Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Every day through the paper, TV, magazines and internet we are inundated with the latest statistics on just about everything. From the impact of computer time to childhood obesity numbers are thrown at us at an overwhelming pace. How do we sort through it all? With a few simple principles and questions we can make a start of it at least. Let's give it a go by trying to dissect this statement:

"Local farmer experiences a 50% reduction
in his cattle herd."

1. Know your Baseline
  • What if I told you this farmer only had 2 cows in his herd? Doesn't sound so horrific anymore does it? Without knowing where you are starting from it is hard to make a judgment about where you are now.
2. Statistical significance vs Practical Significance
  • A 50% reduction seems significant. It sounds like a really big number however without context it is hard to determine whether it is profound beyond the numbers. A reduction from 2 cows to one cow hardly seems noteworthy. Which leads us to ...
3. "The So What?" Factor
  • This is the question I ask to figure out whether we are even measuring the right thing. I'm sure we all think that cows are lovely -- a summer BBQ just wouldn't be the same without them -- but I think we are more concerned with the farmer's livelihood. The reason that statement sounds horrific is because we associated it with the farmer losing half of his income or assets. That may or may not be true but we need to look at....
4. Who is Being Studied
  • What if this farmer was in a Third world country and his entire wealth was two cows? What if the cow that died was the sole source of protein (via milk) for his children? or What if this was a hobby farmer who had cows just to keep the grass down on his half million dollar acreage? Conclusions that we arrive upon have to take into account who the statement originally referred to. We can't always extrapolate from one population to another.
This is by no means and exhaustive list of questions to ask when you are evaluating the validity of a statement drawn from a study but it's a place to start. I hope the next time you hear about a statistic that claims increased test scores due to a certain intervention (or any other statistic for that matter ) you will remember the farmer with a herd of 2 cows and ask yourself questions like:

  • What were the test scores to begin with?
  • Is that an increase that sounds significant only in numbers or in real life too?
  • Is test scores what we should be measuring? Should we be measuring something else like success after School?
  • Who did they measure this increase in? Is my child in that same environment? Are those results transferable?

With careful questioning, the statistics can then tell a story that is no longer a lie or a damn lie but something that is closer to the truth.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Are Fish Wet?

I often wonder why, as adults, we have make to things so hard and complicated. We struggle to define and categorize things that to children seem self-evident. Although my 8 year old daughter has never heard the phrase "personal learning network (PLN)", she certainly has one of her own, knows how to use it and even reminds me to use mine as well. To her these things are transparent and simple. As I struggled to figure out to hem a Halloween costume she walks by and tells me to call my friend who "is really good at sewing". Gardening questions about vegetables goes to one Grandma while the other Grandma is reserved for questions about flowers. If there are hammers, saws, or mechanics involved I'm advised to maybe wait for Dad's counsel. Wondering about where to put a picture on the wall -- she's got the gal for you. She knows where everyone's strengths and expertise lies and she's not afraid to use it (or tell me to do the same). She's also quick to recommend my services to others in what she considers my areas of strength.

I have to admit that I bristle every now and then when she admonishes me for not using my network to solve a problem "Mom -- just call Grandma -- she'll know what to do.." and it's hard to resist the temptation to squash this seemingly natural tendancy. It feels like cheating. I wonder when this shift happens? When do we start putting a higher value on "things we figure out ourselves" than on "things we figure out through our connections and conversations with other people"? When does knowledge become something we possess rather than something we share?

Through the ease of communications on the internet these connections and conversations are easier and more prevalent than ever before. My daughter's expectations seem to be that these connections and conversations are a natural part of life and learning. She see's no problem in "mining" her network to construct the knowledge she needs to attack any problem she comes up against. Is this another symptom of the "cut and paste" mentality that so many speak of? Is she cheating? or Is she simply perpetuating a natural form of learning that is no longer limited by the knowledge of her immediate (re: physical) network?

As educators try to come up with a definition for Personal Learning Networks kids are moving full steam ahead constructing them anyway (online and off). They don't care what words we use to describe them, they just see value in the experiences and expertise of other people. The process is as transparent to them as water is for a fish. So it leads me to wonder -- if the natural tendencies of children (and all of us) is to learn in a networked social environment is it fair to call socially constructed knowledge "cheating" or would that be like calling a fish wet?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Of Helicopters and Hovering

In a recent blogpost by Brad Ovenell-Carter he shared an interesting diagram he created (featured below) meant illustrate the evolution of a teacher's control or influence over student learning from K - 12.

The thing that struck me is that the same diagram could be used to explore the evolution of a parent's control or influence over their child's activities and relationships as they grow. Theoretically, as our children grow and gain maturity we let them venture a little further away. We allow them access to other children, first supervised and eventually unsupervised. We introduce them to experts like piano teachers, coaches or scout masters and at first these connections are made through us but eventually they find their own. We allow them to take on more responsibility and grant more freedoms as a result. It follows the old "give them roots and wings" adage.

It doesn't always work that way, sometimes as parents we never make it past that first "elementary" stage, thus the term "helicopter-parenting" was coined. A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a series of parenting workshops by David Irvine and he touched on the concept of helicopter parenting (which in my understanding would be the opposite of the model above). His contention was that when we "helicopter parent" our children we are sending them the message "You are not capable". Every bump we smooth out tells them we thought they couldn't negotiate the ride. Every problem we solve for them says "you couldn't have solved it on your own". Each mistake we shield them from indicates they aren't capable of handling the consequences of mistakes. A fairly sobering concept to say the least.

I wonder sometimes if we can apply the same model to education. If children can be helicopter parented does it stand to reason that they can be helicopter educated as well? What does helicopter educating look like? Are we unintentionally giving children the message that they are not capable? How can technology assist in turning Brad's vision into a reality?

My hope is that by the time my child graduates they know they are capable of recovering from mistakes, of problem solving, of negotiating around, through or over any bump in the road and that they can learn anything they set their mind on. I hope they have been rooted in good practices and have the wings to continue their own learning for a lifetime. That's the vision I see in Brad's diagram and I like what I see.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

7 Things Meme

Well I have been tagged by Cindy Seibel in the " 7 Things you did not know about me" meme. I started to look back over my blog posts, and any other digital footprints I have left lying around to see what you all may have been able to find out on your own. I was trying to make this a "7 things Google doesn't know about me" list but there are a few things Google knows that are too important to leave out.

1. I am completely enjoying my new PLN that has been built through blogging, webcasting, Twitter and any other number of SN tools, however there are times that I feel like a bit of an intruder in this Ed Tech world. My background is not in anything Tech or Ed related. I am actually a pharmacist in my day job. My interest in Ed Tech is a hobby that started while searching for a way to be authentically engaged in my child's school. Little did I know how this "hobby" was going to take over..

2. I wasn't always going to be a pharmacist. In fact I changed my registration on the first day of classes and transferred from the Recreation Administration program into Pre-Pharmacy. Now those are two worlds that don't often collide.

3. Unlike most people I really enjoy public speaking (one of many great skills learned from years of 4-H). I am much more at ease in front of group of people than I am speaking one on one in an enclosed space.

4. When I left for University I declared that I would never move back to a small town and certainly wouldn't go back to living on a farm. Now I find myself living on a farm in a community that is 1/4 the size of the town I grew up in. Come to think of it I wasn't getting married or having kids either but here I am with a husband and three kids. I have learned to never say never. There is no place else in the world I would rather be.

5. I don't like it when people call me smart. When I was in middle/high school (in a small town) being smart was(is?) a kind of social "kiss of death". You are always the "smart" kid. It wasn't until I went away to summer camp (where no-one knew I was smart) that I learned that I was funny, sarcastic, witty and a pretty good dancer! It is no wonder one of my favourite quotes is this:

“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do - especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” - William Least Heat Moon

and why I still enjoy traveling in order to see who I am right now through the eyes of others who have no yesterday's to reference.

(does that count as two things you didn't know???)

6. My Eighth grade teacher really wanted me to become a writer. I didn't really have faith in her assessment, after all she was my father's Grade 4 teacher, so I figured that there may be some senile dementia creeping in. I think of her often as I experience the joy of writing again through blogging.

7. My first child was delivered by C-section, the second naturally in hospital with a mid-wife and third a home birth with that same mid-wife. That sequence of events (and the trials and tribulations that went along with them) was one of the most profound learning experiences I have ever had both professionally and personally.

Wow, like Alec, that got a little deeper than I had originally intended. Thanks to Cindy for tagging in me in this and for reminding me of the power of summer camp through her own 7 things meme!! I don't know if I can tag 7 people but here is a start..

Joanne McMahon

L Winebrenner
Keisa Williams
and a few more to be added later....