Monday, March 18, 2019

The Teacher Was a Robot

*note- every time you read the word "robot" please pronounce it "robit" in your head, just like I did. It's fun.

“Last year when I was in Asia, I watched a class being taught by a robot and it was really fascinating because at the end of the session…I had the opportunity to talk with the kids and I asked them about the experience. And you know the story: the teacher-student relationship is critical; the student-student relationship is critical. What did these kids say? ‘Eh, we prefer the robot to the teacher.’”
- John Hattie

This is a quote from edu-luminary and constantly referenced Director of the Melbourne Education Research Center, John Hattie. You know his name, you've heard it before. There's books and stuff. He said the above recently at the Visible Learning World Conference in Edinburgh. He went on to say, “We need to be very welcoming and interested in how the robots can help us in our work to reduce some of the problems that we have that are related to human interaction and all the biases that relate to it.”

I really like this whole premise. It tickles me. I want to be clear right here that I don't for one instant take it seriously. Robots are coming to take my job, and the kids will be happy about it? K. My school doesn't even have Chromebooks for everyone yet and the printer outside my classroom has been repaired so many times it's basically a brand new printer that still constantly jams. Less than half the classrooms at my school have SMARTboards. But the robots are coming.

I have to assume that part of this whole thing is 1) not everything from the speech is being reported and b) he's intentionally being hyperbolic because that's how we get heard now. But, for a moment, let's take his points at face-value. To review and expand, Hattie says that the robot is not judgmental of the students, it doesn't care if the kid has a disease or a problem, it doesn't get frustrated, and it will help us normal fleshy teachers overcome bias.

First- HA!

Second- Hahaha!

Ok, who programs these robots? Because they aren't programming themselves. The assumption that technology is lacks bias simply because it's technology is purposefully blind. He's making the leap that whoever is coding these teaching robots will code them to, what, not see color? Or they'll be coded in such a complex way that they'll see and understand every student's cultural background? How would that even work? You code a robot to respond in a completely neutral way to students, regardless of what inputs the student delivers. Which makes it a better teacher, or even helpful how?

Listen, I can't stand the constant "Relationships Matter" nattering that we're subjected to by thought leaders, but just because it's annoying doesn't mean it's wrong. My problem with it is more "Yeah, we know, move forward" than "I disagree". The kids do want a teacher who cares, they want a connection, humanity in general operates better when there's a connection. And I honestly think Hattie knows this, which makes me suspect he's using the "kids told me they prefer the robot" story as a hook to get people to listen to the "robots will reduce bias" part. Because I would not be surprised if he and others believe that is a thing that is possible. Taking "I don't see color" to the nth degree and then wiping your hands with a satisfied, "Welp, we solved it." Because in what universe does data support that? And don't tell me that's not what he's saying, because what else can it mean about reducing human bias? Being able to do that purely makes this whole idea fantasy instead of science fiction. You can't remove bias, you can only see it within yourself and respond to it. That goes for the programming team too.

The idea that it's good that a robot could answer the same question multiple times without getting frustrated means that Hattie does not live with both a child and an Amazon Alexa. Did you know that if you say, "Alexa, ask for a fart" she will make one of a dozen hilarious fart sounds? She will. And she will never get tired of the question. Never get frustrated with the child laughing and shouting for another fart, a juicier one this time. I'm a grow'd up, and if I were presented with a robot teacher that would answer the same question over and over without getting frustrated I know for a fact I'd see that as a challenge. Can I kill this thing's battery making it tell me if my essay is good enough yet? Of course the kids liked it more!

Robot teachers are antithesis to everything I hold dear as a teacher, but I'm still not taking his idea personally because I still can't take it seriously. How far away is this technology? I mean, what he's saying, a fully automated robot teacher. In my lifetime? Are we talking Robby the Robot? Are we talking Robot Daddy? Are we talking my favorite golden-skinned android Data? If so, listen- I want Data as a teacher's aid. Data is cool. I mean, he only took over the ship and endangered everyone on board four or maybe five times. I teach in the United States, we won't ban anything just because it endangers students. Give. Me. Data.

If we do get robot teachers will they be coded with Asimov's Three Laws?To review, for those of you who didn't grow up nerdy-

First Law- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law- A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law- A robot must protect its existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second law.

The crux of most of Asimov's Robot books hinge on the inherent paradoxes of the Three Laws. I would give my students until lunch time to completely wreck a Three Laws Certified robot.

I'm also forced to assume that Hattie, a distinguished researcher, studied many many classrooms that were taught by a robot teacher before reaching this conclusion. The examples in the speech in question couldn't possibly all come from a single experience, cherry-picked to prove a point. That's bad data. (Not bad Data though, this bad Data.) Most of my information is coming from this article on written by Emma Sieth. But I'm not trying to make a point at a giant conference, I'm trying to mock one made at a giant conference.

At the end of that article there's a reference to this one by Tes Reporter from 9/11/17 about Sir Anthony Seldon saying teachers will be glorified aids while robots do the real work within ten years. To which my response is *copy+paste entire blog post*.

Hattie's biggest failing here is the idea that not getting frustrated, not remembering who got in trouble yesterday, not understanding bias are all positives. That the Human Element is what's holding teachers and students back. The programming needed for this to be actualized will require something to be centered as "normal." And I wonder wonder Ooh, ohOhOhOh, who'll write the book on that.

Honestly, I love technology and I'm really excited about all the possibilities of the future once we get past the backwards bigots holding us back in a past that never existed, and I think having robots would be real neat. But until a Roomba won't drag dog poop all over the house, I'm gonna feel pretty secure in my job.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Monday, March 11, 2019

I Used To Do But Now I Don't- Spelling Test Edition

When I eventually get around to writing the second Weird Teacher book ("He's the Weird Teacher II: Maybe This One Will Make Me Famous") I plan on doing an entire chapter on this very topic. But, because I think it's an important topic that I'd like to talk about and reflect on we're doing one now. The idea, for those of you who didn't pick it up from the title, is to look at something I used to do in my classroom that I no longer do, and investigate why.

With few exceptions all my favorite musicians have evolved over their careers. That is, quite frankly, one of the things I enjoy about them. I like it when a band follows their hearts and the muse and changes their sound. Even when it doesn't work, at least it's interesting, at least they tried something (I'm looking at you, Lulu*). Nick Cave is constantly reinventing himself, you never know what the next album will be while at the same time you can track him from album to album and in that timeline everything makes sense. Devin Townsend is the exact same way, every album he releases sounds like exactly the album he needed to make at that time, regardless of whether or not it sounds like anything he did before. Rush changed over their career, constantly redefining what it meant to be Rush. The only bands I really love who never did that are Slayer and AC/DC. And that's because they immediately perfected what it what they were and did that to varying levels of success their entire careers.

If you've read pretty much anything I've written you know that I filter a lot of my thinking through music. I naturally think in metaphor, and because teaching is an art and a science and everyone does it slightly differently even though at the core we're all using the same 12 notes, I think about teaching like I think about music.

All that to say, much like my favorite bands I have evolved my teaching over time. And, much like the bands I've mentioned above, it's not intentional. I do not set out at the start of every school year with the goal of "I Shall Do Things Differently This Year." Why would I make that a goal? I mean that honestly. That kind of a goal is performative. It's saying "I Will Make This Harder Than It Needs To Be To Make a Point." Nope, that's not why I do things differently every year. I do things differently because I change, my thoughts about teaching change, my students change, so my classroom naturally changes. Not everything changes. I've been using puppets for near on a decade and I don't see them going away any time soon, though I do use them much less than I used to. I've been building in my room for about five or six years, never used to do that. Tech came in hard and then ebbed and now it's all about balance. What works when and why? It's why I lucked out with the Weird Teacher thing (also not intentional)- simply being "weird" means changing things is right in the name. Lucky break that.

Let's get specific though, because it's not like me to speak in generalities. Let's pick something I used to do, something I even wrote about in He's the Weird Teacher, that I no longer do.

Spelling tests.

I used to give a weekly spelling test. I'd assign the fifteen or twenty words from the book on Monday, along with some kind of homework (that'll be in here too) that went-

Monday- Write each word five times. 
Tuesday- Pyramid Write the words (ie s, sp, spe, spel, spell, spelli, spellin, spelling)
Wednesday- Write a sentence for each word.
Thursday- Have some one give you a spelling pretest.
Friday- Write only the words you missed on the test five times.

During the week we would spend some time talking about whatever the spelling skill that the words were practicing were, like tense or prefix/suffix or the /ei/ sound spellings. At some point in the day on Friday I'd give a spelling test. Half sheet of paper, write your name and the date, number one to twenty, I'll say the word, use it in a sentence, say it again, here we go.

I tried to make the tests fun. That's a big part of the chapter in Weird Teacher. How I'd play with the words, get silly with the sentences so the test wasn't a drag. "Scrambled. I went to a diner for breakfast and when the waitress asked what I wanted I said eggs, and she asked how and I said scrambled. She repeated 'Scrambled?' 'Scrambled,' I confirmed. 'Scrambled, got it,' she said. Then I ate scrambled eggs. They weren't good. Should have gotten over easy. Scrambled." All the laughs, right? Except, upon reflection, who was I entertaining? Me, way more than the students. For every kid who laughed at that silly sentence, how many were confused or overwhelmed by it? Who wasn't I helping by doing that?

After the test I'd settle down and grade all of them, or we'd trade and grade each other's. Make sure you use red pen! Make sure you're polite and cool, we're all in this together and no one makes fun of anyone else. Did that work? What was that like for my kids that always bombed the test? "Oh great, someone else is gonna see how bad I did, but Mr Robertson said 'be respectful' so I'm sure it'll be fine."


I stopped giving spelling tests completely a few years ago. Looking back, I think my initial reason was that it was just eating up too much time on Fridays. The test took forever, plus I was still giving the comprehension and vocabulary test at the end of the story every week. Friday's reading block was Test Day. Easy to plan, but what a waste of a fifth of my week. I was also finally noticing that the same kids always did poorly. It wasn't working academically. So I dropped it completely.

Now I tie spelling into reading and writing. I try to make it as organic as possible. You learn to spell as we read and as you write, because you need to know the words. You see patterns emerge because I'm guiding you to seeing them, until you start seeing them for yourselves. I'll stop and point out unique spelling characteristics of words, especially things that native English speakers do automatically but others might not, like doubling the final consonant in single syllable words when adding a suffix. No one know why they do it, they just do. And WHY is the Big Question in my room. We learn those things.

However, I'm getting to the point again where I'm not sure I'm on the right path. I don't want to go back to spelling tests and spelling homework (oof, let's not go into the assumptions built into "Have someone you live with give you the pretest Thursday night"). BUT, at the same time I'm not real sure my laissez-faire, let it be organic, it'll come naturally maaaaan thing is working as well as it could be. I may have de-emphasized spelling a little too much. It's part of our editing process. I call it COPS (Capitalization, Organization, Punctuation, Spelling), so the kids do it. They know it's important to do. But maybe I'm not teaching the How as well as I could be. I know spelling is 90% memorization of rules, so the "read a whole bunch" thing ought to work, but only if the kids are actively paying attention to the spelling of the words.

I think I need to start easing spelling lessons back into my language arts time. Not Big Spelling Lessons, not tests, but be more intentional about finding those opportunities to stop for five or ten minutes and get into the weeds.

What did you used to do that you don't any more? Why?

*Lulu isn't good, but it's also not the awful monstrosity that fans like to make it out to be. (That's St. Anger.Lulu is a real interesting experiment that shouldn't have worked and mostly didn't but still deserves a listen just to see what Metallica and Lou Reed wanted to try and do. I like that this band that could make the exact same album over and over into forever instead decided to try and make a weird, off-putting, ill-advised thing, and then put it into the world. They didn't have to do that. Risk, right?

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Teach Like a Monster Truck Driver

I just got to see Monster Jame for the first time.

What a show.

I've never been a Car Guy. I love motorcycles, two wheels kickstart my heart. Four wheels I could give or take. In fact, the only time my head has really been turned by a car was on a trip to a camp for future teachers in Indianapolis between my sophomore and junior years of high school. We were taken to the Brickyard where the Indy 500 would take place and driven into the infield. Everyone on the bus was like, "Yeah yeah, Indy cars, whatever." Until the first one went screaming by doing a practice lap. Every head turned. What a demonstration of power and speed and noise. It's impossible to not be impressed.

For Christmas my boys were gifted tickets to Monster Jam Portland. They love trucks and cars, so we figured they would dig it. I figured it would be cool.

From the second it started I had the BIGGEST smile on my face. You know what it immediately reminded me of? WWE. I was a huge pro wrestling fan in college (I'm so cool, friends), and got to see a few live shows. Monster Jam feels very much the same. Larger than life performers doing big, ridiculous tricks in silly/awesome costumes.

To continue to WWE metaphor, I never cared about monster trucks but I think everyone who grew up around when I did can name at least two- Bigfoot and Grave Digger. For some reason in my head I associate these with two of the the biggest names in wrestling. Bigfoot was the Good Guy, the babyface, so Bigfoot is Hulk Hogan (this was before, you know, everything was out). And Grave Digger is the Dead Man himself, The Undertaker. I'm a 'Taker guy, so of course Grave Digger is where I'm at. And there was a truck dressed up like a giant shark. I've got three, yes three, shark tattoos, and I still popped harder for Digger soo...that says something.

ANYWAY, to connect this to teaching, which I know you're all here for. All the trucks do basically the same moves. Which makes sense, I don't know how wide the range of possible tricks is on a basic course. You've got Big Jump, Big Jump Into Wheelie, Stoppie Into NoseStand, and Make Truck Make Loud Noise To Make Simple Thing Look Cooler. Anyone else feel like I just described their teaching bag o' tricks some days? "I'm not really doing anything fancy, but it sure looks cool because it's loud and big."

Then I noticed it seems like 70% or more of the tricks depend on luck. The driver would drive towards a certain part of the ramp, downshift (or whatever, I don't speak gearhead very well), throw the truck into a move, and hope it worked. The coolest things happened when something didn't go quite right. Or maybe when everything lined up exactly right.


Video taken by Weirdling One

Here's what I think happened there- The jump went well and the truck got a lucky bounce coming down, which the driver was able to turn into a nose stand, and then the momentum of the truck carried it over, so the driver was able to react by turning it into a cartwheel round-off thing. The driver, Elvis McDonald, managed to balance that massive thing on one wheel and get it to land just how he wanted it. So it's a series of lucky accidents that the driver is able to link together through skill. 


Sometimes teaching is turning accidents into positives over and over, stringing them together into one coherent whole. We've all got lesson plans, and we all know that plans survive intact until put into contact with students, and from then on it's about tap dancing and adjusting. So I'm in no way taking away from the skill of the driver of El Toro Loco. He's good enough to have an elaborate If/Then flowchart in his head, and then execute as things happen. 

The best at this was Grave Digger's driver, Tyler Menninga. I don't know if he's actually one of the better drivers on the circuit, but he was that night. Head and shoulders. He turned more tricks into other tricks than anyone else, and he was also the only one to try something different. Rather than wait for the truck to end up on two wheels like that, he would drive it at the ramp at an angle, forcing it onto the two right wheels. Then he'd jam on the brakes and the power transfer would carry the back of the truck up and over the nose where he'd balance it on the front two wheels before letting it fall back. It never once looked out of control or accidental. But at the same time these are giant trucks on dirt tracks, so no reaction is guaranteed. Tyler had to be good enough to make luck happen and to capitalize on that luck over and over. 

Because I'm a giant nerd I went to Monster Jam and came away with a teaching lesson- Teach like Grave Digger: Be good enough to turn circumstances in your favor and make your own luck.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.