What are badges, and how will education use them?

Badges are soon to be, if not already, a hot topic in education.  Yet unlike many other hot topics, it’s a little unclear what badges are and why they might be useful. Badges have baggage, meaning badges are entering education with a complex history of varied uses in non-educational settings. Before we can effectively implement educational badges, we have to unpack and understand the baggage.

Let’s start with a little bit of history. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were the first to “invent” badges in first part of the last century.  In the 1980’s, the game industry reinvented the badge system, which went by the name “leveling”.  In the early 2000’s the game industry adopted an “achievement” system, a digital version of a Boy Scout merit badge. In 2009, Mozilla took the achievement idea from the game companies, re-coined the term “badge” and used it for educational purposes.

Given this history, it should be clear that badges mean different things to different people. Mozilla makes a useful distinction between the three badge types:

•    Skill badges- These are the Boy Scout merit badges and what the game industry calls “achievements.” This is what I find most people mean by badges.  Skill badges certify expertise in a topic.  These badges tend to be a bit more extrinsic of a reward than stealth badges, and in my experience are motivating, but not as motivating as a good intrinsic stealth badge structure.
•    Stealth badges- These are what the gaming industry calls “leveling” and the Boy Scouts call “ranks”. Stealth badges typically relate to general status.  The game industry often ties your level to unlocking content, meaning more status equals access to more interesting stuff.  This creates an intrinsic reward structure, which creates much of the inherent motivation present in games.  If badges are supposed to be motivating, in my experience I’ve found stealth badges to be far and ahead the most motivating type.
•    Community badges- These badges are really a result of the social media world. Community badges are given socially, often for social skills like teamwork. In a sense, they are simply skill badges that are judged by peers rather than teachers.

These categories are not mutually exclusive.  For example, the Khan Academy uses a hybrid stealth/skill badge structure- badges are related to certain skills, but they build upon each other in a sort of leveling system.  Gaining lower level skills “soft-unlocks” access to higher badges.  This sort of tree network of badges has been employed by several games, to great success (the job system in several Final Fantasy games or the creature collection portfolio in Pokemon and Dragon Warrior Monsters).  If you can find a way to utilize this hybrid tree, it not only gives great feedback on progress and allows clear goals to be set, but is also partly for these reasons highly motivating.

We can learn a lot from the stealth badge system, because I think this is what games do exceptionally well, but educators have done relatively poorly. Leveling systems in games are almost always linked to unlocking features in a game.  The newly unlocked features typically make you better at the game, which allow you to gain even more levels, which unlocks more stuff, which allows you to play the game better, which allows you to gain more levels, etc. It is a viciously addictive cycle that is highly motivating.  If you haven’t experienced it, pick up Pokemon or Harvest Moon and experience the psychological power of an intrinsic reward structure.

Unlocking Structures: Take it to the Next Level

There are two types of these unlocking structures in games, what I call hard-unlocking and soft-unlocking. In hard-unlocking structures, there are typically discrete levels, and once a level is gained, a discrete feature is unlocked.  There may be an area of the map you just can’t access until you reach level five, or there’s a difficult activity you can’t do until you complete three other activities.  In an education game there could be a tutorial that you are not allowed to access until you complete a previous tutorial. 

In contrast, in soft-unlocking there is nothing actually restricting you from accessing higher content except your own skill.  You may be free to access a certain part of the map, but you will probably lose if you go there until you reach about level five.  Or you can do a difficult activity at any time, but you are unlikely to be successful at it until you gain experience with three other easier activities first.  Or you can watch a tutorial at any time, but are unlikely to understand it until you have watched previous tutorials.

Hard unlocking structures tend to feel more forced and unnatural, but can also direct focus and create well-ordered problem solving.  Typically, gamers consider soft-unlocking structures more elegant, but they are also more difficult to design.  Soft-unlocks allow users to continually challenge themselves, more readily leading to the optimal experience of flow.  Soft unlocks also allow more choice and can be less frustrating for an advanced player, who is free to skip ahead to later content if wanted.  I also think soft unlocks give a greater feeling of accomplishment- being able to do something at any point in time means that the only thing stopping you from achieving that badge is your own ability.  Once you gain it, you can really feel your own progress.  In a hard unlock, it less clear that your own ability led to your success, since you weren’t able to access the challenge initially.

I hope this provides some clarification on what badges are and how they have been used in non-educational environments. Now for the real question- what types of badges should be used in education and in what ways?

Iridescent’s experiences with teacher and school evaluation

We like to do things at scale, cheaply, fast and for the long term. So when we started working with a lot of schools in Los Angeles, I figured it would make sense to automate the process of finding lifelong partners.

We worked with Factual (a data company) to automatically collect data on school demographics, test scores, crime and parent involvement. This data was already available on the web. We worked with an information visualization group in Milan, called Density Design to develop the user interface that would help parents and organizations like Iridescent, find the right school. You can use the tool and learn all about it here.

After this tool was developed, we realized that we needed more data on the classroom level – i.e how committed a teacher would be to our partnership and we entered the labyrinth of teacher evaluation.
I came in very naively thinking that with my love for technology and efficiency and formulae, I would be able to develop a clean system that could provide data on how good schools and each teacher was. I wanted to give a voice to the most important people in this whole equation – children and parents. Using Factual’s crowdsourcing tools, our vision was to provide a wiki base of school data (that was aggregated from the web) on top of which we could collect data for each teacher that was contributed by children and parents. Children and parents would fill out surveys that would evaluate various facets of teaching. In addition they would be able to upload videos as well.
Good teachers would be highlighted and awarded “Master Teachers” badges and would be invited to lead best practices conferences. In addition, we would collect videos of great teachers executing their craft and skills.
This was our vision.
We needed partners to make this happen and we dove into the haystack. What we found was many groups working on this problem in different corners of the room, some talking and learning from each other, but mostly not willing to collaborate. Each had spent significant amount of time and money going down a particular direction and didn’t want to change. Each direction varied from the other only by a dot or a dash. I didn’t come across even one really disruptive approach.
We were working in the Los Angeles Unified School District and heard much open-minded talk about open data, but in reality, the doors to collaboration and sharing of data were shut or going to be shut very soon.
What I learned was this:

  • the problem is undoubtedly complex. There are many different school districts with different testing systems, different standards as the baseline. On top of that you have different grades and different skill sets to be mastered at every stage. Teachers can only be compared across narrow ranges.
  • the problem needs undivided attention. It doesn’t need a ton of money – as most school districts think. Technology can be intelligently leveraged to go very far, fast and do great things. But it does need undivided attention and focus. And for Iridescent it just didn’t make sense as our undivided focus is on making children curious, courageous and persistent.
  • the problem needs a fresh perspective. Towards the end we were going to use Facebook as a platform and offer badges and $1000 prizes to teachers who would be brave enough to share their own classroom data and solicit feedback from their children and parents. Nobody is the bad person here. Everyone wants to do a good job. That was our starting assumption. Then move forward building systems that help all groups learn and excel.

Although we stopped working on this project, I am very curious to see if some innovative soul takes it on and paints the canvas brilliantly.

High School Explainers Do Research on Olympics

Our high school Explainers became citizen scientists this summer, helping Professor Jill McNitt-Gray of the University of Southern California with her biomechanics research.

This spring, we toured Professor McNitt-Gray’s lab and experimented with force plates in the floor (used to analyze an athlete’s force when jumping) and EMG machines that allowed the students to see the electrical signals from their muscles. 

Learning about force plates at the Galen Center

Professor McNitt-Gray was so impressed with our Explainers that she asked two of the girls, Mariana Ortega and Alice Gavarrete, to assist with her research on the U.S. gymnastics team’s performance at the summer Olympics. Professor McNitt-Gray’s research uses experimental and real-life data to help athletes modify their approach to attain peak performance.

“I was really excited to help Dr. McNitt-Gray this summer especially since it was my first time assisting a professor with a research. I’m really glad to have taken this opportunity that Dr. McNitt-Gray offered us.” said Alice.

While Professor McNitt-Gray was at the Olympics with the team, Alice and Mariana assisted by gathering observational research. The girls watched the gymnasts and coded their routines- noting data such as their landings, apparatus, gender, and moves.

“I learned a lot on biomechanics. This whole experience has definitely made me even more excited about engineering,” reflected Mariana.

Learn more about science and the Olympics.

The Khan Academy Controversy

The Khan Academy is arguably one of those products that can revolutionize education.  And in fact, this is being argued quite extensively lately. All this controversy has got me thinking about a simple question: is the Khan academy a revolutionary take on education?  To answer this, I’m first going to summarize some of the controversy that has invaded the blogosphere, then I’ll offer some of my thoughts, and finally I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Khan Academy controversy

Here’s some of the history behind the Khan Academy, as I understand it.  In 2004, Sal Khan began sending tutorial videos to his cousin to help with her studies.  The Khan Academy itself was founded in 2006, and Sal Khan began working on the videos full-time in 2009.  Sal Khan gave a much publicized TED talk about the Khan Academy and “flipped classrooms” in 2011.  The Khan Academy was pilot tested in the Los Altos school district for the first time in the 2010-2011 school year.

Now to recap some of the more interesting critiques of the Khan Academy. An intriguing starting point is the Washington Post debate from two months ago between Karim Kai Ani, the founder of Mathalicious, and Sal Khan about the meaning of slope.  It’s starts with a critique from Kai Ani, followed by a response post from Khan.

To grossly summarize this debate, the argument was that Sal Khan’s definition of slope (“rise over run”) was too simplistic and in part because of the simplicity did not teach anything more than a series of rules needed to calculate slope.  In other words it did not teach the “concept” of slope.  Karim Kai Ani offered several definitions of slope that were better, including “a rate that describes how two variables change in relation to one another” and this jargon-filled gem, “how the dependent variable changes when the independent variable increases by one.”  It’s hard for me to see how a definition that students aren’t able to understand on its own due to obscure terminology could possibly promote the concept of anything, but I’ll defer my opinion on this to the next section.

There are definitely plenty of other critiques of the Khan Academy, and you don’t need to go far to find them (or far into the comments of any article on the Khan Academy). I’ll just post some of the ones I found most interesting here. This Wired Article gives a balanced presentation of the Khan Academy, highlighting both its strengths and weaknesses.  Here’s an interesting blog post on why students may actually be worse off when using the Khan Academy as opposed to traditional teaching.  And here’s a recent followup to the Washington Post stream featuring another critique from other math educators on the treatment of decimals and equal signs in the Khan Academy. And then there was the MTT2K challenge this summer to point out outright flaws in the Khan Academy videos, and instances in which procedure was emphasized over concept (something Khan claims to be against but critics argue he does repeatedly in his videos).

Also interesting is this blog from the Los Altos school district.  I suppose many may take this as a criticism of the Khan Academy since they describe the hallmark videos as unengaging to some extent, but it also reaffirms the many aspects of the Khan Academy package that do work very well in their classrooms.

Is the Khan Academy Revolutionary?

Before offering my thoughts, I want to start with an interesting assertion from Karim Kai Ani, “If students don’t understand slope at the conceptual level, they won’t understand functions…” as well as a whole slew of other topics in math.  Clearly understanding the “concept of slope” or any topic in math is something everyone agrees is important, the difference in opinion concerns technique. The Washington Post argument basically centered around whose definition of slope, Khan’s or Kai Ani’s, better promoted the concept of slope. Which raises the question to me if any definition on its own can truly teach the concept of anything.  To which the answer seems a resounding no.

If we agree that we really want students to learn concepts of things like slope rather than regurgitate a series of facts, then we need to ask the question how are concepts taught?  My answer to this is simple: through experience, through engagement with the concept itself in interactive play. This is how I see concepts being taught in Iridescent’s hands-on programs, and also how I see concepts being taught in video games.  The point is, why are we arguing about how to present the definition of slope, when it is what students do with that definition that is more important anyways?  What do kids do in a math classroom, and how does this doing effect learning of concepts?

I’d go further and argue that perhaps there is no right way to teach the concept of slope in a video/lecture. We are obsessed with finding the perfect lecture, when really the “perfect lecture” involves not lecturing. Sure, lectures are useful and I’m not saying we should do away with them completely, but they are just one component of a student’s learning (and probably a much less influential component than we think). Arguing about whether Khan’s videos are better than the lecture of an experienced teacher just detracts from the real issue to me- what happens outside the lecture? Changing the place of the lecture in the curriculum and the activities that surround the lecture is what makes something revolutionary in my mind, rather than coming up with a revolutionary new lecture. Most certainly Khan’s videos are not the best lectures, but perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Khan Academy is the de-emphasis of the lecture in his academy. The fact that his academy is so successful with such poor lectures says something

Let’s turn to another criticism: the Khan Academy offers video lectures that promote rote learning. Which creates a conundrum, when compared to Khan’s many statements that he is against rote learning. Interestingly, he also has steered clear from embracing a Constructivist philosophy to learning, which his website in part implements (in my opinion).  So how do we resolve this Khan Academy conundrum, in which rote learning is supposedly not a focus, but the main centerpiece of the website is rote learning videos? Perhaps by noting that the website values a fair bit of learning outside the confine of the videos, in interactive activities and that the videos are offered as a reference source rather than a step-by-step tutorial. If the lecture isn’t the end-all-be-all focus of learning anyways, then why not keep the explanation as simple, direct, and informal as possible (“slope is rise over run”), and let the students get to doing?

So to answer my original question, yes, I think the Khan Academy is revolutionary.  I want to end by listing the several revolutionary features I see in the Khan Academy:

Learning is not a one-size-fits-all package but individualized and customized, allowing students to work at their own pace.  Learning is not a linear process, so why force kids to encounter new topics in a linear fashion?  Some kids prefer to repeat earlier skills until they achieve mastery, others like to just achieve competence and quickly proceed to the edge of their limits.

Information is presented on-demand and in the kids’ control, both in the videos and in the activities.  Kids get what they want when they want/need it.  By being able to scroll through a video-lecture, kids can review the parts of a video that confuse them the most, using the content as a reference source rather than a step-by-step instruction manual. This structure is remarkably different from a standard textbook, but is the new standard for information gathering in this digital age (why memorize facts when you can always look them up on Wikipedia?).

– Instant feedback.  Kids immediately know if they get a problem right or wrong, and kids can visually see their progress, strengths and weaknesses in the website’s knowledge tree or data metrics.  Compare this to waiting a week to get a grade on a homework assignment, when your mind has already been directed to your next class topic and homework.

Competence is rewarded through achievements and badges, rather than failure from perfection being noted through grades. Kids gain achievements in skill areas to let them know when they have understood something.  This builds up self-esteem, motivates, and encourages experimentation and failure. The worst that can happen is that you don’t get something you don’t already have, or at least you don’t get it until your second or third try. Grades, on the other hand, let someone know how much they don’t understand something. They let you know how far you are from perfect, rather than how much knowledge you have gained. They stigmatize failure, demotivate learning, and discourage exploration.

What do you think?

Is the Khan Academy revolutionary?  Am I discounting too much how terrible Khan’s videos are?  Does their website make the future of education promising or dismal?  What do you think?

The Curiosity Machine and Iridescent at NSLA

I wanted to share two exciting announcements.  First, earlier this summer, the Curiosity Machine was launched!  The Curiosity Machine is our new online learning platform that connects kids to cutting-edge scientists and their research.

The website has several elements. We have partnered with scientists to create videos about their research.  We then develop do-at-home, inquiry-based activities for kids based on the scientist’s research.  Kids can do the activities at home with their parents and share their projects online.  Engineers and scientists then review the kid’s submissions, awarding points and badges for creative and meaningful projects.

The website is currently in beta and new activities and videos are being added every week, so I encourage you to check it out.  We see this platform being useful for after-school, and especially for summer learning. That’s why I’ll be presenting the Curiosity Machine (as well as our Technovation program) at the National Summer Learning Association conference next month (www.summerlearning.org/conference).

NSLA is a great organization, and I’m excited to be a part of the great conference they have planned this year.  I wanted to offer a few bullet points from their organization on why summer learning is so critical:

–          Summer offers the opportunity to create a blended approach of both academic learning and youth development activities to foster 21st century skills, including collaboration, innovation, creativity, and communication.
–          Summer is free from restrictions typically faced during the school year.
–          During the summer, an educator can go more in depth with outside-of-the-classroom teaching settings and offer youth work experiences.

–          Summer is a low-stakes environment that builds the confidence of girls and minorities.

–          Summer can be an easier time to access STEM-oriented staff, college and grad students.

Finally, if you are going to be in Pittsburgh for the NSLA conference on Oct 22-24, come check out our workshops!  We’ll play around with some of the fantastic activities on the Curiosity Machine, and we’ll also give you a flavor for the app designing and entrepreneurship that goes on in our Technovation program.

Little Engineers and Parents (LEAP) – pilot sessions

We had our first Little Engineers and Parents session and explored a variation of the Ramps and Pathways activity. Our goals were to help the parents learn and transfer some principles of good facilitation as well as observe how the children interacted with the materials.

Challenges: The biggest challenge was not very surprising – working with very young children. The youngest in the group was 1 year and the oldest was close to 3.  

Background: When Iridescent runs family science courses, we typically have very large groups of people (30-40 families corresponding to 100 or more participants). The session is for two hours and time flies. The engineering instructors present the content for 20 min, outline a challenge, introduce the materials and let the families build and test various solutions. The families build for roughly an hour, test for 20 min or so and finish up with dinner (another 20 min). If we are lucky, we get to bring everyone together to reflect on what everyone learned.

When we were planning the LEAP pilot, the biggest issue we ran into was that the little children are not familiar with materials and need much more time to get over their novelty and start to notice cause and effect. We also recognized the big role parents played as facilitators and wanted to have some parent education component to the session as well. So we kept it very open-ended and encouraged the parents to explore, observe and support their child.

Here is what I learned about myself as a participating parent (and student):

  • I was bored after the first two minutes! I could have benefited from a challenge! We didn’t want to provide too much structure and guidance for the families for multiple reasons. However, I see now that that was a mistake for a first session. Here is some supporting theory from the master psychologist – Albert Bandura. “One of the most effective ways of creating a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences. They provide the most authentic evidence of whether one can muster whatever it takes to succeed. Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy. Failures undermine it, especially if failures occur before a sense of efficacy is firmly established. Developing a sense of efficacy through mastery experiences is not a matter of adopting ready-made habits. Rather, it involves acquiring the cognitive, behavioral, and self-regulatory tools for creating and executing appropriate courses of action to manage ever-changing life circumstances. If people experience only easy successes they come to expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure. A resilient sense of efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort. Some difficulties and setbacks in human pursuits serve a useful purpose in teaching that success usually requires sustained effort. After people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed, they persevere in the face of adversity and quickly rebound from setbacks. By sticking it out through tough times, they emerge stronger from adversity.” So we should have provided some scaffolding – gone through a few experiments that worked before opening it up for exploration and discovery.
  • I was very influenced by the presence of the other parents. It helped to see them use different methods, to see what was working and what was not.
  • The children didn’t get bored. The parents did. This discrepancy is really fascinating! Young children can repeatedly practice the same thing way past their parents’ patience/persistence levels. But we do have an issue in grade school when teachers start to complain about the lack of focus. I suspect that parents are instrumental in this loss of persistence. How many times have you seen other parents at a science center telling a child, “Lets go! We have to see that exhibit and that one and that one”? Maybe there is some advantage to having a shorter attention span and our brains develop towards that. But I am skeptical!
  • The instructor started with a simple ice-breaker for the children, and I think the parents could have benefited from one as well (although we already knew each other). More relevant theory from Bandura – “Another powerful way of creating and strengthening efficacy beliefs is through the vicarious experiences provided by social models. Seeing people similar to themselves succeed by perseverant effort raises observers’ beliefs that they, too, possess the capabilities to master comparable activities. By the same token, observing others fail despite high effort lowers observers’ judgements of their own efficacy and undermines their level of motivation. The impact of modeling on beliefs of personal efficacy is strongly influenced by perceived similarity to the models. The greater the assumed similarity the more persuasive are the models’ successes and failures. If people see the models as very different from themselves their beliefs of personal efficacy are not much influenced by the model’s behavior and the results it produces.”
  • Learning and doing and being an active contributor is hard! It is so much easier to watch and be a passive student listening to a teacher do exciting show and tell demos. Transferring and applying knowledge takes a lot of energy. It maybe wise to load up on calories before a class like this!
  • Having an instructor for a very small group meant that we didn’t take complete ownership of the experience. In our family science sessions, each family is its own independent learning unit as the larger group is so big and the instructors are very far away and almost inaccessible. But in a small group, we looked to the instructor and not to ourselves to be creative and focused.
  • The instructor provided some guidelines for the parents (also below), but we didn’t practice each point. Maybe going through them as a group before would have been useful, followed by practice and group reflection.


OBSERVATION: Observe your child in order to understand and assess their understanding and their reasoning. There are five primary reasons to observe your child:

  • You will learn about your child’s interests and preferences (“She loves to play with trucks”).
  • You will gain knowledge about child’s level of cognitive and social development (“She always throws a ball really hard or not at all, but she doesn’t throw hard or soft along a continuum”).
  • Learn about your child’s strategies for creating desired effects (“He likes to control all of the crayons when he is with other children”).
  • Look to see what skills and accomplishments your child demonstrates (“He has a hard time stringing beads onto a knotted string”).
  • Gain insights into your child’s temperament and personality (“My child is not a risk taker”).

INTERVENTIONS AND QUESTIONS: Intervene with questions and comments to encourage children’s thinking and to construct mental relationships.

  • Use language to encourage cooperation and mutual respect (minimize external control and help your child to help him or herself).
  • Use questions or comments that do not require a verbal response from the child. Choose a question that can be answered with actions (“What else can you try?” or “Have you tried …..?)
  • Ask for predictions (“What do you think will happen if you…….?)
  • Suggest new possibilities for experimentation, but allow the child the freedom to ignore the suggestion (“Do you think you can make the marble roll all the way to the wall?” or “What can you do to make the boat travel farther?”)
  • Use guiding language and questions to help the child become more conscious of what he / she is doing (“I didn’t see where the marble fell off. Could you try it again so I can watch it more carefully?” or “How do you suppose this could happen?” or “Does it work the same way if you start in the middle of the ramp?”)
  • Encourage the child to wonder about physical causes. It is often valuable to comment versus asking a direct question of the child (“I wonder why this boat traveled faster thaN the other boat?” or “I wonder why the marble on this ramp rolled farther than the marble on that ramp?”
  • Instead of questions, it can be effective to narrate your own thoughts, ideas or strategies (“ I think I’ll try to make my boat with this material now.” or “I think I’ll place my ramp against this really tall chair to see what happens.”)

Science for pre-schoolers – lessons from the field

I have been doing a few half-hour science sessions at a Montessori school. Some of the topics we covered were:

  1. buoyancy and designing boats of aluminum foil
  2. using a microscope
  3. flight
  4. pulleys
  5. light
  6. electricity

One of my objectives in doing these sessions was to see if I could do open-ended engineering design projects with a group of children this young (without much adult help).

In general here is what I observed:

  • The Montessori philosophy of encouraging children in self-directed exploration really aligns itself very well with scientific curiosity, exploration and discovery. 
  • The children needed a lot of time to get familiar with the materials. So ideally, we would have played with the materials for a few sessions and then started talking about related phenomena
  • We never got into much engineering design or redesign. This could be possible with more adult help (to compensate for the developing motor control).
  • Familiarity with the materials and ideas generated more confidence. So children who had seen the materials before were more willing to answer questions and take risks.

Here are some more details on each of the sessions:
We had four adults for the buoyancy session and so the children were able to try out different types of boats (with their help), put playdoh in them and see which ones floated and which sank.

I tried to have the children think about why water overflows from a full container when we add something to it, but my questions and prompting weren’t clear.
The children were very intrigued by the materials. So getting familiar with the materials took up almost the whole 30 min.

The microscope session was more of a show and tell. I used this digital microscope.

We looked at paper, different hair strands and clothes. The clothes were interesting because under the microscope they lost their color and one could only see the fibres. The most surprising however was the image of glitter glue (below).

The teacher, made a great observation about how the children didn’t connect that the image on the screen was created by the microscope. The digital microscope is unlike the traditional one and doesn’t have an eyepiece. Her recommendation was to start off with a simple magnifying glass and then try a more traditional microscope where the children could look through the eyepiece and make the connection that the microscope was causing the magnification (and not the laptop).

The next session was one on flight and trying to learn from birds (through observation). I showed the children a few videos of owls, vultures and albatross in flight (through our phone application) and tried to get them to observe differences in wing shape and flight characteristics. The first thing they noticed was differences in color, but once we talked about how that wasn’t important to flight, then they started observing more closely.
I had made a bunch of models with different wing shapes (delta, crescent, elliptical and feathered) and the children made predictions as to how they would fly.

I put together a peg board and some dowels with pulleys from Home Depot. The setup wasn’t too robust and the thread kept slipping from the pulleys. I think the children were able to see that having more pulleys resulted in us being able to lift more weight. But again, they were distracted by the materials and the fact that it wasn’t clear when the materials were working well and when not at all!

The Exploratorium has a fantastic pulley setup (that they will install for you for $20,000 :). But it is robust and built for little, inquisitive fingers. I need to figure out a way in which to make my setup more robust so that it can be part of the classroom and children can explore on their own.

This was going to be another show and tell session with prisms, magnifying lenses, Fresnel lenses, mirrors and laser pointers. I tried to show the concept of reflection to the children and drew a ray diagram. But I didn’t have a fog machine to illuminate the laser beam’s path and so it was harder for the children to see the process of reflection.
However, as I had enough materials, each child took a mirror or lens and went about the room looking at various things and just exploring and that was fantastic. It was really fun to see how they used the materials in ways that I hadn’t anticipated at all.

Electrical Circuits
This was a super fun session! I brought in one of the Snap Circuits and we talked about how circuits were like loops. The children experimented with snapping in and out various parts and playing with the switch to see what worked and what didn’t.

The Snap Circuits are great as they are robust and easy to work with (for little hands).  However, they do add to the mystery of how electricity really works and so I brought in wires and alligator clips from another kit to show some of the bones of the circuit.

Further Resources

Asking Better Questions – Ask higher order, divergent questions. For instance:
Low order: What color is the lion in that diorama?
This question checks a student’s ability to recognize color and identify the color. There is a very narrow range of possible answers (tan, light yellow, fawn)
High order question: Why do you suppose the lion is that color?
This question allows the student to recognize and identify color, but then asks the student to consider the relationship of the lion’s color to other things (its environment, other lions, other species of animal, its place on the foodchain)
Convergent: What other animals can you think of that use color as camouflage?
This question checks a student’s ability to identify what role camouflage and animal coloration play in nature and suggest other examples. (The responses are fairly easily anticipated and require that students recall other examples of animals they have seen or studied).
Divergent: Suppose the lion had been born with a much darker colored coat, what do you predict would happen to that lion in the wild?
This question allows the student to consider a scenario, use knowledge regarding camouflage, coat coloration and the environment the animal lives in to create an original answer that is logical and correct.

Clinical method of questioningDr. Herbert Ginsburg, a professor of psychology and education has written a very interesting book called “Entering the child’s mind“. Here is an interview excerpt that gives some more information about the book.
Dr. Ginsburg: “The clinical interview method should be used more often in early childhood. Let me preface this with the fact that early childhood educators have relied a lot on observations. The clinical interview starts with that, with something you see the child is doing, then you ask questions like “How did you do that? Why are you doing that? What’s going on here? Tell me more about it. What are you thinking about?” So it’s very simple. The clinical interview method is sort of flexible questioning of individual children to try to find out what is the thinking that is producing the behavior that you see at the time.”
Practicing Science Process Skills at Home – This article breaks down how you can:

  • Observe qualities
  • Measure quantities
  • Sort and classify
  • Infer
  • Predict
  • Experiment and 
  • Communicate

Based on the few sessions I did, I do think focusing on the process skills is a great way to go. And then perhaps moving onto the engineering and redesign, once the child has become more familiar with the materials and process of investigation.

Exploring with the Microscope – this is an advanced (but fabulous) book written by a great experimental biologist Werner Nachtigall.

Flight – Videos explaining how things fly

Balance and trouble shooting flight

Lift Generation

Directions on how to make the model bird. Its from Iridescent’s Making Machines Out of Paper and Sticks.

Common misconceptions regarding light and vision. My favorite is “light travels from the eye to an object”.
You can buy a ton of fun stuff (Giant prisms, lenses, Fresnel lenses etc.) from American Science and Surplus.
Activity with a Fresnel Lens from the Exploratorium (with explanation of what is going on).

Intrinsic Reward Structures in games and learning

This is a quick follow-up to the last post on games and education, I’d suggest reading that first, or at least the section on “Reward Structures,” before jumping here.  
After writing my last post, my girlfriend Hannah posed a question that has constantly bothered me over the past few weeks. Are there any intrinsic reward structures in real life?  
Clearly her inner evolutionary biologist is kicking in here: if there is some tick in our brain that responds to reward structures, that psychological tick probably has an evolutionary purpose other than addicting us to games.  Gaming companies have just learned to co-op this urge for their own purposes.  But what might be the original purpose of our psychological tick? Phrased differently, what real life activities hook us because they have intrinsic reward structures?
After over a week of puzzlement, the best answer I could come up with is hobbies.  Why do we have hobbies, like say knitting? Sure, knitting has a useful purpose, you can make sweaters and scarves.  But many people knit as a hobby, not because they need to make a pair of socks, but because they enjoy it.  There is an end product that you can show others, and perhaps the motivation for knitting is simply to acquire more of the end product, in this case getting more socks.  But then, time would be better spent working at a job, and earning the money to just buy tons of socks (which not many people do).  No, it’s something about the process of making a sock that makes knitting an engaging hobby.
Consider this idea.  People knit to get better at knitting socks, which allows them to knit socks even faster and learn new stitches, which allows them to get even better at knitting socks.  The process of learning how to knit compels someone to keep knitting, since that skill is actually embedded in an intrinsic reward structure.  By practicing a hobby, you get better at the hobby, which allows you to practice the hobby even more, which allows you to get even better at the hobby.  This can also go for learning to play a sport, or learning in general.  The process of learning is an intrinsic reward structure. Thus, reward structures provide us with an inherent motivation to learn new skills (which would increase our survival, and may be the evolutionary cause of our psychological tick? But that’s a different topic.)
Let’s take a step back and talk about games again.  In this light, it makes perfect sense to view games as the way James Gee does, as learning tools.  Games are simply packages of virtual skills. When games embed skills in a virtual intrinsic reward structure (analogous to the real intrinsic reward structure that compels us to have hobbies) we become addicted to the game, or more specifically addicted to learning the skills in the game. Whether the skill is virtual or real, embedding the skill in an intrinsic reward structure makes the learning fun and engaging.
If we then take it for granted that people have an intrinsic desire to learn, why is school typically so tedious and difficult to engage in (much less become addicted to)?