Most would say that, in the end, all that matters is what you did. The words you said, the promises you made, the intentions you had: all are irrelevant if there was no net change in the end-result; no improvement to validate your life’s efforts.
I am not one of those people. Yes, actions do matter but in the absence of explanation, of motive and, most importantly, of a clear sense of what’s desired; a collective vision, then how do we even know the desired destination? How are we to see what’s been done? How can we judge its effectiveness; its value? How can we possibly expect any system wide strides forward?
On August 30, 2013 I retired from 30 years of service to the public education system of this province and if I learned only one single lesson along the way, it is this: if the pursuit of education is to be truly successful then it cannot be the product of a collection of skillful individuals, each toiling away and bound by the administrative structures—whether real or imagined—within which they live. It needs, rather, to be a group effort; a cooperative venture fuelled by the right motivators and carried out by teams of highly skilled professionals, each lending their particular expertise in support of a mission that is greater than all of us. Yes, it requires putting our egos aside, rendering our selfish needs as secondary to those of others and venturing way out past our areas of comfort.
Educators are united by a common goal: the betterment of educational practice through the skillful utilization of the appropriate set of tools and methods. In some ways we live in a time of plenty. We certainly live in a time of great change. Over the past few decades we have seen the introduction of wondrous devices well adapted to the fields of communication and data management. Applications of that know-how to our field of education are many. What’s more, as the body of knowledge grows it transforms whole fields of practice. The view on the horizon is ever changing.
We also live in a time of great trepidation. There have been many false starts; many failures. What’s more, the risks and time investments associated with change are so great that many are seemingly unwilling to make even the first steps forward.
We have all witnessed it, many times.
In 1991 I was privileged to be able to attend one of the week-long workshops sponsored by the provincial DOE, under the direction of Wilbert Boone and facilitated by Frank Shapleigh. During a one-week period, at Gander, that summer I along with about 20 others was immersed in te practice of using digital interfacing technologies in the high school science lab. Our cohort assembled, from scratch, photogates and connection boxes then went on to use them to perform all sorts of mechanics labs such as studies of uniform and accelerated motion as well as to investigate things like Newton’s second Law of motion and the Impulse Momentum theorem. We also used store bought sensors to work with light, sound, temperature and pH.
To say the least, on a personal level, it was transformative. I returned to my school and immediately took steps to change my ways. That year I purchased and assembled five photogate kits and, in addition, led a fundraising drive which also purchased a multipurpose lab interface along with probes for motion, light, sound and temperature. In just one year my physics class was transformed forever, as was my math class due to the fact that I was also able to get my hands on a whole bunch of TI graphing calculators, but that’s another story.
Not only did the labs give great results and enable students to do things they could not even dream of doing otherwise but they were also enjoyable as they gave you the opportunity to get god data and to further investigate what-ifs. While I enjoyed the labs on motion and on Newton’s Laws, I particularly enjoyed the one in which we measured the speed of sound.
It worked like this: You got some plastic pipe between 1.5 m and 2 metres long and closed off one end. You put a microphone at the open end and set the interface to display the sound waves it picked up onscreen. It looked like the picture below.
You set the system to only take one sweep and also set it so it would only start—be triggered—by a loud noise. You then put your hand by the mike and snapped your fingers. The snap triggered the system; turned it on. The computer would then display the wave form that was your finger-snap on the screen. It also displayed, just a short time later, the sound of the echo of your snap from the closed-off end of the pipe. It looked like the picture below.
You then took two measurements: the time difference from any part on the waveform for the snap and the corresponding part on the reflected waveform. This was the time needed for the sound to travel from the mike to the back of the pipe and back again. You then carefully measured the distance from the mike to the back of the pipe. Twice this distance—the round trip—was the distance covered. Since the speed of sound equals the distance divided by the time you could then calculate, accurately, the speed of sound.
For the apparatus and the images shown, from my own notes, I got 325 m/s on a day when the room temperature was 25 degrees C. That’s quite a good figure!
It never stopped. In my subsequent service in distance education I was able to continue using the interfacing technology in the physics labs. Even today the CDLI, the organization from which I recently retired, continues to use that technology in its ongoing support of labs in physics, chemistry and biology.
But it was not the case for everyone who attended. I recall in particular overhearing two colleagues from a different institution discussing this new technology. It’s nice, they agreed, but they wouldn’t be integrating it into their classes. They judged it important that students still use stopwatches and ticker timers and continue to construct graphs and tables using pencil and paper.
They were also wrong. It took over a decade but, in time, as those colleagues departed their replacements did whole-heartedly adopt and champion the new methodology.
It’s not easy, though and people can’t be expected to do it unless (1) they are encouraged and supported and (2) they do it for the right reasons. Even then there are no guarantees.
Next: Making Sense of this