Concluding . . .
Dec 27th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

My final statistics graduate course took place last week.  I’ve graded the exams and submitted the grades and stand happy with what I’ve done.  It has certainly been a challenge, but it has shown me that I am capable of teaching at the university level and that I’m interested in doing it!  This is an interesting situation, since becoming a college professor would require me to take approximately a $30,000 pay cut from my current job as a high school department chair. 

Teaching at the university level would afford me the opportunity to do some of the things that I am very interested in pursuing:

  • Conducting my own research
  • Continuing to supervise other research
  • Intellectual thinking, writing, and publishing
  • Continued development of my own personal 21st-century skills

Nonetheless, I think I will still watch for interesting opportunities that may offer me options for my own professional growth and the ability to share my experiences.

One immediate challenge for me is this blog.  I have written here with the intention that my students particiapte in the discussion, but I really want to strive to get a larger audience that does not have an obligation to participate, but rather desire to share and develop my own ideas.  This ultimately would be one of the best ways to develop my 21st-century skills.

Conceptual multiple choice questions
Dec 12th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

One of my good friends and colleagues, Nick Kowgios, is perhaps the most innovative, thoughtful educator I have ever met.   He developed a method for assessment coined “Test Debate/Test Analysis” where students i.) take a multiple choice test, then, as a class, ii.) debate and vote on the answers to the test, and finally iii.) metacognitively write about choices they made and their impressions they had.  This process is very Socratic and allows the teacher to truly be a facilitator. 

On the surface it sounds very odd. Students vote for the best answers and decide?  Probably would sound even odder if I told you that students have debated one multiple choice question for well over an hour.  However, Nick’s work has demonstrated that this method produce statistically significant increases on standardized tests (AP exams, state exams). 

I’ve used the method, and what strikes me is that assessment becomes more formative.  In other words, we often teach students concepts, learning stops, we assess, and move on. In this format, we teach student concepts, we assess, and learning continues.   The key to the whole process is that assessment MUST be conceptual.  Nick and I were chatting about the application from his discipline (English/LA) to mine (Science), and some of the resistance he has encountered from science teachers.  Here’s part of what I wrote to him:

I would categorize science learning and assessment into three broad categories:

1. factual

2. conceptual

3. analytical


Factual clearly being a way where teachers are concerned with isolated facts out of context.  Conceptual as you and I think about it.  In science assessment- more so using big ideas to analyze scenarios and apply knowledge.  Analytical would be more of a computational problem solving approach.  I think of conceptual questions more as ill-defined problems and analytical as well defined problems.  Both are inquiry-based but a conceptual question can have multiple possibilities (i.e., the BEST answer), where a well-defined has one right answer (i.e., the CORRECT answer).


Most chemistry teachers use an analytical approach to their teaching, so they might not realize that they have to change the way they assess – they need questions that have best answers instead of questions that have right answers.  (Is my distinction OK and clear?)  Conceptual learning generally works better (easier? less work for the teacher?  less change in philosophy?) in a non-quantitative course like Biology.


Today we were doing debate and this question really challenged the kids (about 30 minutes on this one):


8. A scientist suspects that the food in an ecosystem may have been contaminated with radioactive nitrogen over a period of months.  Which of the following substances could be examined for radioactivity to test that hypothesis?

a. the cell walls of plants growing in the ecosystem

b. the hair produced by skunks living in the ecosystem

c. the sugars produced during photosynthesis by plants growing in the ecosystem

d. the cholesterol in the cell membranes of organisms living in the ecosystem

e. any of these choices would work well.


The context of the question comes from a unit on macromolecules.  We had learned the structure of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins.  We had not discussed radioactivity in any sense.  They should have had previous exposure to radioactivity, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter too much in the context of the question.  I’ll give my impression on the thought process that should/might happen:


First, students have to recognize that nitrogen is an atom and nitrogen makes up only certain macromolecules. (This, by the way, didn’t happen for all students – they got stuck on radiation as some amorphous property that could “drift” from one place to another, instead of being a physical property of the nitrogen atom (i.e., additional neutrons)).

1. carbohydrates are made from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen

2. lipids are made from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen

3. proteins are made from nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur

(4. nucleic acids (DNA/RNA) are made from nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and phosphorus) – I put this one in parenthesis because we did not talk about nucleic acids, and there are no nucleic acids in the choices above).


Now students have to decide which of the above might contain proteins (no longer nitrogen)

a. cell walls are primarily made of cellulose – cellulose is a carbohydrate – but there are some proteins that are present.  However, the radioactivity is probably mostly in the plants – however it’s the proteins of the plants, and there’s not very much of that in a cell wall.

b. hair of the skunk is primarily made of protein.  Toxins tend to bioaccumulate, so as you go up the food chain there should be a higher concentration.  I think this is the best choice.

c. sugars are carbs – no nitrogen.  Interestingly, a student quoted a book saying something about radioactivity in the photosynthetic process.  He was quickly slapped by another student who commented that he was talking about radioactive carbon, not radioactive nitrogen.

d. cholesterol is a lipid (steroid) – again, no nitrogen.

e.  they just all don’t work

The class was primarily debating the merits of a and b.  I actually stopped for five minutes to make them do some data hunting for better support – they hit the books and came back, still arguing.  Ultimately the class went for b, because the “a” supporters were having trouble putting holes in the “b” argument. 


Notice how much I can write about a multiple choice question.  The students are just as passionate.  And the learning that is taking place is powerful.  Consider the following question.  The students in my class are split over the best answer.  Read the comments and see how they interpret, support, provide evidence, analyze, and synthesize information:

15.  A reasonable conclusion from the Sponge – Bacterial Growth Lab based on class data would be

a. the zone of inhibition prevents bacterial growth

b. Lysol is an effective antibacterial agent

c. pathogenic bacteria grow on Petri dishes

d. a moist, 37oC incubator is the optimal growing environment for cultured bacteria

e. microwaving a sponge for 1 minute effectively kills bacteria

Finding the big ideas in writing
Dec 5th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I’ve often challenged students to think about conceptual learning and big ideas.  I’ve never been one for learning isolated facts, because those “facts” are usually lost after a summative assessment.  If students focus on concepts, they are more likely to retain their knowledge and be able to connect these ideas to new knowledge better.  Conceptual learning certainly would resonate with anyone who would subscribe to a constructivist philosophy of education.

Recently I read a blog post by Wesley Fryer touting a new Web 2.0 tool, Wordle:

Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.

Here’s a Wordle for this blog:

I was pleased to see how often the words “students” and “learning” appear in my writing. Close behind were “technology,” “instruction,” and “data.” This represents what I would think my major thoughts and musings are.

I thought about how powerful this tool might be for allowing students to examine their own writing. Willing to evaluate myself, I processed my Review of Literature from my dissertation. No surprises here either:

Now finding this VERY interesting, I thought I’d do a comparison of my Results Section:

I really have a sense of what my study was about when I examine the Conclusions:

Wordle is not content audited, so teachers who might choose to use this tool should be sensitive to appropriate Internet safety for their students. However, the power to allow students to creatively interpret their written work, and then examine content trends seems very powerful to me.

Irony in the computer lab
Dec 2nd, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I am currently sitting in a computer lab in one of our district schools having a demonstration of a school data management system, PowerSchool.  (We are considering a migration from our current system.) The presenter is doing a real time demonstration of the system online, and all of the teachers, secretaries, IT dept members, and administrators are sitting at the computer stations.  

People are frantically taking copious notes on paper – they’ve pushed their keyboards out of the way and are scribing their information.  Only two of us are taking notes on the computer.  I recognize that some situations work better on paper – drawing figures, computing math, and the likes, but this (now) is different.  This is text-based knowledge acquisition.

How can we encourage 21st-century learning skills in our students, integrated with information technology, when so many of us are still entrenched in practices that do not reflect best practice use of technology?  It’s hard to teach effective use, when we don’t necessarily know how to do it well ourselves.

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