Monday, December 24, 2007

Gas station ghost!

When will the madness stop? When there are no more people, I suppose.

The source? Always a local TV news program with minutes to fill. Always. Never CNN, never PBS, never even national nightly news. Always a local TV news show.

The tone? Always credulous. Virtually no skeptical sentiment to be found in these pieces. Ever. Providing the skeptical viewpoint would only point out the silliness of the piece and expose it for the timefiller that it is. Hence, the tone is always to promote the paranormal "explanation." (Of course, paranormal explanation--like jumbo shrimp or creation science--is an oxymoron.)

And paranormal explanations? Watch the video and try to keep a straight face through the patrons' "theories." The reporter loses points in my book for not hanging around long enough to find someone willing to proclaim that it was a visage of the Virgin Mary. I'm sure it wouldn't have taken more than ten minutes. Clearly she was up against an unyielding deadline.

The real cause of the image? Better to let you find that out on your own. But trust me, you can do that from where you are right now.

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 6

[See post 1 for context.]

Some people have concerns about teachers choosing their own textbooks. They worry, for example, that teachers will just use the new edition of the same book they adopted last time. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Let’s suppose they do. What are the negative consequences? They have adopted a state-approved physics textbook. One they are familiar with. One who’s nuances they know. One they have worked with before. Is this really so bad?

The assumption among people who worry that teachers will adopt the same text is that those teachers will “stagnate.” They presume that a new and unfamiliar textbook would energize an otherwise unmotivated instructor. They must also be concerned that a motivated teacher would slump into lethargy if allowed to use the same text from one adoption cycle to another. I disagree. An unmotivated teacher will not gain motivation by having a different text foisted upon him or her. And an enthusiastic teacher will not lose that enthusiasm as a consequence of using a familiar textbook.

Suppose someone arbitrarily took your computer (or day-planner, PDA, cell phone, etc.) from you and replaced it with a newer model. You had been using a PC, so it was replaced by a Macintosh. (If you had been a Mac user, you will now be a PC user.) Your files are gone—you’ll have to reconstruct them. But this will keep you from stagnating in your daily management techniques. You had obviously lost your enthusiasm, and this will spark your time-management creativity. Who among us would enjoy living out such a scenario? Who thinks the benefits would outweigh the impediments?

Physics teachers can be quite vigorous and creative when it comes to building and maintaining their programs of instruction. Suppose a teacher were saddled with a book not of his or her choosing. That teacher would likely see to it that the previously used book remained the book used in class. Few expenditures are as worthless as new books that do not get used. The threat of jackbooted old-book removal squads forceably impounding previous editions does little to foster an atmosphere of school-district cooperation.

Again, let us do our jobs (teaching physics) as best we know how. That includes the privilege of selecting the textbooks used in our classes. We will choose State-Approved texts, and we will address the content standards. But each of us will do it in his or her own way.

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 5

[See post 1 for context.]

Argument for top-down, one-size-fits-all textbook adoption:
It would ensure that all district students completing High School Physics would have a similar experience.

This would indeed be the case, assuming each school also had the same equipment and facilities, the students were of homogenous ability and motivation, and they all had the same teacher. Short of this, district students will have different experiences. They will all be taught the content standards. But they will be taught in widely varying methods honed by their individual teachers.

Teachers—who will be using the textbooks day in and day out in their classes for the next seven years—are best suited to select the textbook for their students.

Classroom teachers know better than anyone else which book is the best match to their students and program.

The district has a role in directing teachers what to teach. I can’t imagine the district would want to direct teachers how to teach. It would be untenable for the district to micromanage the delivery of instruction: which demonstrations to do on which day, the sequencing of topics and lab activities, etc.

The district hired physics teachers to do that. They hired people they trust to do the job correctly and effectively. I would ask that the district trust those individuals—the classroom physics teachers—to select the textbook that best suits their individual needs.

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 4

[See post 1 of the series for context.]

Argument for top-down, one-size-fits-all textbook adoption:
It would allow the district to negotiate a better deal from the publisher: a volume discount would become available.

To the best of my knowledge, this is a myth. Like any persistent myth, it is intuitive and compelling. But a myth nonetheless.

Short of a presentation of publishers’ price lists showing the volume discounts, let’s dismiss this issue apocryphal. On the odd chance that this is in fact the case, I would nevertheless contend that it is not the best use of the funds available. Any monetary benefit is outweighed by the corresponding pedagogical detriment:

Forcing textbooks on teachers who would not choose them does damage to their instructional program.

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 3

[See post 1 of the series for context.]

Argument for top-down, one-size-fits-all textbook adoption:
It would allow the district to warehouse surplus copies of the book that teachers could draw upon if the number of sections increased at their school.

To the collective memory of the physics teachers assembled for a recent text adoption meeting, the district has never warehoused textbooks for use by physics teachers in need. And what help will this be if several of us undergo simultaneous increases in enrollment?

Historically, when enrollment has increased, funds have been found to acquire the books needed. (This has not always happened in a timely manner, however.)

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 2

[See post 1 of the series for context.]

Argumentfor top-down, one-size-fits-all textbook adoption:
It would facilitate a smooth transition for students transferring between schools during the school year.

It would be irresponsible to advance this argument without numbers to support it. How many physics students in the San Juan Unified School District transfer between district high schools each year? Compare this to the number who do not transfer. Is it 1 of 10 physics students who transfer within the distrcit? One of 100, 1 of 1000? What exactly is the ratio?

Does a small service made to a few students balance favorably against a great disservice made to the many? Should thousands of students be subjected to a book their teacher dislikes so that the occasional transfer student has a smoother transition?

And how much smoother will that transition be? At the new school, he or she will face a different teacher with a different set of rules, different expectations, different procedures, and a different grading system. It is highly unlikely that the new teacher will be at the same point in the book as the old teacher was.

A coincidence of textbooks will be similar in value to a coincidence of lab tables: familiar, but so what?

Trust teachers to select their own textbooks 1

[I've been meaning to post my "manifesto" about textbook adoptions. Well, now's the time. I'm mercifully breaking it into digestible (i.e., "skippable") chunks. Here's chunk #1.]

Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Albert Einstein

Some people think it would be best if all teachers throughout the district taught the same program (same lectures, same demonstrations, same laboratory activities, same reading assignments, same homework, and same tests) using the same methodology. For better or worse, such is not the state of physics instruction practiced in the district. Rather, the district is blessed with several individuals who teach programs tailored to their own students, their own strengths, and the equipment and facilities available to them at their own sites. This individualism allows for creativity and imagination.

Some would argue for the adoption of a single textbook for our standard High School Physics course. They contend that a single title adopted throughout the district would be the most efficient use of the district’s textbook funds and it would best serve the needs of our students.

In the posts that follow, I'll go through the reasons given in the past and why each one of them is wrong.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Music of the sphere

Consider the reversal of the earth's magnetic field that has occurred somewhat stocastically throughout history. What would it sound like if you transposed the data of those reversals into sound? Wonder no more: it's been done. You really do need to hear it!