Posted by: drbrucepk | October 18, 2008

Girls and Math

I read a few months ago about a study that was published in the journal Science. The study showed that girls’ achievements in math were equal to boys in all grade levels from second grade through eleventh grade. This was presented as something astounding and in contradiction to common knowledge.

However, obviously I’m not in touch with common knowledge as Janet Hyde, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin – Madison said that parents and teachers persist in believing that boys are better than girls in math. Here’s an interesting article about the woman who played in The Wonder Years and her book on math for girls.
I have to say, as a teacher who has taught math at the upper elementary and middle school levels for many years, that I’m surprised that there is anyone left who still believes this. My last 8th grade math class just happened to be all girls; their results on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills ranked all of them above the 90th percentile, and two of them in the 96th percentile. This is not unusual; my personal experience with math students has always been that girls are just as capable as boys, and I have never had a girl say that she couldn’t do math because she was a girl. Where do people come up with these stereotypes, and how could teachers buy into them?

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Today’s TED talk that I’m going to cover is the 2006 talk by Richard Baraniuk who is an electrical engineering professor at Rice University and the founder of Connexions which is an open source, online education system. Baraniuk’s talks about open source and how that can be used to help solve the crisis in education that exists around the world. The key issue in this talk is the problem with getting content to students and teachers around the world in affordable and usable formats. What’s involved here?

Books. Baraniuk talks about books – books that are collaborative, relevant, current, and interactive. Following Baraniuk’s approach, book content would be licensed in a framework that everyone can use like Creative Commons.

photo from TED website

photo from TED website

As I began to write this post, I jumped online to look up the bio for Baraniuk and a photo that I could take off the TED site. From that start, I followed a link to the Connexions site, from there I followed a link to the Social Sciences section and then on to an online course on using technology in education.

What’s the point of this brief, and I hope not confusing, aside? The TED talks can start up a stream of consciousness that can be materialized (for want of a better word) by getting online and following these thoughts and seeing where they lead, because they often do lead to somewhere where someone has already started working on just the idea that has occurred to you. Right now, because of the materialization of this stream of consciousness, I’m in the process (slowly because of a slow ISP) of contacting an educator who is working on issues surrounding integrating technology in education.

So back to Baraniuk, and I hope that you’ll follow the link here and listen to Baraniuk explain all this much better than I probably am. By using open-source and going to printing books on demand (with the much lower cost than normal because they use free content that is licensed by Creative Commons), community based books can be created which bring in those people who are often left out of the development and presentation of knowledge such as non-speakers of English, people in remote communities, educators and others who might lack the academic credentials usually necessary to get a book published.

So content becomes either free or very inexpensive. Because it is open-source, it can be used by people in other countries and translated and modified to fit local needs. Thus, sharing knowledge changes the landscape of education and educational publishing.

I know that my children, for instance, would like to have access to some of the content that my students had in terms of educational materials. Books for Indonesian students are expensive and frequently changed (there has been a suggestion recently that Indonesian schools go to having books online that students can then print out, but there are a number of problems with this approach that I’ll address another time.)

A few questions arise here in terms of quality such as what is quality, who decides what it is and who controls the accreditation of content as being of high quality. This is an issue that arises when using Wikipedia, for instance, instead of a traditional encyclopedia. I’ve just spent an hour reading a fascinating discussion of this at a link that I discovered through Connexions, but I’m going to save the issue of quality and the authority of content for another time. I would suggest though that this is an area that teachers need to address within the profession as well as with their students.

Educators from the K-12 variety through professors need to address these issues and begin looking at how open-source can be used in schools. This is already being done by a number of educational visionaries, but until this reaches the trenches, we won’t be getting much farther than just talking to ourselves.

Posted by: drbrucepk | July 22, 2008

TED – Talks to Change the World

I’m going to be writing a series for the next week or two about TED and some of the presentations that I’ve been able to watch, although watch is such an inadequate word for what happens when viewing a TED presentation, over the past few weeks. I’ll be back to school reviews after I do a week or so of TED reviews. What I’m finding out in my early days of retirement is that there isn’t enough time to do what I want even when I don’t have to go to work everyday – or forever actually. But, more on that later, because what I really want to do is talk about TED and discuss the first of the TED videos that I’ve downloaded.

So, this is a blog about international education. It’s about international education because that’s where I’ve been for the past 19 years. But as most teachers know, education is very similar all over the world. So while I discuss educational issues, along with the school reviews that are probably the main reason that people come to this blog, in the context of international education, the ideas are germane to educational systems around the world. And, actually, I guess that’s what makes it international. Well, enough of that, back to TED.

TED is a both a conference and an organization. The acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. The conferences go back to 1984 and the scope of the conferences has expanded over the years to include development issues, global warming, education and much more. Speakers are brought in each year to discuss an idea in 18 minutes. It’s fun watching speakers keep their eye on the clock, and after watch a half dozen talks, it seems that all the speakers have amped up on caffeine before they made it to the stage because you’ll see and hear some of the quickest talking in the universe.

So TED is a conference where some of the most creative people on the planet show up and over four days give these 18 minute presentations on an idea or a concept or an experience that has changed them or changed others around them or can change others.
These talks are interesting, generally quite funny, and designed to make the audience think and hopefully act.

If you go to the TED website, you can find over 200 talks available for downloading in either video or audio format. Everything here is under that Creative Commons license, so you are free to download the talks and use them. As the TED website says, their mission is to spread ideas.

The first talk that I’m only briefly going to discuss (because I think that you should follow the link and download it for yourself) is by Ken Robinson – actually Sir Ken Robinson. If you don’t know who Ken Robinson is don’t worry because neither did I before I was given a link by a friend to his TED video.

photo taken from ted.com

photo taken from ted.com

Ken Robinson is an author, former university professor, and speaker who specializes in creativity. He’s been an advisor to arts and education commissions, foundations and organizations around the world. He’s published several books and has a new one coming out early next year.

His TED talk is about how schools fail to recognize, develop and nurture creativity. It’s very humorous and hits straight at one of the problems with educational systems, as they currently exist.

This is a talk that all of us who are involved in education need to hear. Download it, you won’t be sorry.

Posted by: drbrucepk | June 9, 2008

So You Want to Retire in Paradise

So You Want To Retire in Paradise

Published in Escape Artist.com March 10, 2005

Once upon a time, there was a man with a band of children, a lovely wife and a house in Bali. Life was good, but this man thought that life could be better if only he didn’t have to work. This is the story of that man and his dream.

Bali. For some people the name says it all – warm seas, soft sands, cold beers, vibrant colors, exotic sounds, friendly people, large smiles, laughing children, a multitude of inexpensive small hotels and homestays. Bali. A land of wonder and magic set in the warm waters of the Bali Sea and the Indian Ocean. Hand planted rice, homemade religious offerings, vibrant cloths used in ceremonial clothes. Gamelan orchestras practicing in the warm nights under a brilliant moon, the mystery of a midnight village performance of the wayang kulit. Bali. A quiet walk through luxurious ravines teeming with birds and butterflies, the hypnotic chant of the village priest, the cry of the jamu seller in the tropical sunrise, the aroma of sate sizzling over charcoal-filled grills.

Take all of this and you have the seemingly perfect tropical paradise and, for at least one dreamy soul, the ideal place to retire and raise a crop of children. Of course, things are not always what they seem. You might think that I would have learned such an elementary lesson after fifty years of life in big cities and exotic ports of call, but then some of us are slow learners.

During almost a decade of living in the jungles of New Guinea while teaching a range of subjects from second grade through high school algebra, I gradually created a life in Bali during school vacations. My Indonesian wife and I had just finished building a new house on the edge of the Bali Sea as my ninth year in New Guinea came to a grateful close. I decided that it was time to “retire” to “home”.  The Plan was to work on eking out a living as an editor and freelance web designer.

What could be better: I had a lovely new house with a beautiful view of the Bali Sea to the north and the mountains to the south; an ISP had just opened shop a few kilometers down the road from my house; my wife and I purchased a new car; I had a local connection with a travel agent who wanted me to design a website for him; my children were installed in a reputable private Balinese school. This was the dream of a lifetime my friends told me over and over as I fretted about giving up a sizeable salary and the benefits of living in a well-designed model community in the lowlands of New Guinea. No more getting up at dawn to plan for the day’s lessons, no more aggravation of dealing with irritated parents, bored students, or cranky teachers. I was moving to Paradise. Good things come to those that wait.

Life did seem to be even better than my fantasies for the first few months. There were the occasional hassles with the Department of Immigration – the bane of wannabe expatriate residents. But, being a patient man – a former schoolteacher and principal – I was more than prepared to deal with a few minor bureaucratic inconveniences. Even after my children and I were threatened with deportation, I smiled, shuffled a bit, made some apologies and showed my material appreciation to the local authorities. Only after leaving the building did I snap the side-view mirror off the car. Life was good and retirement seemed to be a golden opportunity to develop new people skills and work on a new lifestyle.

As I sat editing articles and writing html code in my third-floor study, I would gaze out at the Bali Sea and watch my neighbors fishing in their outriggers at the edge of the coral reef. If I wanted a beer with my lunch, I could amble downstairs to the kitchen and pull one out of our gleaming new refrigerator. If writing html code started to blur my vision, I could have a lie in the sun on the balcony outside my office. I could work two hours, drive down the beach to a friend’s bar’n’grill, have a few cold beers and discuss the current cultural events on the island. A fifteen minute drive back home, and I could begin work again completely refreshed. Life was good and retirement definitely seemed golden.

One day a Balinese friend mentioned that my preparations for the monsoon season seemed to be a bit sparse. I had installed some drop-down rattan curtains to keep the rain off the balcony, but Nyoman seemed to feel that they were going to provide less protection than I needed. Of course, being a Balinese he only made this point in the most oblique and polite way. An American might have said, “You fool, do you think those puny curtains will protect you from gale force winds right here on the ocean.” My wife, being Indonesian, just smiled and said that everything looked very nice on the third floor and that I had done a lovely job. I had my little tropical house on the Island of the Gods – life was indeed good and retirement was offering more than I could ever have hoped for.

The rainy season (musim hujan) blasted upon us in December just as I left for Singapore to renew my Indonesian visa. I felt that the house was ready for anything. I eagerly anticipated a few days of shopping and eating in Singapore while I waited for my visa renewal to be processed. Even though it rained the entire time I was in Singapore, I enjoyed myself confident in the knowledge that my retirement home was safe and secure should the rains in Bali be anything like they were in Singapore.

Upon my arrival home, I noticed that main road from the airport to my house one hundred kilometers away showed signs of flooding, but I had a car full of toys and clothes for the children and was looking forward to seeing them. Life was wet but indeed good, and retirement meant never having to say, ” I have to go to work.”

A mild drizzle was falling from the evening sky as I pulled into my driveway. As I opened the front door of the house, a stream of water rushed past me seeking lower ground. Soaked towels were scattered around the floor and water stains streaked the walls. But no human activity was evident on the first floor. I abandoned my suitcases and dashed up the stairs to the second floor, slipping on the wet tiles and bruising my knees as I frantically clutched the railing to keep from tumbling backwards. Limping out onto the second floor, half of my wife’s extended family was rushing about with buckets, mops and towels trying to stem the torrent of water cascading down from the third flood. Noticing me, everyone smiled wanly and wished me welcome. I ran to the third floor stairs just in time for the electricity to flash out, flash back on and flash out once again. By the time I was able to find a flashlight and maneuver my way upstairs, I noticed that my beautiful, authentic rattan curtains were missing. Life was wet but surely good, and retirement meant having plenty of time to clean up the house the next day.

Apparently the north coast of Bali is visited by cyclones. I discovered this while questioning my wife and her brother about the location of my curtains and the tropical plants that I had lovingly cultivated in my balcony garden. The presence of cyclones was somewhat of a revelation to me after almost ten years of staying on the island during my vacations from teaching. I always managed to be off-island during the monsoon season and, of course, no one wanted to upset me by mentioning such an unpleasant fact of life in my tropical paradise.

Peering inside my study, I noticed my bed upended and the mattresses stained a deep red indicating massive water absorption. My computers, television, scanner and printer were piled on top of the desks covered with obviously wet towels. The power surged back on and the extent of the flooding was evident. Life was drier in Chicago, and retirement meant that I had no excuse not to repair the remnants of my former study.

A total accounting of the following three days of monsoon madness were: three computers power supplies shorted out, one scanner capable of creating a rhythmic knocking as it vainly tried to advance the scanning mechanism, a printer that printed a series of numbers and symbols generally used to signify obscenities, a television that hissed when plugged in, a microwave that flashed “888888” and avoided  responding to programming, three rattan curtains shredded on the beach forty feet away, four beds that required three days to dry out, and seventeen roofing tiles scattered around the monkey’s play area on the first floor. Life in Paradise was coming to resemble the Garden of Eden after the snake dropped in to visit, and retirement meant having no place left to flee.

But, for the patient and the good, there are always solutions to problems. Humbled but hopeful, I headed off in my trusty Kijang to Denpasar to purchase new power supplies for my computers; I explained to my children that life would go on without microwaved popcorn, having only one television meant that we could watch it as a family and that using sleeping bags for a few days would be an adventure – they seemed rather doubtful. After purchasing my goods in Denpasar, I began making my way home in another downpour – life could be as good as ever, I reasoned, once I had my computers repaired and was back doing some editing and designing. The two-hour trip home stretched into five as the windshield wipers dropped off the car, one of the headlights suddenly faded to black, a tire blew out, and the ball joint began screeching. I arrived home drenched, tired and bleary-eyed from holding my head out of the car window in an attempt to visualize the road. Life in Paradise was a long, wet ride, and retirement meant living far from a freeway.

Eventually, my internet-connected computer was repaired, and I logged in to retrieve e-mail and ftp some updates to a webzine. Having no e-mail waiting was a surprise as I usually received several hundred a day from a multitude of listservs. Unperturbed, I logged in to the webzine server only to find that I was uploading an article at a whopping 15 bytes per second which rapidly dropped to zero. The connection timed out after twenty minutes of doing nothing. The ISP informed me that nothing was wrong with their server – must be me. After three days of playing with the computer and growing increasingly frustrated, I dropped by the ISP office to have a discussion about my problems only to find that a crowd of subscribers were there biding their time as they had no connections either. After a long discussion about our problems, the clerk admitted that the chief technician had left for a month’s vacation and no one else really knew what was wrong but someone from Denpasar would come up within a few days to track down the problem. Seven days later, I received a backlog of 4,587 e-mails. The connection was still impossibly slow and trying to ftp anything anywhere was useless. Life in Paradise meant having no alternative ISPs, little technical help and a surplus of rain; retirement meant having a lot of time to brood about life.

Cyclones came and went, we storm-readied the house, new surge protectors and stabilizers were bought for our electrical equipment. The monsoons departed for another eight months. Power returned to its usual semi-reliable state; the ISP technician returned and repaired the server problem; the car was serviced and rehabilitated. Life in Paradise once again returned to the peaceful, tropical rhythms that I love, and when a call came offering me a job in Pakistan, I accepted in a flash.

Posted by: drbrucepk | June 9, 2008

The Future of Education

Today, there’s no review of a school partly because I’m just about to move (again, the fifth major move that I’ve done over the past nineteen years) and partly because I’ve managed to come up with some sort of illness that is as yet undiagnosed, but is fairly inconvenient and thus I’m at home away from the Internet and my research base.

All this being said, what I’m writing about today is Education. I capitalized the world Education today because I want to say something about what that word, that concept, that process, that institution, that we call Education means to us.

My friend here at the little school where I currently teach (and by the time this blog gets posted, I may not still be teaching there as my retirement is about to actually happen)) just returned from a trip to Singapore to take a look at several schools that are using the IBO’s PYP approach to education. When he returned, the first thing he told me about was the technology that the schools had as technology is one of my fascinations and has been one of the two main things that have supported me over the past 14 years – that is I’m what’s known in the education business as a computer teacher (I’m going to write more about that specialty next month when I get settled down in Bali).

Back to what Stephen told me.

The second thing that he told me after telling me about the great technology that these schools had was that he viewed these great YouTube videos about education, and in his excitement, he began reeling off quotes and statistics from these two videos. Not feeling well, I only took in a bit of what he was saying, but some of it went like this (and my apologies to Stephen if I’ve processed his words in slightly altered form from the way there were presented) – education is only educating part of the child, a kindergartner today will be retiring in the year 2065 (on a personal level, my youngest child will be retiring in the year 2058), the technologies that we will be using in ten years haven’t been invented yet, education is still working on the industrial model. There was a lot more, but this excerpt will suffice for today’s post.

So, first, you should view these videos if you are a teacher, if you are a parent, if you are a student. You can find them at You Tube. My connection here won’t let me in, but you can put in “Schools Killing Creativity” and “Shift Happens” to see the videos that I’m discussing.

Second, and this was my immediate response to Stephen, I’ve heard this before. I’ve been a member of EARCOS  for the past five years and before that SEATTCO. I’ve attended probably 10 conferences over the past 19 years that those organizations have sponsored for teachers and administrators working in the East and Southeast Asian region. I’ve heard this before. It appears that I said that up above so why am I repeating it. Well, if you’re giving a speech, repeating yourself is an effective way to get your message across. If you’re writing, it can also be an effective way to impress your point on your readers because we tend to read articles like these by skimming – where’s the interesting information? That’s what the reader asks.

Well, the interesting information here is that I’ve heard it before – and so have thousands of other teachers and administrators. The interesting question that follows is – so what? Is anybody hearing what’s being said. Well, obviously some people are, because the world is changing: companies get smarter in designing products, marketers get smarter in selling the products, artist and writers get smarter in creating their works. And back to Education (the capital E education).

Are the people who work in Education, who play with it and who think about it, are they getting smarter? Well, the answer is a qualified yes and no. There are schools around the world that are getting it, that are redesigning curriculum, that are retrofitting schools, that are thinking about what it is that we do in Education and how we do it. That’s the qualified yes. The qualified no? Most of us are not. We’re still thinking in the old way, structuring our schools in the old way, and teaching the old way. I can think of a few schools that aren’t, and I’ll discuss those in later posts. But, more than the number of schools that are what I’m going to loosely call visionary (it’s probably not best word to use, but for lack of a better one at hand, I’ll use that designation for now), there are a growing number of teachers that are coming to have a visionary approach to teaching and to our profession.

These teachers are beginning to move things and shake up the foundations of our fossilized institutions and our fossilized mindsets. But, it’s a long haul and there are a whole assortment of obstacles in the way. Just offhand a few of them are school boards, parents, teachers and administrators. Who did I leave out? Students.

Where do we go? How do we go about it? Those are the big questions. The first big question is obviously the most important. I’ll discuss this more next in later blogs when I get a chance to get settled in Bali once again and have my physical library and my virtual library at hand. But until then, what is it that you think about this?

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