The Truth is Out There by Bob Sprankle

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I think the best way to tell this tale, is to rewind to 7 or so years ago.

I am a 3/4 Multi-Age teacher, and Google has yet to be invented. I can’t remember exactly what I was teaching to the students at the time, but I believe it must have been science related, because we were talking about blood. Somehow the conversation turned to the color of blood, and before I knew it, my entire class —100%— was suddenly trying to convince me that:

“Your blood is blue when it’s inside your body and it turns red when it comes out and hits oxygen.”

I had never in my life heard such a thing.

I immediately disputed the fact, but like I said, there was no Google or even a reliable Internet connection in my room, so I was unable to quickly find proof for them. They held strong to their belief, and I to mine, and we left that day with no resolution of who was correct or not.

However —lucky for me— I was scheduled to have my blood drawn (for some yearly checkup thing) several days later. I’m able to do this in the morning before school starts at a facility conveniently located near the school. So, as the blood technician (is that the correct http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blutkreislauf.pngtitle?) stuck my arm, I asked her to help settle the argument. I told her my students’ claim that it is the oxygen that makes blood red and my own position of “No way.”

In short, she laughed at me and said, “Look at this tube that your blood is going in to. That’s a vacuum! There is no oxygen in there. What color is your blood?!”

Indeed it was red. I couldn’t wait to tell my students when I got to school that morning.

When I did, they still refused to believe me, even after a blood expert told me what’s what.

I’m not a scientist. I teach science at the elementary level, and I’ve still got plenty of science to learn. Did I doubt my own conviction when the entire class argued against me? You bet I did (even if momentarily), and I think all scientists constantly question and doubt their convictions as well until indisputable proof is delivered. Not being a blood expert, it was my duty to find the correct answer to bring back to my students. Finding a blood expert (a blood technician at a doctor’s office) seemed a sufficient resource for me to acquire the correct answer.

Fast forward to present:

I now teach in a computer lab with a curriculum that is mostly made up of ISTE standards, preparing students for the world they live in. One of the main skills taught is:

Students will use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.

I do this at each grade level I teach (K-4) in varying degrees and have just recently completed a unit with my 3rd graders on how to evaluate web resources, how to identify if the author(s) is an expert, and whether or not the information can be trusted.

To illustrate just how hard this can be, I asked my students a question at the beginning of the unit:

“How many of you think your blood is blue when it’s inside your body and turns red when it comes out and mixes with oxygen?”

Informally, I would say around 90-95% of the students said they believed this. They were shocked when I told them the story of asking an expert years ago whether or not this is true, and the revelation that this belief is a myth. This lead into the discussion of “what makes an expert?” and from there, we dove into how to find and evaluate information on websites.

So… the other day —St. Patrick’s Day to be specific— I needed to get a blood test again. Per usual, I went to the same facility close to the school. This time, however, out of all the times I’ve been there to have blood taken, I was put into a different room, one I was unaware even existed. It was right next to the room that I usually go in —a closet size space, large enough to accommodate the tools needed to get the job done. I’ll call this “Room A.” “Room B” (the room I was put in the other day), looks just like “Room A,” except everything is “backwards.” In other words, it has the exact same equipment, but its setup is a “mirrored image” of Room A.

So, I’m sitting there, noticing how the room is a mirrored image of the room I’ve always gone in, thinking about the fact that I never knew the existence of the room, daydreaming about parallel universes (hey, what can I say, my brain does these things) and listening to the blood technician as she wishes me a “Happy St. Paddy’s Day” and tells me how the entire office has been celebrating the day. They’ve all worn their green “scrubs,” Irish music is playing in the background, Leprechaun cut-outs have been hung up around the building… they’re really going for the Irish theme “big time” this year. I think of making a “green blood” joke, somehow connecting it to the tradition of “green beer,” but I realize it’s not going to come off right so I decide against it. When she gets ready to stick the needle in, however, I feel it’s my turn to continue some type of banter, if only to assure her that needles don’t bother me, and that I can make small talk while having blood drawn so she’ll have no concerns that I might be someone who faints or grows ill during such a procedure (I try my best to be an “upbeat” patient whenever encountering folks in the health field; I realize how difficult their jobs are).

I say to the technician —just to make small talk, mind you— “Do you know how many people think their blood is blue when it’s in their body and only turns red once it hits oxygen?”

I was approaching this topic not as someone who’s “in the know” (wink, wink) and is having a laugh at those who don’t know, but more as an educator, sharing common knowledge in order to next ask how many times she has encountered people who believe in blue blood, and how she goes about educating these patients.

Instead of the response I expected, she turned to me and said:

“Well… isn’t it?”

Okay… suddenly I was dizzy. It could have been the blood being drawn, the effect that the “mirrored room” was having on me (the parallel-universe-Matrix-movie effect), the Irish music whirling around on the sound system, or all of these combined. But suddenly, my entire reality took a hit and I felt the bottom drop out from below me.

“But… but… but…” I stammered, “I was here… a couple of years… ago… and the other technician… told me… that that’s a myth… vacuum… this tube… is a vacuum… proof…” I tried my best to tell about my previous encounter with one of her colleagues (an expert in blood), trying very hard not to offend her in any way.

It was clear the scene became slightly awkward for both of us because we were simultaneously doubting our realities. We both murmured on, mostly to ourselves:

Blood Technician: “I… heard this, but I can’t remember who told me…”

Me: “But… who’s seen the blue blood? How could one eliminate oxygen in order to actually… see it?”

Blood Technician: “Well… now I’m not sure… maybe I should ask the lab technician…”

Me: “Well, now I’m not sure… maybe the other person had it wrong…”

Meanwhile the red stuff flowed out of my arm into the little capsule and I realized I had accidentally, severely messed with this poor woman’s reality… or maybe my own. Or maybe I was trying to block out the voice in the back of my head that was screaming, “This woman is taking your blood! Shouldn’t she be an expert?! Shouldn’t her answer be as emphatic and indisputable as the last technician’s was? And shouldn’t both answers agree?!”

I made light of it by saying something like, “Heh, heh, heh! I can see what you’ll be talking about at dinner tonight. This jerk came in and started this whole crazy conversation with me about the color of blood! Heh, heh, heh!”

This didn’t help. She was clearly unnerved, and the moment she put the band-aid on my arm (“Please apply pressure”), she went to ask the “Lab Technician” the answer.

This was “off stage” so I never got to see the “Lab Technician.” I thought that my “Blood Technician” was the “Lab Technician,” but clearly there are different levels of technicians.

My “Blood Technician” came back a moment later and told me the “Lab Technician’s” answer:

He said he wasn’t sure and to Google it.”

Okay… I have to admit, at this point I just wanted to get out of there. I had done enough damage.

The “Blood Technician” did go on to say that the “Lab Technician” also said that some blood is red and some is darker because of the lack of oxygen, and that some people would say that it resembled a purplish color, maybe not actually blue.

I finally leave, feeling really badly that I ever brought this up, but now am filled from head to toe with an intense desire: I must find the truth.

Okay. It is at this point in the post, that I’m sure some of you are voting for “RED” and some of you are voting for “BLUE.” Please, don’t hesitate to take a pause from reading here to go do your own Google search (I’ll wait here). Before I reveal my own findings, I again want to admit that I was unsure of the final answer. I decided to put a typical search into Google in a syntax that I see many students use: in other words, ask it a question directly. Feel free to use the one I used:

“Is blood blue in your body?”

This is a great activity for students, by the way: “Prove whether blood is blue or red when it’s inside your body.” Using the Google search I gave as an example above, you’re going to see that there will be plenty of results (I got “About 17,100,000 results” on the day I ran the query). The next job for your students is to be able to separate the answers found from those that are made up of anecdotal evidence, and perhaps supplied by amateurs (such as you might find on a “Yahoo Answers” page) from those which are indisputable and come from experts in the field. This is where you get to teach students how to harness advance search options (such as limiting results to sites with the domain “.edu”) or any of the other great lessons that you would find in Alan November’s book: “Web Literacy for Educators”.

For instance, as your students start to understand how to limit searches to just academic sites (by using “.edu” I came up with a smaller search result: “About 774,000”), they might come up with one of results I found:

https://www.msu.edu/~kalinkat/professionalpages/TechMatrixMaterials/documentarybloodmisconceptions.htm

Once they use this academic source to “prove/disprove” their assumption, you can then “mess with their minds” by teaching them that the “tilde” (this symbol: ~) used before the professor’s name (~kalinkat) means that while this site is related to an academic site (from Michigan State University, to be exact), the “tilde” shows that the “site is not an official academic page… but actually a personal posting” (p.32, November). What does this mean? Personal postings could show “bias,” and more research is required.

Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere! We’ve just opened up a lovely “can of worms!” Isn’t the search for truth fun?

You see, I must come clean: I’m sure you can tell that this whole “blue blood” thing has gotten me a bit fired up. The thing is, though, I’m not bothered by the fact that I doubted myself several times throughout this long research journey. I’m not even bothered by the fact that every adult (except one) I’ve asked since my “St. Paddy’s Day” blood test has answered “Blue” when I asked them what color blood is inside your body. (By the way, that one person who said “Red” is our school’s nurse, and she came and actually talked to one of my classes with charts in hand. Incidentally, she went home that day and asked her own husband what color he thought it was, and he refuses to believe in any answer other than “Blue”).

What bothers me is that the idea that blood is blue in our bodies until it comes into contact with oxygen is truly a “magical idea.” It is on the level of something that would be possible in the movie Avatar, or as magical as actual Leprechauns coming to visit on St. Patrick’s Day. In other words, because this seems so over the top, how could such a misconception (or myth) exist so long and so large in our culture and why did it take so much effort to prove to myself and to others I’ve been arguing with for weeks what the correct answer is?

When served green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone knows it’s not magic and can follow the logical trail back to how such a thing as the beer turning green occurred (eventually landing at food coloring or some other scientific answer). We’ve all had experience with blood. Red blood. No one has ever seen blue blood come out of a human, and yet so many of us are walking around satisfied with the notion that someone somewhere once told us it is actually blue.

When I asked people to prove to me their answer when they said “Blue,” no one could, of course, but most were content to hang on to their belief rather than be motivated to find cold, hard evidence.

So, I end this post with two questions:

  1. The first one (probably expected) is: Are we teaching enough science in our curriculum?
  2. But the second question seems more urgent to me: Are we teaching enough research and critical thinking skills in our curriculum?

Here are some of my favorite findings that might help you with your own “Blue/Red” debates:

—————
Works Cited:

“Binghamton University – News and Events: The Newsroom: Ask a Scientist: Scientist: Archive.” Binghamton University – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <http://www.binghamton.edu/news/the-newsroom/ask-a-scientist/index.html?date=2011-03-07>.

“Blood – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood#Color>.

Molinaro, M. . “Biophotonics Tools – Oxymetry IST 8A Lecture.” Biophotonics Tools – Oxymetry IST 8A Lecture. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CBQQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fcbst.ucdavis.edu%2Feducation%2Fcourses%2Fwinter-2010-ist8a%2Fist8a_2010_03_08oxymetry.pdf&ei=v8mYTb6VCuWa0QH9j5n8Cw&usg=AFQjCNHlJCmHFrj2cN9BlRfx3KNetFdxGQ&sig2=xZee1kItyE5jRalugx6zhg>.

November, Alan C.. Web Literacy for Educators . Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Print.

Tsai, Nelly. “Circulatory System.” nelly practicum.pdf. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <courses.washington.edu/edtep586/nelly%20practicum.pdf>.

Process vs Product by Bob Sprankle

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Years ago I accompanied a student who I was working one-on-one with to an event at his school where his entire grade level was having a special “showing” of their Social Studies Projects. I can’t remember the unit they were studying. I can’t remember what the project was (I vaguely recall the “Oregon Trail” or “log cabins,” or maybe “wetlands,” but I could be completely wrong on each of these guesses). What I do remember is that this particular school had been running this event yearly for a very long time —and that it was important— VERY important. The whole community showed up for the event —parents, teachers, siblings, grandparents— and walked around the gymnasium viewing the completed work (dioramas maybe?).

For most readers, I realize that I only have to add one detail for you to see what played out that evening (and I guess every year for this event): the project had been assigned for homework.

In other words, completely at home; not at school.

Let me interrupt here to say that I am not focusing on homework for this post (that is a much longer post, and I think Alfie Kohn has already taken care of that for us). So let us leave the issues and pros and cons of homework to the side for now, and just zoom in on those completed projects (were they poster boards…?).

Can you see them?

Some of those projects (whatever they were) are pure expressions of genius. They’re masterpieces. Works of art. Feats of engineering not yet realized. Color schemes compliment the themes. Just the right amount of glitter; not too much, not too little. If glue was used, all evidence has been camouflaged. Lines are straight as a ruler and circles seem to have sprung from lathes run by magical elves. The structures are sturdy enough to have survived the car rides over to the school and will last for generations to come, perhaps transforming from their original purpose into Thanksgiving centerpieces or by taking their rightful places on trophy shelves. Throughout the evening of presentation, there will be large crowds gathered around these projects. One will have to wait in long queues to get to see them. No one will be allowed to touch.

Further down the line, past the crowds, there will be another breed of product completely. These projects are the complete opposite of those described above. Gone are the realistic astro-grass lawns, the miniature people procured from a real Hobby Shop. Shellacked and interlocking dowels will be replaced by Popsicle sticks and toothpicks. Glue-gobs will not only be visible, they will still be in the process of drying. It will be obvious that Magic Markers replaced paint and you will be able to spot exactly where they began drying up during their application. Perhaps the projects have survived the car rides here, but their fate for the trips home are in critical mode, and some will barely make it past the parking lot dumpster. Whereas the other products were life-like, these projects will sorely stand out among their more professional counterparts as representations of ideas rather than something familiar to the physical universe. In fact, the most generous compliment bestowed upon them is that they look as though a “fourth grader” made them.

Which is, by the way, exactly who made them.

This grade level, after all, is fourth grade.

So let’s identify the “elephant in the room.” Some of these projects were created entirely by 4th grade students (as they were supposed to be) and some of them were created (at least in part) by… parents. There’s no real secret about this either: most of the murmurings in the gym that night were of the flavor of, “no kid made that!” or “this was obviously made by a parent!” Of course, these assessments were heard from those families that let the 4th grade student do all the work independently. There are probably infinite reasons for why this was allowed: could be that parents really believe in their students’ right to create on their own, or they don’t believe in “cheating” (not my words, by the way; this is what students who had done their own work called it), or, on the a less optimistic side of possibilities, parents had no interest in finding out about their students’ assignment and no desire to get involved.

Again, without getting into the issue of homework, as well as not examining the obvious “equalizer” of requiring all projects to be created entirely at school with access to uniform supplies and support, we must take pause and examine what it is we are celebrating on an evening like this.

It clearly is PRODUCT. As we move around the gymnasium, we see only the final “image,” if you will, of a journey untold. The learning involved, the struggles and successes, and even the purpose of the finished creations usually remain a mystery. At times, journals accompany the work, or a write-up by the teacher is posted at the front of the exhibit, but it is the PRODUCTS that win the attention, hands-down.

Which is… of course why some parents feel compelled to “chip in.” If PRODUCT is “king,” then that becomes what counts, and will always overshadow the PROCESS, or the learning.

Imagine, if you would, the same evening of celebration for students, however, this time, parents watch from the sidelines as students actually create the products, or if the products on display were accompanied by audio/video/journals of what the students learned. The evening could be extended to give the students time to share their learning, but also to teach their families what they learned. Parents could be given short quizzes (created by the students) to give the students feedback on how well they taught the information. Or… after the students teach their parents the information, then the students and parents could build the final product together, all the time consulting reference material, the student’s notes, and discussing the curriculum standards being acquired. These final products could then be shared by publishing pictures of them to the Internet… or not. For the question is: what is the purpose of publication?

There are numerous answers to this question: making work purposeful, providing an authentic audience, making learning a conversation (on a blog, for instance), but I think we too often forget another important aspect when we ask our students to publish: to show the journey of learning, in other words, how did the student get to this final point?

Whenever I give a workshop on blogging, invariably, a teacher will ask what I think about leaving students’ original misspellings (or invented spelling), incorrect grammar, lack of punctuation in the entries. I believe, without a doubt, we want our students to arrive at publication that is polished… students should be asked to go back and fix mistakes, and if they aren’t able to find the mistakes, then it’s a perfect opportunity for mini-lessons on the skills.

HOWEVER… why aren’t we showing all steps to the final product? What is so wrong in publishing each draft along with the final polished draft? This transparency would show the student’s steps of learning, showing both growth as well as struggles. And, if a student is not yet able to attain a certain skill (even after additional mini lessons on the desired skill), then what is the point of the teacher fixing the errors? Doesn’t that just “cloud” the “snapshot” or continuum stage that the student is at? Everything looks perfect on the blog, for instance, but then the student’s report card says otherwise?

And what is so wrong in showing our sloppy mistakes and struggles? Isn’t that what school is all about? Aren’t we there to perfect our skills and get to the level where our work is truly “polished?”

Why are we reticent to show the struggles students experience, the “bumpy” journey of learning, the truth that students will attain skills at different stages and pacing from their peers, and present only the final PRODUCT, which can never encapsulate the story of where the student started and how he/she got to this end.

Recently, my after school Tech Group presented their work-in-progress to parents. This group of students have completed all work as a collective group, with very little input from me. All decisions have been made by the students. The entire presentation was put together by the students… in fact, I barely knew what they were going to present until I heard it for the first time, along with the parents.

At first, you could see the parents were a bit uncomfortable with this method. They kept asking the students about what had already been accomplished, or what will be accomplished, or, what PRODUCT they had to show. Since the students are really at the beginning of their work (i.e., are closer to the beginning of the journey and still making decisions on what their goals are), they presented their ideas, how the ideas were created, what plans they might have, what decisions they had already made, and what the next steps were going to be.

Parents were seeing the process of them actually building their work. In fact, during the presentation, there were several times when the students began generating new ideas and broke into discussion between themselves, with the parents suddenly relegated to the role of witnesses. The last part of the students’ presentation was taking questions and comments from the parents. The students have used some of the parents’ feedback in their subsequent meetings as they continue their work.

It took a while, but I think the parents finally understood that they were not there to hear a “finished” work being presented. The students never promised such an event, and in fact, it was the parents who had originally asked the students to present what they had accomplished so far.

From where I stood, it was a marvelous experience: parents got to see the very rare building of the work (something usually shrouded and mysterious) and the students were able to get great feedback and accolades during the process of the work they’ve been doing.

There were no “projects” to take home that evening. Instead, everyone left energized and there was a feeling of excitement for not only of what was yet to come, but what was being created right before our very eyes.

Overlooking the Obvious by Bob Sprankle

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“The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve recently finished reading the outstanding book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success. I highly recommend it, so much so, that I don’t want to give away too much of what makes it an essential book for educators. I do want to “zoom in” on one of the final chapters that discusses what could be one of the most glaring and obvious ways to “fix” the current problems that “ails” the US school system.

There’s a lot of great discussion going around thanks to the documentary, Waiting for Superman, MSNBC’s Education Nation, as well as rhetoric in recent elections. I haven’t had the chance to see Superman yet, and admittedly, I saw little of Education Nation, but I’ve read plenty about both. My informal assessment is that both avenues shine positive and negative light on the systems we have in place at present. There’s some bashing going on, but there’s also praise. It seems universal, however, that most people agree that they want things to get better. Fair or accurate representations from the media are important, but even if they get it wrong, this is an excellent opportunity for national conversation.

The chapter I’m referring to in Gladwell’s book Outliers, seems to me to be one of the most obvious places to start the conversation. As Gladwell states,

“Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates. It is considered a permanent and inviolate feature of school life, like high school football or the senior prom.”

He goes on to smash this untouchable tradition by citing the work of Johns Hopkins University Sociologist Karl Alexander (his research into “Summertime Learning Loss”), and then hits us smack in the head with numbers that are indisputable: Number of school days for the South Korean school year is 220 days. Japan: 243 days.

United States: 180 days.

The whole point of Gladwell’s book is that more time to practice skills is what leads to the “outliers” —those that reach high levels of success. He provides anecdotes and evidence that those with the opportunity for more time, will undoubtedly rise to the top. Gladwell refutes the idea that talent is what makes great basketball players, musicians, mathematicians, writers, fill-in-the-blank, etc. It is time that makes greatness. Time to really learn and practice a skill, as well as not having an unjustifiable and extended break (such as summer vacation) to unlearn or become rusty at skills attained, is the difference between good and great.

243 days – 180 days = 63 days of advantage.

There used to be a reason for summer furlough (and Gladwell explains the difference between Western agricultural needs vs Asian agricultural needs), but students are clearly no longer needed to be home to help get the crops in during the summer months. Again, I refer you to the research Gladwell cites from Karl Alexander to illustrate the damage that this time off has on students —most notably, on lower income populations who suffer a larger loss, as evidenced in the data. In short, students of lower income lack the opportunities for “continued learning opportunities” that more affluent students have access to during the summer months.

Perhaps “No Child Left Behind” would have been better served with the title: “Leave no Month Behind.”

As Gladwell points out, “Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates.” Counter-arguments or conversation-stoppers on the subject most likely come in the form of “We’ve always done it like this,” or “High School students need summers off to make income for college tuition,” or “This would have a severe impact on the economy as dollars are no longer put into summer vacation circulation,” or even, “Give me Summers Off, or Give Me Death!”

These and other arguments are not to be treated lightly. There are some very important decisions that would have to be made, and perhaps even hardships incurred that changing to a year-long school curriculum would require.

I surely don’t have the answers to the infinite conundrums that could be caused by giving up summer (read Gladwell; he makes a better argument than I can make, and he’s not alone), but the numbers don’t lie: the data from Alexander’s research are impressive, and, I think we can all agree that a 63 days difference between American school days and Japanese school days is by no means insignificant. There’s got to be some “out of the box” thinking for restructuring our school year to either include more days, or perhaps distribute more evenly the large gap of nearly 3 months that depletes learning across the year, rather than keeping that time lumped together in its current summer vacation embodiment.

Here’s my biggest worry, however. Let’s say a “magic wand” is waved and somehow we expand our school days to a number closer to Japan’s. What I fear is that rather than finally having time to master (even “conquer”) the curriculum we already have in place (that is already given short shrift), even more will be added on. This won’t help at all, will it? We’ll be in a worse situation: still not enough time to accomplish the curriculum, and now even more curriculum to not have enough time to accomplish.

Gladwell gives an excellent example towards the end of the book from the KIPP Academy where students are given extended time to solve math problems. He demonstrates that the extended time allows for the teacher and students to make “mathematics meaningful.” After all, what’s the rush? Is it more important to make sure we cover the required content, or make sure that the students are given all the time necessary to acquire the content?

————

Bob Sprankle is a Technology Integrator in Maine, writer, blogger, podcaster, iphoneographer enthusiast, and father. He is humbled and honored to be asked to be a guest blogger for November Learning. To learn more about Bob, head on over to www.bobsprankle.com.

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