Friday, March 27, 2009

Birds of a Feather

Educators BOF
About sixteen of us have gathered in an open space at the Hyatt to further brainstorm about how to further our cause (world domination aka saving the world).

Andrew's reservation at Maria's fell through the cracks somehow, so Ian and I sacrificed ourselves when they could only accommodate eight of the ten of us.

We had a fine dinner together, making more connections in our respective networks. Ian connects via Kristen Nygaard to Fernando Flores, in turn connected to Terry Winograd, across the hall from Jim Milgram at Stanford.

I was tracking Flores (a former finance minister for Chili) when he and Werner Erhard were looking at forming Hermenet, a computer company. This was back in my Jersey City days (early 1980s).

Ian has also been working with the Bob Moses aka Bob Parris.

Dr. Chuck is here. I earlier asked if he was using Dr. Phil as a role model. No, Dr. Ruth. Hah, good choice. I was one of the technical reviewers of his Google App Engine book (O'Reilly), aimed at a high school level audience.

He shared that O'Reilly may be teaming up with Google to start working more directly with the high school teacher set. I'm wondering if I might get involved in that effort, given my background as a high school math teacher etc.

We're discussing the definition of "textbook", what does that mean? Culturally, this has been defined by academia and the publishing industry. There's also the "tradebook", and a lot of the good writing in mathematics, for example, is under that heading.

Maybe high schools, unlike colleges, don't have the mentality of assigning multiple readings, sometimes just excerpts (the so-called "syllabus"). They could though: a teacher might assemble resources using the Internet, supply URLs, plus assign library readings.

English classes are more like this: you read a sequence of novels and short stories over the course of a semester (even in high school). Math teaching needs to move away from "one textbook per course" to.

Andre is reminding us how comforting a textbook is. You get to this level of learning, have this comfort zone, and having someone hand you a textbook, most of which you probably won't get to in the course of a year, is highly comforting.

The textbook is certified, authoritative, won't be questioned (in theory). Of course given today's levels of literacy, there's more contention about textbooks (e.g. "parents with pitchforks").

True though (Anna Ravenscroft talking): teachers on the front lines need resources, don't have the time or energy to roll their own from scratch at every turn.

Like on Sesame Street, you want a vast repository of usable stuff, to which you, the teacher, add new stuff. The Internet is that vast repository, in a first approximation, although not everyone has good access to that. A good library (of physical books) would be an earlier approximation.

Dr. Chuck uses "domino" as a verb. Python is starting "to domino" at the University of Michigan (and more generally, others chime in). "Win the small battles, create islands of success" is his advice. Don't just throw stones at "the establishment" and think that'll work.

I'm thinking we are "the establishment" and an island of success, in some networks anyway.

In the hallway today, a guy who couldn't be here felt it was important that I check out this science fiction novel from the 1980s with embedded BASIC as a part of the narrative. Cryptonomicon also contains some Perl as I recall.

A mix of science fiction (fantasy) and exercises (challenges), more like in textbooks, might be the mix we're aiming for. More like a video game: getting to the next level means solving these puzzles first.

Caleb Gattegno's thinking is consistent with the above, as Ian was explaining to me again. He had these "twin towers" or "rooms" or "levels", where you would advance to "the next level" (escape a given room) based on a demonstrated level of mastery (of various algebra skills) therein.

Sure, it's fine to share all this with the students, show them the diagram, give them some overview (it's not a secret).

Business: Andre Roberge stepping forward to manage the edu-sig page (which I put together quite awhile ago, back with was still in cvs, since moved to svn, and now considering hg or bzr (yes I'm being cryptic -- talking version control systems). The page is stale at the moment.

Jeff Elkner is eloquently encouraging us to make better use of this strategic home page.

We're all liking Scratch for elementary school kids. Dr. Chuck hadn't seen it, has downloaded it and is testing it as we talk. He's finding it charming, even magnificent.

We've come a long way in just the last year, seemed to be the consensus, although Ian worried we might not be moving fast enough.