PBL Challenge

It seems we point to the findings of science selectively. Most folks I know profess amazement that some ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change or evolution. They are concerned when the “scientific perspective” is not the basis for what students experience if these topics are considered.

Why then is the assumption that our best evidence should not guide practice applied when selecting learning activities? You will have to trust me on this (unless someone really wants to review my reference list), but direct instruction consistently results in better academic performance than project based learning, problem based learning, discovery learning, etc. How do PBL advocates rationalize this reality? I seriously want to know because I find the PBL philosophy appealing as well. I just personally struggle with ignoring what research findings suggest.

I try arguing with myself seeking answers. I know many of the proposals. Direct instruction works when the dependent variable is simple, factual knowledge. Direct instruction turns learners off because it is boring. Direct instruction results in learning that fails when it comes to application or flexibility. However, whatever the counter argument, the position is only an hypothesis unless tested. Show me the data (or the money if you prefer). I am waiting to be convinced.

I am aware of what I consider successful PBL research. Success is possible. Here is what I think until shown otherwise. I am guessing that successful PBL takes far more skill to implement with classroom groups than direct instruction. Most PBL attempts probably do not meet an acceptable standard.  I know this sounds harsh, but what is the goal here? In general, I think many students are simply lost or overwhelmed when self directed. I do not think a substantial proportion of students are any more motivated by many PBL tasks. The outcome data simply do not support the argument that common implementations of PBL are as productive as more traditional methods.

So, at this point in my career, I do no longer have the opportunity to conduct research studies. I do have great interest in this topic and continue to search the journals for interesting studies. Learning experiences should not be promoted by talk or novelty.

STEM, STEAM and Beyond

The origins for this post came from my annoyance with the STEAM argument. I can understand the concern of those who are interested in art and music and that these areas are underfunded and even dropped from the curriculum. However, it sometimes seems that we focus more on what makes a legal acronym than what skills are most useful in the long run. How do arguments for the importance of courses that emphasize the understanding of human behavior (psychology, sociology, economics, history) enter the conversation when the letters representing these areas do not seem to extend STEM – e.g., SSSTEM or STEAMSS do not seem to work.

I, like anyone, examine issues through the lens of personal experience. I was originally educated as a “STEM type” and make (now made) my living as an academic psychologist. It is informative to consider how most assume the two areas ended up connected. When I discuss my background most jump to the conclusion that my work must have emphasized brain function. It seems assumed that the science, if there is any, in psychology must involve the study of the brain. This was not the connection. I became a psychologist because I was interested in science education. The undergraduate degree in biology would have taught me little about the brain and as I now understand the curriculum of both programs there is a greater consideration of brain function in psychology. Anyway, this was not my interest. I was interested in the relationship between learning activities and learning and the analysis of this connection was what I was found in the study of human cognition.

It is interesting to consider the likely relationship between vocational activities and academic preparation. The notion that STEM skills are necessary in the 21st century certainly makes some sense, but I think shows flaws when pressed. For examples, consider the value placed on the vague concepts of problem solving and critical thinking. Where in the STEM areas are such skills acquired? I would argue that Calculus offers far less value than would a course in Statistics. I would also argue that the research methodologies emphasized (in combination with statistics) in psychology and sociology offer far more for understanding real world problems that the research methods of biology or chemistry. The methods of science applied in the chemistry laboratory assumes simple relationships. One of the core problems in understanding human issues is the reliance on anecdotal examples of behavior without consideration of sampling bias and other methodological flaws not considered in “STEM” research.

We seem to be drifting toward a technical school model of education, but seem to understand that skills change quickly a traditional vocational education will not have long term value. What we resort to is a focus on math and science because these areas seem the basis for productivity advantages. What seems missing is an analysis of the diversity of skills that go into keeping the entire enterprise going. Few will make contributions based in math and science. Other areas end up being more universally important.

Grabe & Grabe Revision

We switched our textbook from a commercial publisher to Amazon a couple of years ago. The reasons were complex, but we have greater control over our new self-imposed model. One of the opportunities was to control what went in the book (we wanted to call it a Primer) and what resources we provided online. A book on tech applications, after all, should make some use of technology. A second desire was that we could write continuously instead of in the few months before the next edition was to be sent to press.

There are certainly challenges in Kindle publishing. The formatting is tricky and never seems to work out as intended. The revision has also been challenging to push out to those who already purchased the earlier version. The Amazon model supposedly allows updates to be pushed out to those who already made a purchase decision. It certainly sounds like this in the instructions. However, I have purchased a copy and to get the “automatic upgrade” I had to contact Amazon. The company was helpful, but the process should be easier.


The goal was to push out the revision so those instructors who were using the book in their classes would know that newer content was available for their students. Not having the book reps go door to door and promote a book is the one downside of self publishing. Convenience for the instructor is helpful. On the other hand, a sales force adds greatly to the cost students pay.

Grabe and Grabe revision is available through the Amazon store.



Serious Hobbies

Educators sometimes look to experiences outside of the classroom in order to identify ways in which classrooms might be improved. Such was the case with games. In studying games, these researchers were attempting to understand what about games seemed to encourage the passion and learning that seemed to be associated with complex games. Some go so far as to believe that skills can be learned from existing games (not necessarily designed to teach traditional subject matter) that are relevant to  academic skills. You hear the phrase “serious games” used quite frequently in reference to this area of research.

Why games? If I were to apply this same logic, I would study hobbies. I know this is already being done with citizen scientists. I have a retired professor friend who studied amateur astronomers on NSF funding so I know that mine is not an original idea.

I think the serious hobby thing needs a promoter. The first thing I would do would be to make the activity sound more exciting and relevant. I think a more descriptive title would be helpful – serious hobbies. I think serious hobbies could give us a better way to expand our educational perspective than serious games.

I have been attending a rendezvous for several years just because I find the people so interesting. I would have assumed that these folks were history teachers and this vocation encouraged the “live in the woods in less than ideal conditions in the summer experience” as an avocation. From talking to some of the folks this seems not to be the case. Some are retired. Others seem to just find the quest for the “authentic” experience challenging. So you have the blacksmith hobbyist, the baking hobbyist, the black powder marksman hobbyist, etc.

One thought that always occurs to me. How do these folks convince their spouses and children that this is a cool thing to do. Live in these tents without mosquito netting and wear authentic period clothes.






Office Online

I frequently write about Google apps which I feel offer students great opportunities and value. While I believe Google offers the best resources of this type, I also believe that without competition companies fail to improve and take advantage of the commitment of their users.

So, I propose that if you are a committed Microsoft user that you try out Office Online. I was surprised when I tried to investigate this service and found that I already an account. Evidently Office Online is the follow-up to Microsoft web apps and documents created with Online are stored in OneDrive with is the follow-up to SkyDrive.

Online is a free product that offers a software as service equivalent of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The free version comes with 15 gigabytes of storage. Microsoft offers a service similar to Google Apps for Education – Office 365 Education.

The Verge offers a comparison

Real names

Google will no longer require that you use your real name on Google+. A comment from the company indicates that the change was in response to user requests.

How a blog, web page, or social account should be attributed is likely one of those issues for which there is no perfect answer. Those of us in education may see the issue as it relates to the use of social media by students.

However, it is useful to recognize that privacy protects both the good and the devious. What is that expression about a dog on the Internet? While I understand the privacy argument, I also would like to know when I should not assume I know who someone actually is. Perhaps the Google policy should allow pseudonyms, but require that such “names” be identified as such. We have the hashtag for a purpose. How about ~grabe?


I still make use of rss and an rss reader. My workflow for reviewing new online resources is to search my feed using Feedly and send the URLs I want to store or work with more extensively to Evernote. I use the personalized Evernote email option to save content.

Feedly has announced a pro version that has some interesting additions. One stores the entire content of a page to Evernote. My issue with the pro version is that the cost difference between the free and the paid version seems overly large to me. I do pay for a pro version of Evernote and would do the same for Feedly at a more reasonable price.

Newsify is a  new RSS reader that taps into the Feedly feed, but presently saves the entire page to Evernote at no cost (the app is free). I assume Newsify will eventually figure out how to make money and charging for some services may be part of the transition, but a present the service is probably trying to build market share and offers some advantages.