Education, Science

What We Can Learn From the Paper Clip

Those who know me well are aware of my strange obsession with office supplies.  That’s why I couldn’t resist this recent article on about the paper clip written by Sarah Goldsmith.  It turns out that this simple device, which was invented in 1899, represents an extremely rare artifact in the history of design: an object whose design hasn’t changed in over a hundred years.

After reviewing the conditions that created the right atmosphere for the development of the paper clip, Goldsmith explores what makes them so unique.  She writes:

“Paper clips can be used to pick locks, clean under fingernails, and hack into phones. Straightened out, they are used by office workers to distract themselves from the monotony of their intended use.”

As I read this section, it occurred to me that this is the heart of what science education should be.  We should be focusing as much on innovation and exploration as we do on vocabulary.  Students need to learn the concepts of science, but we won’t really grab them until we engage their minds and their interests.  The way to our students’ hearts is through their curiosity.  We need to work harder at giving students opportunities to open things up and look inside.  We need to encourage them to find new uses for the objects around them.

I’m in the middle of Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine, in which he explores the source and importance of creativity.  This idea–that teaching innovation by allowing students to explore the world around them–is based on research that is central to our understanding of how the human brain can create novel ideas.

Can we teach creativity and innovation?

photo credit: Lady-bug via photo pin cc


My Experiment in Grading: Update #1

Judging from the response to my post about the new grading system that I am employing this semester, there are a lot of teachers currently trying (or considering trying) big leaps of faith in grading practices.  As a sort of testimonial, here is a snapshot of where my adventure stands as of the end of the Third Quarter.  For more information about what these changes are, please check out the link above.

chemistry_experimentThe student response to my introduction of the system in early January was positive.  That’s not a surprise.  Students that normally excel had a chance to improve their low A’s to high A’s.  Students who routinely bomb tests and quizzes saw an opportunity to do an autopsy and correct the grade.  Most surprising, however, is that parents have not complained.  I worried expected that some parents would be confused or concerned about how the new system would work and that my inbox would be overwhelmed.  Instead, I have not received a single piece of email from a single parent about the new system.  The main reason is probably my proactive approach: I put up a clear webpage that explained the system and I added a message to the website where my grades are available for parents and students to view online.

My teammates have engaged me in some spirited and exciting discussions about the philosophy and practicality of my system.  As my colleague Bill Ferriter is fond to say, the conversation has really expanded my own thinking on the subject.  Their Devil’s Advocate has helped me to crystallize my own ideas and clarify the “why” and the “how” of this dramatic change to my grading practices.  One teacher in particular, has been a sounding board for my quotes from Ken O’Connor and has pushed back with real and necessary criticism of what I am doing. I haven’t wavered in my resolve to make this change, in fact, I feel stronger knowing that she has helped me to consider the issues in play.

In the midst of all of this, I was asked to present (along with several others) to a large group of teacher leaders (~180) from all over my district last week.  They gave me fifteen minutes to sum up all of the changes that I made.  My presentation met with an unbelievably positive reaction and I am currently working with over a dozen teachers who want to do something similar in their schools and classrooms.  You can check out my slides below (to see notes from the presentation, click on the slideshow to go to SlideShare):


Where does that leave me now?  Well, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say that the experiment is currently rating a 7.  I have had some success, but I also haven’t faced many challenges yet.  Third Quarter report cards will be distributed just before our year-round three-week break, and I’m likely to have some questions to answer when I return.  Fourth quarter may prove to be the true test of my ability to communicate the advantages of improved grading practices.

Right now, I have to decide how to remediate those that aren’t getting it, and what to do with those who refuse to retake an Incomplete (earned for an assessment that scores below a C).  Still discovering new questions, while searching for some answers.  Stay tuned for more updates.

P.S.  According to this recent article in the New York Times, even college students confuse the purpose of a grade, expecting their effort to result in a good grade regardless of their mastery of the content.  It’s going to be a long road…


My Resolution? No more failures.

gradesI suppose it is a bit of a cliche to make a New Year’s Resolution that is unattainable, and I want to make it clear that this is not my intent.  I have spent my eight-year teaching career migrating across the spectrum from an ultra-easygoing “friend to every student” to a “sage on the stage” to where I am today.  As I look at what I teach and how I teach it, I am left feeling inadequate.

Partly, this depressing assessment comes from the many competing interests that drive my teaching style and my personal philosophy.  First, I am a scientist.  I believe that every single American child needs to leave our public school system with the fundamental scientific literacy necessary to be a thoughtful and independent citizen.  Specifically, I find myself more and more frustrated with the growing tide of anti-vaccination efforts and “teach the controversy” movements that are based on pseudo-science and fueled by the ignorance of many Americans.  I know that sounds harsh, but it’s shockingly true.  I’m not an activist teacher, but I do make a concerted effort to dispel misconceptions and make it clear that science is just a very powerful problem-solving technique.

But, I am also a teacher and father who knows that children learn in different ways and at different paces.  Is it really productive to set absolute standards that some children will not be able to reach?  I have seen many times the impact of students who no longer believe that they can succeed.  They become the bullies and class clowns that pull me away from teaching and engaging other students.  It’s clear to me that we need to keep the carrot far enough ahead of each student so that he is motivated to achieve, but close enough that he doesn’t lose hope.

I take personally much of the criticism that is leveled against the public education system, claiming that we coddle children and protect them from the cruel realities and unyielding requirements of the “real world”.  How do we reconcile these opposing viewpoints?  Do we determine some basic level of mastery and require it of every student?  Or, do we seek to move each student forward a set amount each year, regardless of whether they achieve mastery?

These are the questions that keep me up at night.  Well, these questions and a disturbing addiction to caffeine.  In search of an answer, I have spent this holiday break (mine is combined with a two-week year-round track-out break) reading and collaborating with my PLN.  I owe much of where I stand today on what I’ve learned from Ken O’Connor’s “How to Grade for Learning“, the formative assessment work of Page Keeley, and some sage advice from Science Goddess (who recommended the O’Connor book).  The short and sweet version of it is this: Beginning this semester, I am utilizing a grading system based on no failing marks.  Students who submit work that does not meet the standards set for a “C” will earn an “Incomplete” until the work is re-submitted at the requisite level.  Students who go above and beyond the minimum requirements will continue to earn “A” and “B” marks.

The philosophy behind this grading system is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say it rewards my highly motivated students while simultaneously encouraging those with substandard work to see their work as the product of revision and improvement.  Once it’s up and running, this system should result in a zero percent failure rate as measured by mastery of the minimum standards (that’s a “C”).

I don’t know whether we are best served by encouraging our more challenged students with marks based  at least partly on effort, or whether we need to draw that line in the sand and say, “If you don’t get to this point, you can not pass my class.”  The answer may seem obvious, but it so difficult to watch a student with a low I.Q. put forth a Herculean effort and still not reach the bar.  Clearly, we need a place for these students, and this system doesn’t provide it.  What is unclear at this time is what will happen to those whom I remediate to no avail.


For now, I am on my own with this little experiment, as my school and district move with glacial speed toward some undefined “improvement in grading practices”. I believe strongly in this change and I simply can’t wait for those in power to make the difficult decisions that are needed.  As I recently shared with a colleague who has played devil’s advocate to many of my grading arguments, the change has to start somewhere.