Thursday, August 12, 2010

Design principle: don't break the stream of the user unless you mean it

Design principles are often most noticeable when they are violated. You may personally experience frustration as the result of design flaws, and/or on a larger scale you may notice that nobody follows the design.

This came to my mind as I exited a bathroom of a coffee shop in Portland after washing my hands. On the door hangs a sign telling me to use a paper towel to turn off the water.

Uh, too little, too late!

It also tells me to use a paper towel to open the door as I leave. Now, I could either go back to the paper towel dispenser or I could do what I normally do--use my foot or elbow or try to touch the door where nobody else has. Based on the wear and tear around the door handle this is what other people have done, too.

Lastly, it tells me to throw out the paper towel in the trash can. Only problem is, there's no trash can anywhere nearby. That there are no paper towels on the ground therefore suggests that nobody bothers to get them in the first place.

They apparently want the bathroom users to get a paper towel to turn on the water, then go get another one to turn off the water, then another to open the door, then go back in to throw it out. Then another to leave after throwing the first one out. But then go back in to throw the second one out. But then another to leave again...maybe they don't want anyone to leave.

At least, that would explain why there were 37 very confused people in the bathroom spinning around in circles...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:NE Holladay St,Portland,United States

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grilling at the heart of the world

We tend to think of modern scientists in the reductionist tradition to have thought more deeply about the world than ancient thinkers. Thomas Kuhn, at his most extreme, was convinced that ancient theories were no more or less true than modern theories, just different. Sometimes, when I'm standing under a big tree, with birds chattering, and the moon just as aloof now as it was 1,000,000 years ago, I can convince myself of the same thing. But then I remember it's time to flip over the pork chops on the grill.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:My backyard

Monday, February 22, 2010

Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

Watching the Olympics this past week has conjured up a lot of memories of various moments in sport that I have found particularly moving. One of my favorite moments was one you probably do not remember.  It was 1994, at the Nagano Winter Olympics.  This was the much-anticipated Olympics of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tanya Harding drama, when skating had reached new high in the amount of attention from the public by hitting a new low morally and emotionally. 

Under the radar was two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt, who had just come back to figure skating that year.  Coming into the long program, she -stood in 6th place.  Witt dedicated her long program performance to the city of Sarajevo, where she had won her first gold medal 10 years before.  (Sarajevo in 1994 was under siege in the midst of the genocidic Bosnian war.)  In an elegant and simple dress (in contrast to a lot of the gaudy sparkle-fests worn by her competitors) Witt skated her program with soul, grace, and fluidity:

I especially love the ending, 4min into the video--I find it visually stunning and powerful.  I think it is noteworthy that the crowd was so taken by the performance, they were throwing flowers onto the ice.  Even more telling are the boos and hisses from the crowd when Katarina's abysmal scores were announced.  She came in eighth in the long program, because she just didn't do enough triples to impress the judges, like her upstart competitors did. 

Why has this moment stuck with me for so long?  I think it is because even then, when I was 16, I could sense the irony expressed by Katarina's performance.  There was the explicit message that in an age of war and aggression, we should seek peace and beauty.  There was also the implicit message sent to the sport of figure skating--in an age when skating had become little more than a triple-axle competition mixed with a reality TV show, Katarina was expressing that it had come at the expense of honesty and elegance. 

I think the sport of figure skating has tried harder and harder to become an "objective" sport, under the assumption that the more objective it is, the more you can prove through measurement that one performance was better than another, or that one skater is better than another.  I think Katarina Witt's performance at the Olympics in 1994 was one of the most telling reminders for me that the most important things cannot be measured.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

I would vote Coakley on Monday, if I were still in Massachusetts…

…and here’s why. 

Of course there’s the health care reform, but we have to remember that this vote for a senate seat, not merely health care reform.

An issue of equal importance, in my book, is education.  Coakley’s stances are well-thought out and will make positive changes within the currently wretched policy environment.  Brown’s stances are backwards and will only take things from bad to worse.

Being a doctoral student in education, I am particularly passionate about the importance of good education in fostering a stronger nation and a better life for its citizens.  Through my studies and experiences, I have come to believe that our nation’s educational policies (ahem, NCLB) have had a lasting negative impact on our nation’s schooling that only promises to get worse unless something drastic happens.

I have been working in schools over the last 10 years as a teacher, as a teacher supervisor, and as a professional developer fostering innovative teaching techniques.  I started teaching in 2000, before NCLB was passed, and I felt the winds change.  These winds brought in some dark clouds: my efforts at improving education have been continually (and continue to be) thwarted by the current policy environment.  And making positive changes has only gotten more difficult over the past 10 years. 

The whole premise of NCLB is misguided, however well-intentioned its writers may have been.  The whole idea is that all students, 100%, every single one, will score “proficient” or above on a standardized test by 2016.  This is regardless of whether they are: bad-test-takers, severely mentally disabled, rich, poor, recent immigrants (legally or illegally), attend a good or a bad school, have good or bad teachers, have an f’d up home life, etc.  This would be a laudable goal, albeit a bit pie-in-the-sky, if only the standardized test had anything to do with what we would really want to call learning and thinking.   It does not.

The worst, most idiotic, and most damaging part of NCLB is the “Adequate Yearly Progress” clause.  Not only must schools get all students to 100% proficiency on the standardized test, but they must also get better and better scores each year.  Highlighting the short-sightedness of this policy, Bush in 2001 ended up awarding both the Blue Ribbon of excellence and also the ‘failing school’ condemnation to the very same schools!  There was a USA Today article on it at the time; you can check it out here.

School systems, because of NCLB, are addicted to proving “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), because this determines the federal funding for the school, and the employment of its administrators and teachers.  This prevents any adoption of new curricula or teaching methods, unless they are likely to greatly improve test performance.  And guess what greatly improves test performance?  That’s right: learning test-taking strategies.  So, instead of learning to think, or learning to do science or music or art, or math, or learning to read or right, students are pushed to learn how to take standardized tests.  And the problem is, the test-taking strategies are in fact improving their test scores!  But at what cost?

Research in education is uncovering a scary picture of how NCLB has affected what goes on in classrooms.  Researchers at the University of Maryland happened to be closely studying the activities of the classroom, when right in the middle of their study NCLB was passed and implemented.  They were tracking, with PDA’s, the minute-by-minute goings-on in the classroom.  They found that, in every classroom they were monitoring, the amount of high cognitive demanding questions went significantly down, and the amount of low cognitively demanding questions and tasks went way up. Now THAT’S scary.  NCLB, and the high-stakes testing environment, apparently lowers the standards.  How’s that for ‘accountability’?  (BTW: This research is reported in the book Test Driven, but be forewarned that it’s very research-y!) 

Accountability is a buzz-word that has nearly lost all of its meaning in education, and when a politician mentions it it is because they are trying to sell you something.  (Thanks, George Bush!)  So, it makes me cringe when Scott Brown makes that the centerpiece of his education platform.  He also
vows to fight for standardized testing as a measure of accountability:

Scott Brown’s Education policy statement: I am passionate about improving the quality of our public schools. Accountability and high standards are paramount. I support choice through charter schools, as well as the MCAS exam as a graduation requirement. I have worked to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. I am a strong advocate for the METCO program, which provides lower income students with broader educational opportunities.

Martha Coakley, on the other hand, is looking forward.  Not only is education a more important issue to her, but she has sensible plans for actually improving it.

Martha Coakley’s Education policy statement: Martha is deeply committed to public education. As Senator, she will fight to improve teacher compensation, fund programs that connect students to innovative technology and industries, and implement education reform that fosters and rewards innovation.

I encourage you to go to her site and read more about her education policy stances (I would tell you to read more about Brown's stances, but what I pasted was all he had to say.)  Here’s my favorite part of Coakley's statement:
Martha supports efforts to move away from measuring adequate yearly progress (“AYP”) based on standardized testing.  These tests fail to recognize that all children do not learn in the same way or at the same rate, especially in high-risk schools.  By holding schools accountable to this one-size-fits-all standard, many are improperly labeled as underperforming and subject to unfair and counter-productive federal sanctions. Martha supports the use of growth models and indexing systems to focus on tracking the progress of individual students over time.

If you want a senator working for positive change in educational policy, I suggest all you massholes vote for Coakley!!