Graham Seibert's Educational Adventures
Prior to going back to school, I taught for three years, two as a substitute and one as a classroom teacher at the Field School in Washington D.C. After eleven years of service on school boards (St. Patricks and St. Andrews) it was wonderful to work directly with students and other teachers. I taught math and ecology to Juniors and Spanish literature to four middle schoolers who had learned the language through immersion at the Oyster School or overseas. I am interested in the uses of computers in schools. It is a tough field to break into. Schools already make extensive use of computers, and they don't particularly want to hear the judgment by an uncredentialed outsider that it hasn't been very effective.
I wrote a curriculum for teaching kids how to make effective use of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint in doing their schoolwork. I offer it to anybody who is interested. View it here.
As a statistics student, I used Excel to develop a series of models, graphically illustrating statistical concepts such as the relationship between a sample and a population, the importance of sample size, the meaning of the correlation coefficient "r" and other basics. Again, these are available to download.
Here's one insight. Schools have to evaluate students in order to determine the students' educational needs and to measure the schools' success in satisfying those needs. Testing, however, takes significant amounts of time away from actual teaching. Standardized testing is more of an imposition in that it presupposes something of a standardized curriculum.
A significant portion of students' work is already produced on computers. It is machine-readable. Compiling student work in machine-readable format would not require a dramatic change in school operations. When and if it can be done, it will make student work visible outside the classroom. This could involve some administrative oversight, though such an effort would be labor-intensive and would also be resisted by teachers. It could also involve automated assessments to supplement the teachers' own evaluations of student work. Such assessments could provide overviews of a class's wealth of vocabulary, sophistication with regard to grammar, or acquaintance with arithmetic algorithms. The statistical tools used to deduce student ability from the evidence in their portfolios are complex, fascinating, and more problematic than one would first imagine.
Here's a second insight. Every schoolchild has a calculator. It has been an amazing boon for Texas Instruments, whose TI83 is the standard for everything from fourth-grade multiplication through senior-year statistics and calculus. You never see them in business; everybody uses personal computers. The standard packages are Excel for general math and SPSS and SAS for statistics. Kids could benefit by using Excel. One of the major themes in math is "show your work," and using a succession of spreadsheet cell formulas to solve a problem does exactly that. Moreover, teachers could create examples in Excel to seamlessly coordinate formulas, tables and graphics. Write and I'll send some examples of spreadsheets I developed to demonstrate concepts in statistics.
A third insight. Voice recognition software can be a transformative technology for students. I've had great experience with homeschoolers. I spend about two hours installing the software and working with them as they train it, after which they are able to dictate rather than keyboard their assignments. There are a number of kids who don't keyboard well for whatever reason, and others who are perfectly articulate but somehow freeze when they have to reduce their ideas to keystrokes. Just about everybody speaks faster than they type; 150 words per minute vs. 70 for a good typist. Voice recognition is great for taking reading notes. Rather than put the book down, pick up a scratch pad and jot something, later to be lost in a jumble of other papers, a student can dictate into a the microphone he is wearing, or the handheld recorder, without taking his hands from the book. The notes are ordered, searchable, and can be cut and pasted into a paper.
The emphasis in foreign language instruction, per the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, is oral production. Using voice recognition software for higher levels of instruction would allow students to do oral production and teachers to assess a written product. It would seem to be the best possible technique. Nobody is attempting it.
Easy stuff: Although flash cards are a great study technique, making them is too much of a chore for most students. Teachers can't do it either -- they have to much else to occupy them, and besides, a lot of the effectiveness of flash cards is in the fact that a student can add and remove cards as necessary and make notes on them. I've adopted Microsoft Word to present flash cards. It works like this:
(1) Either the teacher or the student puts together a table of questions and answers in Microsoft Word. It can be in English or a foreign language.
(2) The student customizes the table as needed, then invokes a Word macro to to initiate a flash card drill. The macro presents the questions and the student types in the answers. Questions can be given either as words or pictures, in sequential order or randomly. Depending on the application, the macro may accept answers that are almost right, such as "Check Republic" for "Czech Republic" or in French "etre" for "être".
(3) The computer keeps a running tally of right and almost right answers and if the student wants, can print out a recap of the study session both to impress a parent or teacher with his hard work and to show areas of strength and weakness.
Several flash card sheets are ready for you to download and practice. There is a generic word drill that comes with states and capitals, but which you can fill with your own questions and answers. There is a generic map drill that comes populated with pictures of the 50 nations of Asia that you can replace with anything you want, such as leaf forms, carbon molecule bond structures or math formulas, There are somewhat specialized Math Facts and Latin flash card routines. I built Spanish and French flash card exercises with a built-in awareness of language features such as gender, conjugation and declension. I did make a mistake with the flashcards; I programmed them as macros in Visual Basic. So many viruses have been written in that language that many computers ban its use.