Category Archives: school reform policies

Teaching U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 2)

How to interpret the three history lessons I watched Mark Allison, a veteran teacher, teach?

Allison had prepared an interactive lesson with a series of slides on the Civil Rights movement. He asked his students to inspect each slide carefully and tell what they saw and speculate, alright hypothesize, about what the facts they see may add up to. He completed the lesson within the 40 minutes allotted to him in the bell schedule.

The lesson reflected his passion for the subject (a glass case filled with civil rights photos along one wall of the room) and for his students (one wall of student photos in  his classes). Before during and after the lesson, students responded to his requests and questions.  Students did engage in the activities he designed for them. At no time in any of the three lessons I observed were students defiant, unresponsive, or dulled into inactivity. The rapport between teacher and students as he went through the lesson prodding them to apply their present experiences to the past was evident to me.

Were there someone else in the room besides me, say, the principal, a district official, or another teacher there to judge his performance, surely that evaluator could find items to praise and holes in how and what Allison taught in these three lessons.

Perhaps, that observer might have assessed Allison’s performance in the way that Becky Reed, a Delaware social studies teacher did in a comment for this post:

I think this represents exactly how I would have taught a lesson 25 years ago (okay, maybe 15). I would have been very proud of the activity that took me an entire evening to create, time that I could have spent with my family. In reflection (then) I would have thought the lesson was a success; students were engaged, discussion in small groups was apparent, primary sources were used, and students “got” that the Civil Rights Era was about freedom and equality. Sadly, I think that many administrators would have rated this lesson as an excellent lesson. Not only would they have rated it an excellent lesson then, but many would do so today.
Today I am embarrassed that I taught that way. The students weren’t engaged and didn’t care about coming to class (that should have been my first clue), I told them what to think, I never asked them how they knew, or asked what evidence they had to support their conclusions.
I suppose I may be a bit hard on myself, but that was the way I was taught to plan and implement a lesson. There’s no excuse for this today. Where’s the professional development and team planning? Unfortunately I don’t think restructuring is going to make a bit a difference in this school without thoughtful climate changes and increased expectations for students by ALL stakeholders.

Or perhaps Larry Winkler, a former Wisconsin teacher, who gave his view of the lesson in another comment:

Seems like this lesson fits what is recommended by the research, and seems to be high in engagement. So, I’m not following R Reed’s criticism. The method illustrated, as far as it is expressed, seems to nicely follow How Learning Works, a seminal work summarizing current research. I would give it an A+.

Or Michele, a California social studies teacher, who said:

This is timely for me; I am teaching US History for the first time (I have credentials in three subjects but usually teach math). I am absolutely loving it…. Now I’m back to teaching kids from all spectrums, from highly skilled kids who just didn’t want to take A[dvanced] P[lacement] to kids with 6th grade or lower reading skills.

I want my students to become better readers, writers, and thinkers, but I want them to do so in the act of acquiring specific content knowledge about US History–that is, while critical thinking is important, knowing the content is more so.

I”m not sure what I think of the lesson. I’ve never had that kind of difficulty with attendance–and let’s be clear, 7 or 8 out of 20 is not “the kids don’t find the class useful” but “the school is out of control”.

I was not in the classroom to evaluate Allison’s performance in the three lessons. I observed what he did and, in my opinion, given what I know and have seen in classrooms in academically low-performing urban schools over the decades, this teacher was doing far better than average insofar as engaging the students in the content that he was teaching.  How much students learned from this lesson, however, no one including Allison, me, or any evaluator could tell.

What most observers and evaluators seldom take into consideration, however, are other factors that impinge on how and what Allison teaches every day in his African American history course. These factors do not diminish what he did but expand the picture in which any judgment of teacher performance has to occur. Too often observers and evaluators of teaching in urban school, especially ones designated as failing, overlook how the macro-context influences, even shapes, the micro-context of the classroom. None of what follows offers “excuses” but simply makes the larger context a factor in judging what occurs in a lesson.

1. Impact of the school organization on the lesson. Classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance (only about one-of-three-students enrolled in each class appeared for each lesson), Allison did reasonably well given the organizational factors in which he labored. School and district policy prevents teachers from factoring in chronic tardiness and absenteeism into any grade–and, of course, the students know this–so low attendance is the norm in all Greenwich classrooms. Moreover, the school has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal have been notified that the school will be restructured which teachers know could mean that they will have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” saps teacher motivation to plan elaborate lessons and the energy to teach them.

2. Impact of student backgrounds on teaching. Nearly all students in the school are eligible for free and reduced price breakfast and lunch–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement because of poor health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences. Yes, students ranged in responses to Allison’s lessons but living in poverty has both short-term and long-term effects on students’ motivation to achieve in school when the horizon for future opportunities appears limited.

Organizational and environmental factors in the macro-context observers often overlook in judging an urban teacher’s lessons–the micro-context. These factors, and others, come into play without even mentioning what students have learned from this lesson on the Civil Rights movement. Anyone allergic to complex situations (or supremely confident in their knowledge of how teachers should teacher), should  avoid judging this teacher’s lessons.

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Teaching U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 1)

I observed this teacher teaching three history classes a few months ago in a persistently low-performing high school on the cusp of being “restructured.” All names are fictitious.

Standing in the hallway outside of his classroom—a school policy as students move from one class to another–Mark Allison sports a gray-flecked goatee, mustache, and a ponytail of braided dreadlocks. He is wearing a lavender tie on a light, patterned purple shirt with dark-gray cargo pants. A man in his mid-50s he is friendly with students as they pass by calling many by name or “sister” and “brother.” Most of the students say “hi” back, wave, bump fists or shake hands.

Allison teaches African American history and U.S. government. A veteran teacher, he has taught in the District 36 years of which 28 have been at Greenwich High School.

As the tardy chimes sound for the 40 minute period to begin, Allison closes the door and enters a bright, large classroom. On the wall behind the teacher’s desk in one corner of the room (a laptop, the only computer device in the room, sits on Allison’s desk) is a large bulletin board filled with photos of students in his classes. On the opposite wall is a glass-enclosed case displaying famous photos of individuals and events of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Student desks are arranged in a horseshoe with Allison sitting at a student desk in the center of the horseshoe with a slide carousel projector ready for the day’s lesson.

photo 12

There are three students in the class. Within 10 minutes there are four more. Five minutes before the end of the period, another student enters.

The lesson I observed was part of the unit he teaches on the Civil Rights movement. He begins with the three students by passing out four cards to each one with questions and answers on events during the 1950s and 1960s.

In a game he invented, one student asks a question and another student has to figure out which of the answers he or she has on the four cards is the correct one. As a tardy student entered, Allison paused and said: “are you ready to learn, brother?” He then gave the latecomer the four cards and explained the game quickly. The students were immediately involved and the group expanded to six as latecomers arrived. All six used the Q & A on the cards in their hands as they traded questions and answers (according to Allison’s records, 20 students are enrolled in the course).

Allison sits close to the students listening and, from time to time, coaching those who were having difficulty in either providing an answer or matching the right one to the question asked. For example, one of the questions on the card asks about affirmative action and students were stumped. Allison then gives an example of one of his students who applied to Clark University in Atlanta (GA), a historically black institution, and Akron University. A largely white institution, Akron had encouraged blacks to apply and, in the past decade, had selected more and more black applicants. One student grasps the example and answers “affirmative action” on one of his four cards. In the midst of the game, a PA announcement interrupted the lesson telling teachers that they must turn in a letter of commitment that day if they want to re-apply for their position next year. After the interruption, the game continues.

With the six students—the seventh arrived just before the bell rang—Allison turns to the slide carousel. The first slide he projects on a pull-down screen in the front of the room was labeled: “You Can’t Kill an Idea.” In rapid-fire questions, Allison asked: “What does that mean?” Few scattered responses and Allison tries another question: “What one word captures the Civil rights movement?” Students yell out answers such as: “Marches.” “Protests.” “Freedom.” “Riots.” “Equality.” “Rights.” “Prejudice.” Allison picks “freedom” and “equality” and says that is what the movement was about.

He then pushes the carousel button and a photo of a bus with mostly empty seats comes on the screen with one black woman sitting on the bus. The teacher asks: “What is this picture about?” Students offer different details of the black woman (age, color, tired look on her face, etc.), and a white bus driver (age, color, facial features, etc.) and the fact that no one else was on bus. Allison then asks one student: “Sister, what is this picture depicting?” Before she could answer, he admonished the others: “No one else help her.” She mentions the phrase “bus boycott” and teacher smiles.

He then goes to next slide which shows a photo of angry white women, men, and students yelling at and spitting upon 15 year-old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who was trying to enter Little Rock High School (ARK) in 1957. Allison asks the seven students what the photo depicts. Students call out: “She looks calm,” “white people are sure angry at her,” “except for her, there are no other black people around.” Allison points out that Eckford was their age. He keeps students’ attention focused on photo as they supply additional details. He then asks class: “What would you do if there were hundreds of people screaming and spitting at you?” Students’ choral responses range from running away from crowd to fighting back to crying to doing what Eckford did.

The teacher runs through a series of slides—one of which shows James Meredith entering the University of Mississippi (none of the students recognized Meredith) another shows a white child in a small crowd holding a sign that says: “Who Needs Niggers?” The same sign had a painted swastika and Confederate flag. One of the students asks Allison about the swastika. He explains the symbol. Then he asks about the flag. No one in the room could identify the flag.

One slide shows a black woman being arrested for entering a “whites only” library. Teacher says to class: “Listen, I can’t get you to go to the city library which is free and open to everybody.” Another slide features two black athletes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with raised fists in a black power salute. Most of the students recognize the photo. A photo of Rosa Parks, all students identify. Ditto for the mug shot of Malcolm X. When the photo of the 1963 event appears on the screen, students yell out in chorus “the March on Washington”. As a follow-up on that photo, Allison asks the seven students what the obelisk was behind the marchers. Some students shrug; others said, “I don’t know.” No one identifies the Washington Monument.

For each slide, Allison poked, prodded, and pushed students to offer details in the photo and then segued to questions that sought the meaning of these different events during the Civil Rights movement. Effortlessly, he gave present-day examples that could tie his students’ experiences and knowledge to events a half-century ago.

Just before the period ended, a PA announcement interrupted the lesson. The principal reminded teachers to turn in their applications should they want to teach at Greenwich in the Fall. Here was the newest reform in the district: low-performing schools will be restructured into better schools. For this to occur there will be a new principal and current Greenwich teachers will have to reapply for their positions. The lesson resumed.

By the end of the 40-minute period, all of the students including latecomers were thoroughly engaged with the Q &A over the slides. After the chimes rang two students went over to see the photos in Allison’s glass case.

photo 14

In the two other classes I observed Allison teach, there were 12 and 22 students. He basically used the same techniques of cards with questions and answers at the beginning of the class and the photos in the slide carousel. The level of student engagement, the repartee and rapport with students, and prodding them to think about what they said were just as evident in these lessons as the period that I observed with seven students.

How can I and readers make sense of Mark Allison’s three lessons that I observed? Part 2 answers that question.

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools

“Please to God, if you are going to send … [new teachers] into urban schools, prepare them a bit better than I was prepared.” (quoted in Bethany Rogers, pp. 353-354)

If I asked you to guess when this novice teacher said the above words, a good guess might be last week, last month, or last year. Actually, it came from a new teacher who had graduated from a university-based teacher education program in 1967.

I am reminded of this nearly half-century ago quote after reading Dana Goldstein’s book, Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession . In one chapter, Goldstein does a balanced job of reporting on Teach for America, a quarter-century effort that has brought liberal arts graduates from top colleges and universities into teaching. She points out the negatives (five weeks of summer training before assuming a full-time post in an urban school; only a two-year commitment to teach; high attrition rates after two years are completed) and positives (TFA secondary school math teachers outperformed a matched group of regular teachers as measured by standardized test scores; the funneling of TFA graduates into policy posts since the early 1990s). She sums up her experiences as an education reporter by saying:

Teach for America recruits are neither the saviors nor the banes of public education. Rather, like novice educators I’ve observed and interviewed, they run the gamut from talented and passionate to lackluster and burned out. What corps members share is the experience of being introduced to teaching through a truncated training process that stresses strict discipline and quantifiable results (p.197).

I had reached a similar conclusion.

Goldstein then goes on to recommend residency programs where newcomers to the profession are supervised by experienced teachers equipped with the expertise to model effective teaching and skills and be both sandpaper and a pillow to novices. Immersion into full-time classrooms is measured and monitored each step of the way over one to two years. These residencies—Goldstein notes that there are now 18 such programs from Memphis to Boston—make a great deal of sense to her, given her rich reporting on teachers and teaching over the past two centuries. And I agree.*

I would like to add another to her list of sensible ways of preparing teachers for urban schools. Look at the largest charter organization in California, Aspire Public Schools. The first 18 highly selective Aspire Teacher Residents in 2012 completed their first year of a four year stint–sounds like medical residents– of a closely supervised internship that includes a stipend of $13,500 and health insurance.

Fifteen have been hired to work full-time in the schools in which they were trained. Aspire has a network of 34 schools. They now step into the classroom as the teacher-of-record with a preliminary credential from the University of the Pacific and a Masters degree while continuing to work closely with a mentor who is paid a stipend to coach. And this support continues in subsequent years with Aspire teacher-coaches working with them until the residency is completed. Here is a district-based teacher training program–as opposed to a university-based program–that is smart.

Why smart?

Because they ask for a four-year commitment from novices rather than two in Teach for America. No novice has a prayer of mastering the complexities of teaching in two years–four years is closer to the norm of becoming a competent teacher.

Because support from mentors and peers–they are part of a cohort that meets periodically –during those years they are sailing solo in their classroom– strengthens the chance that such teachers will master the intricacies of the craft and become mentors themselves. After completing the four year residency, they can consider other posts in Aspire network such as Lead Teachers, Model Teachers, or administrators.

Because Aspire trains and inducts teachers into their expectations (e.g. all poor and minority students will go to college) and standards of teaching and student learning (e.g. how to teach, motivate, and evaluate students) in 34 charter schools. They do not depend wholly on university-based teacher education programs that provide generic course work with a brief time in actual classrooms.

Because the residency program is geared to pay for itself once foundation funding ends unlike similar programs elsewhere in the nation.

There is another reason I resonate to district–based (with affiliation to local university) internships and residencies is my experience in Washington, D.C. a half-century ago.

Surely history does not repeat itself since contexts then and now differ, but it comes close sometimes. In the early 1960s, I was a Master Teacher of History in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching that took returned Peace Corps Volunteers and trained them in one year to become urban teachers. Federally funded by the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the model of a district-based program of teacher education located in a high school (and later in junior high schools and elementary schools) with second-year residencies created during the program attracted national attention for taking young, determined novices and helping them learn to teach in urban classrooms.

In 1966, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson sponsored the National Teacher Corps bill and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. The NTC went through many changes in its life span of 15 years in 700 sites across the nation recruiting and inducting thousands of new teachers to work in low-income minority schools (see National Teacher Corps 1966-1981 ) Many of those NTC teachers went on to become master teachers, principals, superintendents, and academics. Many stayed in the classroom. The experience left them changed people.

And in Washington, D.C., the Cardozo Project morphed into the Urban Teacher Corps that between 1967-1971 recruited and inducted hundreds of college graduates into D.C. classrooms before it was shut down by a new superintendent (see “Personal Odyssey: Becoming a Teacher and Reformer in the 1950s and 1960s,” February 27, 2011).

The D.C. schools scarf up Teach for America novices–recall that Chancellor Michelle Rhee was a TFA-er before serving as head of the district between 2007-2010. To my knowledge, there is no residency program in the district now.

So even with a score of teacher residency programs available now across the country, they are but a drop in the bucket of novices entering urban schools in 2014. Most newcomers come from conventional teacher education programs. The plea of that new teacher in 1967 was not hollow then nor is it now.

____________________

*To be clear with readers, Goldstein interviewed me about my experiences with the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching and I provided a back-cover blurb for the book.

19 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Math Teaching–Cartoons

For the monthly feature of cartoons, I have found that the cartoonist’s pen spared no ink on popular attitudes toward math and how it is taught in schools.  Enjoy!

calvin2

images-1

 

5c390e9449528567e67d65c130e8d364

 

3e9ffd160f63e56edfaabfba1134041b

 

ceb75e533e44580501588d782fee36f9

 

d394ad376034762e992203fad1d20cdb

 

Math_HW_Cartoon

 

calvin5

 

images

 

peanuts math cartoon

 

8 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

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.

17 Comments

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.

 

21 Comments

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.

images-5

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.

2007-01-26 Compromise

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.

 

8 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching