Tag Archives: technology

Technologies and School Reform: Kissing Cousins*

Over the years, I often get asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms. I answer the same way each time. When I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school system I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms. Again and again.

I then add that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I looked at how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I analyzed policymakers’ frequent curricular changes since the 1880s. I even investigated the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. I also parsed the utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. Almost out of words, I end my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn. That long answer usually squashes follow-up questions.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and, sadly enough, still see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating “blended learning” schools, introducing online learning, or deploying tablets to each and every student is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using Class Dojo, Chemix School and Lab, Algebrator, and other software programs are implementing classroom organizational and curricular reforms and shaping instruction.

Technological innovations, then, are kissing cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar components.

All reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray a economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient.

Going from policy talk to classroom practice. Patterns can be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted program to ending up in classrooms. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad purchase and roll-out, and any brand-new math program for a district). Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design wends its way into the school and eventually into the classroom (Common Core standards in reading, online instruction).

 Criteria to judge success of reform. If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–in school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on a mix of political interests, ideological fervor, available resources, and research evidence.

By now, you get my point. In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns, determine consequences for the adoption of the innovation, track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to the historic patterns in school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.

____________________

*This is an updated version of an earlier post.

 

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Looking at Children Use of Technologies at Home and School

Parents, as usual are caught in the middle. A recent article by Hannah Rosin–a Mom herself–looks into the dilemma facing parents. Called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” Rosin explores the choices that largely educated, middle and upper-middle class parents face when it comes to deciding whether their infants and toddlers should have the devices and, if so, for how long should they be swiping screens each day. (See four minute video in Rosin article).

On the dilemma facing parents and how much time children should be using devices for games, talking, and facing a screen, Rosin opts for parental judgment on a child-by-child basis. She does not see high-tech devices for toddlers and young children as an enemy to be fought and conquered. She does not, however, speak to the plasticity of the brain and the capacities of new electronic devices altering how children learn, what content and skills they retain, and the habits that children accrue.

With the rush to buy iPads for toddlers and kindergartners and the spread of tablets and smart phones among children and youth, can (or should) parents and schools do anything about use at home and school of the increasingly pervasive technologies?

Keep in mind that there are social class differences in how parents and significant adults allow their children use of screen devices. A number of studies have found, for example, that:

*African-American and Latino children ages 0 to 8 spend more time with screen media, including television, video games, and computers than their white peers.

*Rates of bedroom television are more than twice as high among African-American (69%) and Hispanic (66%) children than for white children in the same age group (28%).

*Children from low-income families (less than $30,000 annually) spend more time with television and videos and have bedroom television rates more than three times higher than children from middle- and upper-income families.

Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones and tablets. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events such as unemployment, divorce, illness, death.

And what about school? Consider what Westside Neighborhood School, a private school in Los Angeles, is doing. An NPR reporter described the school and its use of technology recently:

With kids from pre-K through 8th grade, WNS sits tucked into the shadow of a Home Depot in L.A.’s booming Playa Vista neighborhood. It’s close enough to the ocean that the air is more salt than smog.

When talking about screen time and kids’ access to handheld devices, Brad Zacuto, who heads the school, likes to use an old-fashioned analogy: “It’s like putting a child behind a wheel of a car. There’s a lot of power there.”

Think about how dangerous it was back when cars first hit the road, Zacuto says. No traffic lights or street signs. That’s where we are now, he warns, with kids and all this technology at their fingertips. “It’s here to stay. But at some point you have to teach kids how to drive a car responsibly.”

 Zacuto’s tech policy begins with a few basics: First, no smartphones till sixth grade. Even then, kids can bring them, but they have to check them at the front desk.

Second, engaging and educating parents: WNS makes them sign a commitment to limit screen time at home and to keep kids off of social media — again, until sixth grade.

 Also, at school, no technology until second grade. “We choose to have our youngest children engaged in digging in dirt,” Zacuto says, “and building things and using their hands….”

 In second grade, Zacuto says, kids start using classroom laptops. They get some basic lessons in typing and word processing and their first taste of Internet research….

By sixth grade, WNS students may have to check their smartphones at the door, but they get their own school-issued tablets with textbooks on them. Still, Zacuto insists, little valuable class time is spent simply looking down.

When sixth-grade social studies teacher Caitlin Barry gives her students time to read from the textbooks on their iPads, they often do it in pairs, encouraging each other to explore confusing terms or ideas. Some teachers even put short lectures online, for students to watch at home….

“It sort of flips the content,” Zacuto says. “I’d rather be spending my time in school with the teacher, with the kids — doing interactive, collaborative [things], using what we’ve learned.”

 The reporter ended her story on WSN by saying: In other words: “using screens at home to increase the time students spend working face to face in the classroom. It’s a delicate dance, preparing kids for both the Digital Age and the social world.”

The dilemmas facing parents, principals, and teachers about children and youth use of technologies won’t go away. They can, however, be smartly managed.

 

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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iPads for Young Children in School

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

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

 

Dear Larry Cuban,

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

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

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

A message from _______ ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

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

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

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

[BACK TO PARENTS' LETTER TO ME]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cartoons about Coding and High Tech for Young Children

As a follow-up to the previous post on coding for kindergartners, I have selected some cartoons about the unceasing and ever-escalating demands of schooling young children and current efforts to use high-tech devices. Cartoonists have a special angle on a topic often missing from how policymakers see the world. And best of all, cartoonists make their points using either a sledge-hammer or an ice pick rather than the tools policymakers use such as words and dollars. Enjoy!

kdg

 

'I just wanted to thank you for grounding me to my room for the weekend. I took the time to start a computer programming company, which earned me $13 million.'

 

edu45

 

'We     ... In class today.'

 

images-1

images-2

 

images-3

 

If I learn how to write Roman Numerals, will that help me write computer code?

 

wom022388

 

199806032

 

28703.strip

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tissue Paper Reforms: Coding for Kindergartners

Some school reforms are like rebar that have lasted for more than a century. Examples? The age-graded school and the kindergarten.

Some school reforms are like industrial-strength plastic-covered packages which cover new toys, computer cables and gifts. After the plastic sheath is pried open, it can be recycled and appears later as fabrics, fencing, and benches. Examples?  The New Math, New Science, New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s lasting for a decade or so then are recycled years later to reappear later as the New New Math, etc. ,etc.

Some school reforms are like tissue paper that, after one or two uses, shreds and is tossed away. Examples?  Coding for kindergartners.

'We     ... In class today.'

Why is coding for kindergarteners neither rebar nor unbreakable plastic but flimsy tissue paper?

Coding as a Tissue Paper Reform

Teaching young children to code (which may or may not be learning to program) reminds me of how Logo–an earlier tissue paper innovation–became nearly extinct in less than a decade except beyond a few schools where children continued to program using Logo-derived languages. Instructional reforms like Logo then and coding now for young children–to switch metaphors–are like those boutique shops that move in and out of malls.*

Why is coding now, a way of implementing a program language like Logo then, a tissue-paper reform?

The reasons are instructive to current enthusiasts for coding:

1. While the overall national context now clearly favors technological expertise, Big Data, and 21st century skills like programming, the history of Logo showed clearly, that the national context for schools and what was happening inside schools have a lot to do with a reform being put into practice and becoming rebar, plastic, or tissue paper.

Consider the Logo experience. Over forty years ago, Seymour Papert and his MIT team wanted to restore progressive ways of teaching and learning so that students could construct their own meaning of ideas and their experiences. Learning to move “turtles” around on a screen was a way for students to think logically and computationally. These MIT scientists wanted to dismantle institutional barriers that schools had erected over time–the rules, traditions, and culture– because they retarded student learning, especially acquiring thinking skills. Logo, then, would be a vehicle for transforming teacher-centered schools into student-centered, mindful ones.

For Logo activists, however, their timing was bad. The national mood for educational experimentation and equity for poor and minority families was shifting. The idealistic and experimental years in public schools during the mid-1960s to early 1970s had ebbed just as  reformers began piloting Logo05 in a few elementary schools. In just a few years, Logo became a boutique offering because a “back to basics” reform had seized civic and political leaders and the window for new ventures, anchored in the work of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, had closed. Traditional forms of schooling and teaching were back in vogue.

Shortly afterwards, the Nation at Risk report (1983) warned leaders that unless schools became more effective–the U.S. would languish economically and other nations would leapfrog over America to capture global markets.  By the late-1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more rigorous curriculum frameworks,. and began testing regimes. Not a welcoming climate for Logo-driven reformers like Papert and his colleagues. In a few years, traditional age-graded schools adapted to the changing national context in both curriculum and instruction.

But now the climate for anything smelling like high-tech, computer science, and new devices has so permeated the culture and the national context for standards, accountability and testing remain firmly entrenched that the idea of coding is one whose time has arrived. Given the history of Logo and how it was implemented suggest to me that coding is tissue-paper thin or at best, recycled plastic.

2. Then and now, schools eager to teach coding, for the most part, catered to mostly middle- and upper-middle class students.  Articles (see here and here) illustrate the demand for family teaching it to children, in- and after-school coding programs, and expensive summer camps (see here and here). Yes, there are efforts by leaders in teaching coding to include low-income students (here  and here) but by and large the primary users are children from middle- and upper middle white and minority families.

adam-7apps-teach-coding-Veer

3. Then and now, most teachers were uninvolved in teaching Logo and had little incentive or interest in doing so. Ditto for coding. Sure there are exceptions (see here) but the exception is the one that makes it into the media precisely because it is novel.

4. Then and now, Logo and coding depend upon the principle of transfer of learning coding to conceptual and critical thinking with applications to other domains of knowledge and skills. The research supporting such confidence is lacking among cognitive psychologists and educators who see from daily experience that students find it hard to apply concepts and skills learned in one arena to what is being learned now.

Those reform-minded policymakers and practitioners who believe that the past can be instructive to the present and who are passionate about young school children learning either programming or coding (or both) should take a serious look at Logo and draw both inspiration and lessons from that earlier reform. Chances are, however, the hullabaloo over coding for young children will quiet down and another reform will shred like tissue paper.

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*Please see comment by Kunal Chawla below.

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Filed under school reform policies, technology

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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Filed under how teachers teach, technology use