The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘students’

The Real Meaning of Grades and the Importance of Standards

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 4, 2013

*Sigh*… at the end of nearly every single semester that I teach, be it high school or college level, I have to deal with the same thing over and over again: grade grousing.  After grades for the semester have been posted, it is inevitable that I have to address some kind of request from a (former – note the semester is concluded) student asking me to increase their grade.  Most notable are the requests from students who missed an excessive number of classes, failed to turn in the required work, or who performed abysmally on exams (or a combination of all of the above) – yet they feel they deserve a better grade anyway.

Rather than go on in my own words, I would like to pass along the wise words of Prof. Kurt Wiesenfeld, a physics professor at Georgia Tech (at the time the article was written) back in 1996.  These words are just as important now as they were then, and for those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and hold to high standards of evidence when confronted with extraordinary claims, I think the connection is obvious…

MY TURN

MAKING THE GRADE

© Copyright NEWSWEEK Magazine, 1996

Many students wheedle for a degree as if it were a freebie T shirt

BY KURT WIESENFELD

Kurt's PictureIT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went to my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door. “Professor Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I was wonder if there’s anything I can do to improve my grade?” I thought, “Why are you asking me? Isn’t it too late to worry about it? Do you dislike making declarative statements” After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. “I got a D in your class. Is there any way you can change it to ‘Incomplete’?” Then the e-mail assault began: “I’m shy about coming in to talk to you, but I’m not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it’s worth a try.” The next day I had three phone messages from students asking me to call them. I didn’t.

Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and moan, but you accepted it as the outcome of your efforts or lack thereof (and, yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years, however, some students have developed a disgruntled-consumer approach. If they don’t like their grade, they go to the “return” counter to trade it in for something better.

What alarms me is their indifference towards grades as an indication of personal effort and performance. Many, when pressed about why they think they deserve a better grade, admit they don’t deserve one, but would like one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces for self-esteem, they’ve learned that they can get by without hard work and real talent if they can talk the professor into giving them a break. This attitude is beyond cynicism. There’s a weird innocence to the assumption that one expects (even deserves) a better grade simply by begging for it. With that outlook, I guess I shouldn’t be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 students asked me to change their grades after final grades were posted.

That’s 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, quizzes, and lab reports slide until long past remedy. My graduate student calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don’t matter, why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an undeserved bonus, the academic equivalent of a freebie T shirt or toaster giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the quality of one’s work. An act and its consequences are unrelated, random events.

Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic performance. Perhaps they feel it’s not relevant. “If my grade isn’t raised to a D I’ll lose my scholarship.” “If you don’t give me a C, I’ll flunk out.” One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, “If I don’t pass, my life is over.” This is tough stuff to deal with. Apparently, I’m responsible for someone’s losing a scholarship, flunking out or deciding whether life has meaning. Perhaps these students see me as a commodities broker with something they want – a grade. Though intrinsically worthless, grades, if properly manipulated, can be traded for what has value: a degree, which means a job, which means money. The one thing college actually offers – a chance to learn – is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, because of the long hours and hard work required.

In a society saturated with surface values, love of knowledge for its own sake does sound eccentric. The benefits of fame and wealth are more obvious. So is it right to blame students for reflecting the superficial values saturating our society?

Yes, of course it’s right. These guys had better take themselves seriously now, because our country will be forced to take them seriously later, when the stakes are much higher. They must recognize that their attitude is not only self-destructive, but socially destructive. The erosion of quality control – giving appropriate grades for actual accomplishments – is a major concern in my department. One colleague noted that a physics major could obtain a degree without ever answering a written exam question completely. How? By pulling in enough partial credit and extra credit. And by getting breaks on grades.

But what happens once she or he graduates and gets a job? That’s when the misfortunes of eroding academic standards multiply. We lament that schoolchildren get “kicked upstairs” until they graduate from high school despite being illiterate and mathematically inept, but we seem unconcerned with college graduates whose less blatant deficiencies are far more harmful if their accreditation exceeds their qualifications.

Most of my students are science and engineering majors. If they’re good at getting partial credit but not at getting the answer right, then the new bridge breaks or the new drug doesn’t work. One finds examples here in Atlanta. Last year a light tower in the Olympic Stadium collapsed, killing a worker. It collapsed because an engineer miscalculated how much weight it could hold. A new 12-story dormitory could develop dangerous cracks due to a foundation that’s uneven by more than six inches. The error resulted from incorrect data being fed into a computer. I drive past that dorm daily on my way to work, wondering if a foundation crushed under kilotons of weight is repairable, or if this structure will have to be demolished. Two 10,000-pound steel beams at the new natatorium collapsed in March, crashing into the student athletic complex. (Should we give partial credit since no one was hurt?) Those are real-world consequences of errors and lack of expertise.

But the lesson is lost on the grade-grousing 10 percent. Say that you won’t (not can’t but won’t) change the grade they deserve to what they want, and they’re frequently bewildered or angry. They don’t think it’s fair that they’re judged according to their performance, not their desires or “potential.” They don’t think it’s fair that they should jeopardize their scholarships or be in danger of flunking out simply because they could not or did not do their work. But it’s more than fair; its necessary to help preserve a minimum standard of quality that our society needs to maintain safety and integrity. I don’t know if the 13th-hour students will learn that lesson, but I’ve learned mine. From now on, after final grades are posted, I’ll lie low until the next quarter starts.

WIESENFELD, a physicist, teaches at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

From NEWSWEEK JUNE 17, 1996

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Follow Up to Religious Fundamentalists’ Reaction to Sandy Hook Massacre

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2012

As I recently blogged, there was the all-too-predictable nutty and inhuman reaction to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School from the religious zealots in our nation in the past few days… it’s the fault of gays and atheists, don’t ya know!  Thanks to all who have reblogged (thanks to Phil at Skeptic Money :) ), tweeted, commented, and emailed me with feedback about that blog post.  I wanted to share with you all a really good bit of correspondence I got from my online friend “Other Jesus”, because it goes to the root of some deeper questions related to religion and how people do/don’t think about it.  Read on…

I liked your article. I was actually waiting for these groups to emerge. Most of the responses on all sides of the background debate have responded in predictable manner. I know the main characters are the anti- and pro-gun groups, the “more mental health” people, and the “we need more God in school…” religious folks. But some of the most annoying folks are the “prayers and hugs” crew in the periphery. Every tragedy like this evokes a “hug your kids and pray for the family of the victims”. How’s that working? (Don’t quote me on the above!)

The Huckabee premise deserves a more blatant study and response. So Mike thinks we need more God in school for protection. Meanwhile, some folks are calling for full-time armed security in schools (Sean Hannity, eg.). So what if God applied for the security guard job at a school? Well the principal would need to review His resume and he/she might ask for more explanation about the following:

1) Where was God during the murder of Able? Was it preventable?

2) Where was God during the murder of the Egyptian first born in the 10th Plague? What about His alleged
ties to the Angel of Death?

3) Wasn’t God in the land of His “chosen people” during Herod’s “murder of the innocents”? Did He take any steps to prevent the slaughter?

4) During the Great Flood, what did God do to protect the babies and young innocent children? Did he have any role in the cause of the flood?

Now these are events from long ago, so the principal might accept God’s excuse that “that was then, this is now”. So how about a more modern example? A school like Huckabee wants: With God fully in-place. Maybe God’s checkered resume can be redeemed.

5) Where was God on December 1, 1958? Was he watching a student play with matches in the basement of Out Lady of Angel’s Catholic school in Chicago? What did he do when the young man ignitee a trash barrel? Did he take any action to stop the fire before it killed 92 kids and three nuns?

I don’t think that the principal conducting the interview would have a hard time deciding whether or not God was qualified, despite the endorsement from Mike Huckabee.

(NOTE TO SELF: Be very skeptical of anyone Mick Huckabee refers.)

And here are some other good points brought up by various people who read my article:

What really irritates me are those who claim that shootings happen at schools because God is not allowed in schools. However, that does not explain why students at a Jewish school in France (earlier this year) were killed by a gunman. Does God only dwell in Christian schools? The point is, belief in God has nothing to do with these tragic events. Horrible things happen because horrible people cause them to happen – it is not the result of divine punishment.

… and…

So how is it that shootings have occurred in churches, religious schools and if no sin is greater than another; why all the child molesting and rape in churches?   Has God been removed from there as well.

… and…

Also, I’d like to know how Mike Huckabee explains the fact that slavery and segregation were legal while much of that praying was going on in schools.

Hmm, good questions.  Food for thought, folks… food for thought.

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The Real Cause of the Sandy Hook Massacre: Gays and Atheists, Of Course!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2012

You’d pretty much have to be living underneath a rock to not have heard about last Friday’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  All told, 20 children and 6 adults were killed by the shooter, Adam Lanza, before he killed himself.  Understandably, people all over the nation are numb and puzzled about how something like this could happen.  I know that at the high school where I teach, it has certainly been a topic of much debate and conversation.  One of the most asked questions is “Are our schools safe?” – in general, the answer is yes.

In addition, at a time like this people are looking for answers and asking “Why?”  In answer, some are talking about the issue of gun control (the shooter had easy access to guns), while others are talking about mental health issues (society doesn’t pay enough attention to mental health); what seems to be common to these, and other, analyses is that they are based mostly upon media-fueled speculation at this stage.  Speculation runs rampant, and facts are frustratingly few and far between…

… Enter the God Squad.  These are the dim-witted troglodytes whom you could have easily predicted would crawl out of their caves spewing the usual disgusting, vile-filled claptrap about how this is all somehow “God’s punishment”, and how they know God’s feelings on the matter!  Here’s just a sample of the putrid idiocy pouring forth from the fundamentalist faithful…

MIKE HUCKABEE: Schools ‘Become A Place Of Carnage’ Because ‘We Have  Systematically Removed God’

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee suggested Friday that the absence of God  from the nation’s public schools may have contributed, in part, to the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people,  including 20 children.

Appearing on Fox  News, Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, was asked by host  Neil Cavuto how “God could let this happen.” Here’s his response:

It’s an interesting thing. We ask  why there’s violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from  our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of  carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about  eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability — that  we’re not just going to have be accountable to the police if they catch us, but  one day we stand before a holy God in judgment. If we don’t believe that, then  we don’t fear that. And so I sometimes, when people say, ‘Why did God let it  happen?’ You know, God wasn’t armed. He didn’t go to the school. But God will be  there in the form of a lot people with hugs and with therapy and a whole lot of  ways in which he will be involved in the aftermath. Maybe we ought to let him in  on the front end, and we wouldn’t have to call him to show up it’s all said and  done at the back end.

and…

School carnage: Blame church, not God or guns

… My mother, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, fought to make the public schools  the armed camps they are today by removing prayer, the recognition of the  authority of God. In 1962 and 1963, I was attending an all-boys public high  school in downtown Baltimore, Md. The school was a magnet school before the term  even existed and was intended to prepare young men for college, majoring in  science and engineering. There were 1,800 teenage boys in the school, and there  was not a cop in the building – ever. The doors were unlocked and often the  un-air-conditioned rooms had open windows. There were no metal detectors, no  picture IDs, and students went in and out the doors on the honor system.

What  happens when you’re raised by America’s most famous atheist? Read William  Murray’s riveting and redemptive new book, “My Life Without God”

The authority of God was present, even though I am very sure many of those  young men, including myself, had some pretty vile thoughts that were not in the  least way moral. The presence of the authority of God, vested in the teachers by  His recognition every morning, was reinforced by the churches and the families  of the students.

That high school has since merged with a girl’s school in another location,  for purposes of political correctness. The last time I checked, the old building  itself was the headquarters of the Baltimore City Schools Police Force,  something that did not exist when Baltimore’s population was nearly  double what it is now. Every kid at every school now has a photo ID. All  the doors of every school are locked. All doors have metal detectors and  drug-sniffing dogs roaming the corridors. I am told that every school in  Baltimore has at least one armed “safety officer.”

In the vast majority of America’s public schools, the authority of God has  been replaced with the authority of the iron fist of government. Morals? Without  the authority of God, there are no morals, and none are taught in the public  schools today. The ethics that are taught are situational, perhaps the same  situational ethics that led to the logic that caused the tragic shootings in  Newtown. …

and (of course it wouldn’t be complete without these assholes)…

Westboro Baptist Church Says It Will Picket Vigil For Connecticut School Shooting Victims

The Westboro Baptist Church, the controversial group known for protesting outside funerals of slain U.S. service members, announced that it will picket a vigil for the victims of Friday’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the second-deadliest school shooting in American history.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a spokesperson for the group and, like most members of the organization, a relative of the group’s founder, Fred Phelps, announced on Twitter on Saturday the group’s plan “to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.” …

So what are we to take away from this incredibly frakked up display of asshattery?  Apparently, we are to all repent and come to the realization that God’s pissed off at us (“us” being the United States) for not forcing children to pray in public schools (and by “pray” I mean “pray to Jesus Christ”, because that’s what these morons really mean), or because our nation actually has the audacity to recognize and respect the rights of atheists and gays, not to mention in the United States we actually acknowledge the separation of church and state.

Omaha, Neb., Monday, Dec. 10, 2007. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Yee-haw… Fun with Fundamentalism. Image Source

So what are we to make of this reaction on the part of the ultra-religious to the Sandy Hook massacre?  As I’ve noted before, the fundamentalist right-wing segment of our nation is starting to slowly dwindle, and there is a more secular demographic rising in this country.  I think part of what we may be seeing here is the gradual, but inevitable, unhinging of the religious right as they start to see their power over the rest of us who don’t share their twisted worldview slowly slipping away.  They cannot handle the fact that their worldview isn’t THE worldview which is forced upon the rest of society through the power of the culture and the government, and that is making them nuts.

I predict more of the same in the future: every time there is a hurricane, earthquake, or other natural disaster; every time there is a man-made disaster (such as the Sandy Hook massacre); every time anything bad happens, these self-described servants of the Almighty (who, of course, have the message straight from God himself, you know) will scurry in front of the TV cameras to spread their message of doom and judgement in a vain attempt to appear relevant.  And as time goes on, they will get ever more extreme with their message, as they marginalize themselves even more.

And that’s the key thing right there… what these preachers, prophets, and fundamentalist believers really fear is exactly what’s happening to them: they are slipping into irrelevance.  Let them, I say, because civilized society has no need for their sociopathic mythologies.

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“Skepticism in the Classroom” at the American Association of Physics Teachers

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 8, 2011

I had a recent blog post about my presentation at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9′s “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop, but that was just a warmup, folks!  I’m happy to say that this past weekend, while at the American Association of Physics Teachers summer meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, my skeptical physics colleague, Dean Baird, and I presented a more detailed and physics-oriented version of Skepticism in the Classroom :)

Our workshop was about 4 hours long, and we took turns presenting a wide variety of physics lessons that incorporate some aspect of skepticism and critical thinking into them (what I like to call “guerrilla skepticism”).  For reference, all of Dean’s lessons are available at this link over at his Blog of Phyz.  I share my lessons with you below, so feel free to use, adapt, and share them as you wish:

1. Astrology Debunking Activity  and Solutions – This activity allows you to test out the notion of astrology with your students in a controlled manner.  It illustrates pretty clearly that astrology doesn’t really work.

2. Bed of Nails – I’ve made a very detailed blog post already on the subject (at the link).  However, at the end of that blog post the Youtube video of the moron cutting his arm with a razor sharp machete doesn’t work – try this one instead [warning: not for the squeamish!]

3. Board Breaking & Karate – This is another subject on which I have written before (click the link).  However, included in my blog analysis of the topic are some additional materials: an article about the physics of karate and a notesheet that I use in my classes to illustrate the physical principles behind this not-so-miraculous feat.

4. Einstein Cranks – This is a link to a blog post I wrote earlier about how many physics cranks and pseudoscientists abuse physics and the rules of science in an attempt to promote their nonsense.

5. EMF Woo – These are a collection of blog posts I have made over the years regarding the nonsense and pseudoscience surrounding EMFs (electromagnetic fields).  These posts – and the lessons associated with them – range from addressing claims of low-frequency EMFs inducing cancer to ghost-hunting woo (and the companies that promote such nonsense).

6. ESP Claims – Here I have collected a couple of lessons dealing with the claims of ESP and psychics.  Most notable are the notesheet for James Randi’s Secrets of the Psychics video and an article from Skeptical Inquirer magazine I have my students read on the issue.  You can find Randi’s excellent video for free on Youtube…

 

7. Glasswalking – This is just a blog post and video of why it is that walking barefoot on broken glass won’t cut you, provided you don’t slide your feet.  Hint: nothing paranormal or supernatural is required!

8. Haunted Lab – Every year around Halloween I do a special, exploration-based lab that incorporates a lot of cool physics concepts in with some debunking of paranormal claims.  It’s great fun!

9. Hot Stuff! – In this collection of lessons I address pseudoscientific claims from the standpoint of thermal physics.  Specifically, I have my students learn about how firewalking isn’t paranormal, and I also have them look at the claims that a man uses his “chi” to avoid getting burned when he puts molten lead into his mouth!

10. Magnetic Therapy – This lesson is an article and notesheet regarding this time-honored classic of alternative “medicine” woo.

11. Mega-Woosh Water Slide – A couple of years ago, this Internet video went viral, supposedly showing a man making a near-impossible jump across a valley using a huge water slide.  Well, it wasn’t real, but a basic analysis of physics also shows it is highly implausible as well.

12. Neat Tricks – These include some nice, off-the-cuff critical thinking exercises for your students: my “Uncle Harry” card trick, and my self-tying knot trick (the solution is here).   Enjoy! :)

13. Optical Illusions – This is a really broad category: it includes a PowerPoint I give on illusions and pareidolia, an article I have my students read on so-called “mystery lights”, and some stuff about how spirit orbs are not what New Agers claim.

14. Ouija Board – At the link is a blog post I wrote on a lesson I use involving magnetic fields to get students to question the claims behind Ouija boards.

15. Pyramids & Aliens – These lessons focus on addressing claims by various UFOologists that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids.  I have my students read an article from Skeptical Inquirer on the subject, then I give them a lecture on the physics of how humans (using simple technology) can build a pyramid, given time and a large workforce.

16. Movie Physics – In this end-of-the-year lesson, I get my students to think a bit skeptically regarding the physics presented in various movies.

It is our hope that through these workshops we can get more and more teachers to consider pursuing these skeptically-oriented topics in their own classrooms. We have plans to try doing workshops at future teacher conferences, such as the upcoming National Science Teachers’ Association meeting in 2012.  Stay tuned! :)

Posted in education, physics denial/woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

TAM9 “Skepticism in the Classroom” Workshop

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 27, 2011

This year at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, I had the honor of presenting once again at the Skepticism in the Classroom workshop with my skeptical education colleagues, Michael Blanford of the JREF and Barbara Drescher of ICBSeverywhere.com.  Together we put on a workshop for about 200 people, mostly teachers, on the topic of how to incorporate skepticism and critical thinking into the classroom.

After a brief introduction from Michael, I tackled the issue from the standpoint of a high school teacher and shared some of the practical tips and tricks that I use in my classes to “sneak in” skepticism into lessons I normally teach.  I really like how my partner in the workshop, Barbara, described my contribution:

Photo credit: Dean Baird

Matt recapped the most important concepts from his piece last year and presented more of his fun and interesting demonstrations. I used to think that cognitive psychologists had all of the fun because we study the interesting ways that our brains and minds fool us and can blow those minds by showing them. However, after some thought I realized that the physics teachers I know have the coolest, scariest, ickiest, and most surprising demonstrations. They deal with the physical world and there are almost as many bizarre things in the physical world as there are in the mind.

Matt did not walk on fire or lie on a bed of nails, but he has done those things and has the video to prove it! What he did do is show the audience that getting your hands dirty can be a great way to reach minds.

Barbara then gave a very interesting lecture on the importance of trying to get students to think critically at an early age, such as in elementary school, and how to use the basics of philosophy and philosophical discussion to engage students.  I found her points to be very thought-provoking, and I am seriously considering working something like this into my own teaching if I’m able.

I could go on and on about it more, but I think it would be more useful for you to see and hear for yourself.  Below is my PowerPoint lecture from the workshop, complete with an audio recording of the workshop.  In addition, you should take a few minutes to go see Barbara’s ICBS blog post on the workshop; and while you’re at it, see this link to the resources that both Barbara and I are providing for anyone interested!

** FREE RESOURCES FROM THE “SKEPTICISM IN THE CLASSROOM” WORKSHOP **

More stuff you might find useful:

TAM9 Lecture: Inquiry-Based Skepticism for the Classroom (my PowerPoint file I presented)

Audio of TAM9 Skepticism in the Classroom (Audio file embedded in PowerPoint file – about 1.5 hours long)

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Scientific Literacy Among Americans Is Better Than Thought… And Getting Better

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 27, 2011

Often you will hear scientists, skeptics, and cheerleaders for science lamenting the sad state of scientific knowledge among the population at large, at least in the United States.  We continually get the message that our children are not being properly educated in science as compared to other countries, and this leads to all manner of hand-wringing.  However, as some recent research suggests, it may not be true.  In fact, the state of science education and scientific literacy in the United States may actually be better than almost all other nations and – dare I say it? – getting better!

Scientific Literacy: How Do Americans Stack Up?

… according to a Michigan State University researcher, while Americans are holding their own, they are not even close to where they should be.

Participating at 3:45 p.m. PST today in an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium, titled “Science Literacy and Pseudoscience,” MSU’s Jon Miller said that Americans, while slightly ahead of their European counterparts when it comes to scientific knowledge, still have a long way to go.

“A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults,” he said. “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”

Approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate, an increase from around 10 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Miller’s research. … [emphasis added]

Now, I have to agree that an adult scientific literacy rate of 28% is unacceptable, especially at the beginning of the 21st century.  However, the fact that we started out at around 10% in the late 80s (yikes!) and have almost tripled the scientific literacy rate gives me some real hope for the future of our species.

Also, to put things into perspective, I’d like to show you one of the charts from the research paper (the original paper is available in PDF format here)…

So what has led to this almost three-fold increase in scientific literacy in the United States?  There could be a variety of factors at play here: better secondary and post-secondary education in science and related fields, the rise of the Internet, the increasing visibility of pro-science groups such as the National Center for Science Education and the James Randi Educational Foundation, etc.  Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the above had some influence on these results, and while it isn’t enough progress for my liking, at least we’re moving in the right direction :)

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Teachers & Merit Pay: The Research Says It Doesn’t Work

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 4, 2010

There are a lot of people in the political class talking about the need for education reform.  In fact, being a teacher of over 15 years myself, I can definitely say that on the science & mathematics side of things we need to get our butts in gear or we are in serious trouble.  So, I’m all for “education reform”, but I am concerned that many who wish to make necessary changes to our primary & secondary public educational system could be pursuing ineffective solutions or even make things worse.

For example, one of the buzz phrases going around in many education circles these days is “merit pay.”  The whole idea of merit pay is that you tie the salaries of teachers to the performance of their students, either by assessing how much kids have learned via their grades or on standardized tests.  At first blush, this sounds like a great idea – the really good, energetic, and inspiring teachers get paid more and the lazy slugs get paid less.  Meanwhile, it gives other teachers an incentive to become more involved & innovative in the classroom so that – the logic goes – they get the students to learn more.

But there’s one big problem with the entire concept of merit pay: it seems that it doesn’t work. In a recent National Public Radio story it was revealed that there is now extensive research which calls into question the validity of merit pay…

Study: Teacher Bonuses Don’t Improve Test Scores

Offering big bonuses to teachers failed to raise students’ test scores in a three-year study released Tuesday that calls into question the Obama administration’s push for merit pay to improve education.

The study, conducted in the metropolitan Nashville school system by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives, was described by the researchers as the nation’s first scientifically rigorous look at merit pay for teachers.

It found that students whose teachers were offered bonuses of up to $15,000 a year for improved test scores registered the same gains on standardized exams as those whose teachers were given no such incentives.

That’s some pretty damning evidence against the merit pay concept.  At least, it is damning evidence against the manner in which merit pay is being proposed to be implemented the way that many education reformers wish to see it done.  Personally, though I have some ideological hangups with the idea of merit pay (full disclosure: I am a strong proponent of teachers’ unions), I am not willing to completely throw the baby out with the bathwater on the basis of this one study; I think more research is necessary.  However, I think it is worth slowing down the rush by many to push merit pay as some kind of cure-all for the broken parts of our public education system.  I like how the lead researcher of the study puts it:

“I think most people agree today that the current way in which we compensate teachers is broken,” said Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt center and lead researcher on the study. “But we don’t know what the better way is yet.” [emphasis added]

As I said before, I’m all for reforming education & getting bad teachers out of the profession (we need it), but we cannot simply get hung up on the latest fad to come along (and if you’ve been in education in the U.S. for any length of time, you know that such fads are a common occurrence).  In that sense, this research serves as a cautionary tale.  And, in my opinion, we cannot expect to find one solution that will fit all of the problems in our public education system which varies so widely in terms of socio-economic conditions, ethnicity, culture, etc.  We are going to have to probably find local solutions & local reforms to the specific problems of local schools – which means our education reformers should avoid the temptation to simply jump onto the merit pay bandwagon because it promises to fix everything.  Solutions to such complex societal problems are not so easy.

In closing, I’d like to finish with the final paragraph of the NPR article reporting on the study:

“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’ll pay you more if you do better.’ You’ve got to help people know how to do better,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington think tank. “Absolutely we should reward them once they do better, but to think merit pay alone will get them there is insane.”

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Teacher Workshop – “Skepticism in the Classroom” – at The Amazing Meeting 8

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2010

**Update: If you’re interested in getting hold of some of the useful materials presented at the “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop, then check out this link to the Critical Thinking Education Group.

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In my last blog post concerning my time at The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, I wanted to take some time to outline the workshop called “Skepticism in the Classroom” which I helped to organize and run.  Led by Michael Blanford, the JREF’s new point-man on education, the presenters in the workshop consisted of myself, Daniel Loxton, Barbara Drescher, with a brief bit of material presented on behalf of Kylie Sturgess. I was pleased to see that our workshop was very well attended, with about 150-200 people present (most of whom were teachers!)  We started off with some comments by Michael, where he introduced all of us…

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Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 22, 2010

I wanted to toot my own horn a bit and repost a wonderful account of my recent talk at the Center For Inquiry Chicago titled “Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid”. The account comes from Alan, a.k.a. the Jewish Atheist, who was in attendance at the event.  Alan’s other musings regarding myth, magic, and how easily believers allow themselves to be fooled are worth considering.  So, with that, I refer to you to Alan’s post…

Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry

May 18th, 2010 by Alan

“Science, I maintain, is an absolutely essential tool for any society with the hope of surviving well into the next century with its fundamental values intact — not just science as engaged in by its practitioners, but science understood and embraced by the entire human community. And if scientists do not bring this about, who will?”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

“We must trust to nothing but facts: these are presented to us by Nature, and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.”

Antoine Lavoisier

Matt Lowry is the teacher you wish you had (and some of us were lucky to actually have had), be it in physics or literature. In Matt’s case it is physics, which he teaches in high school and college in Lake County, IL. I recently attended, in Chicago, his Center for Inquiry presentation on how he cultivates skepticism in high schoolers, through science.

His scientific knowledge is hugely impressive, as are his demonstrations – walking on burning coals, broken glass; lying on bed of nails – which powerfully hook kids on curiosity and skepticism. He teaches them Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in the Garage” analogy and lets them draw their own conclusions.

At Halloween he stages an interactive Haunted Physics Lab (including demonstration of the magnetic forces that make the Ouija Board seem to work), once again teaching kids that all magic is done by someone just a little smarter than you.

His high school students come from various religious backgrounds. Some actually believe the world is only a few thousand years old. Some come away enlightened (“My grandmother should hear this – she’s really into that Bible stuff”), others with only a seed of doubt planted. As Matt says, you cultivate wonder and skepticism and “take what you can get.”

I’ll come back to Matt’s clientele later (and remember, they’re somewhat self-selected — lots of kids stay away from physics classes; it takes an outstanding teacher to bring them in)….

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Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 6, 2010

Okay, shameless plug time :)

On Sunday, May 16th, I will be speaking to the Center For Inquiry Chicago on the topic of freethought, skepticism, and education.  Basically, I’ll be talking about my experiences as a science teacher & skeptic and how to promote critical thinking among high school & college students…

Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid!

Sunday, May 16th 1-4pm
Location: Our usual place: Room 613 (behind elevators), University Center East building, 750 S. Halsted (UIC campus), Chicago

Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid!with Matt Lowry, high school teacher and skeptic at large

Matt spends a lot of his in-class time teaching the art of meaningful skepticism to high schoolers.  He will give us some insight into his method of doing this!  He will also share his view of the many challenges that both science teachers and their students face when confronted with religious objections to the pursuit of scientific objectives.

Today’s presentation will be a stimulating follow-on to our recent day-long conference, “Dangerous Nonsense: Exploring the Gulf Between Science and its Impostors!”

Matt Lowry is a familiar face to many CFIers in Chicago. He is a high school physics teacher in the north suburbs, a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, and emphasizes critical thinking among his students at every opportunity. When away from the classroom, he also serves as the president of the North Shore Illinois chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church & State, the leader of an online pro-science group titled Darwin’s Bulldogs, and the leader of the Vernon Hills Freethinkers meetup group.

A self-described skeptic, he believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!”  He blogs at: http://skepticalteacher.wordpress.com/

Please come to this most interesting AFTERNOON meeting!  We provide the hot coffee, and we very much appreciate pastry and snack donations.

Non-CFI Members will be asked for a modest contribution.

Questions? Just call our (part time) office phone: 312-226-0420

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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