February 9, 2007

Large Cycle Times

Here's a good comment by Joe Kuhn I spotted on the DI listserv:

I contend one of the reasons it's so hard to discover the right way to teach is the large cycle times. A cycle is the raw clock time between full trials of teaching someone who doesn't know something to mastery. When I write a computer program I chop the problem into pieces so that my cycle times are a matter of minutes. I make small tests for subtasks that I link together in a full cycle and re-run at whatever interval is convenient - sometimes several trials a minute. In between I tweak my program to pass all the tests. Full cycle times on the larger tasks rarely last over a day and if they do it's because there are competing projects that must be handled.

Consider how long it would take to teach a kid clock addition. You know the rules:
When the seconds hit 60, roll the seconds back to zero and add one to the minutes.
When the minutes hit 60, roll the minutes back to zero and add one to the hours.
When the hours hit 12 alternate a.m. with p.m. or vice versa, roll the hours back to one and add one to the day if you've alternated p.m. to a.m.
When the days hit the current month limit...

It would take weeks to teach a kid who doesn't know this, and have him performing to mastery - if he truely didn't know it. Even doing it Zig's way, it would take a long time. Throw in some heafty ego, unclear rules about what needs to be done and the word 'never' comes to mind.

It would take me less than a day to write a clock addition program, probably less than half a day, maybe an hour.

And I get paid more than teachers? Teaching is much harder than what I do. I take my hat off to the really good teachers out there. You deserve more than you get.


Anonymous said...

"I take my hat off to the really good teachers out there. You deserve more than you get."

Too bad that there aren't many who could do this. Besides, he overstates the case to make his point. No teacher teaches clock addition to mastery at one time. It's done incrementally. With a proper curriculum and teaching tools, many not so great teachers could get the job done. Isn't that the goal?

Teaching is just not that mysterious or difficult. The cycle times don't have to be large. Many times I would get immediate feedback by the dazed look in the students' eyes. I would look at the homework and know exactly what is going on - daily. This is a perfectly fine cycle time for education.

"And I get paid more than teachers? Teaching is much harder than what I do."

Pulleeessseee! Take some time to do a little research. Well, maybe if all he does are clock routines.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that deer-in-the-headlights look is pretty clear evidence that there's a problem.

Teachers get into trouble when they ignore that glazed look or think it will just take care of itself. It usually doesn't. It just gets placed into that little bag o' gaps.

Brett H said...

The deer in the headlights look is not the most common look on the faces of American students. The deer in the headlights look suggests confusion. While confusion definitely exists in the classroom, it is complacency and a lack of caring, that is the major problem. Many students today care so little about what they are being taught in school that the look of confusion would be an improvement over the look of "I don't give a _____!" Motivating students with curriculum that matches their interest is the only way to get them to care...once they do, teaching them core concepts becomes easier.

Anonymous said...

Will you please differentiate between elementary teachers and secondary teacher? They do different things.

Anonymous said...


Motivating students with curriculum that matches their interest is the only way to get them to care

Any thoughts on how to match, say, a lesson on order of operations with student interest? What about the quadratic formula?

My point here is to note that the "student interest" hand is overplayed. While I try to incorporate such things when I can, it is not feasible -- or even desirable -- to constantly seek alignment between curriculum and student interests. Sometimes you just gotta teach it and they gotta learn it. (They'll learn a great life lesson, too: Not everything in life will be catered to their desires.)

Tracy W said...

Motivating students with curriculum that matches their interest is the only way to get them to care...

The obvious difficulty here is that kids probably aren't interested in something they haven't encountered yet. This philosophy, if followed consistently would mean a very narrow curriculum.

Nor does it seem to be true. If you read the chapters in Zig's book (linked to in some of Ken's earlier posts), you'll see him using other ways of motivating kids. One notable one is a game he plays, by which if the kids don't answer he gets an M&M, if the kids do answer they get M&Ms (Zig acted very pleased when eating his M&M and acted very grumpy when giving them to a kid).

Another form of motivation is that people seem to like doing things that involve some learning but are reasonably doable. Computer games aim for this sweet spot. Too tough and people give up, too easy and people get bored. Play some computer games to experience this for yourself. Tetris is a good example - are people really deeply interested in lining blocks up on a computer screen? Not in itself I suspect, but the game is scarily addictive. DI appears to me to be working similarly. It creates motivation by providing a continual stream of new information to kids that they can conquer.

MassParent said...

This is why command and control, comprehensive testing, issued once a year, and with results returned sometime during the next school year, can't do much to help either schools or kids.

The timeframe is much too long to be useful for individual kids. If states could return test results in June instead of October, parents would at least have the opportunity to consider summer school or evaluate the best placement for their kids the next school year. But really, to be useful to kids, you need interactive feedback - the same day something is taught.

And paradoxically, the cycle time is too short to evaluate school restructurings; and the year to year data has too much noise in it even if the underlying data has something meaningful to say about a classroom.

Mass decided to eliminate the human factor in school restructuring in order to save time - cutting six months off of the cycle time, and automating findings of inadequacy. But they'd do a lot more for individual kids if they'd cut the five months between the time tests are taken and parents get the results.