Friday, 8 March 2013

The Periodic Table

I was talking to another member of the Science faculty at my school today about the 3D printer I had just sent the order form off for. It blew his mind, but after about 5 minutes of thinking he said "could it print a periodic table for Frank" (Frank is the blind student, not his real name). So I started to think, how could we make this happen, the current braille version that Frank has is not in the 'shape' of the periodic table, I think it is more like a list and the teacher I was talking to said that it is quite hard to teach the chemistry behind the periodic table if it is not in groups and laid out the way it is supposed to be.

So I said that I would have a go at creating a version over the long wekend. Now designing this in a 3d design program would take me forever, but wait don't I have access to a 3d design program that is based on blocks and would make this way easier to design?

So after spending about an hour in MinecraftEdu I have 3 periods of the table done, and given what I imagine the sizes to be I will be able to print 3 across and 4 down on my printer so I am going to do a test print and take it into school next week give it to Frank and see if the braille is correct and easy enough to read. Then I will show it to the teacher and ask if there is anything else.

Just taking some screenshots I think there may be a problem, but I will print it anyway and get the feedback, here are the screenshots.

More updates after I get the feedback from the other teacher and the student.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Mathlandia Success! But More Concerns.

Well the first group to use the Mathlandia map went through today, and I have got to say I was pretty impressed with how well it went. Yet again I came across the issue of students not reading the instructions, and therefore not having a clear understanding of what it was they were expected to do. I am not sure how to remedy this, other than me not giving them the instructions in real life but making them go and read the instructions given to them in-game.

So when a student says "I don't know what to do" and I ask whether they have read the instructions and they reply "no", instead of then explaining what it is I expect them to do for the activity I need to get in the habit of telling them to go back and read the instructions. Of course there are issues with this approach, one being the time it takes for the student, which realistically is time well spent for them, but less 'free' time will be had at the end of the activity for them, which I guess is a way of ensuring they read the instructions first time around.

The other issue is those students who have low literacy levels and cannot read very well. These students will of course still need me to verbalise the instructions for the task, oh how I cannot wait for a 'link block' to be included in MinecraftEdu that would allow me to record myself giving the instructions and then students could choose either read the instructions or listen to them, or both.

I started the class on their Mathlandia journey but had to go and teach my own class half way through the hour and a half that they had in game. So after the class I rushed back to get the feedback from the other teacher, he was blown away at how engaged the kids were and also how the vast majority of them were on task. He had some critical feedback on the map structure, in particular the 'end point' for students at this stage is still the teacher, and having 22 odd students throwing their work on the ground trying to get you to look at it so that they can get their token can be very confusing for a veteran player let alone for a first timer (which he was).

So I need to come up with another way of 'ending' the task, but I think there are limitations on the NPC's that are going to prevent me from making it completely standalone (maybe the inclusion of hoppers in 1.5 will help). So we discussed the option of having a 1-student at a time room, so that each student had to wait 'in-line' to get their work checked prior to getting the reward token to finish the quest. Another option I threw on the table was a teleport location where the teacher can go, and teleport one student at a time to them, check their work, give them a token, and then the student can click a teleport block and be on their way. I think this last one will be the easiest for me to set up, but I will probably add this after I run my class tomorrow, just to see if experience in game counts for anything.

So that is the good news, now for the concerns. If you have read my previous post about the thoughts I am having in terms of why I teach what I teach, this is a continuation of that thought process, and is perhaps even more disconcerting for me as a teacher, and also how I feel about my job.

So we have a 'test' that allows us to measure a students numeracy ability and narrow it down to a roughly accurate estimate (like that??) of what year that student is working at in terms of their mathematical ability with numbers. My year 10 students sat that test on Monday, the results are outright depressing. I have no student working at a year 10 level in my year 10 maths class, the top student is at the beginning of year 9, the majority of students are at around late year 7-early year 8 and I have a few students working at an upper primary school level, so grade 5-6 and another couple of students even lower than this.

So how does a student get to year 10 maths while working with numbers at a grade 3 or 4 level? I don't know, I think it is a systemic problem of automatic progression which I have no control over. So that begs the questions of what do I do with these students working about 4 years below where I am supposed to be aiming my teaching? Now keeping in mind that technically speaking I am supposed to be preparing these students to do VCE maths next year, a course that is much stricter and in the final year is assessed against the entire state. How am I supposed to get a student from grade 5 level up to year 10 level in 8 months? The depressing answer is I have no hope. I am confident that if I teach to their ability and throw out the year 10 course I can bring them up more than a year in that time but I really think that far is an unrealistic goal.

So again why am I teaching these students geometry if they do not know how a formula works, they don't know how to work with numbers to solve simple worded problems and most likely a fair amount of them still don't know the order of operations? For the test, because that is the course that has been decreed by those in power higher than my school and I should tow the line is probably the most honest answer, and an uncomfortable one.

I spoke to one of the other year 10 maths teachers today, her response to my astonishment at the wide variety of ability in my class was to say that she had the same problem. That was it. I am going to try and sit down with her and have a discussion about what we are teaching and why, as I really cannot see the point of continuing to teach the year 10 course when possibly 2-4 out of about 25 students are going to be able to effectively understand what I am teaching, and utilise it in a real life situation.

Am I being an alarmist? Have I given up on these students? I hope neither of these questions are answered with a yes, I believe that all of these students can achieve success, but not all at the level I am supposed to be getting them to achieve. This whole thing is making part of me think that perhaps I am getting a bit jaded and need to take a break from teaching and get some perspective, but the other part of me is thinking that I am perhaps thinking more clearly now about the pedagogy than ever before and what I can do to help students rather than just continuing to do what I am expected to do.

So as not to end on a negative note, I have some positive that came out of my maths class today. The models I talked about in the previous post were a hit for the blind student, in fact now I need to design and print more for the test I am about (or at least I am supposed to be about) to set these students so that he can get a real idea of the shapes and what they are made up of. They even helped me explain how to work out the problems to some of the other students in the class that were struggling. So I will put that in as a win, and thank you for your time, I know this was a very long post, so if you made it to the end great work! As always feel free to comment below and share your thoughts.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Why am I teaching this?

This post has nothing to do with MinecraftEdu or games in education. This post is a reflection and question for those educators out there reading this.

This year I am teaching Year 10 Maths, the general kind, for those students going into the 'lower' level maths at Year 11, in our system this is called General Maths and then in Year 12 students can continue with their Mathematical studies by doing a subject called Further Maths. This is still a subject in which students can achieve quite highly and it is generally not looked upon as "veggie maths" or "dumb maths".

In this Year 10 class I have a student who wants to become a lawyer, now this is a great goal to have, however this student it also blind. Which in itself is not a problem for me, I have been teaching him pretty much each year since he started at our school, so my teaching practice has changed over the time to be less note on board like. Again not a problem.

Our VCE General/Further Maths course may include the topic of Geometry and Trigonometry and I am currently trying to teach this to this student. Things like area, total surface area and volume of both simple and composite shapes. Now I know that he is very likely to need a good understanding of this topic to score highly in his year 12 studies, but he is struggling to 'get' the more advanced composite shape things because of course he cannot 'see' the shapes. He has the shapes 'drawn' for him in a way that allows him to see them but he cannot decode those diagrams and break the composite shapes down into their parts so that he can work out the volume or total surface area.

So one of my issues is this, he is never going to need to do this in real life, as a lawyer, the only thing he needs this for is to 'pass the test' and get started on the journey to becoming said lawyer. So why bother teaching a concept that he is struggling to comprehend and that he is never going to use 'in real life'.

This was a discussion I had with his aide at school just yesterday, and this is where I think my 3D printer is going to help, at least somewhat. I have, using 123D Design, designed all the parts of the questions we have covered about composite shapes in the last few days and am currently printing them off on my printer. It took about 10-15 minutes to get the shapes designed (now that I know a bit about the program) and it is going to take approximately 30 minutes to print them off and about 14g of plastic, for a total material cost of about $1.40.

Now this is great for getting the concept home for this student about these questions, but he is not going to have this 'help' with the shapes he sees for his final exams at the end of Year 12. So am I doing him a service or disservice? I honestly do not know, now I do know that what I am doing is going to help him get the concept for these particular shapes, and is definitely going to clarify for him the discussions we have had and the explanations I have given him, so he is not going to be any worse off for me doing this and only time will tell if it helps him in the long term.

But my real question at the moment is, how much of the teaching we do is aimed at 'passing the test' and how much of what I do is aimed at real life useful 'stuff'? I have a syllabus and a course to get through designed by someone who got paid to make it and who decided (I have no idea how) that these topics are relevant and needed by people to be functioning members of society. So what do I do, continue teaching to the test, or try to teach students how to think? I know what I would prefer, but how do I go about it?

How can I effectively say I don't care if you learn this, what I care about is if you can learn this and how do I assess and report on it? But most importantly right now, how can I help this particular student now so that he can more easily achieve what he wants in the future? Your thoughts, feedback and comments would be greatly appreciated, as would sharing this post with other educators so that I can get a broader opinion on this issue. Thanks.

Hanging Out.

The first Minecraft Teacher Google Hangout happened over the weekend just gone. There were 9 participants in the hangout and more on the MinecraftEdu server that was being hosted by Temple University.

We were in the tutorial world that comes with MinecraftEdu, we had people ranging in ability from beginners to long term users. The Hangout can be viewed here 

We started with a bit of an explanation from Joel about the creation of the tutorial world. We then did introductions and discussed the new features available in the upcoming release. As the first Hangout I think it went very well. There were NPCs all over the place as people were exploring the Custom NPC mod.

Just after the hangout the new MinecraftEdu snapshot was released, it is still undergoing testing, but if you have purchased MinecraftEdu you can now download it from the members area and begin exploring the new possibilities that this release will give you.

Mathlandia is coming along nicely. It is ready for the first session with students, I am going to run it with the other teachers class on Wednesday and my own class on Thursday and I am super excited to see how it goes. Students hopefully will finish the activity with an hour and then will have about 30 minutes of 'free' time to begin to own the world, and make their house.

I have only built a very small amount of the world, and am hoping that students will want to help me build some more of the quest based buildings that I can add NPCs and activities to. I have not quite figured out how to make it 'self-serve' for the finishing of the quest activity. At this stage a 'supervisor' will need to check their work and then give the students the correct token for quest completion so that they can be rewarded for their work.

The tour and lesson video will be coming soon, so keep an eye on my youtube channel. Thanks for reading.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Mathlandia Update 1

Yesterday I happened to be flooded in and could not get out of my driveway, so I took the opportunity to get really stuck into my Maths world, which I have decided should be called Mathlandia (I know nice and original right?)

So I spent quite a few hours working on the scripting of the main character needed for the first activity and getting my head around the dialogue trees in the Custom NPC mod. Once I had that pretty much down I went and built the actual learning task for the students. It took a few hours but the end result I think is pretty cool, I made a lot of use of the fill tool from MinecraftEdu as well as the copy/paste from WorldEdit.

So basically in here there are 6 repeats of 5 stations, so a total of 30 stations for the students to do their experiments in probability, and then right at the end you can see the final test platform with 6 repeats of the experiment.

Then I got talking to Joel Levin (aka The Minecraft Teacher) and he dropped by, commended me on the curriculum but was very quick to say "can I tweak the build." Now I know Joel's maps always look amazing and while the above screenshot was not going to be the final look I probably can not hold a candle to Joel's creativity and artistic vision, so I let him loose and this is what he did with that section of the map.

I am still in awe! So while he was working on that I was using the in-game NBT edit mod to fill all the dispensers, then adding in the signs I needed, as well as a few more NPC's to help the immersion a bit. Then he shot back to the overworld, and requested to change the wizards tower from this.

To this.

Again, WOW! So apart from a few more small tweaks to make, and the instructions for the activity and setting up the quest properly I am ready to go for next week. I plan on recording a tour shortly to explain the activity and what learning I hope the students to achieve so keep an eye on my YouTube channel for that.

On another front I finally found the time to actually make one of my DNA models that was designed in MinecraftEdu, and I am pretty impressed. I showed the students and they are really keen to make one, so now I have to spend all weekend printing parts to make sure that I have enough. I also need to design a stand for it but that might not be done this weekend as I am still super excited to be involved in the Google+ Hangout with MinecraftEdu teachers from around the world as well as another cool almost top secret 'thing' I must do (more info later I promise).

It is interesting how having something like a case on my iPod that I printed is getting kids interested. Each time a student asks if I can print them one, I say "sure, but it is going to cost you 1 lunchtime a week for up to 6 months." And most are actually interested in helping me build a 3D printer and soon the school will be purchasing an Up Plus printer, I just need to get my act together and order it.

Another interesting side effect of having a 3D printer (and one I knew would happen) is that I am trying to teach myself how to design and how to use the design software to do what I want. I am nowhere near advanced but I am getting by. The software I am using at the moment is 123D Design, it is free and available on the mac and I think I am getting pretty close to being able to print a new phone cover for my phone that I created from scratch. I am going to be prototyping parts this weekend while printing the parts for the DNA model and I am very excited to see how I am going in terms of getting the design onto the computer in the right way.

As always thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts or comments please leave them below.