Tag Archives: classroom practice,

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.




Filed under comparing medicine and education, how teachers teach, technology use

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.


Filed under how teachers teach

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.


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.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder (Ryan Fuller)

Ryan Fuller, a former aerospace engineer, is a high school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colo.This piece appeared in Slate, December 18, 2013 A version of this post originally appeared on TeacherPop, the blog of Teach for America corps members.

 In 2007, when I was 22, I took a position as an aerospace engineer working on the design of NASA’s next-generation spacecraft. It was my dream job. I had just received a degree in mechanical engineering, and the only career ambition I could articulate was to work on something space-related. On my first days of work, I was awestruck by the drawings of Apollo-like spacecraft structures, by the conversations about how the heat shield would deflect when the craft landed in water and how much g-force astronauts could withstand. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t just watching a documentary on the space industry—I was inside it.

I was extremely motivated during my first year of work. I got in earlier and stayed later than most, and I tried to learn everything I could from my more experienced colleagues. The work wasn’t easy. Our team was trying to re-engineer, with modern technology, something that was designed in the ’60s. As a design engineer, I had to integrate the efforts of several different groups that often didn’t talk to each other or even get along very well. My deadlines haunted me like a thousand nightmares. Over the course of the next few years, though, I received awards and exceptional performance reviews, and I gained the respect of my colleagues, some of whom had been in the business for about as long as I had been alive.

Because I’ve worked as an aerospace engineer and later as a teacher through Teach for America—this is my second year of teaching 11th grade math and robotics at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs—I find the public perception of both careers to be fascinating. When I tell people that I worked on the design of a NASA spacecraft, their mouths drop and their eyes pop, and their minds are no doubt filled with images of men in white lab coats running between rocket engines and blackboards filled with equations of untold complexity. Most people will give aerospace engineers tremendous respect, without having any idea what they actually do.

But no one can fully understand how difficult teaching in America’s highest-need communities is until he or she personally experiences it. When I solved engineering problems, I had to use my brain. When I solve teaching problems, I use my entire being—everything I have. A typical engineering task involves sending an email to a colleague about a potential design solution. A typical teacher task involves explaining for the fourth time how to get the variable out of the exponent while two students put their heads down, three students start texting, two girls in the back start talking, and one student provokes another from across the classroom.

As a teacher, I must prioritize the problems of getting the distracted students refocused and stabilizing the cross-classroom conflict before it escalates into a shouting match or worse, all the while making sure the learning of the other 25 students in the room doesn’t come to a complete halt. I also must address these problems in a consistent, respectful way that best serves the needs of the students, because if I don’t, the problems will increase in number and become more difficult to solve.

As an engineer, I dealt with very complex design problems, but before I decided how to solve them, I had a chance to think, research, and reflect for hours, days, or even weeks. I also had many opportunities to consult colleagues for advice before making any decisions. As a teacher, I have seconds to decide how to solve several problems at once, for hours at a time, without any real break, and with no other adults in the room to support them. There are days of teaching that make a day in the office seem like a vacation.

One of the biggest misconceptions about teaching is that it is a single job. Teaching is actually two jobs. The first job is the one that teachers are familiar with; people who have not taught can pretend it doesn’t exist. The tasks involved in this first job include lesson planning, grading, calling parents, writing emails, filling out paperwork, going to meetings, attending training, tutoring, and occasionally sponsoring a club or coaching a sport. The time allotted to teachers for this work is usually one hour per workday. But these tasks alone could easily fill a traditional 40-hour work week.

The second job is the teaching part of teaching, which would more aptly be called the performance. Every day, a teacher takes the stage to conduct a symphony of human development. A teacher must simultaneously explain the content correctly, make the material interesting, ensure that students are staying on task and understanding the material, and be ready to deal with the curve balls that will be thrown at her every 15 seconds—without flinching—for five hours. If, for some reason, she is not able to inspire, educate, and relate to 30 students at once, she has to be ready to get them back on track, because no matter what students say or do to detract from the lesson, they want structure, they want to learn, and they want to be prepared for life.

I experience more failure every five minutes of teaching than I experienced in an entire week as an engineer. Giving a presentation to NASA about how the thermal protection system of a spacecraft is connected to its primary structure is a cakewalk compared to getting 30 teenagers excited about logarithms. A difficult moment in engineering involves a customer in a big meeting pointing out a design problem that I hadn’t considered. The customer’s concerns can be eased with a carefully crafted statement along the lines of, “You’re right. We’ll look into it.” A difficult moment in teaching involves a student—one who has a history of being bullied and having suicidal thoughts—telling me that she is pregnant 30 seconds before class starts. What carefully crafted statement will help her?

Moments of success seem to come less often as a teacher, but when they do arrive, they can make up for all the failures: the excitement on a student’s face when she understands a concept after lots of struggle; the feeling of exhilaration when all the energy in the room is directed toward the day’s lesson; the shared laughter between teacher and student at a joke that only they understand. Sometimes successes doesn’t strike until later, as when I found out that a two-minute presentation I gave on petroleum engineering changed the areer path of one of my students. In each second of her chaotic day, a teacher has a chance to transform the lives of young people for the better. How many aerospace engineers can say that?

In teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably. Especially in the first year or two on the job, success can seem impossible. For people who have been so successful up to that point in their lives—failure is a difficult thing to face, especially when that failure involves young people not being able to realize their full potential in life.

Because of all this, sometimes teachers in high-need communities think about leaving for other professions. As someone who quit his job designing a NASA spacecraft during a severe recession without any clear plan, I understand the power of doing what feels right to you—you have that choice, that privilege.

Just don’t forget about the ones who don’t have much in the way of choices and privileges. Don’t forget about the ones that don’t get to choose what school they go to. Who don’t get to choose who their teachers are. Who don’t get to choose how the students around them act. Who don’t get to choose what kind of environment they were born into. Don’t forget about them. They’ll be there Monday morning.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Classroom and School Cultures: Contradictions (Part 1)

One of my former colleagues in anthropology once told me that he gags every time he hears the word “culture.” Why? Because “culture,” he said, has come to mean  everything under the sun and has thus become meaningless.

With my colleague’s gagging in mind, I will try to be careful in using the c-word in this post.

So let’s imagine going into a school.

What do you see? What do you hear the teachers and other staff members saying? What do the bulletin boards look like? How easy was it to enter the school? What are the children saying and doing? How noisy is it? Do you feel welcome or afraid? What is the general “feel” of the environment? All these questions and more pertain to the underlying stream of values and rituals that pervade schools. This underlying stream is the culture of that particular school.

The question I think about a lot is: Does a school culture influence strongly what values and rituals turn up in academic classrooms?  Can, for example, a school’s athletic success stir pride in students studying history to show up before the tardy bell rings? Sit down at their seat and start answering questions on the whiteboard that the teacher puts up daily? Can winning the state championship in football spill over into math and science classrooms so that students become engaged in studying the content, work quietly with partners in doing an assigned problem, and turn in homework regularly?

I do not know the answers to these questions. I will explore them in this two-part post.

Let me sketch out an example I saw up close recently.*

I sat in four social studies classes in a California urban high school that is largely minority and poor. With nearly a thousand students in 9th through 12th grades, the school, one of a half-dozen in the city, ranked the lowest of the city’s schools on annual state tests and graduated less than 60 percent of its students. Metal detectors and pat-downs by uniformed security personnel were daily rituals. Its football team had won state championships and provided an annual pipeline of scholarships for athletes to universities.

Since I saw only one teacher teaching classes in U.S. history and world geography, I will not generalize about classroom cultures elsewhere in the school.

While 20-plus students were enrolled in each class, only one had more than 20 students appear. The other classes had 10-15 students. Most were in their seats at the tardy bell but late arrivals entered throughout the period. The 16-year veteran social studies teacher was prepared for each class, amiable with students, and firm in following school and classroom rules.

One of the four classes (the largest with 24 students but 30 enrolled) was U.S. history but this day they were preparing for the state graduation test by going over items from a booklet prepared for this test. The teacher had an overhead projector with transparencies of test questions and topics from previous years. She marched through the items slowly by asking various students what the correct answers were and explaining why they were correct. Of the two dozen students about 8 were engaged with the lesson, the rest chatted until admonished by the teacher, applied cosmetics, had their heads down on the desks, or were engaged in other tasks. Late-comers gave slips to the teacher. The period lasted 43 minutes. The students packed up their belongings a few minutes before the bell rang.

The three ninth grade world geography classes were studying 19th century European imperialism in Africa. The teacher had the state standard for the lesson and assignment listed on the chalkboard with three questions for students to answer as they filed into the class.

There were 10-15 students in each of these classes. The teacher walked around the room making sure that cell phones were put away (a school-wide rule). She passed out  a worksheet drawn from the textbook chapter on imperialism. After 15 minutes, the teacher orally went over each question (she told them that for these questions they had copied down, the answers could be found on pp. 345-350 in the textbook and that they were going to be on Friday’s test).

Most of the students completed the worksheet and gave it to the teacher when the period ended. At least a third or more of the students in each class, however, chatted most of the time, slept, and did not complete the worksheet.

I do not know if these four classes were representative of classroom cultures in the rest of the school. Nothing much was expected of the students beyond textbook and worksheet answers. Most complied. The teacher worked hard at completing the lessons, collecting worksheets, and grading and returning them the next day. That was it.

From my perch in the back of the room in these four classes, I saw that students were largely disengaged from each lesson’s content. While school rules were enforced, the values, rituals, and habits favored the least amount of academic work possible. There were no disciplinary incidents that occurred in any of the four periods; the teacher maintained an orderly, safe classroom.

At the end of the fourth period class, I walked down the hall and stopped in and watched a joyous assembly of 11th and 12th grade students honoring athletes who had been chosen as all-stars to play in a U.S. Army-sponsored  football game.

And here is where the contradiction I noted above about school and classroom cultures occurred. I take it up in the next post.


*I have disguised where the school is located and certain details to protect the privacy of participants.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Predictions about Technology in K-12 and Higher Education for 2024

For the past four years I have offered predictions of what I see around the corner for high-tech in K-12 schools (see December 26, 2009, December 30, 2010, December 29, 2011, and December 27, 2012 posts).

But not higher education. So I venture one now.

Last year was the year of the MOOC. Hysterical predictions of the end of higher education and the transformation of teaching soared through cyberspace and media (see here and here). And then just a few weeks ago, Sebastian Thrun, one of the “godfathers” of   MOOCs who sang the siren song of a revolutionized higher education, warbled goodbye to MOOCs. But MOOCs continue to thrive although the rhetoric has been dialed back (For an overview of the past year for MOOCs in a distinctly skeptical voice, see here).

For those who see MOOCs as a fine example of the Hype Cycle (as I do) I would put MOOCs in the “Trough of Disillusionment” in 2013. Over the next decade, however, I do believe, as others suggest, that there will be a slow crawl–see here–up the Slope of Enlightenment as community colleges and state universities, but not elite institutions, figure out how to incorporate MOOCs into revenue-producing degree programs (there are less than a handful now for the bachelors and masters degrees). No MOOCS, however, for K-12 public schools.

For public schools in 2013, reports of Los Angeles Unified School District largest (and most expensive) adoption of  iPads in the  U.S. overshadowed monthly announcements of  districts buying tablets for kindergartners. Vendors continued to tout interactive whiteboards, clickers, and devices  engaging children and increasing academic achievement. Policymakers mandated online courses for high school graduation.Blended learning, including “flipped” classrooms, spread across the country. Moreover, teacher bloggers told anyone who would read their posts how they integrated the use of new devices into daily lessons, including ways to accommodate English and math Common Core standards.

Where once limited teacher access to new technologies  doomed innovative electronic devices (recall film projectors, radios, instructional TV, computer labs in the 20th century), in 2013 policymakers have been largely victorious in getting laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices into the hands of most teachers and students.

With all of the above occurring, one would think that by 2024, age-graded schools and the familiar teaching and learning that occurs today in K-12 and universities  would have exited the rear door.

I do not think so. Getting access to powerful electronic devices for all students and teachers is surely a victory for those who believe in better technologies solving teaching and learning problems. But access does not guarantee use, especially the kind of use that vendors and ardent technophiles seek.

For nearly three decades, I have written about teacher and student access to, and instructional use of, computers in schools. In those articles and books, I have been skeptical of vendors’ and promoters’ claims about how these ever-changing electronic devices will transform age-graded schools and conventional teaching and learning. Even in the face of accumulated evidence that hardware and software, in of themselves, have not increased academic achievement, even in the face of self-evident truism that it is the teacher who is the key player in learning not the silicon chip, enthusiasts and vendors continue to click castanets for tablets, laptops, and other classroom devices as ways of getting test scores to go higher (see The_Impact_of_Digital_Technologies_on_Learning_FULL_REPORT_(2012) and here).

Amid that skepticism, however, I have often noted that many teachers adopted the latest information and communication devices and software not only for home use but also to become more efficient in planning lessons, using the Internet, grading students, communicating with parents and other educators, and dozens of other classroom and non-classroom tasks. Nor have my criticisms of policymakers’ decisions to purchase extensive hardware (far too often without teacher advice) prevented me from identifying (and celebrating) teachers leading classes in computer graphics, animation, and computer science as well as classroom teachers who have imaginatively and creatively integrated new devices and social media seamlessly into their daily lessons to advance student learning.

My allergy, however, to rose-colored scenarios of a future rich with technology remains.  I can only imagine how painful it must be for those hard-core advocates of more-technology-the-better who predicted the end of schooling years ago to see that public schools are still around.

So what might 2024 look like?

In the past four years, I have predicted that textbooks will be digitized, online learning will spread, and the onset of computer testing will create more access of devices across schools and accelerate classroom usage. These will fan out incrementally over the next decade and will be salient but hardly dominant in K-12 age-graded schools.

While the textbook market in higher education has shifted a great deal to e-books and less expensive ways of getting content into students’ devices, the K-12 market remains a proprietary domain of a handful of publishers (e.g. Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill Education) in part due to the mechanics of  certain states (e.g.Florida, California, and Texas) dominating which texts get chosen. But changes continue. Vail (AZ) gave up textbooks; California permits districts to buy digital texts with state money; Florida will do so in 2015. Start-up companies are making digital texts available for under $20 as opposed to $80-100 prices. Changes in K-12 texts will occur in bits and pieces as publishers adapt to the impact of the web.

K-12 online learning will also spread slowly, very slowly, as blended learning and “flipped” classrooms gain traction, especially in low-income, largely minority districts. Both of these innovative twists on traditional classroom teaching, however, will reinforce the age-graded school, not destroy it.

What will shove forward greater use of online learning, however, is the implementation of adaptive testing through Common Core standards as two state consortia bring to the table their new online tests.

None of these incremental changes herald the disappearance of K-12 age-graded public schools or the dominant patterns of teacher-centered instruction. What these gradual changes will translate into is an array of options for teaching and learning available to both teachers and students.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Changing My Mind on How To Teach Thinking Skills

In the fifth year of my teaching at Cleveland’s Glenville high school–it was the early 1960s–I had already introduced materials to my classes on what was then called “Negro history” (see here and here). I then began experimenting with the direct teaching of critical thinking skills. I believed that such skills were crucial in negotiating one’s way through life and understanding history. I wanted my students to acquire and use these skills every day. So I began teaching my U.S. history courses with a two-week unit on thinking skills. My theory was that the students learning these skills at the very beginning of the semester would then apply them when I began teaching units on the American Revolution, Immigration, Sectionalism and the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution.

In the two-week unit, I selected skills I believed were important for understanding the past such as: judging how reliable a source of information is, figuring out the difference between a fact and opinion, making hunches about what happened and sorting evidence that would support or contradict each one, and distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information in reaching a conclusion

For each of these skills, I chose a contemporary event–a criminal case in the local newspaper, a national scandal that was on television, and occurrences in the school–and wrote out a one-page story that would require each student to apply the particular skill we were discussing such as making an informed guess, collecting evidence to support their hunch, and reaching a judgment. I also gave the class additional sources they could use (or could not because of biases) to select information to support their conclusion.

Each 45-minute period–I was teaching five classes a day at the time–was filled with engaged students participating in flurries of discussion, debates over evidence, student questioning of each others’ conclusions, and similar excitement. I was elated by the apparent success of my critical thinking skills unit.

After the two weeks of direct instruction in skills, I plunged into the Coming of the American Revolution and subsequent history material. From time to time, over the course of the semester, I would ask questions that I felt would prompt use of those thinking skills we had worked on earlier in the year. Blank stares greeted me with occasional “Oh yeah” from a few students. I designed homework that explicitly called for use of these thinking skills; few students applied what they had presumably learned. I was thoroughly puzzled.

Which brings me to the concept of transfer. My theory was that teaching these thinking skills directly at the very beginning of the semester would lead to students applying them when I began teaching subsequent history units. Yet the transfer was not happening. How come?


Transfer of learning appears to be a simple concept. What you learn in the family or learn in school  can be applied in different situations outside of the family and the classroom. Learning to get along with an older brother or sister helps in learning how to get along with others later in life. Learning math in middle school helps one in high school physics. It doesn’t always work that way, however.

That two-week unit on specific critical thinking skills useful to understand history and use in daily life did not transfer to the rest of the units in history. The skills I believed that I had taught my students weeks earlier were missing in action later for the American Revolution, Civil War, and Imperialism . Root canal work was easier than getting students to distinguish between a biased source and one less so or explain why certain statements were opinions, not facts. Where had I erred?

In time, I discovered from reading psychologists about the ins-and-outs of transfer of learning (see, for example, here). Teaching specific critical thinking skills and expecting students to apply what they learned to different situations depended upon many conditions that were, I learned later, missing in my lessons. Even the concept of teaching these skills isolated from the historical content–as I did–undermined the very goal I wanted to achieve (see CritThink).

Nonetheless, puzzled as I was by most students failing to apply what they had learned in the later history units, I still taught for the next few years that two week unit on critical thinking at the beginning of the semester, marching through the lessons, one skill after another. I repeated again and again this unit because the students were engaged, loved to apply what they learned to their daily lives, and I felt good at the end of the school day. An uncommon experience for a veteran teacher.

Even had a colleague I trusted grabbed me by the shoulders then and told me how I was foolish in thinking that my students would transfer the skills they learned in the two-week unit to subsequent history units, I would not have believed that colleague.  I would have continued with what I considered a “best practice” that, in reality, had become a “bad” habit.

And this is where the Kennedy Assassination unit that was taught to 15 classes in Cardozo high school in 1966 enters the picture. I and my co-teachers soon came to realize that the transfer of thinking skills were not in much evidence in the U.S. history units that we subsequently taught to our classes. Yes, it took me a few years—using introductory skill-based units at Glenville and Cardozo high schools– for that realization to sink in that thinking skills had to be taught within the historical content students were studying for them to apply those skills. I could not magically count on transfer of learning.

But it was in the crucible of my classroom (and others at Cardozo) that proved to me finally, that–separate units for thinking skills—-simply did not work. I had to change what I was doing. And I did.


Filed under how teachers teach

Teachers Designing Instructional Materials: A Unit on the Assassination of Kennedy (Part 1)

As a novice U.S. history teacher in Cleveland (OH) in the mid-1950s, I began designing lessons that contained sources absent from students’ textbooks. While I used the textbook for most lessons, I developed materials about race in the U.S. that would add to (and eventually replace) textbook lessons. Then called Negro history, these lessons and units largely used primary sources (e.g., letters written by black soldiers serving in the Civil War, accounts by former slaves about pre-Civil War life on plantations).

For most of my students (but clearly not all), these new materials and lessons seemed to work, that is, there was more student participation in class discussions, they asked questions, and many wanted to learn more about events and people in the sources I used. They connected events together and began using evidence to support their interpretations of what occurred in the past. I was pleased.

Designing lessons and units, however, while exhilarating, also exhausted me since I was teaching five classes of 30-plus students daily. I began to think that teachers, with a reduced class schedule, could also experience the excitement and, yes, joy, of designing lessons and putting them into practice within their own classrooms. I began to think that developing instructional materials would improve both teaching and student learning as it seemingly had in my classes.

I reasoned that if this largely worked for me with predominately minority and poor students, it would work for all teachers. I was becoming a reformer fixed upon improving teaching through teachers developing their own lessons and units. Yes, I was generalizing from my experience, a common tic among reformers; it was a view of how to improve teaching and learning that I eventually gave up. But in the mid-1960s to the early- 1970s, I was a true believer in improving schooling through-teachers creating lessons and units for their classes.

In 1963, I left Glenville high school to become a master teacher of history in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching in Washington, D.C. At Cardozo high school, working with Peace Corp Volunteers who had returned from overseas and were preparing to become certified teachers in the District, I had a chance to put my ideas into practice. The paid interns taught only two social studies classes (as did I, their master teacher). The mission of the Project expected them to teach, work in the community, and, here’s the kicker, develop instructional materials for their two classes. And that is what we did–together.

One of the teacher-developed units we developed in 1965-1966 was aimed at teaching thinking and writing skills. Based on the 1964 Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination, I, Jay Mundstuk, and Ike Jamison worked over a summer to develop the eight-lesson unit. The subject matter was still fresh in our students’ minds and whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin or part of a conspiracy that planned the President’s murder was being debated constantly whenever the subject arose in classes.

We wanted to teach those reasoning skills which would be needed in all social studies courses as well as on the street and in the home. We wanted a subject that would grab our students and engage their minds in trying to figure out answers to uneasy questions. The Kennedy Assassination became the subject matter.

Material in the popular media was abundant; testimony before the Warren Commission was available as was the deluge of attacks and defenses heaped upon the conclusions of the Commission (e.g., Oswald was the shooter and acted alone). Moreover, in 1965 the memory of President Kennedy was very dear to many of our teenage students. Students in our classes named Kennedy as the best President ever. Mystery still surrounded Lee Harvey Oswald. His role in the assassination piqued our students’ curiosity. We named the unit: “Who Killed Kennedy?”


The unit was organized into a series of lessons the first of which raised the question of how do we know who the assassin was.  The question got students to state their beliefs initially and, as the unit unfolded, they began to question their beliefs when we presented them with available evidence from the Warren Commission and a few of the conspiracy-driven articles and books that appeared within months of the assassination.

As the students sorted through the evidence, they worked to have them use different thinking skills that were built into the unit’s seven lessons:

*How to make and verify hypotheses (we called them hunches).

*How to evaluate the reliability of sources of evidence.

How to draw inferences from a set of facts.

*How to weigh evidence and use it in support of a conclusion.

*How to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information in reaching conclusions.

The overall purpose of the unit was not to “prove” Oswald innocent or guilty.


The purpose was to get students to read carefully and judge the credibility of available sources, come up with hunches about who killed Kennedy, use evidence to reach a conclusion, and be able to defend their conclusions. We were more concerned with the process of reaching a conclusion and creating an explanation for what happened–a process embodied in the above skills–than the conclusion itself.

Part 2 takes up what we did in the unit itself and our evaluation of its worth.


Filed under how teachers teach

Best Practices and Bad Habits (Part 2)

Transfer of learning appears to be a simple concept. What you learn in the family or learn in school  can be applied in different situations outside of the family and the classroom. Learning Spanish, for example, helps later in learning Italian. Learning to get along with an older brother or sister helps in learning how to get along with others later in life. Learning math in middle school helps one in high school physics. It doesn’t always work that way, however.


In Part 1,  I described how I taught a two-week unit on specific critical thinking skills useful to understand history and use in daily life in the early 1960s. My theory was that teaching these thinking skills directly one after the other at the very beginning of the semester would lead to students applying them when I began teaching units on the American Revolution, Immigration, Sectionalism and the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution.

The response of students to the stories and subsequent discussions and debates almost made me swoon. I was energized by students’ enthusiasm as we went from one specific skill to another using contemporary stories drawn from newspapers,  student lives, and Glenville high school. The two week unit was from all indications a success with student engagement high and even scores on the unit test were higher than I had expected.

Then, when I began my U.S. history units on the American Revolution through World War I, the skills I believed that I had taught my students weeks earlier were missing in action. Root canal work was easier than getting students to distinguish between a biased source and one less so or explain why certain statements were opinions, not facts. I was puzzled.  What had happened?

Years later, I discovered from reading psychologists a great deal about the ins-and-outs of transfer of learning (see, for example, here). Teaching specific critical thinking skills and expecting students to apply what they learned to different situations depended upon many conditions that were, I learned later, missing in my lessons. Even the concept of teaching these skills isolated from the historical content–as I did–undermines the very goal I wanted to achieve (see CritThink).

Nonetheless, puzzled as I was by the absence of students applying what they had learned in the later history units I taught, for the next few years I continued to teach that two week unit on critical thinking at the beginning of the semester, marching through the lessons one skill after another. I repeated again and again this unit because the students were engaged, loved to apply what they learned to their daily lives, and I felt good after each of the five periods I taught. An uncommon experience for a veteran teacher.

Even had a colleague I trusted grabbed me by the shoulders then and told me how I was way off in thinking that my students would transfer the skills they learned in the two-week unit to subsequent history units, I would not have believed that colleague.  I would have continued with what I considered a “best practice” that, in reality, had become a “bad” habit.


Like Dr. Danielle Ofra, I would have given reasons to myself why what I was doing helped students. As I look back, I kept doing the same unit year after year and ignored the signs–the mysterious tug I felt every semester seeing repeatedly that students failed to apply the skills in subsequent history units that they had supposedly learned weeks earlier. I persisted even in light of the evidence of little transfer of learning.

Such “bad” habits, of course are common. From over-eating to smoking to excessive Internet surfing to watching far too much television, “bad” habits–destructive to one’s health and well-being–persist among substantial numbers of youth and adults.


Such habits are like ruts in road that get deeper and deeper through repetition of the behavior. It is hard to get out of the well worn groove. Yet people do break “bad” habits by replacing them with “good” habits that begin a new groove, and get practiced over and over again. It can be done and does occur.

As for me, my “bad” habit of ignoring evidence of my students not applying what they learned in that two-week thinking skills unit, eventually changed. The baffling lack of application got me to read more and talk to colleagues about what occurred in my teaching. I stumbled into new knowledge about transfer of learning. I made many attempts, some failed badly, to build new units in history where these thinking skills were embedded in the historical content. Eventually, I got into a new groove and created different units and taught them (e.g., Colonization, American Revolution, Causes of the Civil War, The Industrial Revolution, The Kennedy Assassination). See here.

But understanding transfer of learning was a hard road to travel in getting out of that rut I had made for myself as a history teacher many years ago.


Filed under comparing medicine and education, how teachers teach

School Technologies for Special Needs Children in Very Poor Countries (Harvey Pressman)

Harvey Pressman is President, Central Coast Children’s Foundation. He’s been Technology Editor of Exceptional Parent Magazine, a board member, of the Alliance for Technology Access, an Education and History Professor, and a Peace Corps official. He has written many books and articles about educational technology and the education and employment of people with disabilities, and has directed demonstration programs in these and other areas.

So much writing about technology in poor countries often focuses on the adaptations that need to be made through use of local materials, low-cost or no-cost solutions and cultural changes. We have far too often witnessed expensive failures of technology exports plunked down into environments that simply cannot accommodate them.

Over the past several decades, economically developed nations have made substantial  progress with assistive technology (AT) for people with disabilities and have even met with some limited success in adapting  certain kinds of AT in poor countries. Little or no useful information exists, however, about effective adaptations of low-cost AT in special needs classrooms in poor countries.

Thus we can find lots of examples  in developed countries of ways in which various kinds of AT have helped special needs children improve their literacy skills, communicate more effectively  in their classes and build other basic academic skills, but children with  special needs in schools in developing nations have so far benefited hardly at all from  any of these new ideas or approaches.

Examples of this kind of appropriate AT in schools for children with special needs in very poor countries are still exceedingly difficult to find.

For the past several years the Central Coast Children’s Foundation (CCCF) has been trying to make a small dent in this idea vacuum, by working with teachers of children with special needs in a number of poor countries in Africa and Central Europe, around issues of classroom  communication, development of early literacy skills, and cognitive development.

All of these efforts have had to operate under severe constraints  with respect to the existing barriers caused by underfinancing (Ghana’s special educators get $4.00 per child per year for classroom supplies and equipment), technology complexity, limitations in the  prior preparation of local special education classroom teachers, lack of communication avenues we take for granted (e.g., accessing email at a costly cybercafé that periodically loses electric power).

By trying to respond directly to the specific, expressed needs of a small but growing number of local teachers and principals in a slowly expanding number of poor countries, the CCCF has begun to accumulate a growing collection of ideas that teachers say work to help special needs children with special needs in their classrooms to achieve greater success in developing communicative competence, mastering basic literacy skills, behaving more appropriately in the classroom, and developing basic academic skills.

We have even begun to have some experience exchanging effective ideas between teachers of children with special needs in one country  (e.g., Ghana or Romania) and teachers of kids with disabilities in  other poor countries (e.g., Tanzania or Serbia). Some examples of these ideas are already available in our newsletters and on videos produced by our Ghana partners at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Most of the ideas that work are relatively simple to learn about and implement, and are VERY low-tech:

  • “Word Walls” that help teachers develop sight vocabulary,
  • “Narrative Stories” (based on the idea of Social Stories originally developed by Carol Gray for children with autism),
  • “Market Cards” to enable children with communication difficulties to play traditional roles of purchasing items for their families in the marketplace
  •  “Talking Mats” (imported from Scotland and adapted locally after we co-sponsored a trip by a Ghanaian Special Needs Principal to Scotland),
  •  Teacher-made “Pop-up Books” and  “Paper Engineering” activities introduced  by CCCF’s Senior Representative into Romanian special needs classrooms,
  • Communication books,
  • Visual Classroom Timetables,
  • Communication Passports that enable children with communication disabilities to carry around vital communication information about themselves.

We have been able to find free instructional and tutorial resources on line that provide simply described, useful how-to information about these ideas and techniques, useful templates and examples, helpful hints, etc.

Examples include:

* Communication Passports:

* Social Stories:

* Communication Books:

We hope to find more ways to make these ideas available to teachers of special needs children in other poor countries. We can share, for example, copies of PowerPoint presentations we helped four Ghana Unit School principals prepare for a recent conference in Kenya. We seek to expand our network of collaborative efforts with other groups that are working to adapt useful classroom ideas to special needs classrooms in poor countries, and in finding examples of effective approaches from teachers in other poor countries, in order to add to the collective knowledge.

For further information about ongoing work in introducing  assistive technology and augmentative communication in poor countries, see newsletters we have been publishing on line since 2009, or contact presstoe@aol.com.

1 Comment

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use