Category Archives: how teachers teach

What’s The Evidence on School Devices and Software Improving Student Learning?

The historical record is rich in evidence that research findings have played a subordinate role in making educational policy. Often, policy choices were (and are) political decisions. There was no research, for example, that found establishing tax-supported public schools in the early 19th century was better than educating youth through private academies. No studies persuaded late-19th century educators to import the kindergarten into public schools. Ditto for bringing computers into schools a century later.

So it is hardly surprising, then, that many others, including myself, have been skeptical of the popular idea that evidence-based policymaking and evidence-based instruction can drive teaching practice. Those doubts have grown larger when one notes what has occurred in clinical medicine with its frequent U-turns in evidence-based “best practices.”

Consider, for example, how new studies have often reversed prior “evidence-based” medical procedures.

*Hormone therapy for post-menopausal women to reduce heart attacks was found to be more harmful than no intervention at all.

*Getting a PSA test to determine whether the prostate gland showed signs of cancer for men over the age of 50 was “best practice” until 2012 when advisory panels of doctors recommended that no one under 55 should be tested and those older  might be tested if they had family histories of prostate cancer.

And then there are new studies that recommend women to have annual mammograms, not at age  50 as recommended for decades, but at age 40. Or research syntheses (sometimes called “meta-analyses”) that showed anti-depressant pills worked no better than placebos.

These large studies done with randomized clinical trials–the current gold standard for producing evidence-based medical practice–have, over time, produced reversals in practice. Such turnarounds, when popularized in the press (although media attention does not mean that practitioners actually change what they do with patients) often diminished faith in medical research leaving most of us–and I include myself–stuck as to which healthy practices we should continue and which we should drop.

Should I, for example, eat butter or margarine to prevent a heart attack? In the 1980s, the answer was: Don’t eat butter, cheese, beef, and similar high-saturated fat products. Yet a recent meta-analysis of those and subsequent studies reached an opposite conclusion.

Figuring out what to do is hard because I, as a researcher, teacher, and person who wants to maintain good health has to sort out what studies say and  how those studies were done from what the media report, and then how all of that applies to me. Should I take a PSA test? Should I switch from margarine to butter?

If research into clinical medicine produces doubt about evidence-based practice, consider the difficulties of educational research–already playing a secondary role in making policy and practice decisions–when findings from long-term studies of innovation conflict with current practices. Look, for example, at computer use to transform teaching and improve student achievement.

Politically smart state and local policymakers believe that buying new tablets loaded with new software, deploying them to K-12 classrooms, and watching how the devices engage both teachers and students is a “best practice.” The theory is that student engagement through the device and software will dramatically alter classroom instruction and lead to improved  achievement. The problem, of course–sure, you already guessed where I was going with this example–is that evidence of this electronic innovation transforming teaching and achievement growth is not only sparse but also unpersuasive even when some studies show a small “effect size.”

Turn now to the work of John Hattie, a Professor at the University of Auckland (NZ), who has synthesized the research on different factors that influence student achievement and measured their impact on learning. For example, over the last two decades, Hattie has examined over 180,000 studies accumulating 200, 000 “effect sizes”  measuring the influence of teaching practices on student learning. All of these studies represent over 50 million students.

He established which factors influenced student learning–the “effect size–by ranking each from 0.1 (hardly any influence) to 1.0 or a full standard deviation–almost a year’s growth in student learning. He found that the “typical” effect size of an innovation was 0.4.

To compare different classroom approaches shaped student learning, Hattie used the “typical” effect size (0.4) to mean that a practice reached the threshold of influence on student learning (p. 5). From his meta-analyses, he then found that class size had a .20 effect (slide 15) while direct instruction had a .59 effect (slide 21). Again and again, he found that teacher feedback had an effect size of .72 (slide 32). Moreover, teacher-directed strategies of increasing student verbalization (.67) and teaching meta-cognition strategies (.67) had substantial effects (slide 32).

What about student use of computers (p. 7)? Hattie included many “effect sizes” of computer use from distance education (.09), multimedia methods (.15), programmed instruction (.24), and computer-assisted instruction (.37). Except for “hypermedia instruction” (.41), all fell below the “typical ” effect size (.40) of innovations improving student learning (slides 14-18). Across all studies of computers, then, Hattie found an overall effect size of .31 (p. 4).

According to Hattie’s meta-analyses, then, introducing computers to students will  fall well below other instructional strategies that teachers can and do use. Will Hattie’s findings convince educational policymakers to focus more on teaching? Not as long as political choices trump research findings.

Even if politics were removed from the decision-making equation, there would still remain the major limitation of  most educational and medical research. Few studies  answer the question: under what conditions and with which students and patients does a treatment work? That question seldom appears in randomized clinical trials. And that is regrettable.

 

 

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Troubled Youth, Troubled Learning (Dave Reid)

Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching.   He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011.  Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries.  He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University.  He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.

While the title for this post does not always ring true, in my few years teaching at Title I schools, it often reflects reality.  In fact, rarely does a day go by where no student disrupts the classroom learning environment for one reason or another.  As a fifty-something, I knew this going into teaching; what I did not know was how deleterious these disruptions are to continuity, sanity, and in the limit: opportunity, for my students, not me.  As someone in the classroom every day, hoping above all hope that my students can break out of their behavioral binds, it challenges my every fiber of existence to keep the class focused on our learning objective(s) for the day.

Troubled youth make for troubled learning, not only for themselves, but also for everyone in the classroom.  It is a huge force multiplier of the negative type.  In spite of what is heralded as the balm for these troubles, compassion, empathy, and other soft moves are frequently insufficient to overcome years of ingrained indifference, frustration, anger, resentment, or a host of other emotions, feelings, or attitudes that have overtaken an adolescent overwhelmed by his or her circumstances.  The older the youth, the more deeply embedded the issue or issues.  Now, extend these to one or more adolescents in a classroom, and you get a snapshot of teaching in a Title I school.

A few days ago, for instance, I taught three block periods: two of which are split into two sections apiece of algebra 1 and remedial mathematics, and one AP Calculus section.  The split sections are my attempt to support students who do not possess the arithmetic skill or understanding needed to succeed in algebra.  Fortunately, my administration and the district office support me in this effort.

The AP Calculus students are rarely “egregiously” troublesome, aside from the fact that they have yet to realize that frequent side conversations among the eight groups of four students each frequently distracts others.  At times, when teaching these students, it feels as if I am an onstage performer at a dinner theater with the audience commenting back and forth to each other about their meal, the show, or what not.  Periodically, I tell them that the classroom is not their living room, or a movie theater, where they freely watch or chat as they see fit during “the show.”  They seem a bit startled when I make them aware of their behavior, which puzzles me even more; it is as if I am the first and only teacher to ask them to consider their impact on a classroom.  Notwithstanding their surprise, I persist, as I do not believe college professors will tolerate their behavior any more than I do, for the majority of my calculus students are college bound this fall.

Yet, this is not a post about my privileged students, who make up most of my calculus students.  For they, mostly, are buffered, or far removed, from the intense psychosocial trauma faced by many low-income families.  Simply put, they live free from most of the burdens of poverty.  Burdens, which manifest themselves in low-income families, that inhibit attaining outcomes at the same level as those more privileged for the same level of effort.

My most challenged students, behaviorally and academically, frequent my algebra sections.  Their presence cannot be missed: whether visually or aurally.  While it only takes one student to derail the trajectory of a class, it is a rare day, indeed, when only one student in a class acts to call attention to themselves.  The duration, intensity, and frequency of the derailments vary based on the class composition.

In the face of these ever-present disruptions, I have to: keep students’ attention focused on moving forward with their learning; address the momentary outburst and its subsequent ripples throughout the classroom; all the while doing my best to stay passionate, motivated, and encouraging without having a mental breakdown.  I say that somewhat tongue in cheek.  However, it is not too far from reality.  Whoever mentioned that a teacher has nearly as demanding a job as an air traffic controller was pretty close to the truth.

Which brings me to the student who inspired this post.  John rarely participates positively in class. He seems to possess a boundless ability to draw negative attention to himself throughout a class period. He failed first semester and is on track to do the same this semester. I hope with all of my heart that he wakes up soon and understands how important it is to his future that he pay attention in class, attempt some of his homework, and learn as much as is humanly possible, for he is quite intelligent in spite of what he may believe.

John reminds me of how my younger brother, now deceased, might have been in school.  My brother was often truant.  He ran with the wrong crowd, experimented with things I never knew existed at his age, and dropped out of high school shortly after starting.  My brother may have been one of the silent ones, the student who attempts to disappear among the thirty or so classmates.  He might have giggled frequently chatting away with his classmates.  Regardless, he did not learn.  He missed out on that opportunity, as he was deeply troubled.  I will not go into details except to say that his burdens were too much for him.  They may have been too much for his teacher, if they manifested themselves while in school: I simply do not know.  What I do know is that I became a teacher, in part, to help those like my younger brother, of whom this one student reminds me.  .

I will not hold my breath for John.  I will encourage him as often as possible, in between addressing his behavioral shortcomings, for they do impact the class.  His mother is at her wits end and unsure what to do about him.  I believe my parents felt similarly some thirty plus years ago.  Life is amazingly complex.  Teaching is crazy hard.  It drains me nearly every day.  Yet, there is rarely a day I leave home headed to my classroom not eager to teach. Yes, some troubled youth await me; they are whom I most hope to help.  Yet, I only can do my part to work toward keeping them on a path to graduate; they need to do their part as well.  Time will only tell.

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Cartoons about Families and Schools

For this monthly feature of cartoons, I pulled together a bunch that got me smiling, chuckling, and occasionally laughing out loud. About half of them are about parent-child relationships in the home; the other half are about teachers and students from ex-middle school teacher Diana Bledsoe whose work I have featured before.

I met Diana through my blog. I read hers and saw that she did cartoons about a fictitious middle school. She told me that she is a “cartoonist who has been in the education field for over 15 years: first as a volunteer, then a teacher and currently as an administrator. My cartoons are inspired by my daily interactions with students and educational professionals.

In these Bledsoe’s cartoons, she features Stewart, a student with a mop of yellow hair who has only passed Gym and has given Mrs. Banks, a teacher, a hard time. Enjoy.

 

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Arranging Classroom Furniture: An Unobtrusive Glimpse into How Teachers Teach

How teachers arrange the furniture in classrooms gives a peek into how teachers teach. Look at these photos taken last year of elementary and secondary classrooms that have different furniture arrangements.Science+room

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Note the different arrangements of  desks. In the first photo, rows of movable desks face the front of the classroom where the teacher’s desk is located. The second photo has a horseshoe pattern of tablet armchairs across from one another. The third photo is of an elementary classroom that is chock-full of materials and children working on different activities with adults sitting on the rug and chair working with  individual pupils. And the final photo is one of a secondary classroom arranged in rows where each student has a tablet and a smart phone.

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Now, take a look at photos of classrooms over the past century.

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Five decades later when movable desks and chairs replaced the traditional bolted down ones, a photo shows a typical classroom.

Note the regimented order of these classrooms a century ago and even five decades later. True, those desks were bolted down a century ago and were even a teacher then so inclined to arranging small groups of students–and such teachers were around–they could do it but had to overcome the furniture arrangement. But a half-century later, with movable desks, rows were still there in many classrooms but not others.

Are the changes in how classrooms are furnished and how students appear dramatically different? Yes and no.

The “yes” part is in how students are dressed and how there are more examples now of different ways to arrange desks and chairs over the decades. The “no” part is that while different ways of organizing furniture in elementary classrooms is evident and apparent for anyone who ventures into a kindergarten and first grade classroom, that is much less the case for secondary classrooms.

Do such photos of classroom furniture give observers a glimpse of how teachers teach? Yes, they do but only a hint. Here is my reasoning.

a.Furniture arrangement is seldom mandated by a school board, superintendent, or principal. The teacher decides how to use classroom space. Furniture placement, consciously or not, expresses the teacher’s views of how best to teach, maintain order, and how students learn. Thus, an observer gets a clue to whether teacher-centered and student-centered instruction* (including mixes of both) will prevail.

b. When all students face the teacher’s desk or teacher at the blackboard (now whiteboard or “smart board”) where directions, daily homework, textbook readings and quizzes are registered, whole group instruction is encouraged including class discussions (recitation was the word used in the early 20th century). Teacher-talk  gains higher priority and legitimacy than exchanges between and among students.

c. Surveillance is easier for a teacher when rows or tables are in rows. Threats to classroom order can be seen quickly and dealt with expeditiously.

d. Such a configuration of classroom space limits students’ movement within a classroom to that which the teacher permits.

e. If desks are arranged into a hollow square, horseshoe, or tables are scattered around the room permitting students to face one another and talk, student-centered instruction where student talk and decision-making are prized becomes a much stronger possibility.

Note, however, that furniture arrangements do not determine how teachers teach. Classroom rows, tables, or horseshoe configurations are no more than clues to what teachers believe and practice in their lessons. Keep in mind  that for the early decades of this century when desks were fixed to the floor, there were still teachers who ingeniously and with much energy overcame that obstacle and introduced student-centered practices into the classroom.Such furniture may have discouraged many teachers but it did not prevent some from altering their teaching practices.

So a glimpse of classroom furniture is useful as a starting point in assessing how teachers teach but it is only a small part of how teachers structure lessons and carry out activities. Far more information about what happens in the classroom would be needed since teacher-centered instruction can, and often does, occur even when seating arrangements look student-centered.

Furniture arrangements and the placement of students, then, are not random affairs.

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They are the result of teacher decisions stemming from beliefs in keeping order and how students learn best in the age-graded school within which teachers work. So when I enter a classroom, the first thing I note and record is how desks and chairs are arranged in any classroom.

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*In using the language of  “teacher-centered-” and “student-centered” instruction, I need to be clear that I do not favor one over the other. Both forms of instruction and hybrids can be effective with different students at different times in different contexts. Classroom arrangements offer only a hint of what teachers believe and how they teach. That visible sign is only that, not the full picture of daily lessons.

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On Using And Not Using ClassDojo*: Ideological Differences?

In a recent guest post, two British Columbia (Canada) primary grade teachers took opposite sides in discussing their use and non-use of the free behavioral management tool called ClassDojo. As described by the reporter in the above article, ClassDojo is software that “allows teachers to give students points to reinforce positive behaviors, assign negative points for undesirable behaviors and allows teachers to track behavior data over time, sharing with parents and administrators through reports.”

I was struck by what appeared to be strong differences between the two teachers over how (or whether) the high-tech tool should be used. Here I will summarize each teacher’s points, offer other teachers’ first-hand experiences, and then add what I learned based on my reading and an interview I had with a first-grade teacher using ClassDojo. There is an underlying issue over teacher beliefs in how children best learn that weaves in and out of the teachers’ comments, an issue I address at the end of the post.

Karen, the first grade teacher said that the tool was too point-focused and undercut her goals of getting six year-olds to manage their impulses. She admits that she  has not used ClassDojo in her classroom. Her reasons against using the software tool are clearly stated:

1. Class Dojo reinforces external rewards. They may work in the short run but fail over time to get students to regulate their behavior.

2. One-click assessments of children’s behavior miss the complexity of individual students and why they do what they do.

3. It is “humiliating” to display publicly those students who get minus points; shame doesn’t help students learn.

Erin, another primary grade teacher, felt initially that ClassDojo would undermine her belief that students learn best through intrinsic rewards since the tool depended on points, rewards and punishments. Yet she decided to use the software and discovered that ClassDojo reinforced a child’s responsibility for being in class. In the reading and writing workshop she does annually, ClassDojo helped students state and track their expectations in reading and writing. In addition, the software tool collected and displayed information that helped the teaching assistant monitor special needs students’ behavior in the class as well as the overall group’s behavior. In short, Erin used the tool to “go beyond extrinsic rewards.”

Karen and Erin are two examples of teachers using ClassDojo. There are others (see here, here, and here) that use the tool differently and express their support and reservations.

I wanted to learn more about the software tool so I contacted Sam Chaudhary at ClassDojo to find a teacher near where I live to interview. He found Mayrin Bunyagidj, a first-grade teacher at Sacred Heart in Menlo Park (CA). She agreed to an interview.

I spent over an hour with Mayrin, an experienced public elementary and secondary school teacher who has been at Sacred Heart, a private school, for four years. Her classroom has tables sitting four students each with four centers (teacher center for math and language arts, workbook center, project or game center, and computer center with five machines) that students rotate through over the course of a school day. She described how she began using ClassDojo and how she concentrates on the “positives” with her class of 16. Because the school focuses on building character–the “Code of the Heart” (e.g., being caring, ready to work, respectful, and responsible) she showed me on her Smart Board how she uses the software to reinforce “positive” student behaviors daily and connect those behaviors to “Code of the Heart.” With this tool, she no longer “nags students.”

When I asked her whether using rewards (e.g., sitting at the teacher’s desk, winning tickets for a weekly lottery to get bracelets and other school gifts) kills intrinsic motivation, she quickly replied that it has the “opposite effect.”  Children want to improve, she said. They work hard to do better, not for the rewards but because they want to. Mayrin suggested that ClassDojo helped her bridge the ideological differences between using extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in motivating students.

After the interview, I began reading in the psychological literature on motivating children in school. Intrinsic motivation, it turns out, is highest among young children and as they went from grade to grade in school, it faded considerably.  Older secondary school students seldom showed any intrinsic motivation and only worked for whatever point system was in play. That was the pattern that both teachers and psychologists found. But it was not either-or, a few developmental psychologists found. There were “in-between” examples that bridged the boiler-plated extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards debate that has occurred for decades among educators and experts.

Some developmental psychologists have concluded: “we come to learn to do things not only because they are fun or likely to lead to some immediate payoff but because we have come to believe that we ‘ought’ to do them … to facilitate our own long-term goals (e.g., because it would be ‘good for us’). See: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation PDF

Here is the bridge that Mayrin suggested in her description of using ClassDojo and other teachers who see the age-old debate over extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards less in black and white and more in how  teachers can use points and rewards to help children internalize what they “ought to do.” These “bridges,” these “in-between” examples, helped me get past the tired arguments pro-and-con for how teachers ought to best motivate students.

I see these “bridges,” be they built with ClassDojo or names on the chalkboard, as primary ways that schools, past and present, socialize children and youth to live in a market-driven democracy where the values of private and public goods and cooperation and competition are highly prized. Some of us may question those “bridges” as working beneficially or for ill but I have yet to find anyone who can ignore this primary function of tax-supported public schools.

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Dojo is originally a Japanese word for space devoted to physical training from wrestling to martial arts–the do arts. Thanks to Janice Cuban for suggesting I define Dojo.

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A Tribute to Elliot Eisner, 1933-2014

Too few policymakers have ever taught in public schools. Even fewer can articulate what it is about teaching young children, youth, and adults that binds teachers and students together and makes the experience of learning memorable, satisfying, and long-lasting. A former high school teacher and life-long academic, Elliot Eisner was one of the few individuals I knew who could precisely put into words those ideas and feelings.

Elliot Eisner  was Professor Emeritus of Education and Art at Stanford University. This is an abridged version of his 2006 Commencement talk to School of Education graduates and their families. I posted this initially February 15, 2010 and ran it again in 2013.

It is fitting to publish it once more to get a sense of the humane educator all of us have lost. Nonetheless, his ideas, his zest for life, and his constant swimming against the policy current of standards, testing, and accountability remain with us.  At the end of Elliot’s talk, I have listed some of his ideas captured in aphorisms drawn from speeches and writings over the decades.

Among the many satisfactions in teaching there are six I would like to describe. The first pertains to the opportunity to introduce students to ideas that they can chew on for the rest of their lives. Great teaching traffics in enduring puzzlements and persistent dilemmas. Certainties are closed streets, not locations that interest the mind. Great ideas have legs. They take you somewhere.

Ideas can also provide a natural high. With them you can raise questions that can’t be answered. But why do puzzlements provide satisfactions? I believe because they invite that most precious of human abilities-imagination–an opportunity to take wing. Imagination is the neglected stepchild of American education. Questions invite you in. They stimulate the production of possibilities. They give you a ride. And the best ones are those that tickle the intellect and resist resolution.

Second, the satisfactions of teaching provide opportunities to reach out to students in ways that ensure your own immortality. The images of teachers past populate our minds and memories. They sit on our shoulders ready to identify infractions of one kind or another and to offer praise for work well done. Their lives live in yours and your life lives in theirs.

The immortality I speak of is the private, rather than the public immortality that is garnered by only a very few. Yet living through the memories of the great and not so great teachers we have known is no meager accomplishment; you don’t have to be a Mahata Ghandi to be remembered or to be loved.

Third, teaching makes it possible to play your own cello. Despite the beliefs of some well intended technocrats, there are no recipes for performance, no teacher proof scripts to follow. Teaching well requires improvisation within constraints. Constraints there will always be but in the end teaching is a custom job within which the teacher becomes an inseparable part of what is taught.

The inseparability of what is learned from the manner in which it was taught is a lesson best taught by the arts. The arts teach us that form and content cannot be divided; how something is described effects what is described. Curriculum once enacted cannot be separated from the way it was taught because how it was taught influences how it is learned.

Fourth, teaching provides ample opportunities for both artistry and for memorable forms of aesthetic experience. After forty years in the classroom I still have vivid recollections of my sophomore high school art class in which I taught thirty-five eager and some not so eager adolescents. Those memories, in many ways, are among the most aesthetically satisfying and vivid I own.

Teaching well also depends upon artistry. Artistry is the ability to craft a performance, to influence its pace, to shape its rhythms and to modulate its tone so that its parts merge into a coherent whole. You come to feel a process that often exceeds the capacity of language to describe.

Why are these memories so vivid? The nature of long term memory might have something to do with it, but I think there is more to it. I still remember my third grade teacher, Miss Eva Smith calling my name from one end of the classroom to the other to tell me, in a voice that the whole class could hear, “Elliot, Your work is getting better!” Oh how I needed to hear that; I did not do well in school. Or Miss Purtle who gave me a one person show of my paintings on the walls of her classroom when I was in the fourth grade. These were memorable events given to a nine year-old boy not knowing he would carry them with him for the rest of his life.

Fifth, teaching provides occasions to share with others your deep affection for what you teach. There is a sense of contagion when your eyes twinkle with delight at the prospect of introducing students to what you love. Your love of what you teach is conveyed to them; it is the sincerest and most powerful invitation you can extend.

Finally, teaching provides the opportunity to discover that something you once said in class that you cannot now remember made a difference to a former student who you happen to encounter twenty years later. Teaching is filled with such surprises. They reassure us that our contributions sometimes exceed what we can recall.

But the satisfactions of teaching extend beyond the academic. Indeed, the most lasting contributions come from rescuing a child from despair, restoring a sense of hope, soothing a discomfort. These are the occasions whose memories last longest because they are often the occasions that matter most. They are the occasions whose importance transcends academic interests. They address the human needs that all of us share.

It is especially important today at a time when schools are buffeted by performance standards and high stakes testing to remember that the student is a whole person who has an emotional and social life, not just an intellectual one. And this is as true for graduate students in the grandest citadels of higher education as it is for students in elementary school. The more we stress in school only what we can measure the more we need to remember that not everything that is measurable matters and not everything that matters is measurable. As the old progressives used to say, we need to pay attention to the whole child. This is accomplished by how we teach. How we teach is related to the deep satisfactions of teaching I described today.

I have had the moments that I have described-and you will too. I envy you the journey. Oh, to be able to begin that journey once again today!
No such luck!

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Some of Elliot Eisner’s quotable words:

*Education is the process of learning how to invent yourself.

*We know more than we can tell.

*Standards are aspirations that are best held flexibly.

*The aim of education is not to get everybody to the same place.

*Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that is measured matters.

*Can anyone really teach what they do not love?

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Learning from the Past: The Economy and School Reform Then and Now*

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce.   

Theodore Search, President of the National Association of  Manufacturers, 1898 (quoted here, p. 29)

No issue will have a bigger impact on the future performance of our economy than education.  In the long run it’s going to … determine whether businesses stay here.  It will determine whether businesses are created here, whether businesses are hiring here.  And it will determine whether there’s going to be an abundance of good middle-class jobs in America….The countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  That’s a simple fact.  And if we want America to continue to be number one and stay number one, we’ve got some work to do. 

President Barack Obama, speech to National Governors Association, 2012

I begin with these quotes covering more than a century to make a simple point: Past and present, policy elites have connected the economy to education and pursued school reforms to tie the two together.

Between the 1890s and 1920s when the U.S. was competing with Great Britain and Germany in selling products in a global marketplace, progressive reformers created a vocational curriculum in addition to the dominant college preparatory program in secondary schools making career preparation a goal of U.S. public schools. (see here and here)

For the past three decades, business and civic leaders have talked extensively about how more efficient and effective schools will lead to economic growth and improve global competitiveness. Resulting actions have stripped away most vocational programs in exchange for an academic program geared to prepare students for higher education–just like the high school in the 1890s.

The goal of career preparation remains from both periods of school reform but has shifted from job preparation for an industrial economy—a high school diploma–to job preparation for an information-driven economy—a bachelor’s degree.

In 2014, we persist with economically-driven school reform, one that has evolved into a market-tinged policy agenda embraced by both national and state political and business leaders: more parental choice in selecting schools, more teacher use of high-tech in classrooms, focus on academic standards, testing, and accountability including the new Common Core national roll-out, and using student outcomes to evaluate student, teacher, and school effectiveness.

But newspaper ads, policy elite rhetoric, and a common vocabulary among leaders, as past reforms have shown, do not make much difference in classrooms (see here, here, and here)..

And this lesson about classroom implementation is one that generations of reformers have too often missed. There are crucial differences between policy talk, policy decisions, and classroom practice that can help supporters and opponents of current reforms, anchored as they are in the past, to crack the mystery of reform occurring again and again.  These policy distinctions have existed for over a century foiling the best laid designs to closely link U.S. schools and classrooms to the economy.

POLICY TALK, ACTION, AND IMPLEMENTATION

Policy talk refers to past and present reformers whose words of gloom and doom about schools are often followed by over-confident and untested solutions to schools in crisis. For example, those over 50 years of age can recall talk about the Apple IIe desktop computer decades ago, or now, classroom Smart Boards, iPads, and online instruction revolutionizing classroom instruction. Perhaps they can also recall the dire predictions since the 1980s about declining U.S. global competitiveness as graduates enter the job market unprepared for the new economy. Such policy talk is important in framing problems, mobilizing political coalitions, and getting educators to roll up their sleeves to solve school problems. Seldom, however, do doom-tinged words or ambitious talk about transformations make a reform happen. Words have to be converted into policies.

Policy adoption refers to actual decisions governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make to solve problems framed in the purple rhetoric of policy talk. Examples of policy action include legislatures authorizing mayors to take control of schools; boards of education buying tablets for kindergartners. And New York State’s Board of Regents approving the Common Core standards.

Policy implementation in districts, schools, and classrooms, however, differs from both talk and action.

Implementation means putting an adopted policy into practice. Consider what so often occurs after a state or district adopts new technologies to increase student engagement and test scores. When observers go into classrooms to see how teachers use new devices in lessons, they find great variation across districts and even ones within the same school. Some teachers pick and choose what to use in their classrooms; others just ponder when to begin implementing, and even others ignore the policy. Because of school cultures and organizational structures, change is gradual, scattered, and sporadic. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the lofty promises policymakers make and when they adopt new policies.

POLICY DISTINCTIONS MATTER

These distinctions become very clear when it comes to Common Core standards in New York. Ambitious, even fiery, talk from advocates about how the new standards will lead to high school graduates having the wherewithal to enter college and then graduate with a bachelor’s degree. With degree in hand, graduates would get decently paid middle-class jobs that would strengthen the economy while increasing the U.S.’s global competitiveness.

The New York State Board of Regents adopted the new standards in 2010. The state department of education piloted reading and math standards across the state even having students take versions of the new tests that will accompany the Common Core standards. Lots of glitches showed up when the standards and tests entered classrooms, especially the steep drop in student test scores. With sharp conflict emerging over districts’  unreadiness to implement and the impending Common Core tests being used to evaluate teacher performance, the Regents have delayed full implementation for five years (see here and here). Amid all of this furor, however, is a welcome sign from the past: the New York State Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education have allocated funds for professional development of teachers and other tools to help make Common Core standards much easier to put into practice.

Time will tell whether policy elites distinguishing between policy talk, adoption, and implementation, distinctions that have made a difference in understanding prior reforms aimed at importing market-driven ideas and practices into classrooms, will come to matter in New York state where in nearly 4,800 schools over 211,00 teachers teach 2,700,000 students after they close their classroom doors.


*A version of this post appeared February 28, 2014 in the blog of the City University of New York Education Policy at Hunter College.

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More Cartoons on Parents, Teachers, and Kids

This month’s featured cartoons takes up again the interactions between parents, kids, and teachers. Much to chuckle about. Enjoy.

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Timmy's Dad

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When Classroom Culture Conflicts With EdTech (Christina Quattrocchi)

The following guest post appeared in EdSurge, February 9, 2014

 Teachers have a multitude of tools to choose from. Not every tool can exactly match every teachers’ pedagogical approach. However, for some when it doesn’t quite match up it can be the difference between trying it out or walking away.

Elementary teachers Erin Klein and Karen Lirenman share their thoughts about ClassDojo, a free tool for classroom management used by … million[s of] teachers. The tool allows teachers to give students points to reinforce positive behaviors, assign negative points for undesirable behaviors and allows teachers to track behavior data over time, sharing with parents and administrators through reports.

Here’s how these two teachers address the conflicts that arise between a tool and the culture of learning in their classrooms.

Karen Lirenman: Can’t See Eye To Eye

Before I begin I need to be perfectly honest that I have never tried ClassDojo with my grade one students. Normally I wouldn’t critique something without trying it first, however, philosophically ClassDojo just doesn’t sit right with me. I strongly believe children should be in charge of their behaviour through being taught and using self regulation skills and ClassDojo takes that away from them. Here’s why.

ClassDojo seems to enforce external rewards. And no matter how you jazz it up, external rewards don’t work in the long run. Yes, you may see results in the short term, but what happens when you remove the reward? From what I’ve seen, there is little authenticity and ownership of that said action. Using ClassDojo would make it hard for students to self regulate.

The one click assessment also bothers me too. It doesn’t allow me to differentiate and add any specific individual details as to why they are receiving, or not receiving a click. Whether it be a specific behaviour, or a learning objective, very little boils down to just one click.What that one click system is vastly missing is the information that the child brings with them surrounding their behaviour or performance of learning outcomes. I can have two children in my class who have not yet mastered a learning outcome but for two completely different reasons.That specific child-dependent information is extremely important to me, yet there is no way to differentiate that information with ClassDojo. It’s what my formative assessment is built around and it’s what guides me as their teacher. The simplicity of the one click negates all of that assessment data.

To take this even further, it is this simplified data that is shared with families. I think it’s great that parents are aware of where their children are succeeding and struggling, but the one click assessment tells them so little. It  would undermine my ability to be specific with their child’s needs, and to provide suggestions on ways to support them.

I am also bothered by the fact that the assessment is done in front of the class. For those who are successful on a consistent basis, I’m sure this isn’t really a problem, but for those who struggle I can only imagine that it would be.  Kids know when they are struggling with something and the last thing they need is to have it pointed out to them in front of their peers.  What about a child’s dignity? When has humiliation ever helped anyone?

As a teacher it’s my responsibility to build an authentic relationship with each of my students. This relationship is key to help my students overcome their area(s) of difficulty, and to push them along with their learning.  If I really want to make a difference in their lives I need to support, nurture, and guide. I need to help my students learn to self regulate, because ultimately the rewards should come from within. Because of a philosophical conflict, I won’t be using ClassDojo with my class.

Karen Lirenman is a grade one teacher in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada who loves to provide her students with choice in how they learn, show, and share their knowledge.

Erin Klein: There’s More Than Meets the Eye

I’ll admit, when I was first presented with ClassDojo, I was a bit apprehensive about using a tool that relied on extrinsic motivation. You see, building intrinsic motivation in my students is an important part of my educational philosophy and at first glance, ClassDojo didn’t quite fit. I thought there was no way I could get behind a technology tool that was based on points, or rewards and punishments.

And yet, I was excited to offer support to a new startup. So I agreed to help, reminding myself to be open-minded. I found, it’s not about the tool itself, but how the tool is used. Here’s how I used it with my second graders to go beyond extrinsic rewards:

 Attendance: My students love entering the classroom and touching their Dojo Character to mark themselves present for the day. This was a great way to track how many days of school each child had attended. They loved seeing the days of school tracked on the SMART Board using ClassDojo because it gave them ownership over their attendance. ClassDojo now has a separate attendance feature that is awesome!

 Anchor Chart Workshop Expectations: Each year, we come together and brainstorm a list of expectations for our reading and writing workshop time. We typically use chart paper and jot down our notes. Then, we hang these charts and reference them as needed.  We did the same this year, but we integrated ClassDojo to track whether students were successful in meeting their own expectations in the workshop. This also helped track what students needed to work on as well. You can click here to read more about how we used this in our workshop.

Special Needs and IEPs: Because ClassDojo is also offered as an app, teaching assistants use their smart phones to monitor student’s focus, interest level, attentiveness, and participation. The program tracks and stores all data that can be configured into brilliant graphs automatically. Each graph can be easily shared with parents, teachers, special education directors, etc. This helps the adults better understand student behavior so we can better support our students.

 Classroom Behavior: ClassDojo was designed to track student behavior and encourage positive interactions. My former school used a district-wide positive behavior system. So, ClassDojo supported exactly what my school was doing. Students could earn points for following the classroom expectations. This information was saved and could easily be shared if needed.

In closing, I’m sure you can find fault with several tools, strategies, philosophies, methods, textbooks, and apps. But I encourage you to think beyond what meets the surface. I’m glad I invested the time to think creatively about the uses for ClassDojo.  It has really made a positive difference in the way I organize important information for my students.  Start with your classroom and your students in mind. Then use the tool to fit you and your students.

Erin Klein is a teacher, author, and parent who has earned her Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction and currently teaches second grade. She has previously taught first, sixth, and seventh grade.

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Using Technology To Nail down What We Know and Don’t Know about Effects of High-Tech on People Today

Do all the new devices around the world that we now use to get information and communicate separate or bring us together?

That either-or question has been debated since the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television became common technologies. The question pinches again with the swift spread of smart phones, social media, and dependence on the Internet.

Sherry Turkle’s recent book title, Alone Together, says it all. High-tech devices offer the fantasy of connection and companionship without personal intimacy, she says. Thus, people feel even more lonely after they “friended” someone on Facebook or texted 25 times in 10 minutes someone they just met.

What is missing from Turkle’s argument is a baseline for comparison of now and then. Has there been a “golden age” where most people felt connected to family, friends, and community? We do not know from Turkle’s book because she does not compare explicitly the present moment to an earlier time. She does implicitly compare, of course, since that it is the basis of her argument.

COMPARING THEN AND NOW PEOPLE USE OF PUBLIC SPACE

Rutgers sociologist Keith Hampton recently tried to answer the question of whether technology is driving people apart or bringing them together by comparing sociability of people in public places over thirty years ago and now. Here is what he did.

Hampton found time-lapse films taken in the late-1970s for an earlier study done by sociologist William Whyte in various urban public places such as New York City’s Bryant Park and the steps of the Metropolitan Art Museum.

Then Hampton and graduate students between 2008 and 2010 used cameras atop a 16-foot tripod to film both areas. They described and analyzed a total of 38 hours of film from that earlier period of Whyte’s research in public spaces and their current research. They compared the two time periods by sampling from 38 hours of film at 15-second intervals accumulating nearly 10,000 observations, coding individuals on film for sex, group size, “loitering”, and phone use (for the 2008-2010 data).

What Hampton found is that being sociable in public places has increased since the late-1970s. Of course, critics have said that Hampton filming public spots in the middle of the business day rather than other times of day, would affect results. Or as Sherry Turkle pointed out when a reporter asked her about Hampton’s findings, she said that Hampton might be right about public spaces but technology still may have, for example, “corrosive effects in the home: what it does to families at the dinner table.”

Does Hampton’s use of then-and-now film of people in public places settle the debate over technology’s effect on sociability? Hardly. But his research does compare two points in time which is sorely missing in assessing effects of technology on everything from mixing in public spaces to intimacy, to companionship, to, yes, even schooling.

I make this leap to teaching and learning and the the effects of technology on both because there have been “then and now” studies comparing teacher access to and use of technology with students.

COMPARING ACCESS AND TEACHER USE OF ELECTRONIC TECHNOLOGIES IN CLASSROOMS

When one considers that information electronic technologies, beginning with film, radio, television, and desktop computers, have been in schools since the 1920s, comparative data are available to determine to what degree teachers and students then had access and how those devices were used.

ACCESS

Until desktop computers came along, most of the earlier technologies for communicating information were infrequently available to students. Teachers were the gatekeepers and even they had limited access to film projectors, radios, and instructional television in the decades after the 1920s. For those small numbers of teachers who did use these devices, generally they were used for the entire group of students at one time. Most teachers and students might see a film or hear a radio program, or view a TV program monthly or a few times a year.

With the onset of desktops in the 1980s, laptops in the 1990s, and now hand-held devices such as smart phones and tablets, access to these tools have broadened considerably for both teachers and students. Since the early 1980s when computer labs and one computer for every classroom were the reform du jour, the swift spread of electronic devices has lowered the national ratio of computers to students from 1:125 in 1984 to 1:5 students in 2009. In many schools, across the country, that ratio is now 1:1.

It is clear, then, compared to earlier periods most teachers and students now have access to a variety of machines for gaining information and communicating with one another. There are baseline data for comparing access in different time periods.

But access is not classroom use of devices.

USE OF CLASSROOM DEVICES THEN AND NOW

When it comes to teacher use of desktops, laptops and now tablets, there also have been changes over time in frequency and duration of use. It is clear that since the early 1980s and with the rapid spread of electronic devices and software, more and more teachers are using computers for classroom lessons. In a study of teacher use of machines that I did in the mid-1980s, I predicted that a minority of teachers would be using computers in their lessons decades later. I was wrong.

Where I was correct, however, in comparing then and now was that high-tech champions (and vendors as well) expected that teachers using these devices with students would shift from teacher-centered practices to student-centered ones. Comparing then and now, that shift has not occurred (see here, here, and here)

So do all the new devices around the world that we now use to get information and communicate separate or bring us together? Even with the innovative research of  Keith Hampton comparing two points in time, the question remains unanswered.

Not so for gauging teacher access and use to computers for the past three decades. The answers, using “then and now” comparisons, are available.

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