Category Archives: school reform policies

Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away (Clay Shirky)

Clay Shirky is a professor of media studies at New York University, consultant on the Internet, and writer. He is writing here about teaching his University courses and a recent decision that he made. The post appeared September 9, 2014.

I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision — I have been teaching classes about the internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required’.

We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.

This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on “declarative memory,” the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

On top of this, multi-tasking doesn’t even exercise task-switching as a skill. A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. (“They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it.) Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.

This is all just the research on multi-tasking as a stable mental phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and phones — the devices on which the struggle between focus and distraction is played out daily — are making the problem progressively worse. Any designer of software as a service has an incentive to be as ingratiating as they can be, in order to compete with other such services. “Look what a good job I’m doing! Look how much value I’m delivering!”

This problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)

Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.

After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction. (This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the rider still a novice.)

Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — its me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions. I have a classroom full of riders and elephants, but I’m trying to teach the riders.

And while I do, who is whispering to the elephants? Facebook, Wechat, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, the list goes on, abetted by the designers of the Mac, iOS, Windows, and Android. In the classroom, it’s me against a brilliant and well-funded army (including, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, many of my former students.) These designers and engineers have every incentive to capture as much of my students’ attention as they possibly can, without regard for any commitment those students may have made to me or to themselves about keeping on task.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Even a passing familiarity with the literature on programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go.

The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.

The final realization — the one that firmly tipped me over into the “No devices in class” camp — was this: screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke. A paper with the blunt title Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers says it all:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

I have known, for years, that the basic research on multi-tasking was adding up, and that for anyone trying to do hard thinking (our spécialité de la maison, here at college), device use in class tends to be a net negative. Even with that consensus, however, it was still possible to imagine that the best way to handle the question was to tell the students about the research, and let them make up their own minds.

The “Nearby Peers” effect, though, shreds that rationale. There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them.

Groups also have a rider-and-elephant problem, best described by Wilfred Bion in an oddly written but influential book, Experiences in Groups. In it, Bion, who practiced group therapy, observed how his patients would unconsciously coordinate their actions to defeat the purpose of therapy. In discussing the ramifications of this, Bion observed that effective groups often develop elaborate structures, designed to keep their sophisticated goals from being derailed by more primal group activities like gossiping about members and vilifying non-members.

The structure of a classroom, and especially a seminar room, exhibits the same tension. All present have an incentive for the class to be as engaging as possible; even though engagement often means waiting to speak while listening to other people wrestle with half-formed thoughts, that’s the process by which people get good at managing the clash of ideas. Against that long-term value, however, each member has an incentive to opt out, even if only momentarily. The smallest loss of focus can snowball, the impulse to check WeChat quickly and then put the phone away leading to just one message that needs a reply right now, and then, wait, what happened last night??? (To the people who say “Students have always passed notes in class”, I reply that old-model notes didn’t contain video and couldn’t arrive from anywhere in the world at 10 megabits a second.)

I have the good fortune to teach in cities richly provisioned with opportunities for distraction. Were I a 19-year-old planning an ideal day in Shanghai, I would not put “Listen to an old guy talk for an hour” at the top of my list. (Vanity prevents me from guessing where it would go.) And yet I can teach the students things they are interested in knowing, and despite all the literature on joyful learning, from Marie Montessori on down, some parts of making your brain do new things are just hard.

Indeed, college contains daily exercises in delayed gratification. “Discuss early modern European print culture” will never beat “Sing karaoke with friends” in a straight fight, but in the long run, having a passable Rhianna impression will be a less useful than understanding how media revolutions unfold.

Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.

This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative—Concentrate, or lose out!—and positive—Let me attract your attention!—I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.

Some of the students will still opt out, of course, which remains their prerogative and rightly so, but if I want to help the ones who do want to pay attention, I’ve decided it’s time to admit that I’ve brought whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and act accordingly.

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Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

iPads for Young Children in School

Occasionally, I receive letters from parents concerned about the rollout of 1:1 iPads in their elementary school, especially for five to eight year-olds. The parents who write me may have concerns about the uses of devices in schools but, in this case, the Mom and Dad are concerned about their children and how the principal and staff are putting the 1:1 program into practice.

Here is one letter I recently received and answered. I have deleted the name of the school, principal, and parents who sent me the letter.

 

Dear Larry Cuban,

We have been attempting to influence better practices for 1:1 teaching practices with iPads at our daughters’ elementary school [in Southern California] for 4 months now.

Towards the end of last school year, the school announced they were going to implement [a 1:1   iPad program] starting in the fall.  At first we were open to the idea, but after much research of journal articles we realized that the school is following a trend rather than implementing correctly.  We agree that implementing technology is inevitable and there are likely good ways to enhance learning, but are very disappointed at how our daughters’  school is implementing it.  At this point, because many parents are not buying their kids iPads, the school is stuck in a worse situation…a hybrid of school shared iPads and kids with their own.  The school has even teamed up with Project Red, but [is not] even following Project Red’s guidelines.

[The parents sent me a recent letter that the principal sent to everyone in school community.]

A message from _______ ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Families of __________,
 
In April, we shared with you a plan for our [1:1] initiative to personalize learning for our … students utilizing technology tools. Over the past month, the staff and I have listened to parents’ voices and have heard both support and reservations around this proposed program. As a result of that input, we have decided to pause and rethink our next steps.
 
We now realize that while the staff and I enthusiastically created and rolled out this plan for transforming student learning, we had not fully engaged our parent community in the process. The … parent community has always been closely knit and very supportive. We need and want your support and we truly value your input.

As the staff and I rethink next steps, we will be communicating opportunities for you to engage with us and share your ideas about technology and learning.
 
While we are pausing on our full implementation of [1:1], we remain firm in our belief that technology can enhance student learning and ensure that each one of our students reaches his or her potential. Staff will continue to integrate technology into their daily lessons. We will also continue to provide options to any K-5 family who would like to purchase an iPad through the district for their child to use at school or to have their child bring an iPad from home. We will continue to have shared devices in the classroom to support teaching and learning.
 
Families wishing to purchase an iPad through the district should return your Option Letter by May 30, 2014. We will be following up with those of you who have already returned your letters requesting to purchase an iPad through the district to confirm your selection.

The staff and I value and appreciate your involvement and support. Thank you for engaging in this conversation and for being part of our process. We look forward to working together as we move forward.

[BACK TO PARENTS' LETTER TO ME]

We’ve been attempting to influence the Principal and also the school board without success.  We believed there will be no substantial impact except extra cost to parents and the school after reading articles from your website.  I’ve read many journal articles about technology implementation in schools and generally find:

1) We cannot find any success stories in grades lower than 3rd or 4th grade….
2) all success stories seem to be subjective rather than showing statistically significant and measurable improvements

We are trying to remain hopeful and wondering if you can help us with any of the following:
1) can you point us to any case studies or journal articles (if any) that show statistically significant success and proper ways to implement 1:1?  We are especially interested in success in lower grades (K-3)….

LC: I do not have any studies to offer you. There may be single studies out there that do show success–as measured by increased student scores on standardized tests–but they are rare indeed. And single studies seldom forecast a trend. Overall, there is no substantial body of evidence that supports the claim that laptops, ipads, or devices in of themselves will produce increases in academic achievement or alter traditional ways of teaching. As you said in your email, anecdotes trump statistically significant results again and again when it comes to use of devices with young children and youth.

The claims that such devices will increase engagement of students in classwork and the like are supported. Keep in mind, however, two caveats: first, there is a novelty effect that advocates mistake for long-term engagement in learning but the effect wears off. And even if the effect is sustainable the assumption that engagement leads to academic gains or higher test scores remains only that–an assumption.

 2) do you have any advice on influencing better practices with the Principal or school board?

LC: Looks like your principal erred in ignoring a first principle of implementation: inform and discuss any innovation with parents before launching it. Just consider the massive foul up in Los Angeles Unified School District in their iPad purchase and deployment. It does, however, look like, at least from the principal’s letter that you sent me calling for a pause, that you and others may have, indeed, had some influence.

When I receive letters like yours I reply with the same advice. Go to the school and see how k-2 teachers use the devices over the course of a day. I know that such visits take a lot of time but such observations sort out the rhetoric from what actually occurs–some of which you may like, some of which you may not. I do not know your principal; she might get threatened and defensive or she might be the kind that will seek out help from parents in her efforts to implement iPads.

 In short, gather data on what is going on at [your elementary school]. Going to the school board without such data is futile.

 

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Filed under technology use

Teacher, Principal, and Superintendent Core Dilemmas That Need to Be Managed

I have used the word “dilemma” in earlier posts since superintendents, principals, teachers, and, yes, students face situations that call for difficult choices among conflicting values. So for this post, I delve into the two persistent dilemmas at the core of the work teachers and administrators do daily.

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By dilemmas, I mean situations where you have to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing you end up sacrificing something to gain a bit of satisfaction. That is the compromise that all of us construct to reduce the tension.

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There are two core dilemmas that educators face in the classroom, school site, and district office that won’t go away. They are in the air we breathe, the water we drink: the multiple roles we have to perform daily and the personal/professional conflict.

Multiple Roles Dilemmas

Teachers, principals, and superintendents have to perform three different roles in their classrooms and offices.

Instructional role. For teachers, that is obvious. For principals and superintendents, the pressure on these administrators to assume responsibility for instructionally guiding teachers has grown dramatically in the past three decades.

Since the 1980s, mainstream thinking about principals has shifted markedly from managing school-site decisions to re-asserting the importance of  being instructional leaders. Now, principals and superintendents are expected to help teachers in meeting state academic standards, aligning curriculum, textbooks, and tests to those state standards, evaluating teachers, and producing higher student test scores.

Managerial role. Principals and superintendents have always been hired to administer schools. Superintendents expect their principals to set priorities consistent with district goals, use data for decision making, plan and schedule work of the school, oversee the budget and many other managerial tasks—including punctual submission of reports to the central office. School boards also expect their superintendents to discharge the managerial role. Currently, efforts by reformers to call superintendents and principals  CEOs elevates the managerial role. And teachers, well, controlling a crowd of students to pay attention to a lesson, complete classroom tasks, and parcel out help to individual students requires sharply acute administrative skills.

Political role. A century ago, progressive reformers divorced partisan politics from schooling. The norm of political neutrality held that superintendents, principals, and teachers hide their political party preferences.

So most principals, superintendents, and teachers have avoided partisan politics in the workplace but they do act politically within the school community and classrooms. For example, to advance their school agenda, principals and superintendents negotiate with parents, individual teachers, student groups, central office administrators, and even city officials. They figure out ways to build political coalitions for their schools at budget time or to put a positive spin on bad news during crises. Such politics aim to improve a school’s image, implement an innovation, or secure new resources. Most principals and superintendents see this as going about their daily business, not politics. But it is acting politically.

And, yes, teachers also act politically when they figure out which students in their classes are the leaders, which students need to be cajoled into compliance or  helpfulness, which students can help advance the teacher’s goals. Astute teachers build a coalition of support among their students for reaching the goals the teacher has set for the class. Experienced teachers often carry out that political analysis the first few weeks of the school year. Teachers are also political in dealing with their principal and district office in helping or hindering their school site leader achieve school goals.

Dilemmas inevitably arise when educators come to see that they are stronger at some roles than others, prefer some roles over the other but realize that often times they have to perform roles that they are less strong at and hardly prefer doing. This is the persistent dilemma of multiple core roles.

Personal/Professional Bind

You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Both are highly prized. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

Teachers, principals, and superintendents map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If  nothing is done–another option–risks rise for hurting family and friends or the job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into daily routines. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromises worked out may unravel and  again, teachers, principals, and superintendents would face unattractive choices.

Keep in mind  also that the personal/professional dilemma bind. The new teacher or principal who is single and is passionate about becoming a first-rate educator will come in early, go home late and think constantly about students and teachers. The job is her life.  But once a partner and children enter her life, the personal/professional dilemma shifts and a new compromise between work and home has to be worked out. Compromises to dilemmas don’t stand still.

These two persistent dilemmas are at the core of the work teachers and administrators do daily.

 

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The Book That Got Teaching Right (Samuel Freedman)

 

Samuel G. Freedman has authored seven books one of which is Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School. He is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker.  This piece was published September 1, 2014.

In the course of a few decades, I became separated from my copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” Bel Kaufman’s classic novel about a New York City schoolteacher. So after Kaufman died, in July, at the age of a hundred and three, I felt compelled to reread the book. I called up my neighborhood Barnes & Noble to reserve a copy. Considering the stunning popularity “Up the Down Staircase” had enjoyed—it spent sixty-four weeks on the best-seller list after its release, in 1965, inspired a popular film adaptation in 1967, and ultimately sold more than six million copies—I assumed that the coverage of Kaufman’s death had renewed interest in the book, and that copies would be selling out.

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Instead, very much to my surprise, the Barnes & Noble clerk informed me that “Up the Down Staircase” was out of print. Unconvinced, I checked several online booksellers, and, sure enough, no current edition was available. So I grabbed a copy from the library, and as I plunged into it I realized just how sadly appropriate it was that the book had fallen into obsolescence What place can there be for a book about the large struggles and little glories of a teacher, at a time when teacher bashing has become a major strain, even the dominant strain, of what passes for “education reform.”

There is no small amount of autobiography in “Up the Down Staircase.” Kaufman was the granddaughter of the renowned Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, whose Tevye stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.” She came to America as a twelve-year-old immigrant from Russia, and, like many Jewish immigrants, she used public school as a ladder of upward mobility and Americanization. And, like so many Jewish women of her era, she then became a teacher herself. She ultimately spent about thirty years in New York’s public schools, and those experiences deeply informed “Up the Down Staircase.”

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Kaufman’s story centers upon Sylvia Barrett, a first-year teacher at a massive public high school named after Calvin Coolidge. At its most straightforward level, the book follows Barrett through one semester, as she learns her own craft through trial and error, and gives up a job offer from an élite private school in order to stay at overcrowded, underfunded Coolidge, where she is so desperately needed. Yet Kaufman composed the book in an almost presciently postmodern style, largely assembling her story through an accretion of found objects: bureaucratic circulars, homework assignments, wastebasket contents, doodles, and interoffice memos among teachers.

Though Sylvia is unmistakably the story’s heroine, Kaufman was no sentimentalist. Coolidge High has dropouts, runaways, mind-numbing rules, a lunchroom riot, intimations of heroin use out in the neighborhood. Sylvia’s students are reading, she estimates, at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. When she pours her attention into a brutish boy with some intellectual talent, he misreads the gesture as a come-on and very nearly rapes her. Another of Sylvia’s students, a sixteen-year-old girl, tries to commit suicide after the male teacher whom she adores returns a love letter she wrote him, line-edited as if it were a term paper. Sylvia’s nickname for her assistant principal is Admiral Ass, and some of her colleagues, she writes, are “the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields,” who “find in the school system an excuse or a refuge.”

I have spent a good part of my journalistic career writing about education, which has involved going into schools and seeing teachers teach. To revisit “Up the Down Staircase” was to find myself in a recognizable and deeply truthful place. And to follow Sylvia Barrett on her exhausting and exhilarating trajectory was to see, in fictional form, many of the teachers I have admired for doing their valiant work in obscurity, at best, and amid societal contempt and scapegoating, at worst.

One reason “Up the Down Staircase” has aged so well has to do with the particular moment in which its story is set. Kaufman’s own teaching career coincided with a golden age in public education, and it was a golden age for some largely ignored reasons. Public schools were only expected to send a small fraction of students on to college. Congress’s restriction of immigration in 1924, not fully lifted until 1965, gave schools two generations to acculturate and assimilate newcomers. The horrific job market during the Great Depression, combined with commonplace sexism of the day, filled public-school faculties with overqualified educators, many of them women with no other career options apart from nursing.

At Coolidge High, though, the ground is beginning to shift. One of Kaufman’s characters is a black student sent there as part of an integration plan. Several others are Puerto Rican. Even before the urban upheavals of the nineteen-sixties, the relaxing of immigration laws, and the white flight from big cities and urban public schools, Kaufman was able to register and record the tremors of change. And she fully grasped the thankless position of the teachers left to impart knowledge and instill citizenship in the face of awesome obstacles.

Around the same time that “Up the Down Staircase” was published, New York City was convulsed by a battle over community control of public schools. The struggle reached its apogee between 1967 and 1968, with the installation of a black governing board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, its dismissal of several dozen white teachers, and a series of citywide teachers’ strikes in response. In retrospect, one of the most significant aspects of the controversy over “decentralization,” as community control was formally called, was how it fostered the idea of teachers as the enemy. Decentralization was the product of an alliance between organizations run by liberal élites, such as the Ford Foundation, and low-income black and Puerto Rican communities. This created a pincer effect, with middle-class white teachers and principals portrayed, from both above and below, as the problem. They didn’t live where they taught; they didn’t care.

The race-baiting element of teacher bashing has subsided over the years, as many nonwhites have gone into teaching. But the alliance against teachers remains intact, and, if anything, it has grown stronger.  Today, the élites are not only foundations but also hedge-fund philanthropists and politicians from both parties. Teachers’ unions are routinely portrayed not as legitimate stakeholders but as nefarious special interests. The mass firing of teachers—whether in Central Falls, Rhode Island, or by Michelle Rhee during her reign as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C.—are widely hailed as an overdue cleansing of the Augean stables. Hurricane Katrina provided a convenient excuse for getting rid of virtually the entire teaching and administrative staff of New Orleans’s public schools.

The antipathy toward teachers is often expressed through extolling the exceptional ones. In the nineteen-eighties, that meant books and films and TV shows about Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins. In the current moment, it means valorizing Teach For America participants, who commit only two years to the job. And it means, as in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” believing that charter schools are the answer precisely because they aren’t in the devious hands of teachers’ unions and career educators. After I finished reading my library copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” I discovered that it is also available as an e-book. So I can only hope that the download generation will discover it. Kaufman did not write a period piece; she wrote the most enduring account we have of teachers’ lives—not naïve, not exculpatory, but empathetic and aware. Early in the book, Sylvia writes, in a letter to a college classmate who is living in the suburbs:

“I’m told that Calvin Coolidge is not unique; it’s as average as any metropolitan school can be. There are many schools worse than this (the official phrase is ‘problem-area schools for the lower socioeconomic groups’) and a few better ones. Kids with an aptitude in a trade can go to vocational high schools; kids with outstanding talents in math, science, drama, dance, music, or art can attend special high schools which require entrance exams or auditions; kids with emotional problems or difficulties in learning are sent to the ‘600 schools.’ But the great majority, the ordinary kids, find themselves in Calvin Coolidge or its reasonable facsimile. And so do the teachers.”

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Robo-teachers?

In the recent film “The Robot & Frank,” an elderly Dad, played by the fine actor Frank Langella, is slipping into dementia so his adult son and daughter debate how best to help him out: get him into an assisted care facility, says daughter. Get him a domestic robot, a caregiver that cooks, cleans up and converses with Frank, says son.

Son wins and brings a robot to his Dad’s home to start care-giving. The sharp tensions between Frank and the mechanical caregiver dissolve as Frank realizes that he can resume his previous career as a cat burglar with the aid of the robot. So with this comedic story-line dominating the film, the serious moments of Frank realizing that he will no longer be the person he was—-Langella captures those emotions without saying a word–are lost. Thus, what could have been an insightful film, a study of the crushing  consequences of dementia on a person and family get twisted in the writers’  failure to decide whether they were doing a comedy or serious film.

But that film is not the point of this post.

The point is that while there are tasks that robots can do to help infirm elderly, ill patients, and students the connection between a machine and human being cannot replicate the fundamental cognitive and emotional bonds between humans that sustains caregiving, doctor-patient and teacher-student relationships.

And robo-caregivers, robo-doctors, and robo-teachers have surely entered the world of elderly care, medicine, and education.

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Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sherry Turkle, has written often about machine-human interactions in articles and books (see here). She has raised questions about robots as caregivers and was called by one writer a “technology skeptic.” She responded in a letter to the editor in the New York Times.

I had written that after a 72-year-old woman named Miriam interacted with a robot called Paro, Miriam “found comfort when she confided in her Paro.”

But I still believe that robots are inappropriate as caregivers for the elderly or for children. The robots proposed as “caring machines” fool us into thinking they care about us. Maintaining eye contact, remembering our names, responding to verbal cues — these are things that robots do to simulate care and understanding.

So, Miriam — a woman who had lost a child — was trying to make sense of her loss with a machine that had no understanding or experience of a human life. That robot put on a good show. And we’re vulnerable: People experience even pretend empathy as the real thing. But robots can’t empathize. They don’t face death or know life. So when this woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn’t find it amazing. I felt we had abandoned Miriam.

Being part of this scene was one of the most wrenching moments in my years of research on sociable robotics. There were so many people there to help, but we all stood back, outsourcing the thing we do best — understanding each other, taking care of each other.

Now consider robots and teaching. There are tasks that robots can do to help teachers teach and children learn (see here, here, here, and here). But these tasks, as important as they may be in helping out homebound students or grading simple five-paragraph essays, such tasks and others do not add up to what is the core of teaching: the emotional and cognitive bonds that grow over time between teachers and students and are the basis for learning not only what is taught in the classroom but also learning close and personal–beg pardon for using an outdated word– the virtues (trustworthiness, respect, fairness, reliability, loyalty) of  character. And, yes, the flip side of those virtues can be learned from a few teachers as well. That is the personal side of teaching that “social robotics” cannot capture. In short, teaching is far more that seeing children and youth as brains on sticks.

David Kirp, professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, made a similar point in a recent op-ed piece.

Every successful educational initiative of which I’m aware aims at strengthening personal bonds ….. The best [schools] …  create intimate worlds where students become explorers and attentive adults are close at hand…. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder, then, that the business model hasn’t worked in reforming the schools — there is simply no substitute for the personal element.

Amen.

 

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A College Professor Teaches History in High School

Not a “man bites dog” media story for sure, but university professors who willingly choose to teach at a high school for a semester or a year, well, that does cause a few heads to turn. Previous posts I have published (see here for a math professor and here for an education professor) raise similar issues to what this history professor learned by teaching for a semester at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh (PA).

I have now been at Allderdice for five months, long enough to see sharp differences between high school and university teaching situations. From the very beginning the sharpest contrast has been in the physical environment and pace. Allderdice crowds into one building 3,200 students while [my university] has about 1,400 spread over 80 acres. The only room available at Allderdice for quiet study is a chemistry storeroom. At [my university] I share an
offiice the size of the men teachers’ room at Allderdice, with one colleague.

Moreover, nothing is leisurely at Allderdice. Clerical chores, opening exercises, and hurried conferences with students and colleagues crowd the hour between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. The five-minute break between classes is far too short to reinvigorate a teacher. Lunch half-hour is a race upstairs in the midst of a throng of students, a contest for a place at the head of the line, a few minutes respite in a crowded cafeteria where masses of students sit within eyesight, and
another dash to oPen the classroom before chaos erupts in the hallway.

Since January, I have been teaching six classes a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in order to be free to teach and observe at other schools on Tuesday and Thursday while my three Allderdice colleagues take my classes. By seventh Period on these crowded days, I teach poorly,
my energy dissipated, and my nerves worn thin. How my colleagues stand a similar pace year after year I do not understand.

My schedule-and the schedule of regular high school teachers-gives me far too little time to see students individually. Sixth period is usually crowded with appointments l can never talk to students over coffee, a happy pursuit which probably occupies far too much of my time at [the university]. Like many of my colleagues at Allderdice, I am unable to give students the individual attention they deserve, except by writing lengthy comments on their essay examinations
and other papers. When will citizens and school boards give teachers time to teach properly ?

If it were not for the excitement of the AP program, the constant stimulation from five colleagues who are teaching AP history in three high schools, and the sharp analytical minds of the 160 students I see one to three times a week, there would be very little intellectual stimulation in my high school job. Except during hectic lunch periods, there is no time to chat with colleagues from other departments.

Historians at [my university] will be surprised to learn that I miss department meetings where we frequently become involved in long discussions I find a half-hour to write and do research only late at night after-pdraeyp,a rations are ready for the next and I miss conversation with
colleagues who are carrying on similar research. High school, therefore, seems much less the free market place in ideas I had come to know at [my university], and opportunities for creative growth and development are not as great, except as one grows as a teacher.

Nor are teachers in high school accorded the considerations as professional people which we know in universities. They are required to be clerks, truant officers, and policemen. Books are chosen for them, and courses of studv are usually  Planned by others, although, of course, every teacher has numerous opportunities to develop original methods of presentation if he wishes to do so.

Frequent interruptions disrupt one class after another. Fire drills, air raid alerts, messages from the office, telephone calls, students distributing
bulletins, early dismissals-there seems no limit io the imaginations of people who disturb teachers. I can remember no occasion in the last five years when anyone has interrupted one of my classes at [the university]. Perhaps these conditions account largely for a significant difference in attitude which I find on the part of a larger percentage of my high school than of my college colleagues. Most of them admit to doing minimal work and to approaching teaching as a job rather than as a cteative intellectual experience. I do not believe that pay differentials account for this attitude….
Far more important, it seems to me, is the fact that high school teachers are unable because of their heavy teaching loads and the burden of their other tasks to do an esthetically satisfying job, except at great personal sacrifice. Many become discouraged, particularly if they are of less than average capability. But despite many handicaps, my high school colleagues are far better at some jobs than college professors.

High school teachers pay far more attention to their students as developing human beings than we do in the universities. One teacher after another has been able to supply me with details about a student’s personal problems and family background which have been most helpful. The counselors, principal, and vice principal, at least at Allderdice, seem to know every child in the school personally and to help them over innumerable hurdles. In coilege, we are more likely to let a student sink or swim unless he is in really serious trouble. Finally, high school instructors teach current events with great skill, while we tend to ignore them in the classroom.

My students at Allderdice are more fun to teach than their counterparts at [university].  Of course, I have only very able history students at Allderdice while many of our mathematical wizards [in the university] have somewhat more limited verbal skills. Ability differences, however, are not the heart of the matter. The more significant difference is that most of my high school students are hungry for intellectual stimulation. They are anxious to examine historical issues in the light of evidence, and they respond eagerly when challenged with a knotty problem of historical interpretation. Moreover, they seem more willing to express personal opinions and to put their opinions to the test of evidence than many college students. The false sophistication which marks many college freshmen and sophomores seems entirely-and happily-absent.

I have also been impressed by the relative intellectual sophistication of high school students. The 60 I know best at Ailderdice are remarkably well read and constantly make reference to leisure reading during class  discussions. They assimilate new ideas with great speed and often have remarkable insights into historical personalities. We are not tapping the potential abilities which lie dormant in many of our high school students. We cannot tap them fully, except in special instances where teachers have the privileges which we enjoy in the AP program, until society makes teaching a true profession offering opportunities to do an esthetically and intellectually satisfying job.

I shall be forever grateful to [my university], the Pittsburgh public schools, The Ford and Mellon Foundations, and my colleagues and the students at
Allderdice for making this year possible. I shall never again teach as poorly as I did before this exciting experience in the public schools. I shall never agaln be as free with my criticisms of public school teachers and courses of study. Nor shall I ever again accepl the argument that little can be done. Endless opportunities for improving course offerings and methods of teaching present themselves daily. I hope to continue to explore these opportunities with my new friends on high school faculties-that is if I survive until June 23!

Ted Fenton taught the first Advanced Placement history courses offered to Allderdice students in 1959-1960. He published this article in the Pennsylvania School Journal (May 1960). He was then at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and taught for one semester. Within a few years, he and other academics passionate about improving high school social studies launched a movement then called the “New Social Studies” following on the heels of the New Math, New Biology, New Physics, etc.

What struck me about the article published in 1960 is Fenton’s  comparisons of university and high school teaching loads, working conditions, and climate of learning that existed in both places then. More than a half-century later, what Fenton wrote describes accurately, in my opinion, what occurs in many high schools today.

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Building Better Teachers—-Mastering the craft demands time to collaborate—just what American schools don’t provide (Sara Mosle)

Sara Mosle, who teaches writing at Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., has written about education for The New York Times, Slate, and other publications. This appeared Aug 13 2014 at:  Atlantic Online

 

Teaching dwarfs every other profession that requires a college degree. Nationwide, 3.7 million schoolteachers serve grades K–12—more than all the doctors, lawyers, and engineers in the country combined. Teacher shortages, once chronic, abated during the recession, when layoffs were widespread, but will soon return with a vengeance. Fully half of all teachers are Baby Boomers on the brink of retirement. Among novice teachers, who constitute an increasingly large proportion of the remaining workforce, between 40 and 50 percent typically quit within just five years, citing job dissatisfaction or more-alluring prospects. Given this drain at both ends of the teaching pipeline, schools will likely need to hire more than 3 million new teachers by 2020. That is an enormous talent hole to fill.

Yet the United States has, if anything, too many teacher-training programs. Each year, some 1,400 of them indiscriminately churn out twice as many graduates as schools can use. Program quality varies widely, so many would-be teachers don’t suit schools’ needs. In a scathing 2006 report, Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, accused many education schools of being little more than a “cash cow” for their hosting institution. Among the problems he highlighted were exceedingly “low admission standards,” a “curriculum in disarray,” and faculties “disconnected” from the realities of the classroom.

Once hired, many teachers are left to sink or swim. In recent years, several states have adopted controversial accountability measures, known as “value added” metrics, with a view toward winnowing out poor performers who haven’t produced student improvement on standardized tests; helping teachers hone their craft has seldom made it onto the agenda. But perhaps we’re finally ready to focus attention on the far bigger and more important question of how to attract and retain the top teachers we want.

This spring, the Obama administration announced plans to begin rating teacher-training programs. Consensus on what makes an effective teacher, however, remains elusive. Student achievement does not correlate strongly with teachers’ years of experience in the classroom (beyond the initial few) or with the caliber of their preparation—whether they have acquired certification, earned a master’s degree in education, or aced state licensing exams. Even particular personality traits, such as an extroverted willingness to ham it up in the classroom, appear irrelevant. The conundrum doesn’t daunt Elizabeth Green, a co-founder of GothamSchools (a news Web site originally devoted to covering New York City schools that has recently expanded to other cities and been rechristened Chalkbeat). Her book, Building a Better Teacher, couldn’t be better timed.

At the heart of Green’s exploration is a powerfully simple idea: that teaching is not some mystical talent but a set of best practices that can be codified and learned through extensive hands-on coaching, self-scrutiny, and collaboration. Yet her account suggests that implementing this vision may entail a bigger transformation than she quite realizes.

Green begins by profiling an array of educators who have been inspired by Deborah Ball, now the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. In the early 1980s, she was a charismatic math teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, who developed a successful approach to teaching even very young children sophisticated concepts in math. Instead of relying on rote memorization or repetitive skills practice, Ball shepherded children through in-depth discussions of a single mathematical conjecture—for example, do two odd integers always add up to an even number? The students, steered along by their teacher, deliberated together to derive proofs for their various hypotheses. Some of the most exhilarating parts of Green’s book are the detailed descriptions of precisely how, and why, these lessons succeed. Ball helped other teachers adopt her techniques not through the usual education-school lectures, but through rigorous apprenticeship: mutual observation of lessons, followed by intensive dissection of what worked and what didn’t.

Green likens the approach to the Japanese practice of jugyokenkyu. “Lesson study” is the main form of teacher training in Japan, where colleagues routinely sit in on one another’s classes and then scrutinize a single session for hours, extracting general guidance for future instruction. Japan substantially outperforms America in math on international tests, and Green clearly believes jugyokenkyu is a crucial factor in the country’s success. She recounts how some of Ball’s ideas were adopted by the state of California in the mid-1980s but never had a chance to catch on: Teachers were expected to absorb the new policies, outlined in a state “manifesto,” and then revamp lesson plans on their own, with little or no training or ongoing support. Some educators didn’t even see the guidelines—all but ensuring the reforms would fail. The rollout of the Common Core State Standards appears to be replicating this dispiriting pattern in many places.

At first, Green decides that Teach for America and some charter-school leaders are now following in Ball’s and Japan’s footsteps—albeit with plenty of stumbling. She focuses on Doug Lemov, an entrepreneurial-minded educator who started a charter school in Boston in the mid-1990s and later became a managing director and teacher trainer with the Uncommon Schools charter network. As part of his job, he began compiling an inventory of effective teaching techniques. The taxonomy became a book, Teach Like a Champion, and a cause célèbre within the charter movement; videos of sample lessons circulated like samizdat literature. There’s technique No. 2, “Right Is Right”: teachers refuse to accept students’ half-baked responses to questions and insist on well-formulated, and eventually correct, replies. Technique No. 32 is “SLANT,” which stands for “Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, and Track the speaker,” a formula for eliciting attention from students. But the motions of following a lesson, Green soon discovers, aren’t necessarily a sign of genuine engagement.

The taxonomy includes plenty of useful, even commonsense, advice. Yet Green reveals how, in practice, Lemov’s early acolytes in the charter world became obsessed with a disciplinary approach that dictated no talking in hallways, silent lunches, and skyrocketing suspensions for even minor infractions. What at first appeared to be a huge success—Lemov’s school initially posted impressive test scores—turns out to be a more complicated story. Green finds that out of some 55 students who started at the school in seventh grade, only 11 made it to their senior year, an astounding rate of attrition. A later class began with 100 sixth-grade students and was winnowed to 30 by graduation.

Japanese “lesson study,” she observes, was premised on the notion that “children needed structured opportunities to talk in order to learn.” Lemov banked on a rather different principle: that “learning first required the foundational ability to be quiet and listen.” As Green concludes, Lemov had built a vocabulary that Deborah Ball might admire for describing precisely what teachers should do in the classroom, but applied it to “a sort of teaching that she didnt do.” Green ends up saluting Ball and Japan for getting the balance between classroom discipline and student engagement right.

But Green’s account cries out for a look at the bigger picture. She is absolutely correct about the importance of self-critical reflection and collaboration. What she is not the first, or I’m sure the last, to miss are the structural obstacles to importing such an apprentice-style ethos into American teachers’ experience. As it happens, an administrator introduced lesson study as part of the staff’s professional development at a school where I’ve worked. There was just one problem: we teachers—juggling tutoring before and after school, supervising clubs, or coaching sports—had only one period a week to meet as a group. It would be generous to say lesson study didn’t work; it never got off the ground. There typically isn’t time in American teachers’ workdays for this kind of collaborative enterprise.

That lack of time is an American anomaly, and it is key. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been overseeing tests of 15-year-olds every three years among its members. The PISA exams, as they’re called, show that American students’ performance is barely above average in reading and trails substantially in math. The tests also record other information about classroom instruction around the world, and American researchers, policy makers, and pundits have pored over the results for clues to improving our schools. For example, the United States falls roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to class size. Countries with far larger classes than we have, such as South Korea, outperform us. So do countries, like Finland, with smaller ones. Not surprisingly, some reformers have concluded that reduced class size isn’t the secret to student success.

But class size is a crude measure of a more important, encompassing concept that is worth attending to: teacher workload. How much time do teachers spend on classroom instruction, and how much time do they have outside of class to devote to the other considerable, less visible aspects of the job: lesson planning, paper grading, conferring with students, calling parents, meeting with colleagues to discuss methods and goals. Here, the PISA results are not ambiguous. Every single country that outperforms us has significantly smaller teacher workloads. Indeed, on the scale of time devoted by teachers to in-class instruction annually, the United States is off the charts. We spend far more hours in the classroom on average, twice and nearly three times more in some cases, than teachers in any other OECD country save Chile. Finnish high-school teachers, for example, clock 553 hours in the classroom each year. In Japan, home of jugyokenkyu, that number is 500. In the U.S., it’s 1,051. (Figures for elementary and middle school show roughly the same skew.)

In practice, this means that most teachers in this country have zero time to work together on new pedagogical approaches and share feedback in the way Green advocates in her book. They rarely have an opportunity to watch other teachers teach, the single best kind of training, in my experience; they’re too busy in their own classrooms (not to mention outside them).

A big problem with American education, in other words, is how we conceive of the job. Green is right: there’s much about teaching that isn’t instinctive, and as her book usefully shows, learning how to perfect the art is demanding. It is high time to correct a common misimpression: teaching isn’t the relatively leisurely occupation many people imagine, enviously invoking a nine-to-three school day and long summer vacations, which in reality seldom exist. We think of no other white-collar profession in terms of a single dimension of job performance. We don’t, for example, regard lawyers as “working” only during the hours they’re actually presenting a case before a judge; we recognize the amount of preparation and subsequent review that goes into such moments. If teaching is such a plum post, we might ask ourselves why attrition rates are so high.

In closing, Green decides to teach a lesson herself and is thrilled to find that it goes well, thanks to so many of the techniques she learned in her reporting—and, it’s worth noting, thanks to plenty of planning. She recounts spending hours getting ready for this one lesson, selecting readings, conferring with a seasoned teacher, and rehearsing how she would present the material to the class. All this, and she wasn’t grading a single paper or speaking to parents or meeting individually with students. Such work constitutes a large portion of what teachers do each day. It’s why the job, done right, is so hard and burns teachers out so fast.

The goal isn’t to lighten teachers’ load but to redistribute it. At one point, Deborah Ball remarks that what she loves about teaching is that it is so hard—by which she means intellectually challenging and rewarding. Teaching is all-consuming, and that absorption is part of the joy of the job. But if teaching is to be a profession of the mind (as well as of the heart) that retains top talent and delivers results on the same level that other countries boast, the people who spend hours with our children in the classroom also need what they currently don’t get: the hours with peers and mentors that are essential to improving their craft.

 

 

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