Asking the Right Questions for Getting School-Driven Policies into Classroom Practice

Every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons.

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From widespread adoption of Common Core standards, to the feds funding “Race to the Top” to get states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give tablets to each teacher and student, these policies contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about outcomes that supposedly will occur once those new policies enter classrooms.

And one of those key assumptions is that new policies aimed at the classroom will get teachers to change how they teach for the better. Or else why go through the elaborate process of shaping, adopting, and funding a policy? Unfortunately, serious questions are seldom asked about these assumptions before or after super-hyped policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) entered classrooms.

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Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as  cure-alls for the ills of low-performing U.S. schools and urban dropout factories:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., Common Core standards. turning around failing schools, pay-for performance plans, and expanded parental choice of schools) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policies. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “charter schools outstrip regular schools,” “online instruction will disrupt bricks-and-mortar schools”) from policy action (e.g., actual adoption of policies aimed at changing teaching and learning) to classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers actually teach everyday as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students actually learned from teachers who teach differently as a result of adopted policies).

Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?

For schools in Auburn (ME) to Chicago to Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is “yes’ and “no.” The “yes” refers to the actual deployment of devices to children and teachers but, as anyone who has spent a day in a school observing classrooms, access to machines does not mean daily or even weekly use. In Auburn (ME), iPads for kindergartners were fully implemented. Not so in either Chicago or LAUSD.

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

For Auburn (Me), LAUSD, and all districts in-between those east and west coast locations, the answer is (and has been so for decades): we do not know. Informed guesses abound but hard evidence taken from actual classrooms is scarce. Classroom research of actual teaching practices before and after a policy aimed at teachers and students is adopted and implemented remains one of the least researched areas. To what degree have teachers altered how they teach daily as a result of new devices and software remains unanswered in most districts.

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

The short answer is no one knows. Consider distributing tablets to teachers and students. Sure, there are success stories that pro-technology advocates beat the drums for and, sure, there are disasters, ones that anti-tech educators love to recount in gruesome detail. But beyond feel-good and feel-bad stories yawns an enormous gap in classroom evidence of “changed classroom practice,” “what students learned,” and why.

What makes knowing whether teachers using devices and software actually changed their lessons or that test score gains can be attributed to the tablets is the fact that where such results occur, those schools have engaged in long-term efforts to improve, say, literacy and math (see here and here). Well before tablets, laptops, and desktops were deployed, serious curricular and instructional reforms with heavy teacher involvement had occurred.

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

Determining what students learned, of course, is easier said than done. With the three-decade long concentration on standardized tests, “learning” has been squished into students answering selected multiple choice questions with occasional writing of short essays. And when test scores rise, exactly what caused the rise causes great debate over which factor accounts for the gains (e.g., teachers, curricula, high-tech devices and software, family background–add your favorite factor here). Here, again, policymaker assumptions about what exactly improves teaching and what gets students to learn more, faster, and better come into play.

Public Education Today

Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.

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Technology Use in Special Education Classrooms (Gail Robinson)

Journalist  Gail Robinson wrote this piece for the Hechinger Report on June 5, 2014

  Eleven-year-old Matthew Votto sits at an iPad, his teacher at his elbow. She holds up a small laminated picture of a $20 bill.

“What money is this?” she asks. Matthew looks at the iPad, touches a square marked “Money Identification” and then presses $20. “20,” the tablet intones, while the teacher, Edwina Rogers, puts another sticker on a pad, bringing Matthew closer to a reward.

They race through more questions. “What day of the week is it?” “What is the weather outside?” “What money is this?” In most cases, Matthew, who has autism, answers verbally, but he is quicker and seems more comfortable on the device.

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A few classrooms away at Eden II, a Staten Island, N.Y., nonprofit that provides programs for people with autism, the going is slower but the approach is the same. Anthony Scandaglia, a teenager who does not really speak, tries to identify simple activities on the iPad. “What do you use to drink?” the teacher asks. He presses a picture of a cup.

“Where do you wash dishes?” asks the teacher, Colleen Kenny. Anthony selects the picture of bed. “No, we wash dishes in a sink,” she says.

Anthony and Matthew are among a growing number of children on the autism spectrum who use electronic devices — in their cases iPads equipped with a software program called Proloquo – for learning. Just a few years ago, they would have used bulky communication devices costing $6,000 to $10,000, if they used any technology at all. Or, they would have communicated by picking out pictures and sticking them to a board. “We spent a lot of time laminating and Velcroing,” recalls Melissa Cantwell, who teaches autistic children in Vancouver, Wash.

Special education students have long used so-called assistive technologies, like audio books for the visually impaired or special transmitters for hearing-impaired students. So today’s trend toward blended learning – the combining of technological devices with more traditional instruction – may seem less jarring to these students than to their general education peers.

“We have so many different programs that will help a child,” says Valeska Gioia, an assistive technology specialist at the South Carolina Department of Education, who focuses on struggling students and students with moderate to profound disabilities of many kinds, including autism. “We give them the tools and they rise to the challenge much of the time.”

Many teachers, parents and administrators say that laptops, tablets and the various apps help engage and motivate special ed students, while also making it easier for teachers to individualize instruction and track progress. Others caution that, as with so much in the world of educational technology, definitive research about results is scant.

“There is little research on how students with disabilities are doing with on-line and blended learning,” says Tracy Gray, managing researcher for education at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit that conducts behavioral and social science research. “For whom does this work, under what circumstances and with what support? We can’t answer that for general education, let alone special education.”

But some specialists believe that children with certain kinds of disabilities, such as those on the autism spectrum, respond especially well to technology programs because the programs behave in consistent, predictable ways. And unlike earlier technologies for students with special needs, the tablets and laptops are portable and indistinguishable from devices used by other students.

As developers continue to design a huge array of products – from free apps, such as Bookshare, to expensive robots – hopes are running high. Some programs help students with attention deficit disorders get organized; others track students’ individual education plans, or provide lists of words to prompt struggling writers.

At P. S. 176 in Brooklyn, N.Y., a dozen third graders sit in a classroom. A large interactive white board displays a snake skin, a turtle shell and a honeycomb, all examples of repeating patterns known as tessellation and all housed at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J.

A friendly male voice from the screen directs the children to draw a triangle with sides of 6 inches. For some, it is laborious, but he urges them on. “Hopefully I’m not running into lunch period,” the voice says. “I’ll give you two more minutes.”

The lecture is coming to the children live from the science center. Meanwhile, as in a chat room, the teachers at P. S. 176 type in their observations about how the lesson is going, allowing the Liberty instructor to adapt to the students’ pace and mood.

All students at P. S. 176, where more than 10 percent have special needs, participate in the partnership with Liberty, but third grade special education teacher Christina Panichi feels it has particular value for her students. “It’s like going on a trip with hands-on materials,” she says. “The only down side is they can’t touch it.”

Panichi also thinks having the material online helps. “It’s more like a game for them,” she says. “For some reason when technology is involved — especially cartoons — it engages them more.”

In Middletown, N.Y., a virtual number machine on her tablet is absorbing the attention of a little girl in a fourth grade special education classroom at Presidential Park Elementary.

As soft music plays in the background, she selects a number to insert into the “machine” on the screen of her Samsung Chromebook. The screen machine belches out a different number at the other end. After a few rounds, it asks the pupil what the math machine is doing to the number she inserted. In this case it’s adding seven.

This is Jessica Indelicato’s class, one that is the very model of a blended classroom. Several other students are bent over computers, all equipped with various education programs and Google docs, doing different tasks that vary with their progress and abilities. Meanwhile, Indelicato discusses decimals with five students, and a third group sits on the rug combining blocks to create numbers with decimals. In a few minutes, all students will rotate to the next station.

Indelicato sees the technology as key to engaging her students, in math and in reading. “It’s amazing. It targets whatever special skills they need help with,” she s. “They’re motivated. They enjoy it.” Their work on the computers, she says, “gives them reinforcement and confidence” that they carry into discussions about math.

Indelicato, Panichi and other teachers observe that many students simply find a lesson more attractive when technology is involved. Many programs features cartoon figures, instant responses, bright colors, music and encouraging voices.  Those things draw students in.

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Nowhere has the interest in technology been greater than for students on the autism spectrum. Debra Jennings’s son, Brady Bartsch, 9, who has Asperger’s, exhibited learning difficulties in kindergarten, and it seemed clear he was not going to learn to read by sitting down with conventional books. He began working on a Galaxy tablet equipped with Raz-Kids, an interactive program that incorporates a reward system. His mother says he’s made enormous gains. Brady, now in second grade at a Staten Island public school, “almost goes out of his way to be the star,” she says. “He’s shifted from being in the back of the room to wanting to be an example.”

Andy Shih, the vice president for scientific affairs at Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization, has seen similar examples.

“A lot of families are telling us how technology, particularly apps and iPads, are contributing to a quality of life for their kids they couldn’t begin to imagine,” he says. This is particularly true for those who cannot speak, which, Shih says, “doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of communication with others or that they don’t have a rich inner life.”

Shih says technology may help autistic students because it is simpler to “read” than people. “What technology does is simplify interaction,” he says. “Interaction with an app is always going to be the same. The expectation is always going to be consistent. Interaction with individuals is far more complex.”

As with general education students, technology is more successful for some children with special needs than for others. Even among autistic students, where it seems to hold the greatest promise, technology is not always successful. Some have no interest in their electronic devices, while for others, they become a kind of obsession.

Providing tablets and laptops to students with disabilities raises many of the same concerns that giving them to general education students does. Cost is clearly one.

Ms. Gioia, the South Carolina technology specialist, is always on the lookout for free tools and says most districts in her state have stayed away from Macs because of their higher cost. Some schools rely on fund-raising to cover some of the costs. While not denying that the devices can be pricy, Karen Cator, director of Digital Promise, a nonprofit focused on innovation in education, advises schools to look at whether they can be offset by some savings; maybe a student with a tablet is less likely to need a full-time, one-on-one aide.

Some experts think one of the greatest pitfalls of technology is that people will expect it to do too much, that they will see what’s new and glittery — what Andrew Hess, the assistive technology specialist for the Mamaroneck, N.Y., schools, calls the “mynah bird syndrome” — and ignore its limitations.

Aaron Lanou, director of professional development at the ASD Nest Support Project at NYU’s Steinhardt school, proposes two questions about technology: “Is this tool going to make something easier and more engaging, or is it just novel?” he says. “And, we need to ask teachers to think about the amount of time kids are actively engaging and using the tool versus the time it takes to learn the tool.”

Gray, of the A.I.R., emphasizes that no technology, no matter how dazzling, can do it alone. “There’s no magic here, whether you’re talking about kids with disabilities or general education classes,” she says. “You need teachers who understand technology, the support to do it well, and professional development.”

 

 

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“Good” Doctors and Teachers (Part 2)

1. Has the definition of “good” teachers changed over time as has the one about “good” physicians?

2. Are there many different versions of “good” teaching as there were for “good” doctors?

3. Even with the differences in definitions over time and setting, are their core characteristics that transcend both as there were among “good” doctors?

4. Are “good” teachers dependent for success on their students, as doctors are on their patients?

The answer to each of the four questions is yes.

1. Has the definition of “good” teachers changed over time as has the one about “good” physicians? 

From the 1960s, researchers laid out the following personal traits and behaviors that “good” teachers exhibit:

[E]ffective teachers carefully monitor learning activities and are clear, accepting and supportive, equitable with students, and persistent in challenging and engaging them.

In the 1980s and 1990s, researcher findings added up to the following attributes of “effective” teachers. They:

*are clear about instructional goals;

*are knowledgeable about their content an strategies for teaching it;

*communicate to their students what is expected of them and why:

*make expert use of existing instructional materials in order to devote more time to practices that enrich and clarify the content;

* are knowledgeable about their students, adapting instruction to their needs….;

*address higher- as well as lower-level cognitive objectives….;

*accept responsibility for student outcomes;

*are thoughtful and reflective of their practices.

Then there are the features of “good” teachers that progressives then and now hold dear:

*A classroom that is student-centered:

*Teaching methods that are inquiry driven and organized around problem-solving and investigation:
*Instructors who are passionate about their subject’s real world significance.
*Metacognition—critical reflection about content
and pedagogy—is an integral part of the classroom
experience.

Lists of attributes and behaviors of “good” teachers appear every decade. Some lists overlap, some do not.

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2. Are there many different versions of “good” teaching as there were for “good” doctors?

Surely, there are. Consider that since the 1990s, policymakers have rushed to raise academic standards, hold teachers and administrators accountable for student outcomes, and expanded testing. In that push, a narrowed view of what constitutes “good” teaching has unfolded that focuses more on direct instruction and teacher-centered behaviors.

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Yet there are students who see “good” teaching as different than this current mainstream view (e.g., “What makes a great teacher is being kind,” “A great teacher is someone that cares for his or her students,” “Someone who can make learning fun and someone who can be funny and focused at the same time”).

And for many, but not the majority, there are parents, practitioners, and researchers, who define a “good” teacher as going beyond high test scores. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the well-being of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia as “good” teachers who nurture, inspire, and connect to students.

3. Even with the differences in definitions over time and setting, are there core characteristics that transcend both as there were among “good” doctors?

Yes, there are. Just as when medical staff, patients, professionals and non-professionals define “goodness” in physicians, two essential features crop up again and again for teachers: competence and caring.

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4. Are “good” teachers dependent on their students as doctors are on their patients for success.

Yes. they are. To see how the dependence works, one has to sort out the notion of “good” from the idea of “successful.” They are often seen as equivalent terms. They are not. Once sorted out, it becomes clear that both teachers and doctors depend on their students and patients to learn and heal.

Keep in mind that doctors and teachers using “good” practices do not automatically yield “good” results. Following the best practices in either job leads, from time to time, to failure, not success. Why? Because motivated students and patients have to participate fully for “good” teaching to turn into “successful” learning and the same is true for doctors and their patients.

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Here is how the distinction works for teachers. Good” teaching pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful teaching,” on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:

“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”

Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and blended the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “good” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “good” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.

Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Best example of that muddle is evaluating teacher performance on the basis of student test scores. Consider, for example, the stark differences between Houston’s pay-teachers-for-performance and Denver’s ProComp plan.

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The answers to the four questions are monotonously “yes.” The string of “yes” answers reveals that policymakers have, as so often they do, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.

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*The quote marks are there to signal that “good” (or “great,” “excellent,” “effective”) is an adjective that varies in meaning among parents, teachers, students, researchers, and policymakers.

 

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“Good” Doctors and Teachers* (Part 1)

During the 1930s, my grandmother saw a specialist about a melanoma on her face. During the course of the visit when she asked him a question, he slapped her face, saying, ‘I’ll ask the questions here. I’ll do the talking.’ Can you imagine such an event occurring today? Melanomas may not have changed much in the last fifty years, but the profession of medicine has.  Eric J. Cassel, 1985[i]

Today, a stinging slap to the cheek of a patient who asked a question of her doctor could lead to an assault charge. Doctor-centered practice–paternalistic authority is no more. Shared decision-making between doctor and patient has become the ideal. In short, the definition of a “good” doctor has changed dramatically in the past half-century.[ii]

Even with this 180 degree shift in defining “goodness,” there remains much variation even among former TV doctors Welby and Kildare and today’s Dr. House. All are seen as “good” in different ways as times change.

And that is why I put “good” in parentheses. Personal features (e.g., communication skills, empathy), expertise (e.g., credentials on walls, medical specialty), what others say, and context matter greatly in judging how “good” a doctor is.

Here is how one doctor puts the issue of defining “goodness” among physicians.

In my view, there are many ways a doctor can be good, so it’s difficult to know what someone means when he or she says a doctor is good.

For some people, being a good doctor is all about bedside manner, personality and communication skills. Other people value smarts, technical skills or expertise in a particular condition. Still others rely on credentials, such as where a doctor went to medical school or residency training. I’ve even known patients who care little about these other factors and instead care most about how the office runs, how quickly the phone is answered or how friendly the receptionist is.

The type of doctor may also determine how a person defines a good doctor. For example, many people I know say they don’t care about a surgeon’s bedside manner as long as his or her patients have outstanding results. Yet those same people might say that a good bedside manner is much more important for their primary care physician.

Then there are those magazines that list “best” doctors in their cities annually. How do they compile such lists? New York magazine, for example, depends upon a private firm that polls doctors for their recommendations:

The idea is that medical professionals are best qualified to judge other medical professionals, and if one recommendation is good (think of your doctor referring you to a specialist), multiple recommendations are better. Licensed physicians vote online (castleconnolly.com/nominations) for those doctors they view as exceptional.

So if the notion of a “good” doctor varies by time–doctor-centered then and patient-centered now– it also varies by what patients and doctors, each having quite different perspectives, value most in medical practitioners (e.g.,competence,  empathy, bedside manner). In short, there is not one single definition of a “good” doctor that covers all settings, perspectives, and times.

Yet even with all of this variation over what constitutes a “good” doctor, even with all of those lists of personal and technical features that patients want in their doctors, two generic characteristics emerge from the flow of words time and again. These basic features: competence and caring–turn up in studies (see here) and public opinion polls among both physicians and patients.

Keep in mind, however, that even the most competent and caring doctor depends upon the patient for any success in diagnosis and treatment. The truth is that expertise and caring are necessary ingredients for any definition of “goodness” in medical practice but, overall, insufficient in the helping professions without the patient’s cooperation.

While doctors can affect a patient’s motivation, if that patient is emotionally depressed, is resistant to recommended treatments, or uncommitted to getting healthy by ignoring prescribed medications the physician is stuck. Medical competence and empathy fall short when patients cannot or do not enter into the process of healing.

This basic predicament in the helping professions of being dependent upon the cooperation of the patient for any success–often unremarked upon–hobbles any definition of a “good” doctor.

Does the historical shift in definitions about “good” doctors and the fundamental dilemma they face apply to teachers? I answer that in Part 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Epigraph story in Christine Laine and Frank Davidoff, “Patient-Centered Medicine,” JAMA, 1996, 275(2), p. 152.

[ii] Ronald Epstein, Md., et. al. “Communicating Evidence for Participatory Decision-making,” JAMA, 2004, 291(19), pp. 2359-2366; Simon Whitney, Md., et. al., “A Typology of Shared Decision Making, Informed Consent, and Simple Consent,” Annals of Internal Medicine, 2003, 140, pp. 54-59.

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*Synonyms for “good” are “best,” “great,” “effective,” “stellar,” etc.

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Kindergarten and Technology (Sharon Davison)

This post comes from kindergarten teacher Sharon Davison. It was posted on June 17, 2014. I have taken  her self-description from “About” on her blog.

My name is Sharon Davison and I have the pleasure of being a Kindergarten teacher in Vermont. I have been teaching for 25 + years.  During my teaching career I have worked with 1st through 4th grade.  I am now embarking on a new journey… Kindergarten!

Kindergarten is like a breath of fresh air everyday.  Young children are curious and great observers.  They naturally look for patterns, similarities and make connections spontaneously. Kindergarten life was designed and created by me with these ideas in mind.  I love the daily energy and excitement that children bring each day.  This genuine interest and love for learning is what I enjoy the most.  Through a young child’s natural ability to seek out understanding I try to capture this idea to help promote the love of learning.

I use a variety of technologies that help to engage, enhance and inspire children to want to pursue their ideas.  I have found that once you are inspired to learn, you learn how to learn through your ideas about what you understand.  Blogging, wikis, voicethreads, podcasting, ePals and SKYPE are just a few of the technologies that I use to promote the love of learning in Kindergarten.

I value collaboration and innovation.  The world is changing so fast and the tools that are available to support, enhance and engage from a teaching view are endless.

 

As I am finishing up last minute things in my classroom today I was thinking about all the different ways my students have been mentors this past year with each other, helping model how to tweet and blog with other classrooms as well as sharing their expertise with adults.

Last spring a teacher approached me and wanted to observe how I use technology with my students and was also interested in how I use the SMARTboard as well. I asked one of my students to provide additional support and more 1:1 time after our meeting.  As I watched and listened to the conversation I was really impressed with not only how comfortable my student was with the SMART technology, but the problem solving that took place during this 1:1 support time with a teacher.  I loved seeing the teacher take notes as she asked questions about not only the operation of the board, but what happens when things go wrong and do not work.  Watching my student navigate through how to solve problems as they arise was really wonderful.

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I am not only proud of all my students, but this experience reminded me of the importance of  self direction, problem solving and critical thinking.  All of these ideas were happening at once and being facilitated by one of my kindergarten students.  As a teacher of young children I have a unique opportunity to model explicitly how synchronous and asynchronous tools can be integrated in a seamless way in regards to learning.  Once my students understood how this tool works, how we use it, then they are able to create and design their ideas as well and make contributions.  Through our contributions and being able to teach and share what we know with others we get inspired, experience positive self esteem and make connections.  This student was empowered because she was able to make a contribution, help another teacher and engage in conversations that challenged her thinking and helped her reflect on what she has learned.  For this amazing teacher, my friend, I think about what great professional development this was for her!

kk

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MOOCs and Online Instruction: Cartoons

Recently, I posted an update on MOOCs after three years in the hype cycle. Afterwards, I scoured the web for cartoons on MOOCs and its kissing cousin, online learning (aka elearning, distance education). Here are some that might make you smile, giggle, or even prompt a chuckle. If not, maybe you can point me to one that does get you to laugh. Until then, enjoy!

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online homework

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

early version of MOOCs

 

 

 

 

 

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The Gift That Never Stops Giving–Teaching*

I wrote this post four years ago. With graduation ceremonies in K-12 and college occurring now and in the next few weeks, and so much in the news about the quality of teaching and how to capture it, I thought I would run the post again.

 

A dear friend and I exchanged emails recently and she mentioned that she had heard from a student she had in 1960. She had taught in the New York area for a number of years before returning to graduate school but recalled with much warmth how fine a group of sixth graders she had that particular year. The then 11 year-old, now a grandma, had stayed in touch with my friend over the years. She had become a teacher and had just retired and was now writing about the adult lives of classmates.

I began thinking of the often unspoken psychic rewards that accrue (in business terms, I would call it: the return on investment) to experienced teachers who have had many groups of students pass through their classroom over the years and how some of those students (such as Steven Strogatz) make a point of visiting, writing, and staying in touch with their former teachers. Fortunately, that has happened to me when a few former students at Glenville High School in Cleveland and from Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. have stayed in touch. Ditto from some former Stanford graduates. When letters or pop- in visits occur, I get such a rush of memories of the particular student and the class and the mixed emotions that accompany the memories. Teaching is, indeed, the gift that never stops giving.

Those former students who stay in touch over the years, I have found, attribute far too much to my teaching and semester- or year-long relationship with them. Often I am stunned by their recollections of what I said and did. In most cases, I cannot remember the incidents that remain so fresh in their memories. Nor had I tried to predict which of the few thousand high school students I have taught would have reached out to contact me, I would have been wrong 75 percent of the time. My flawed memories and pitiful predictive power, however, cannot diminish the strong satisfaction I feel from seeing and hearing classroom tales from former students.

However policymakers and researchers define success in teaching or produce pay-for-performance plans the hard-to-measure influence of teachers upon students turns up time and again in those graduates who reach out to their former teachers. Those graduates seek out their former teachers because of how they were pushed and prodded, how intellectual doors were opened, how a ready ear and kind words made possible a crucial next step for that young man or woman. Student test scores fail to capture the bonds that grow between experienced teachers and children and youth who look for adults to admire, adults who live full, honest, and engaged lives. Am I waxing romantic about the currently unmeasurable results of teaching and the critical importance of retaining experienced teachers? No, I am not. I have a point to make.

My friend’s story of her former 11 year-old student still staying in touch because the relationship forged in 1960 between a group of sixth graders and a young teacher has resonated in a handful of graduates’ lives for many years. Something beautiful and long-lasting occurred when those bonds were forged in that Long Island elementary school, something that eludes current reformers eager for getting new teachers into classrooms and not worrying too much if they leave after two years since a new crop of fresh newcomers will replace them.

Turnstile teachers cannot forge those lasting bonds with students. Staying at least five-plus years give teachers the experience and competence to connect with classes and individual students. For those students lucky to have experienced teachers who had their older brothers and sisters, whose classrooms they want to eat their lunches in, whose reputations for being tough, demanding, caring, and a dozen other admirable traits draw children like magnets to their classrooms, the impressions and memories of these teachers will serve as guideposts for the rest of their lives. These are the teachers, district, state, and federal policymakers need to retain through mindful policies that encourage, not discourage teachers–policies that spur teacher growth in what and how they teach, foster collaboration among teachers, and motivate teachers to stay at least five-plus years in classrooms.

Were such thoughtful policies to be adopted, the chances of alumni students returning to tell their teachers how much they appreciated their help would increase and not become just a fleeting memory of some former teachers like me and my friend.

*I thank Selma Wassermann for converting the commercial one-liner for a credit card company into an ad for teaching

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