School: Pre-Mortem analysis

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The new school year is starting up soon. So for schools and teachers, I’m continuing this series of posts on content from Dave Gray’s and Sunni Brown’s book Gamestorming, which contains a variety of business-development and business-improvement games for rethinking strategy and tactics… and how to adapt Gamestorming for an education environment.

Schools by their very nature are quietly conservative, no matter how progressive they are in philosophy.  Part of the reason for that is that schoolteachers work with kids — and what worked with one group of kids in past years is likely to work with another group of kids in the present.  Innovation is difficult.  (It’s part of the reason why it’s better to get teachers in the middle years of their teaching career — no set of philosophies or teaching theories is adequate to actual contact with actual children, so teachers with actual experience have more tactics and systems that work with students  “in their heads” and “in their hands”… but new things still surprise them sometimes, and they invent new strategies on the fly out of the fabric of their experiences).

The Pre-Mortem

Schools still get things wrong.  One of the most complicated things they get wrong is the happy enthusiasm at the start of the school year — all the teachers are moderately well-rested after a couple of months away (or not — teachers are sometimes frazzled in August after summer work taken on to pay for their teaching career). The administration and faculty have had a few months to remember their most difficult students with fondness, to let the rougher memories subside, to ignore any community challenges or failures experienced in the past year, and to otherwise let the previous year have a golden glow about them.  And, of course, summer is usually when new policies, schedules, procedures, and curriculum changes get rolled out and planned… well before those polices and programs have actually been tested by actual students.

So my inner Goth is always quietly pleased by the idea of the Pre-Mortem.  When using this game, a group of teachers and administrators identify all of the ways that this current year might wind up a disaster. Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.19.01 AM.png

In my example, you can see that I’ve created the sort of ambitious program that many schools roll out in the fall. There’s a set of big goals to achieve, and a variety of plans to achieve them.  By writing down the big goals, we can see the big picture, and identify the plans that help those goals get achieved.

Every single one of those plans has a person behind it.  Plans don’t come out of nowhere — a person uncovered the idea, and began to push that idea… and now their idea is ON.THE.LIST.  And none of those people want to hear how their program died, especially not at the start of a school year, before it’s even had a chance to succeed.

But.

Schools need to focus on the first item on their checklist, which is teach children and make a good-faith effort to keep them safe.  That’s the first order of business, and all other plans have to be subject to that particular standard. So anything else can — and should be — subject to a pre-mortem analysis, to make sure that it actually achieves its goals.

So once the the goals are announced, and the plan for achieving those goals is on the board… it’s time to do step three, which is to identify the things that go wrong.Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.49.41 AM.png

Many teachers, even ones who’ve spent their whole careers in one school or one school district, have seen the same kinds of issues again and again. Issues of communication, issues of leadership, issues of personnel management, issues of parent-student-teacher interaction, issues of curriculum, issues of trying to do too much.  The Pre-Mortem is an effort to gather and collect that collective wisdom, to write it down, to present it together, and to try to identify certain ways that a group project (like a really amazing school year) might fail before it’s had a chance to fail.

If you could identify what killed the patient before the operation even started (leaving a sponge inside, letting the surgical incision be open for too long, the wrong medication administered), you would do that.  In fact, Atul Gowande in his book The Checklist Manifestodesigned a process that derived from a Pre-Mortem exercise very much like this: “what are the top ten mistakes surgical teams make at the outset of a surgery, that then result in the death or further injury of the patient?  How can we avoid those mistakes?”

So maybe, instead of all the hoopla and celebration that accompanies the start of the school year in most schools, we should begin with a more gothic exercise draped in funereal black:

  • Imagine it’s early summer in 2018
  • What went wrong?
  • Why was it such a terrible year?
  • What could we have fixed earlier than we did?
  • What common pitfalls could we have avoided?

Imagination serves a useful purpose, even if the results are gloomy.  It gets us talking about our blind spots and our failures, which is difficult.  But if it allows us to make the year more successful for everyone, before the school year even starts, then that short few hours of gloom and doom will make everyone’s year that much better, by identifying some risks before they take root.

 

School: Horizontal/Vertical Sort

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A recent conversation with Dave Gray of XPLANE, Inc. got me thinking about his heuristic matrix from the book Gamestorming which he wrote with Sunni Brown. Once I thought about the matrix, though, it was easy to return to Gamestorming, and find other exercises worthy of using in schools.

One of my favorites — but also one of the ones most ineffectively used — is the horizontal and vertical sort.

This exercise consists of three parts.  The first is the generation of a group of ideas using Post-It® Notes.  That might look something like this, in a beginning of the year exercise.  The facilitator might say something like, “What does it take to make the students in your classroom have a successful year?”

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Doing this much of the exercise is nice, of course.  You get a lot of good/random ideas just by reading the Post-It® Notes, pretty easily.

But a horizontal sort is an essential part of the process, and shouldn’t be avoided just because there’s a lack of time.  Here’s how this gets sorted in one way, according to two horizontal categories: expensiveness in school budget, and expensiveness in personal time.

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Now, in a Punnett Square, from biology, these categories of school treasure and teacher time, would be arrayed against one another in a vertical/horizontal sort.  There’d be a chance to think about these things seriously.

But I’ve chosen to sort them this way, to point out that sometimes the teacher’s time and the school’s treasure should be weighed against other issues, like, for example, the school’s stated or guiding philosophy.  That might lead to a sort like this…

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It’s now clear which ideas can be discarded, at least for now.  It means that if a classroom needs to spend 2-3 class periods on the question of rules, it’s a good idea.  If the school has decided on a new mathematics curriculum — that investment should be made.

It also makes clear that the school should begin an ongoing conversation about the role of homework in the school, and that the question of pets or class animals is kind of a sticking point for a lot of folks.

I want to point out that this is a demonstration.  A #fakesort.  All I’ve done is create some generic Post-it® Notes in a word processor, and then sort them according to three categories.  Were this a real activity, you and your colleagues would each have generated Post-It® Notes for 5-10 minutes, then sorted them horizontally according to some relevant categories, and then sorted them vertically according to a different set of categories.

For example, instead of “School Philosophy” you could have made columns that said “individual action”, “Administration action” or “School-wide issue.”

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And I also want to point out that I was altering Post-It® Notes as I created these individual screen-shots, too. So this isn’t a true picture of any one institution. Rather, it’s a demonstration of what kinds of pictures of an institution or a school’s divisions or departments can emerge from a diverse range of inputs (the team writing the individual Post-It® Notes), and the decision to sort those Notes according to a given set of rules or themes.

It’s even fun to work with the same collection of Post-It® Notes more than once, in order to see multiple emergent patterns.

What you MUST NOT DO, though, is generate multiple sets of Post-It® Notes on the same themes or similar themes, over and over again, without processing them.  That way lies madness. You will overwhelm your team, and you will never actually decide on a course of action.  It’s far better to generate a small number of Post-It® Notes once, and then sort them multiple times, in order to develop themes for further conversation.

School: Redesign Homework

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Around this time of year, I always think about how I’m going to re-design my teaching for the fall semester.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m teaching or not, I think about it.

A recent conversation with Dave Gray of XPLANE, Inc. got me thinking about his heuristic matrix from the book Gamestorming which he wrote with Sunni Brown. A heuristic matrix looks a lot like the grid from a spreadsheet, and which I used several years ago to redesign homework.

That grid looked something like this…

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I identified a bunch of broad categories that I wanted my students to learn about.  In this example, based on the broad theme of teaching about Ancient Greece, I have categories like religion, and aspects of art history, politics, literature, philosophy, and science and technology.

I then identified a variety of styles that I wanted my students to learn to write in. These formed the individual columns of the heuristic matrix.    These included paragraphs dealing with compare and contrast writing, where the same paragraph alternates between two different viewpoints or styles. There was also descriptive writing, involving a top-to-bottom explanation of a thing or a place.  Narrative writing, the description of a beginning-to-end process, was another category. Persuasive paragraphs offer reasons for holding an opinion, and attempt to persuade the reader to accept a particular viewpoint.  Exposition attempts to define or explain a person’s ideas or opinions without forcing them on the reader.  Reading comprehension, on the other hand, asks students to engage with an actual historical text.  Self-directed research is another category — independent projects of various kinds.

I haven’t filled in the heuristic matrix completely. Some of this is left as an exercise to the reader (which is to say, perhaps, that I’m lazy or that I don’t wish to think all of this through, or maybe that I don’t wish to share all of my thought process at once).  But the overall structure should be discernible.

I tried to do something similar with a mathematics heuristic grid for a lower grade, perhaps grade 2, grade 3, or grade 4.

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I’m not a mathematics teacher, so you’ll notice that the grid isn’t completely filled in.  But you’ll see what I’m trying to do… I’m trying to come up with a variety of mathematics exercises and activities that don’t revolve exclusively around the traditional “do these 20 problems to learn a type of procedure” worksheets or homework lists.  This is about inventing new forms of assignments and identifying how these can be used to teach or refresh skills that lie outside the usual curriculum norms.

And it’s important to note that YOU don’t have to fill in a grid completely, either. You may only generate one or two useful ideas from a heuristic matrix.  Yet if a few of those ideas have the chance to reinvigorate your teaching, that may be worth i.

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Geometry book: end of prep 

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I’ve been working on this hand-written book of geometry since at least 2013… maybe since 2011. There’s a total of fifty pages or leaves in it, although it’s an accordion-style Japanese album from Moleskine.  I recently started working on it again due to some recent geometry work in my life, and I’ve put in a few longish days.  The work itself is a manuscript to teach myself the material from Andrew Sutton’s book, Ruler and Compass, available from Wooden Books Press (a division of Bloomsbury).

Several years ago, it might have been early 2014, I laid out most of the remaining pages — the margins of each panel, the lines for the text, and the two or three geometry figures for each page.  For reasons passing understanding at this late juncture, I failed to lay out the last six pages of the book, or plan for the inside front cover.  The result was that I created a milestone, of sorts, in this project — the end of already-laid-out pages, six pages before the end, when I’d have to plan the remaining six pages and finish the inside front cover.

I’m now at that point.  My goal was to get here by Memorial Day weekend, and I’ve achieved that goal a bit earlier than expected.  I probably won’t be able to get back into this work until after the weekend, but I’ve made good progress.

Geometry Book

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Some of the geometry book I'm working on...

Eight pages of geometry

I forget which post Gordon said it in, but at one point he noted that nearly all books prior to the invention of printing were books of magic.  Sure, on the surface they might be called medical textbooks or scientific textbooks or books of geography or mythology or history. But at some level, all these books were books of magic — they were intended to change consciousness at some level.

Rufus Opus said something similar about making lamens. A lamen is usually a disk or a square that you wear on your chest during the conjuration of a spirit.  The act of writing one, of punching a hole in the parchment, and putting it on a string or a chain or a lanyard, is a creative act.  If the emblem you write on the lamen is the signature or symbol of a spirit, your hand is going through a kinesthetic meditation on the nature of the relationship between the conjurer and the spirit.

Something similar is happening as I create this book.  It’s a Moleskine Japanese Album, the larger size, so the pages fold out into this lengthy ‘wall’ or ‘screen’ of emblems — about 5 1/4″ x 8 1/4″ inches per panel, but about 115 1/2″ long — call it about 9′ 7 1/2″.

I think about this project from time to time — more lately, since I’ve been working on it the last few days — and every time I do, I’m somewhat more dismayed at the current state of geometry teaching in the United States.  By all the accounts I’ve found, and by the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected on my own, we’ve stopped teaching students to use rulers and compasses in the study of geometry.  It’s too hard to remember procedures, or students don’t know how to use those flimsy plastic compasses well and the good ones are too expensive, or Euclid isn’t widely available, or … or… or…

The excuses multiply like dandelions after a rainstorm.

I don’t know that this book “will become an heirloom of my house forever,” as one of the somewhat-more-fictional sagas would have it. But I do know that I learned more geometry from the construction of the book than I ever learned in a class.  And I wonder if there’s not a better way to teach geometry embedded in that discovery?

  • Each student gets a good compass, a good ruler, colored pens or pencils, and a blank notebook.
  • Each student learns the construction for a harmonious page layout
  • Each student learns a set of procedures for:
    • Perpendicular bisectors
    • duplication of angles
    • construction of parallel lines
    • construction of similar triangles
    • construction of polygons from given sides
    • construction of polygons within circles
    • transference of a given length or distance to another angle
    • construction of nets for 3-dimensional solids
    • construction of the root-2, root-3, root-4, and root-5 (phi/Φ) proportions
    • division of lines into thirds, fourths, fifths, eighths, ninths, and sixteenths
    • construction of grid and tile patterns
    • construction of simple polygonal combinations to find the sides of super-polygons.

This benefits future craftspeople, because they’re receiving an education in proportions and common mathematical relationships, and it’s not all algebraic notation.  It brings back the beauty of geometry to the mathematics classroom.  It gives all of society a common language for seeing mathematics in the natural world.  It trains future architects and engineers in precision diagramming, and gives future laypeople practice in reading such diagrams.

And it creates hundreds of unique copies of books of practical geometry that are themselves handbooks to a forgotten magic — a magic of beauty, of proportion, of color, of relationship, of graphic design. Students would get to learn ALL of that in the process of producing their own books over the course of a semester or a year. The quality of their book would gradually improve, as their understanding of the geometry improved, and as their love and care of the book improved. Think of all the other studies that could be folded into the creation of the book, too: handwriting, color theory, graphic design, book design, clear writing about mathematics, methodology.  The book is a grade — and students who kept their book up to date would find it useful while taking tests to remember what they had created in their own handwriting. The book itself would be a palace of memory for all the geometry they had learned, just as mine is.

All of the actual constructions are covered in Andrew Sutton’s book Ruler and Compass.  But actually implementing it is on the individual teacher.  And it’s likely the case that the teacher will need some substantial support from an administration that sees and cares about quality instruction.

But it can be done.

Geometry: back to work 

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It’s been a good long while since this particular project occupied my attention and focus.  However, I’m currently motivated to finish it — or at least finish the nine pages that I already have outlined and planned.  There are six more pages that are unplanned except for the margins, which means that I have a total of fifteen pages left to write, and maybe a card or panel to put in the pocket of the book, an afterword of sorts to explain the project a little better than I did at the beginning.

What project am I talking about? This one, the geometry book that I began a long time ago practically in a galaxy far, far away.  In fact, from the earlier entries from 2013, I can tell that I was already about sixteen pages into it.  Now, I’m thirty-seven pages into it, and I have fifteen left.  I’m almost the opposite point in this project as I was four years ago.  Funny how these things circle around, right?

The current pages, #36-37

Of course today is the day that I made a mistake.  I drew out the process of comparing 1:√2, and didn’t discover my error (on the right-hand page) until I had already inked the diagram and written the explanatory text.  Always check your work in geometry before you render it in pen!

The next pages laid out (and upside down for some reason)

No matter.  I had the room to be able to describe the process incorrectly, add in A WARNING IN CAPITALS AND RED, and then offer the correction. Typical medieval manuscript at this point, really — sometimes errors creep in, and the lowly scribe has to figure out how to offer the correction clearly and legibly in less space.  I managed.

As I said, I have nine pages remaining in this project that are already laid out.  A lot of this project is me working through Andrew Sutton’s book, Ruler and Compass from Wooden Books.

Why did I return to it, though? Well, first, I’m trying to clear my desk of unfinished projects. This one has been a big one, and it’s been on my mind to complete for a while.  But for another, I recently took up the opportunities and challenges of tutoring again.  And I’m tutoring a few young people in geometry.  So this project is serving to lubricate and rub the rust off of my geometry skills. Even so, I’m finding that the knowledge of actual geometric proofs isn’t quite as useful as one might imagine.

A lot of the work that students do in geometry class these days appears to be algebra. There will be one diagram (with a note beside it to say, not to scale or not rendered accurately), and then a lot of algebraic notation, and the student is expected to work without a ruler and compassed just their brain power and maybe a calculator, to solve the problem.

Say what??

I don’t understand.

Are we teaching geometry, or geometric algebra?  It looks like the latter, rather than the former.  And I understand that teaching actual geometry is challenging, and that it involves looking at a lot of diagrams and working out a lot of constructions by hand… but heck, that’s what we do as human beings. Isn’t it?

I said to someone on Twitter today that

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pardon, I can’t figure out the ’embed tweet’ system for my server.

But that’s (more or less) true — we use our hands to instruct our brains, and vice-versa.  How do we actually learn geometry if we’re not using the tools that geometry has used for thousands of years (or reasonable electronic replacements, though I’d argue that such tools are not as good as actually using hands to manipulate a compass)?

In any case, here’s a place where abstraction often gets the best of us.  I think it’s time to bring back some actual geometry to the classroom, and not simply ask students to do it algebraically.  This is a set of skills that belongs in our students’ hands, and not just in their heads.

Fidgeting and Hand Skill

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There’s a lot of outrage about fidget spinners right now. Some teachers are saying ban them! Other teachers are saying, Let students have them.

It’s a stupid argument.

Remember yo-yo’s? Finger skateboards? gear-powered spinning tops? String powered spinning tops? How about Rubik’s Cubes which made a comeback a couple of years back? Wind-up cars that did tricks?

Fidget Spinners have a place and a time in children’s hands.  And as some of you know, one of my mantras or principles is that What the Hands Do, the Mind Knows.  But here’s the thing.  If you don’t want the latest finger-toy-de-jour in your classroom, then you have to find other ways to put those hands to work, learning actual hand skills:

  • teach calligraphy
  • teach knitting
  • teach drawing
  • teach geometry with an actual ruler and compass
  • teach the use of a slide rule or abacus
  • teach the building of automata (cogs and gears)
  • teach carpentry and build yo-yos, finger skateboards, spinning tops, and fidget spinners.
  • teach contact juggling
  • teach juggling
  • teach beading
  • teach woodcarving
  • teach origami
  • teach flint-knapping
  • teach ceramics throwing on a wheel
  • teach students 3D geometry through the assembly of nets of the Platonic solids.
  • teach color theory and coloring at a more advanced level through color pencils.

The fidget spinner is an outward and visible sign of an inward need — a need for the hands to learn something.  Kids’ hands fidget because they’re of an age to want to do something, not just sit still.

(And I KNOW that we’re not making them sit still in schools — that they’re doing personal practice as well as listening, reading, writing, reflecting on their work and all that sort of stuff. That’s not what this is about).

Human beings need to use their hands. We learn things through manual dexterity, through touch, through manipulation of objects.  Our constant rejection of the toys-de-jour, be they yo-yos or balsa wood flyers or paper airplanes or fidget toys is part of the reason kids don’t learn as much in school as they could.

So if you want to fidget-spinner proof your classroom… figure out WHAT tool or hand-skill you want your students to have, learn HOW to teach it, and then TEACH THAT.

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