Yes, Sometimes Football is Nerdy!

I subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight newsletter. For those of you unfamiliar with 538 it is a website about numbers. Generally polling numbers but also general and advanced statistics that founder Nate Silver and his team use to make predictions. They predict just about anything from politics to sports.They make unbiased calls on who is leading political races and pick the winners of just about every pro and major college game. They do all of this using math. Kind of nerdy but cool.

 

After the Green Bay Packers lost to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend, Benjamin Morris, a sportswriter for 538, wrote that the Packers didn’t understand middle school mathematics. Morris’ assertion was that an understanding of middle school math would have led Mike McCarthy to attempt the two point conversion for the win rather than kick the extra point and go to OT.

Now anyone who watched this game would say it was one of the most exciting fourth quarters in NFL history. Down by a touchdown with virtually no time on the clock, Aaron Rodgers hurled an unbelievable ball into the end zone that was inexplicably caught by Jeff Janis for the game tying TD. Or should it have been the game winning TD.

 

According to Morris’ middle school math, the two point conversion was the mathematically correct call. On his stat sheet it, in the last 15 seasons the two point conversion is made on 47.2 percent of attempts. Not necessarily the greatest of odds. Anyone who has ever gambled would take those odds but not when the game is on the line. Everyone who has ever watched the NFL knows that. What everyone probably doesn’t know are the next two stats: 1. Since the NFL moved the extra point attempt back, NFL kickers have had a 94.3 percent success rate and 2. In the last 15 seasons, the visiting team, which in this case was the Pack, has won only 45.5 percent of the time. OK, so 1.7 percent isn’t that big of a deal but that’s not the end of this math lesson. The Packers needed to make the extra point (94.3%) AND win (45.2%). If you multiply the two of those together you get 42.9%; the percentage chance that Green Bay would win by kicking the extra point. Almost 5% worse than going for two.

 

Why did I spend all this time having that little discussion? Because I wonder how often we do this in real life. Had McCarthy gone for two and missed the fans, ESPN, everyone would have questioned him. How many times in our lives do we do what everyone expects us to do? How often do we play it safe instead of taking a chance? How often do we question the prevailing wisdom or the unwritten rules?

 

I know that as an educator people cringe when you talk about analyzing the data. This is a real world application of using data. The common consensus is that we teach these things because we have always taught these things. Kids need to know these things. The point that kids need to know these things is not what I’m arguing. What I am saying is that by not using the data we are ‘teaching’ things that students already know. By not analyzing what students need to know, we are doing them a disservice in the long run.

 

The obvious question then is how do we prepare students for jobs when the market is changing all the time. The simple answer is we start to teach them the skills that have the greatest percentage of possibility to be needed in the future: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.

 

Technology is notably absent from this list because it is a subset of all four. Teaching students to collaborate using technology is far more important than teaching them technology in a vacuum. Our students are digital natives. They understand the technology as a user better than we do. They may not know how or why it works but they know how to access the world through it. Knowing how a car works doesn’t necessarily make you a better driver. Knowing how to put data into a spreadsheet is important for some professions but it’s not the technology that leads us to be better communicators, critical thinkers, creators, or collaborators.

‘Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse” Exam

If you are in to pop culture, you know that the apocalypse is imminent. The only controversy is how to defend yourself against (kill) the undead. Does it take a headshot a la The Walking Dead or the Double Tap via Zombieland. Whatever it is, make sure you know the rules.

Ok, so maybe there’s not going to be a zombie apocalypse. But one thing is sure: The theories behind surviving the Cataclysm of the Undead have some things in common; The competence to think creatively, the ability to think on your feet, an expertise in collaboration and the desire to survive.

My college aged daughter is a The Walking Dead fan but definitely not a survivor. She never learned good communication or creative thinking skills. I chalk this up to poor parenting and a school system that admires skill in Math and Reading above all else.

The point of this post is that the skills needed to survive the Return of the Zombies are very similar to the 4c’s of 21st Century learning: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking. I know, there’s no ‘Communication’ in the Zombie Survival Guide but there’s also know ‘desire to survive’ in the 4 c’s. We’ll just call that a fair trade but 75% of what 21st Century learner’s need to be adept at will help them survive the Zombie Apocalypse.

Being a little older than the Walking Dead crowd, I am more in tune with the Zombieland rules. Although they aren’t all mentioned in the movie, tell me that these rules aren’t relative to 21st Century learning:

Well, maybe that’s a stretch but I hope you see my point, The skills that we need to survive the rebirth of the undead are the skills (or at least related to the skills) that we need to be teaching our students. We are a decade and a half in and we probably shouldn’t be talking about the need to teach these skills. We should be talking about how successful we are being at ingraining this knowledge base in our students. We should be talking about how we are assessing student abilities in the 4 c’s or the Zombie Survival Skills.

Since I’ve broached the idea of assessment, can anyone imagine testing these skills. Quality based assessments that would tell educators where students need to improve to be successful IN THE WORLD. Yes, I yelled that! I’ve mentioned this before and I will debate this forever: The only reason we test what we do (Math and ELA) is because it is easily quantifiable. Unfortunately the skills that students need to be successful are not always quantifiable.

Woody Harrelson would have been terrible at the PSSAs but I would definitely want him as my zombie killing partner. Think about what kind of student you want next to you when the living dead visits your neighborhood. Do you want the kid who knows all the answers on the test or the one who can fold up the test and make a weapon out of it? I know which one I will pick.

In the meantime, remember the first rule of Zombieland: Cardio – the faster you run, the further you are away from a Zombie. Wait, should that be the first rule of the PSSA?

Count on Trolls

This wasn’t what I set out to write today but this is where I have ended up. Today marked the day that Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error hits newsstands nationwide.  I haven’t read it but I have read some reviews. This morning, while reading Ms. Ravitch’s own account of her stop in Pittsburgh, one of the commenters posted a link to a review of the new book. I wasn’t on full troll alert so I followed the link

Turns out, after a few seconds of heart-stopping anguish, that it wasn’t a troll at all.The site is obviously satirical but not that far off of what some believe. The site is called Last Stand for Children First which at first blush sounds like another public education hate site. Read on my friends, critical reading and thinking are important 21st Century skills. From the billionaire CEO, Myron Miner, who taught in the tough inner city of Boca Raton to the Chief Education Director whose only apparent credential is that he played hoops with Arne Duncan in Australia to the notoriously fictitious Rep. Jack Kimble from the mythical California 54th, Honorary Director. We even have a Sigma Chi representative on the BoD.

It was a bit scary at first because I wasn’t quite sure whether it was real or not. Statements like these below aren’t all that far from some of the things we hear in public education:

On Ravitch’s new book: “While I didn’t actually read Ravitch’s book, I think I’ve gotten a pretty good feeling for what it’s about by reading the cover..” from the CEO of Last Stand for Children First

On improving teacher quality: “Our research has shown that the best teachers to motivate inner city youth are white, fresh out of college, and preferably from a privileged background.”

On improving the curriculum: “Too much of a child’s day is taken up with classes like music, art, and social studies, which are not even tested.  These classes have been created by teachers unions trying to create jobs and give teachers prep periods.”

And their tribute to billionaires: “Billionaires have the clout to influence public policy in a way that few other people can. There is no better way to democratize education in this country than by bringing the voices of CEOs and hedge fund managers into the equation.”

As well as a common man’s understanding of statistics “Nearly 25% of all American high school students in 2008 scored in the bottom quartile of state standardized tests in reading and 10% scored in the bottom tenth in math.”

Not sure who is responsible for this but, “Well Played, Sirs, Well Played.” I’ll be back!

Maybe We Should Teach

If I were to contemplate, like so many other bloggers seem to do today, the failings of today’s education system, all of my thoughts could redirect to on word – small-mindedness (I hyphenated it so it might be two words but not the point).

Friends, Teachers, Pundits! Lend me your ears! I come to bury education not to fix it!

I don’t mean that literally. I mean it is time for sweeping change. For goodness sake we need to move on or be left behind. And when I say “we” I mean the education establishment. It’s time to quit looking over our shoulders and trying to stay one step ahead of Big Brother. Or more precisely Big, Rich Brother. We are the people who know children. We are the one’s who can change the system. And we will change the system for one reason: It’s what’s best for kids. 

I remember my parents telling me when I was in college that “sometimes you have to play the game.” Agreed. Sometimes. But not when the game hurts students, when the game keeps us mired in the past, when the game is designed to favor the rich, when the game puts more money in the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, when the game widens the opportunity gap, its time to take our ball and go home (figuratively!).

It is time for us to open up our minds. It is time for us to realize our power. It is time for us to look into the future and see what our students will see. Then we must ready ourselves to prepare them for it. It will not be easy; it will be disruptive. There probably won’t be a canned formula for any student’s success. We will have to be creative. We will have to allow our students to be creative. We will be nurturers and facilitators and cautious bystanders. Dr. Watson to our students’ Sherlock and Mr. Watson to our student Alexander Graham Bell. Charlie to President Bartlett?

Its not for the weak of heart or the small of mind. But do you want to look back and see that you didn’t prepare students for their futures because of someone’s political aspirations? Someone’s padded back account? Because of fear of falling behind internationally? Because of Big, Rich Brother? I think not!

Google “21st Century Skills.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. What did you find? Did it say anything about how standardized testing will prepare children for the future? Where there any sites that said that improving standards would improve student success in the future? Anywhere did it say that the best thing we could do for students is narrow the curriculum even more? 

I didn’t think so.

What it says is we need to teach students to think. We need to teach them to create. We need them to be able to draw a map not follow a map and we need them to tap into their own unique genius. Students will have to navigate devices that haven;t even been invented yet. They will have to collaborate – try to test that! Communication – aside on communication great TED talk on texting as new language – in languages that we aren’t teaching. Communicating in ways that we never thought of (John McWhorter talk above).

My biggest fear in education is that while we fight about what is best for kids, the 21st century is coming and we can’t stop it as hard as we might try. My biggest fear is that while we wait to be told what to do our students are falling further behind. It’s time to stand up, grow a backbone and do what we know is right.