Teaching Big History

Big historyI just registered with the Big History Project – an online course that weaves scientific and historical disciplines across 13.7 billion years into a single, cohesive, science-based origin story. I always was a big picture guy. Here’s a link to the course guide and more about about the Common Core aligned program from the projects FAQ

What is big history?
Big history weaves evidence and insights from many scientific and historical disciplines across 13.7 billion years into a single, cohesive story. The course highlights common themes and patterns that can help us better understand people, civilizations, and the world we live in. The concept arose from a desire to go beyond specialized and self-contained fields of study to grasp history as a whole. Big history explores how we are connected to everything around us. It provides a foundation for thinking about the future and the changes that are reshaping our world.

What is the Big History Project?
The Big History Project LLC (BHP) is an organization focused on bringing big history to life for high school students…. BHP is sponsored by Bill Gates, separately from his work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

For more on the Big History approach watch “David Christian: The history of our world in 18 minutes”

How is the course delivered?
All of the content is available online. A completely web-based model ensures the content is up-to-date, relieves schools of the need for costly textbooks, and also helps teachers engage students by providing approachable, media-rich materials that can be used in different ways. Pilot participants and anyone who requests a username and password is able to access the course. Students and teachers are issued a personal login to gain access to a specialized site that houses all courseware and content. It is up to each individual teacher to determine optimal approach to using the site. For example, in-class time may focus on group projects or discussion, with students absorbing online content for homework, or the site may be used as a core element of the in-class experience.

How is my school supported and what does it cost? 
Our goal is to ensure that big history is taught effectively with no cost to schools. We provide, free of
charge:

  • All content and courseware
  • Free PD/teacher training program
  • Access to core project team for support, assistance and feedback
  • A teacher and school subsidy to cover any direct expense and provide support for teachers

Most importantly, a spirit of partnership imbues everything we do. Our singular goal is to get big history in the hands of educators and students, we promise to listen and collaborate accordingly.  In return, we expect schools to collaborate and communicate with us to improve the program. Specifically, this means: incorporating BHP courseware, content and assessments into the lesson plan, participating in professional development activities, and regularly updating the project team about what is happening in the classroom.

How is the course organized?
Big history is broken down into 2 sections and a total of 10 units spanning 13.7 billion years. Within each unit there are between 20 – 30 specific content modules covering specific issues, topics, projects and assessments.
Section 1: Formations and early life: Theories and evidence of origins of the Universe, planet formation, elements, and life.
Unit 1: What is big history?
Unit 2: The Big Bang?
Unit 3: Stars & Elements
Unit 4: Our Solar System & Earth
Unit 5: Life

Section 2: Humans: The development of humans, civilizations, and key milestones in our progress.
Unit 6: Early Humans
Unit 7: Agriculture & Civilization
Unit 8: Expansion and Interconnection
Unit 9: Acceleration
Unit 10: The Future

How to Create A PLC with Google+ Hangout

G+hangout logo-featured

I critiqued the “top-down vision of innovation in schools” in a post Innovations in Teaching and Learning: Top Down or Bottom Up?

Want to find out more about instructional innovation in action? That won’t cost you a thing either. Just jump on my Twitter feed and you find superb teachers willing to share their latest student projects. And that free flow of information contrasts with a second “top-down” approach to innovation in schools – the professional learning committee. Imagine being told that, “teachers will now attend PLC meetings.. and don’t forget to fill out the PLC report form and turn it in to your administrator.” No one at the top seems to notice that teachers who want to network have already created their own “bottom-up” support systems via the social web.

PLCs for singleton teachers?

A recent post by high school physics teacher Casey Rutherford, describes how he used Google+ Hangouts (free video conferencing) to create his own PLC. A Physics PLC: Collaboration at a Distance. Casey writes:

This year my school district, like many others, implemented PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) as the driving force behind how we collaborate to help students learn. The directive was that all teachers should meet in a PLC weekly for approximately 30 minutes. This sounds, and can be, great, but I had a problem. …. For 7 years I had been the only physics teacher. …

Enter Twitter. I’ve been on Twitter almost two years now, and I have learned more on Twitter in these two years than the previous six, which included a masters degree. Among other things I have managed to build a pretty awesome PLN (Personal Learning Network) that includes a couple hundred incredible physics and math teachers from around the country.

Casey posted a tweet with a link to Google doc soliciting members for his online PLC:

My name is Casey Rutherford. I am entering teaching for the 8th year, my 7th teaching physics, and my first using Modeling Instruction. I have a relatively odd request.

My school is implementing PLCs, certainly a worthy task. The problem is that at this point there is not a logical person with whom I would form a PLC. Thus my request. I am wondering if any of you would like to form an online PLC with me, working together approximately 30 minutes/week to compare student work. My thought is that we can do a lot with formative assessments, using photos of student whiteboards to form the basis for our conversations. I am, however, open to other ideas as well. …

What follows is Casey’s step-by-step description of how his team used a G+ Hangout to manage their PLC sessions. It includes details about managing the Hangout, using it to analyze student work, and building meaningful collegial relationships. It’s a very helpful post for anyone looking for practical information on using G+ Hangouts. 

Rutherford-g-hangout

Hat tip to Marshall Memo for leading me to Casey’s piece.

Screenshot credit / Casey Rutherford

How to Motivate Student Writers

My last post, What is Writing For?, concluded by offering three ideas for motivating student writers:

  • Let students make some choices about their writing.
  • Let them write for a more authentic audience than the teacher.
  • Use more peer evaluation and self reflection.

We read everything over to see if it made sense to our audience ~ 6th grader’s reflection

I thought readers deserved an example of these principles in action. Here’s a project I did that exemplifies choice, authentic audience and self-reflection.

I worked with a team of 6th grade teachers to demonstrate the power of comparison skills to help their students build vocabulary and content knowledge about the functions of various organs of the human body. (Based on Robert Marzano’s Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement and Classroom Instruction That Works). Additionally we wanted to enhance technology skills and demonstrate the power of student choice and self reflection in a PBL setting.

Students are motivated by writing for an authentic audience. “Publishing” helps students master content and develop project management and teamwork skills. The power of publishing enables students to think like writers, to apply their learning strategies and to organize and express their learning. It exemplifies the best of the information revolution – students as creators of content rather than as passive audience. 

Project overview:

  1. Students were tasked with developing books to teach the organs of the human body to third graders.They decided that the best idea was an ABC book - ”Traveling Through the Human Body with ABCs”
  2. Teams of students chose an organ and had to develop a description of function suitable for 3rd grade audience. Then they were asked to compare the organ to something that functioned in the same way and develop a comparison that 3rd graders would understand.
  3. All the content developed by students went through a peer review process for accuracy and suitability for 3rd grade audience.
  4. PowerPoint was used to layout graphics and text. Update: you might consider design and publication using iBook Author.
  5. Students and teacher were guided through a series of reflective prompts.
  6. The PowerPoints were converted to PDF files and used to publish a few copies of each classes book using Lulu print of demand. 

Teacher reflections included:

  • Students learn best from doing and from doing it together with support but no interference from adults. Students can explain concepts and ideas to each other in “kid-friendly” language more easily, sometimes, than adults can.
  • The lessons are more lasting because they happened in a social context rather than the “top-down” structure of a traditional classroom.
  • Project-based learning creates a student centered classroom with the students doing the real work of real learners. The teachers’ work is primarily off-line.

The book is available in print from Lulu as an iBook at iTunes.

Finding Math in Nature’s Patterns

Succulent spiral
Succulent spiral

As I recently wrote in Don’t Teach Them Facts – Let Student Discover Patterns 

It’s unfortunate that student don’t get to use their innate perceptual skills more often in the classroom. Instead of discovering patterns on their own, students are “taught” to memorize patterns developed by someone else. Rather than do the messy work of having to figure out what’s going on, students are saddled with graphic organizers which take all the thinking out of the exercise. 

“Doodling in Math Class: Spirals, Fibonacci, and Being a Plant” captures the fascination of patterns in nature. Discover more patterns from Vi Hart – Mathemusician

Image credit: flickr/Duff Axsom

Illuminating the Beauty, Humanity, Intrigue in Mathematics

Illuminated Mathematics
Illuminated Mathematics Logo

I recently blogged from the 2011 US Innovative Education Forum (IEF) sponsored by Microsoft Partners in Learning. This is part of a series of IEF guest posts. For more, click my IEF tag. ~  Peter

More than 700 teachers, school leaders, education leaders, and government officials from more than 70 countries attended this year’s 2011 Partners in Learning Global Forum – an action-packed week of education workshops, inspiring networking events, awards, and announcements by Microsoft. Eighteen recipients of the Global Forum Educator Awards were announced at the event. This year’s winners were selected from more than 115 projects, narrowed from more than 200,000 applicants.

The winners in ”Knowledge Building and Critical Thinking” were High Tech High’s Margaret Noble and David Stahnke. “Illuminated Mathematics” is a curated multimedia exhibition produced by the 12th grade class of 2011. Students in Margaret Noble’s digital art class and David Stahnke’s math class were asked to find the beauty, humanity and intrigue behind math in history, philosophy and the applied arts. The goal was to promote math awareness through art, media and design. The event was hosted at the Sushi Performance and Visual Art Center on December 16th, 2010. Projects developed into an array of math abstractions and celebrations in the mediums of sound, video, animation, photography and interactive installation.

Illuminated Mathematics: Website | Project intro | Research Topics | Final Rubrics

Exhibition 2

~ A guest post written by Dave Stahnke ~ High Tech High Media Arts ~

“Everyone, open your books to chapter 7 section 2 as we will be learning how to factor degree 3 polynomials.”

I can imagine this statement being said, in some fashion, within the vast majority of high school math classrooms across our seemingly broken educational system. Almost all of us have at some point taught something that was completely irrelevant to the lives of our students. And we knew it!

Nobody has ever come up to me on the street and asked for help with factoring, or called me late at night, unable to sleep, because they were curious as to why the square root of two is an irrational number.

The fact is that nobody has ever come up to me on the street and asked for help with factoring, or called me late at night, unable to sleep, because they were curious as to why the square root of two is an irrational number. It is unfortunate that this doesn’t happen, but I would be kidding myself if I thought these were genuine student concerns within the realm of what we call “life.” I think it is time for us as teachers to be honest about what we teach, and to question why every student needs to know the entire breadth of standards associated with a particular subject.

Deep vs. Wide

There was a study published recently in Science Education (2009) that made a comparison between teachers who “sprinted” to cover all of the standards with teachers who slowed down and went deeper into the material. The students who “sprinted” ended up scoring higher on the standardized test due to covering more material. But the students who learned through the slower, in-depth approach earned higher grades in their college classes.

Like any great symphony, mathematics represents a pinnacle of human creativity. We teach math to enrich the lives of our students in a way akin to reading poetry or composing music

Is our goal to have students performing better on standardized tests or to be prepared for what they are going to encounter in college and life? The ideal would be that they would be prepared for both. So the questions become, what do we want to leave the students with? How are we going to prepare them for the real world? What do we want them to learn about themselves? And how do we do it? To clear the air, I don’t believe that students are taking my calculus class because they need help doubling a recipe or balancing their checkbook. I believe it is because we want to expose students to the poetry of numbers, to have a new outlook on how to solve problems, to be able to think outside of the box, and to see how the unbreakable human spirit has conquered problems that once mystified the greatest of thinkers. Like any great symphony, mathematics represents a pinnacle of human creativity. We teach math to enrich the lives of our students in a way akin to reading poetry or composing music.

Bringing Math to Life

This year I wanted to do something big that would change the perception of mathematics for my students and the surrounding community… It was time for math to become art and art to become math.

This year I wanted to do something big that would change the perception of mathematics for my students and the surrounding community. My goal was to create a math exhibition that would allow students to showcase their depth of understanding in a creative way. I wanted nothing to do with the poster-board type of science fair displays. I wanted math to come alive through the work of my students. It was time for math to become art and art to become math.

In order to pull this off it was clear that I was going to need help. After all, having the students for only an hour a day seemed to be great limitation to this type of creativity. I enlisted the help of Margret Noble, a sound artist, multi-media teacher, colleague, and friend. I also got help from as many math/physics friends as I could. I contacted about thirty people. Fifteen were willing to act as mentors, spending time meeting with one or more groups of students and/or corresponding through e-mail. All of the mentors were physics Ph.D. students, or had their PhD and were working in labs or as engineers. The students found the mentors to be a great resource. As one student said, “I got a lot of positive feedback from adults. They helped me understand a very complicated topic in a very simple way.”

Exhibition 1

Student Voice and Choice

Margaret and I envisioned mixing multimedia with mathematics by having students create video, sound, photography, and mixed media installations that explored math-related topics. We started the project by creating a list of 50 topics for the students to pick from, though they were not restricted to the list. Once the students had selected a topic we had them brainstorm possible creative ways of expressing it (i.e. their product). Each student also completed a research paper on their topic and gave a power point pre-production oral presentation to explain their topic to the rest of the class.

Along the way, students participated in four in-class critiques of their products, with opportunities to revise after each one. For each critique, students displayed their work on the large screen and the rest of the class would give kind, specific, and helpful feedback. These peer critiques were key to ensuring that students produced beautiful products. As they pushed each other’s creativity and offered new ideas, students’ projects evolved into a variety of forms:

A video with animated fractals, another on chaos theory, an artistic representation of tessellations, a flash video on relativity, music produced using Pythagorean scales, photography that displayed entropy, Pi and mental illness in mathematics, a beautiful silent film which used cryptography to crack a love letter, photography and video of the golden ratio, a video/sound installation on algorithmic compositions using Markov chains, a Leonardo da Vinci model airplane explaining the physics of flight, a comical rap on the life of Pythagoras, and many more.

A student who has struggled with math in the past noted that these peer critiques were instrumental in helping students reach their goals:

During the first two critiques I was a little scared because I didn’t think that our project was good enough and had thoughts in my head saying it could be better. But after the second critique I caught fire. I had many more ideas for our project and I was motivated to make it better. On our last critique a lot of good things were said about our project and it felt good knowing that we were that much closer to having a completed senior project.

Student choice also played a critical role. Contrary to what one might assume, having students choose their own topics to explore created some of the most rigorous and authentic student work I have ever seen. Not only did the students have choice in what they were learning, they also chose how they wanted to display it. Furthermore, as the project work progressed, I realized that once the students’ buy in was there, the usual achievement gap between students almost entirely disappeared. This same student found that this project gave him something to be proud of:

I honestly am proud of my project, because our animation came a long way from what we had in the beginning. A lot of hours were put in, learning Adobe After Effects, perfecting the animation, making the concept of infinite monkey theorem as simple as possible, and staying during lunch and after school so we could finish up and meet the deadlines.

Exhibition

exhibition 3

Students exhibited their final work on a Thursday evening at Sushi Contemporary Performance and Visual Arts, a gallery and performance space in downtown San Diego. The venue had professional lighting and ample wall space for multiple projections. It took us two days to set up the exhibition, hanging photos, placing installations, and installing projectors throughout the space. When the lights were turned down and the student work was illuminated it seemed almost magical. Prior to the exhibition, we had reached out to CNBC (video), Voice of San Diego, and City Beat Magazine to help promote the show. The most common phrase I heard that evening from the parents, media, and other visitors was “I can’t believe that high school students did this!”

As an educator, this experience proved to me that mathematics can not only be enjoyable for students, it can be downright memorable. This was possible through giving student choice and by letting them explore math through their own creative personalities. In the words of my teaching partner, Margaret Noble, “This project worked because math moved from the abstract realm into the tangible. Numbers and concepts became people, culture, history and philosophy that students could illuminate to the public.”

Or, as one student said, “It definitely widened my view of math. At first I thought math was only useful to scientists and mathematicians, but this project showed me that math is everywhere.” What more could a math teacher want?

Reference
Schwartz, M., Sadler, P., Sonnert, G. & Tai, R. (September, 2009). Depth versus breadth: How content coverage in high school science courses relates to later success in college science coursework. Science Education, 93, 5, 798-826.

Image credits: Margaret Noble and David Stahnke

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