the cartoon character?

Another would be: Why does the dictionary say that a verb is a noun?

Another example might be:  Water freezes at 32 degrees F, and 0 C, and boils at 212 F and 100C.  Why are those numbers different?

Or perhaps: Is zero odd or even?

Then there is: Is it an evolutionary advantage to taste like chicken?

A non-sequitur can be effective:  People died of cancer before cigarettes were around, therefore, smoking doesn’t cause cancer.

Be careful with these questions as you judge them.  It is how they are received by the audience, not by you or your peers that is important.  Don’t judge the quality of the question based on your knowledge, but based on whether the question leads to curiosity and uncovers misconception or not.  And questions that are tangent to the topic at hand are great because they can flesh out connections in unanticipated ways!

Now students shouldn’t be expected to reinvent the wheel at every turn, there are appropriate times to introduce concepts fully.  However, do not for a minute believe that no matter how well you taught that material, that the students understand it.  They need the opportunity to play with it, uncover misconceptions and so on.

So you have an introduction that reveals misconception or creates curiosity to begin, and then perhaps you dispel misconceptions or introduce the material, but then what happens next, on your end, can drastically limit the efficacy of the previous work done.

They need quality tasks.  They need a question or challenge that is approachable but also exposes common misconceptions.  And here, your role is very important.

Practice this phrase:  Go ask another student.

Say it nice, explain that the more you say on the subject the less they’ll learn, at least right now.  But it is key that they are talking to each other.  I advise against assigning groups, water finds its own level.  It is okay if the smart kids all get together and get it right away, you can ask them something about their reasoning that they’ve assumed is true, but they don’t know why it is true.  Or, you could instruct them to go around the room and observe the points of confusion of others and have them guide others in the right direction without giving it away.  (They can do that, but you cannot.)

A quick word on groups.  Groups should be no larger than four, but should be self-selected.  I’ll make a future post about how to pull this off and keep kids on task, but it’s easier than it might sound.  The rule is that if a group gets stuck, a member can go on a re-con mission and ask any group in the room questions and then report back to their own group.

What you’ll find is often no student, or group will have the answer or will have mastered the task.  However, between all of the people in the room, the information is there, it just hasn’t been put together.

After an appropriate amount of time, have the students return to their individual seats and you facilitate a class-wide discussion as follows.

Ask a student a question or have a volunteer share their findings, complete or not.

After the student speaks, you say, sometimes cleaning up their language a bit, what they had said for the whole class to hear.  Make sure to ask the student if that’s what they meant.  If not, have them clarify.  If you got it, ask the class the following, and this is probably the most important phrase/question in teaching:


I am not asking you if you agree or disagree with the statement, but do you understand it?

And again, the statement is spoken by you but the authority behind the statement is a student.

Whether that statement is right or wrong is irrelevant.  The fact that it reflects where they are and what they’re thinking is why it’s powerful.

However, depending on if it is right or wrong, you can steer the direction of the conversation.

If it is wrong it might be a good idea to ask who agrees and see if someone can clarify further.  Repeat what the student said in the same fashion as before.

More than likely, as students clarified and showed supporting evidence for the misconception, more and more students that originally disagreed with jump ship and latch on to the misconception.  This is actually good.  Just because they agreed with the right belief doesn’t mean they understood.  This jumping ship is them challenging their understanding, finding holes in it and latching onto something better.

Then ask if someone disagrees.  Have them explain, you parrot their explanation and again explain that whether the students agree or disagree, do they understand what’s been said.  If the student that share is wrong, ask who agrees and have them see if they can find more supporting evidence, or different explanation as to why.

But, you are not giving away what you believe is right or wrong.

If the student is right, it would be best to see who disagrees and why.  Explore the misconceptions, allowing students to challenge these lines of thinking.  Eventually, they will arrive at the correct answer or understanding.

Through this type of discussion and explanation the truth will be revealed.  But, most importantly, it is revealed by your facilitation of discussion, not because of your authority!

The best compliment I ever received about my teaching came from a student.  It was unplanned and was not intended to be a compliment, just an observation.  She said:

Mr. Brown, you don’t really teach us but we learn when we’re with you.


I will write more about this in the future.  There are some growing pains and specific techniques for managing behaviors and expectations that are different than in a typical classroom setting.

All that said, I hope this has been informative, stirred some thought and challenged you to reconsider your role in the learning of students.

The Purpose of Homework and My Response

The purpose of homework is to promote learning.  That’s it.  It’s not a way to earn a grade or something to keep kids busy.  It’s also not something that just must be completed in order to stay out of trouble.  Homework is a chance to try things independently, make mistakes and explore the nature of those mistakes in order to better learn the material at hand.

If students are not learning from the homework, it is a waste of time and effort.  There are a few things that could cause students not to learn from the homework.  Even if the assignments are of high quality, without the reflection and correction piece, students will not learn much from homework.

Reflection and correction go together.  It’s not about getting right answers, but thinking about what caused mistakes, identifying misconceptions or procedural inefficiencies and replacing those.  To reflect a student should NOT erase their incorrect working but instead should write on their homework, in pen, what went wrong and what would have been better.

It is quite possible more can be learned when reviewing homework than any other time.  It is certainly a powerful experience.

Textbooks and videos, tutors and peer help offer little appropriate support to help make homework, or practice, meaningful.  Textbooks only provide correct answers, YouTube videos usually do similar treatment to topics as textbooks offer.

I wish to help students learn and believe that reviewing work that has been done is too powerful of an opportunity to pass.  The trick is, how can I provide reflection and insight when to someone I am not sitting with and talking to?  I think I can help provide this reflection piece by doing all of the practice problems myself on a document camera and discussing pitfalls and mistakes, as well as sharing my thinking about the problems as I tackle them.  Further, I can share typical mistakes I see from students as they are learning topics.

So as I develop the Algebra 1 content I will be working on adding videos and short written responses to the assignments to help students think about what they’ve done, its appropriateness, correctness and their level of understanding.