Zooming In, Zooming Out: On Education Research (and Religion)


U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Chris Desmond. (RELEASED)

Feedback. Various researchers have stated that effective feedback should be of the “what’s next?” variety. Good feedback helps people see “what’s next?”

But what if the feedback is corrective? Is the revision of the previous attempt implicitly the “what’s next”? What if it wasn’t implicit? What if the teacher explicitly told the student to revise? Then does it become better feedback? What if the feedback isn’t directly related to the content, but instead the organization of their work? Does that reduce the quality of the feedback since the correction is toward a non-content goal?

What if? What about that? How about this?

These have been the conversations in which I’ve found myself several times over the last few weeks. My mind has been racing. Not only to understand the intense scrutiny with which we are examining teacher moves, but also to convince myself that these types of conversations are valuable.

Lines of questioning like I mentioned above are like zooming really far in on a certain single aspect of teaching and for a moment exploring it in isolation. Treating it like it is the only factor that matters in order to understand that one thing completely. As though, for a moment, all that mattered was good feedback. Or formative assessment. Or opportunities to respond.

The fact is that these different aspect of teaching and learning don’t exist in isolation. That’s one of the unrelenting truths of the classroom. Opportunities to respond and feedback depend on the quality of the classroom management. Good feedback depends, at least partly, on effective working relationships with students. And good formative assessment is quite dependent on the skill of assessment writing.

So, does the essential interconnectedness of these different elements of good instruction mean that we shouldn’t separate them out and examine each one? Well, not so fast. It’s true that lines of questioning like that can go on for a long time and in the end, we’ve created some pretty well-defined boundaries around things like feedback, or formative assessment, or opportunities to respond. But, I think we need to suspend our disbelief for a moment to understand that these types of conversations ARE important.

I repeat: These conversations are important to have and I believe more practitioners should be having them. There are a variety of terms that we use as educators that are common AND really poorly defined. Feedback is an excellent example, but also terms like “mastery”, “high standards”, even words like “compassion” get used with widely different understandings and thus widely different corresponding behaviors.

But these are words that have meanings and corresponding behaviors that will improve students’ lives and school experiences when done properly (and will have limited effects when done poorly.) There isn’t always an A-for-effort when it comes to teacher moves. “I tried to give good feedback” is noble, but “I gave good feedback” is more effective for student learning. And switching from the former to the latter will require locking down what effective feedback is and what it is not. This is true for any number of teacher moves from instruction to assessment to classroom management to communication.

But we can’t stay zoomed in. I credit a colleague for saying, “Education research is about constantly zooming in and then zooming out. Getting narrow and then widening your view. You work to create definitions, then you zoom out to see those definitions in context.”

This discussion isn’t entirely different from the back-and-forth required to become effective practioners of most religions. Most of the religions that I am even surface-level familiar with have this same back-and-forth between the experiential, spiritual, the perhaps undefinable side with the clinical, dogmatic and well-defined side.

For example, some religions practice fasting from food and drink for different times of the year. Further, some fast from meat and dairy on the ground that for a given time, they shouldn’t eat “animal products.”

What about eggs? Eggs aren’t meat or dairy, but they are clearly an animal product.

What about fish? Depends on how you define “meat.”

What about honey? Are bees animals? Is honey a “product” of that animal?

What about soy milk? It’s not an animal product, but it’s feels kinda like cheating. Is the goal to make do without milk? Or simply to not consume the animal product?

And when should do children start this? Should infants suspend nursing during the fasts because it’s milk? Or are infants exempt? If infants are exempt, what about their mothers who are needing to keep their diet somewhat consistent to stay well-nourished to feed their infants? When would the religious leaders guide the parents to start having the children begin fasting?

See? It all gets very clinical quite quickly. By asking such questions, we’ve allowed ourselves to zoom all the way into the nitty gritty details about this one aspect of the spiritual experience. And quite frankly, that’s okay as long as we remember that the  clinical exists to enable us to serve the bigger picture better. The point of fasting (at least as far as I’ve understood it) is to be able to pray better. That’s what we see when we zoom back out.

And being willing to help practitioners dig through the nitty-gritty can be a way to honor the sincerity of their devotion. They want to do the very best job they can and they have questions. That’s okay. It’s okay if they want to zoom in and examine the different elements of the work they are trying to do. We should encourage them to do that inasmuch as it is providing effective supports to their efforts toward the bigger-picture goals.

And this brings us back to the classroom. Classroom teachers should be encouraged to zoom in on the finer details of their work, too. The zooming in provides definitions and supports techniques. The zooming out provides context. Zooming in is where the fine-tuning occurs. Zooming out is where we learn how those updated practices look amidst the sea of other factors. Do we really have time? What will that activity look like the way my desks are configured? When will I be able to provide feedback to the second and third step of the project for each group?

It takes both. Neither is good enough on their own. They aren’t enemies, but rather they complement one another. And when we gain an appreciation of the place, value, and role of the zoom-in and the zoom-out, then we can start to use them both to make our work better and better.

Latest Updates to My Geometry Course

My geometry course… funny. It isn’t really my geometry course anymore. Little by little it’s becoming more of a curated set of links that make me wish I still had a classroom. That’s what community will do for you and the innovative math community more than takes care of people. I’ve noticed some excellent learning experiences that my geometry course has been missing. So, I’m adding them. All three are Desmos activities.

Parallelograms in the Coordinate Plane by Jared – This one asks some very interesting questions and has a nice format in which to do it. Due to the algebraic nature of proving this parallel, parallelograms are a nice target for a Desmos activity.

Transformation Polygraph by Julia Finneyfrock (@jfinneyfrock) – Seriously. Check this activity out and then daydream about all the outstanding vocabulary the students would be forced to use while competing with each other.

Working with Dilations by Mr. Rothe – This one is particularly handy because my unit on dilations and scale factor wasn’t my favorite. This is a very robust activity (36 slides), so time might become an issue, but depending on how you run it, I feel like there’s a ton of value embedded in the different learning activities.

If you give any of these a try, please let me know how they go.


Seeing through the eyes of 5th and 6th graders

The assignment was simple enough. Take a photo that reflects energy changing from one form to another. It could be a photo that you find funny or interesting. Or it could be something that you’re curious about or have questions about. That part was up to them. The “why” behind the photo was their business.

Here’s a few of the highlights. Enjoy. It’s not very often you get to see physics through the eyes of 10-12-year-olds.


Which one is your favorite?

#EdTech problems can also be the solutions

Here’s the thing: every trait has positive effects and negative effects. This was the basis for the Roth’s Divergent Series actually. Honesty is a virtue that risks becoming harshness if it’s not paired with kindness. Courage is a virtue that risks becoming cruelty if it isn’t paired with wisdom. Book-learning is a virtue that risks becoming arrogance if it isn’t paired with humility.

Many educators in these modern times want their EdTech companies to be open, free, and independent. This risks the negative effect of creating companies that lack stability. Open, free, and independent companies often change quickly (see Newsela and Formative) or end up having to alter their independence (see Minecraft and YouTube).

However, open, free, and independent often creates the positive effect of companies being nimble and responsive, both to the behavior of their competitors and the feedback from their clientele. Desmos sets the gold standard for openness to discussion with their clientele, if you’re asking me. But EdPuzzle showed me a little something this week that impressed me.

A week or so ago, I lamented out loud about the Zaption going the way of MySpace. I’d like to think that my blog post was so powerful that the folks at EdPuzzle read it and decided to offer me a bit of comfort.

That’s probably not really how it happened (although they did tweet directly at me after that blog post went out… just saying…) but nonetheless, the #EdTech marketplace being what it is, EdPuzzle saw an opportunity and it’s going to work out okay for us former Zaption users.

By following this link (edpuzzle.com/zaption), EdPuzzle will directly import all of your Zaption video activities directly into your EdPuzzle account. The whole process takes, like, 4 minutes.

There are natural trade-offs in everything. HMH or Pearson are very, very stable providers of educational resources. It’s also a serious challenge to get anyone at either of those companies to return your e-mail or update their resources. (“Can we get a bit of closed-captioning on your online video examples?)

On the flip side, there are some very small, nimble, open companies that are dealing with serious challenges to their long-term sustainability. We learn to love them when they are start-ups, but they can’t stay start-ups forever. And the transition can, at times, be very inconvenient for the users of the tech.

But, for the time being, EdPuzzle has reminded us that in the EdTech land of instability, when users suddenly become free agents looking for a new team to sign with, an open and flexible company can be there to provide the pick-me-up when another provided the let down.


Thinking about Robotics and Coding

Hummingbird Light Sensor from Andrew Shauver on Vimeo.

At the ISTE Conference a couple weeks back, it was clear that Robotics and coding were (at least perceived by vendors to be) the next big thing in the world of instructional technology. (And 3D printers… LOTS of those, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Robotics and coding is a field I have quite little experience and so I decided to reach out to some vendors for some demo kits and give them a try. The first such group is BirdBrain Technologies who graciously allowed me to sample their HummingbirdDuo robotics and coding system.

I am going to give a more comprehensive review of each set that I get to try out, but my first question revolves around the function of robotics and coding in the classroom in general. Like most people my age, I went through my K-12 schooling without a single bit of coding and with extremely limited exposure to robotics (stacking blocks with a joystick and a robotic arm). As such, the integration of these types of skills doesn’t seem like a no-brainer to me.

Besides that, the primary reason that I hear from advocates is increased employability. Enthusiasts typically pair reference statements similar to “coding and robotics jobs will increase by x% over the next y years” or “experience coding is the fastest growing qualification on new job postings”. These aren’t things to be discounted, but I’ve expressed concern about this type of thinking before.

Another type of discussion often gets associated with robotics and code is talk of “authentic learning” or “passion-based learning” or other similar expressions. This type of language tends to be tricky to consider because they are often fairly loosely-defined both in terms of their expressions and in their goals. Passion, for example, tends to be a very effective energy supply, but passion is difficult to sustain. Authenticity is very subjective. And while I’ve listened to a variety of folks discuss the value of “authentic” learning, I’ve heard very few create a clear distinction between “authentic” and “fake” learning.

None of those thoughts are decisions or final judgments. And they certainly aren’t meant to be belittling or condescending. They are simply me sharing the variety of considerations I go through as I assimilate new ideas. Please share with me any comments from your perspective that can help to enrich my thoughts.

So, to see what kind of strains it puts on my thinking and to get a sense of where it might take me, I produced the “robot” you see in the video. It’s cardboard with some holes in it. It “sleeps” when it’s dark and it “wakes up” and starts working when the lights come on. In short, it uses a light sensor to determine which of two expression sequences it is going to run. (The image below is what that looked like… from the CREATE Lab Visual Programmer)


When it’s dark, the robot does what the left column tells it to do. When it’s bright, it does what the right side tells it to do.

Each of those boxes had to be set up individually, so if you watch the video, you’ll notice the blue LEDs are getting brighter and dimmer. Those settings had to be set one at a time. There is also some audio involved as well.

Okay, so, my thoughts throughout this initial experience were to filter this through the brain of a classroom teacher. What value will this provide? What will it take for students to realize that value? What will the trade-offs be?

First thing that I discovered is that this type of process is not intuitive to me. When things didn’t go the way they were supposed to, my homemade attempts to troubleshoot were often limited and unsuccessful. Using the tutorial videos provided by BirdBrain helped a TON. A lot of this was technical equipment usage. How the different pieces attached to the board, how to change the expressions of the LEDS, the motors, How to code it, etc

Once I knew how to do that stuff, then I definitely felt a increased empowerment for my creativity to start becoming productive. But before that, I felt very overwhelmed. I think this is an important aspect. How many students think like me? How many students are plenty ready to be creative, and have a lot of creativity to give, if they could just figure out how to use the tools? And will struggle to discover how the tools work, but with explicit instruction on 5 or 6 aspects of the activity, can really gain that sense of empowerment?

And from there, how does this apply? Can this be woven into course content as it currently exists? Or is coding a standalone set of learning goals? Hour of Code is a very cool idea and a very engaging experience, but it seems to require a standalone experience. “Okay kids, we are going to take a break from math class and do Hour of Code. Then when we’re done, we’ll start math class again.”

Are there successful instances where teachers can say, “Okay folks, so today for math class (or social studies class or biology class or health class or…) we are going to break into small groups. Station one is the coding and robotics station where you’ll explore the content from the unit. Everyone will rotate through the coding and robotics station.”

Does that exist? I’m asking for your take. Anecdotes are helpful. Pics and links to lesson plans and student work are great, too. Help me understand this. Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be exploring these robotics and coding. Collaborate with me to powerfully apply these tools to the classroom.