Students as Digital Rebels, Wanderers, and Pioneers (Craig Peck, et. al.) Part 2

Craig Peck and his colleagues studied two high schools in Southeastern U.S., one–Downtown–was urban and minority while Newlands was mostly white and suburban. Part 1 described student and teacher use of school and personal devices in Downtown high school. The full text including citations is in DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools.

We discovered that, as the old ways of schooling such as bell schedules, paper tests, and seats in rows intersected with tech-savvy, [personal media device-or] PMD-equipped teenagers, a “digital disconnect” (Selwyn, 2011) surfaced between digital youth and their brick and mortar schools. This situation produced a setting fertile for cultural incubation similar to the creative tensions present in an examination of technology in two American high schools a decade past (Peck, Cuban, & Kirkpatrick, 2002).

In that case, nascent ICT integration in schools helped foster the development of two types of students: “Open Door” students who improved academically and gained social acceptance through technology, and “Tech Gods” who played a crucial role in helping technology coordinators maintain the schools’ technology infrastructures.

Roughly 10 years later, during our study at Newlands and Downtown, we recognized three new types of students emerging in addition to the Open Door students and Tech Gods profiled a decade earlier. Two of these new classifications, Digital Rebels and Cyber Wanderers, included students from across the socioeconomic status spectrum. The other group was more homogeneous: eLearning Pioneers were primarily White, high-achieving students at Newlands High School. …

Digital Rebels

….We encountered students who utilized their PMDs as means to rebel, overtly or surreptitiously, against school and teacher rules. Skilled students sent text messages routinely during lessons. Without the teacher’s (or at times, the observer’s) knowledge, these students used their clothing and objects for cover; some typed responses in their pockets without looking at their device. A few students pushed the bounds further by setting up proxies on school computers to bypass school district filters and access popular social media sites. In addition, students who possessed mobile phone data plans (or shared those of their parents) could use their PMDs to access any online social media they wished, given that the school district’s Internet filters could not block such activity on proprietary wireless networks.

A White male 10th grader at Newlands High School proved particularly adept at evading classroom rules against PMD usage. He explained that he was able to type text messages without looking, so he only had to read incoming messages. He stated, “I’m normally a two-hander with my phone, but if I was just sitting here like this I could send a message just fine [in my pocket].” He later revealed that he did in fact send a text message during his interview, unbeknownst to the researcher. He also explained that he possessed skills that would have enabled him to help fix instructors’ ICT issues, much like the Tech Gods profiled in a study a decade ago (Peck et al., 2002). But he also revealed that he was reluctant to share such knowledge: “I don’t speak up about it. . . . Not big on fixing things like that.” When asked to explain his reluctance to provide technology aid to his teachers, he remarked, “Don’t want to help the teachers—it’s time off class . . . ‘cause they’re going to have to call someone to fix it.”

This Digital Rebel, in essence, seemed to express a willingness to undermine a lesson through silent inaction.

At Downtown High, an 11th-grade African American female student described when and how she text-messaged during a lesson: “Well if I’m in class and I get a text, usually I wait until the class is working on some kind of work, but it’s mostly after the teacher explains it.” She estimated sending about 100 text messages on a typical day, with far fewer during the actual school hours. In fact, she described concerns with having PMDs in schools.

In her own words, “There’s cheating. They give the answers during text messages. Or if someone’s planning to have a fight, they’ll just do it through the phones. They’ll text and meet up there and everyone will know where to go. And that kind of blocks the way of it being broken up [by adult supervisors], which is kind of dangerous.”

In this sense, seemingly innocent acts of rebellion could actually transform into significant acts of danger.

Teachers possessed limited means to fight back against the apparent digital insurrection. As we shadowed students throughout their school days, teachers confiscated student PMDs that had been used in ways that disrupted instruction. Yet, most often the teachers simply returned the devices to the students at the end of the period, seemingly satisfied to have induced a brief respite in their ongoing digital communications. Other teachers ignored student PMD use or adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach of benign neglect. Still other educators did go to great lengths to disrupt student technology use.

In one case at Downtown High School, a coach made all her players turn in their phones to her at the beginning of school as a tactic for preventing PMD-inspired confrontations during the day; a student participant revealed that a friend of hers circumvented this deterrent by carrying multiple mobile phones: one to turn in to the coach, and the others to keep and use. In another case at Downtown High School, two teachers used personal funds to purchase cell phone blockers in the hopes of eliminating student PMD usage during class time. Administrators subsequently sent all teachers a memorandum forbidding this solution. The principal explained that the blockers interfered with the administrators’ cell phones, which constituted a safety issue. The principal added that any teacher using the cell phone blockers would be held personally liable in the event that aid was delayed to a sick or injured school constituent.

An administrator at Newlands discussed how the possible release valve provided by a student-appropriate PMD use policy did not always lead to student acceptance of usage rules. She explained,

“One student told me, ‘You know, this is a new world and this is a new age.’ And I had to [confiscate his cell phone] because he refused to give it up in gym. And he just said, ‘It’s a new world, a new age.’And I explained the policy and I said I realized that. And he said, “You check yours all the time, too.”. . . It is a new world and we have to start to identify and look at all that we are trying to impose on students. Is it old values? It’s not the same.”

Such technology-fueled conundrums carried over to her relations with her own teenage son. She described some of the virtues of PMDs: “I know that any time I want him, I know I can get him.” She still struggled like many parents with what she called the “trust issue,” stating that she needs to know who he is texting, or, as she stated it, “making sure that when you text—who you’re texting, what are you texting, making sure I know all that.”

A White male 11th grader at Downtown High School perhaps best summed up the dilemmas regarding PMD use and access that educators face today. He stated,

“You’re never going to stop it, there’s no way you can. I mean, [there are] people that know computers. They know technology, it’s like they could do it all on the back of their hand, sleeping. I mean, they know their ways around technology. I mean you just give a guy a new technology and let him play with it a couple of days and he’ll figure it out like nothing…..”

Cyber Wanderers

During our research, we also met students for whom, much like the Open Door students profiled in a previous study (Peck et al., 2002), technology proved essential. One such student from Newlands explained,

“Main reason I love this school is because: Wi-Fi throughout the whole school, which is great. You can go on the web like during lunch or whatever. I’ll be in the library during lunch and I’ll open up my laptop and whatever, browse the web and everything. Sometimes, most of the time when I’m in math or English I’ll write my notes and write my essays on my laptop.”

By this student’s own testimony and that of his teachers, technology enabled his academic success and social adjustment. Some students in our study, however, became so immersed in or overwhelmed by new media technology that they meandered between the real and virtual worlds. To such students, whom we dubbed Cyber Wanderers, the lure of technology presented a possible danger: They could succumb to ICT as a powerful distraction rather than seize it as a powerful tool, or use ICT to engage in an environment that offered the potential for anonymous hostility.

At Newlands, for example, we met an African American 10th-grade male student who was an avid online gamer, explaining that sometimes “people will wind up cursing when I do something wrong or mess up.” Conversely, he admitted using the screen name “heartless jerk” in an online gaming forum and “made one member quit” because of his harsh comments.

We also encountered a White male 10th-grade student at Downtown High School who checked his phone during our interview to discover, to his surprise, that he had sent 18,287 text messages the previous month alone. He described his text messaging as almost instinctual:

“Well I start sending text messages usually ‘cause I haven’t talked to somebody in a while and [there are] some certain people you know that I maintain a constant texting conversation with. You know and I’ll just text them sometimes to ask them something in particular and sometimes just to start up a conversation, so it’s just kind of I realize that I’m you know, starting a conversation but I don’t really think about it, if that makes sense . . . I just kind of do it.”

He also seemed cognizant that his text messaging had serious consequences:

“My texting has probably gotten in the way of some learning . . .In Algebra 2 . . . if you don’t get it at the beginning it kind of puts you in a hole. . . . So I’ve kind of had to play catch up here.” Adding to his issues, he explained, “[I] definitely play a lot of video games while texting . . . in a way that kind of runs into a problem sometimes.” Cyber Wanderers such as these could find themselves thoroughly lost in electronic worlds while being inattentive to the formal curriculum.

eLearning Pioneers

In the media center of the predominantly White and affluent Newlands High School, a small group of female students spent a fair portion of their days immersed in online learning. Loosely monitored by the school’s media coordinators, youth whom we called eLearning Pioneers sat at computers and studied advanced Chinese or AP computer science while most other students throughout the school attended traditional classes. During one typical period during a school day, each of three students sat individually at one of the 30 desktop computers arranged around the media center; two of the students were engaged in online learning activities. The online courses could be noticeably self-paced. A staff member who participated in our research reported that one of our study’s students took a virtual 8-month-long biology course; the student expended little effort for 6 months before completing all assignments successfully over the final 2 months of the allotted course time.

The eLearning Pioneers at Newlands included another of our study participants, a White 10th-grader who took two AP classes and a math class online in the school media center and attended two regular classes before going home. For her online courses, message boards and email provided the central means for teacher–student and student–student interaction. She noted,

“In online classes . . . generally speaking, you pace yourself. Especially with my English class . . . she gives you the assignments and she gives you a syllabus for where you should be. But you turn them in at your own pace and you take tests when you can . . . you have a tab that you can click on and go to your ‘My Grades.’ It has the assignment, and what grade you got, and out of what and all the assignments you’re going to need to complete for the rest of the year . . . it’s easier to keep up with things. You know, like, I’m supposed to post to the discussion board today. You go and do that.”


Our shadowing of our participant during a typical day neatly captured the hybrid nature of her educational experience. In AP environmental science, she sat with 18 classmates and completed a written unit examination; once finished with the test, the class watched a nature DVD played with the teacher’s laptop computer and broadcast by digital projector. Our participant returned to the media center to complete an assignment for her AP computer science course, which was offered through the state’s virtual public school program. She returned to a classroom with 20 students to engage in a lesson for Latin II, during which the teacher led students through a line-by-line translation of a text excerpt. Our research subject then departed from campus, with designs on completing an assignment for her AP English course offered through another state’s virtual education program. Her AP English instructor, whom our student had met only virtually but described as “amazing,” posted pictures of her own children, wanting to connect more personally with her students. Our subject reported,

“I’ll do an assignment and I’ll turn it in, like an essay or something,and then she’ll send me feedback and say, ‘This was good but your introduction’s a little weak.’ Or ‘You need to do this.’”

We wondered whether our participant—an independent, self-motivated eLearning Pioneer—offered a glimpse into the American high school future (Christensen et al.,)



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Digital Youth in Brick and Mortar Schools (Craig Peck, et. al)*


University researcher Craig Peck and colleagues including a high school teacher studied two schools in southeastern U.S. to see the interplay between students, teacher use of technologies and students’ personal media devices during the school day. In the two high schools (one urban and the other suburban), these factors interacted in complex ways that go well beyond what advocates for schools becoming more high-tech have either promised or foresaw. As part of the research design and methodology, the researchers shadowed ten students through their school day. To illustrate those interactions and display that complexity, the researchers offer a snippet of one student’s day in the urban, largely minority high school. The full text of the article published in Teachers College Record, May 2015 is in (DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools)


One Friday morning in late spring, the instructional day began at Downtown High School, located in a large Southeastern United States school district. African-American 11th-grader Joanna Miller and 19 other students entered room 321 for their Small Business course, a technology-infused elective, and took seats in front of desktop computers. The session began as a guest speaker, a 1961 Downtown High School alumnus who had retired from a career as a lawyer and business person, described his work experiences, discussed resume tips, and offered motivational words.

The course instructor transitioned the students into the day’s assignment: They completed computer-based multiple-choice responses regarding business term definitions and reviewed for a test that coming Monday on creating a personal “business image.” The teacher monitored student progress through a program on his computer that provided a real-time screen shot of each student-assigned computer.

This system allowed him to lock individual computers or the entire group to provide updates or check that everyone was on task. At one point, a student tried to access a popular social media website through a proxy but had the action blocked by the monitoring program. The teacher’s computer-based monitoring of the students actually seemed rather laissez-faire. At one point, several students were engaged in completing the assignment, while a few others were completing work for other courses, surfing the web, or, at intermittent moments, quickly texting on their personal media devices. Joanna, in fact, used her computer to complete the assignment’s multiple-choice responses. She explained to the researcher how she preferred the online format because it allowed her to retake questions she answered incorrectly.

After the bell rang, signaling time to move to the next period, Joanna continued on with her school day. She encountered instructional technology along the way, including when fellow students used a computer-interactive whiteboard for problem demonstrations in mathematics. In other courses like English, decades-old practices predominated as students sitting at desks arranged in traditional rows completed a photocopied crossword puzzle regarding a classic play. In Latin, the instructor engaged students in a discussion regarding Celtic mythology and read a myth from a book. In this sense, her instructional day offered Joanna a mix of technology-rich and technology-free experiences. Despite the varied nature of instruction, one technology pervasive throughout the day was student personal media devices.

Downtown High School rules specifically prohibited students from bringing technology like cellular phones and digital music players to school. In classrooms and in the halls, however, headphones dangled from ears and tiny keyboards met eager text-typing thumbs as students routinely, if often surreptitiously, indulged in their favored virtual electronic communication modes.

In some cases, educational spaces became contested domains. In math, the teacher confiscated Joanna’s cell phone (which a classmate was using) and two others. The teacher returned the devices at the end of class with a stern admonition against further use. In Joanna’s Latin course, meanwhile, instruction in the aged language competed against modern times as one student in particular showed a remarkable affinity for modern multitasking. Shielding her personal media device beneath her desk, the student quickly tapped out text messages. She also used a pen to write notes to secretly pass onto classmates and, for good order, offered periodic comments to the larger discussion pertaining to Celtic mythology.

In part 2, Craig Peck and his colleagues describe the different kinds of students they encountered and their use of technology based on interviews and following students into classes in both the suburban and urban high schools.


*Craig Peck is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was one of my graduate students who assisted me on a study of teacher and student technology use at two Northern California high schools in 1998-1999


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Who Said Teachers Don’t Have a Sense of Humor?

Instead of cartoons this month, I am posting a series of photos about teacher humor. Of the 30-plus photos that I saw, these are the ones that made me laugh. Enjoy!

All of the photos come from / Via    If you want to see full array of the photos, see here.


This physics teacher knows what the kids are into:










This teacher knows how to deter students from forgetting to bring a pen:



This teacher gives the best weekend homework:















This teacher values his office hours:

























This teacher keeps her students focused during exams:









This teacher should transfer to the economics department:












This teacher will never see this spelling mistake from this student ever again:















This physics teacher knows how to throw a curveball on a test:










This history teacher knows there’s always time for a lesson:





































This teacher just shut down texters everywhere:











And this math teacher has a passion for learning:










This teacher has been around Middle Earth once or twice:



Filed under how teachers teach

Long Distance Runners Make the Best Reformers

In 1971, John Gardner, then head of Common Cause, a grassroots organization dedicated to keeping government open and accountable, hired a young staffer to work on cleaning up the dirty money that flowed into Presidential campaigns during Richard Nixon’s term of office. Fred Wertheimer lobbied U.S. senators and congressmen and women to put limits to campaign spending and to keep the donations open to public inspection. At that time, Gardner told Wertheimer, “reform is not for the short-winded.” Over forty years later, Wertheimer continues to work on cleaning up campaign financing and says about Gardner’s advice: “He never told me it was 41 years and counting.”

School reform (championed by the political right, center, or left), like campaign financing, is for long distance runners who have overcome short winded-ness. I made that point when analyzing short-term superintendents like sprinters Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified. But short-windedness also applies to the long-haul necessary for incremental school reform in districts to accumulate into something that matters in the lives of students and teachers.

Like building a house, putting in a foundation, wall framing, putting on a roof, wiring and plumbing are done in increments that end up being a finished house. So it is for school reform. Most zealous reformers–be they policymakers, school boards, philanthropists, CEOs–know that in their heads but seldom practice it. Building a house, of course, means the purpose and direction of change is obvious. Not so, for school reform.

District policymakers, administrators, and activist parents–stakeholders–seeing themselves as “agents of change”– seldom ask: change toward what end? Change in of itself becomes the desired outcome, not the district’s long-term direction (e.g., prepare students for an information-driven economy, build decent adults engaged in helping themselves and others). And that is why the short-winded are attracted to school reform. From charter schools to “disruptive innovations” to delivering computer devices en masse to students and teachers, rarely is the question asked: Do these new things take us in the direction that we want to take tax-supported public schools in a democracy? If yes, how? If no, why invest scarce resources in them?  Sprinters worship speed and seldom ask these questions; they want to make grand changes fast and cheap. Marathoners have the time and energy to ask the questions and figure out how to get from here to there in chunks, not all at one time. They seek quality–“good”–over fast and cheap.

I have written a few times about long distance runners as urban superintendents (see here). District marathoners means serving at least a decade in the post. Consider Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with political, economic, and demographic challenges over which they had no control. Moreover,  because they were mostly minority districts there were continuing problems of low achievement and test score gaps between minorities and whites that were tough to solve. Criticism often stung. Yet these marathoners quietly and steadily chipped away at these problems.  Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These urban superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Then there are a few smaller urban districts that have shifted from mostly white to mostly minority and, in doing so, have still maintained academic achievement even though school boards have changed membership, budget crises occurred, governance shifted, and states required districts to alter programs. In such an ever-changing political context rife with socioeconomic problems, these superintendents hung in, starting new programs here, bolstering older programs there. They worked closely with teachers either within collective bargaining contracts or through meet-and-confer. They not only knew that teachers and teaching were central to student improvement but acted again and again to help teachers do what they did best. In these smaller districts, they worked incrementally towards overall district goals amid demographic shifts and ever-increasing state requirements. One such district prided itself on long-winded superintendents who, with its school board, achieved enviable student outcomes over decades.

The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. Public participation in an array of citizen committees including parent involvement in school site decision-making have become an Arlington tradition. Although collective bargaining is banned by the state, teacher and administrative unions have worked closely with district leaders in achieving the school board’s strategic plan. Incremental changes aimed at achieving desired student outcomes have been executed decade after decade to achieve that vision. Sure, there are organizational, curricular, and instructional issues that bother both parents and teachers and need attention. But for an urban district, that kind of continuity in district leadership, public participation, and sustained high academic performance is uncommon.

As John Gardner said: “reform is not for the short-winded.”


Filed under Reforming schools

What Happens When Kids Go Cold Turkey from Their Screens for 5 Days? (Yalda Uhls)

This post appeared August 22, 2014 in the Huffington Post as did the following description of the author. Dr. Yalda T. Uhls received her PhD in developmental psychology from UCLA. She is the Regional Director of Common Sense Media, a national non-profit that focuses on helping children, families and educators navigate the digital world as well as a senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, UCLA campus. Yalda’s research focuses on how older and newer media impacts the social behavior of preadolescents. Her research has been featured in the NY Times, CNN, Time Magazine, KPCC, and many other news outlets

We all stare at screens more than we would like to, and many of us rely on these tools to communicate with others, even during times when we should be spending quality time with our families and friends. So, does all this time staring at screens, which may take time away from looking at faces, change the nature of what we learn about the social world? Our study at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, at UCLA, asked this question. We compared two groups of approximately 50 6th grade children each over a period of five days. One group had no access to screens of any kind, while the other did.

But how does one find young people willing to give up all media for a few hours, let alone five days? We explored the ways we could guarantee that a large enough group of children would stop using media and found a simple solution. An outdoor education camp for public school children, the Pali Institute, came on as our partner. The camp director worked with us to make sure that during the five days of the camp, children had zero access to screens of any kind — no TV, no phones and no computers. This meant that the kids at the camp could only talk to other people using the form of communication our species has used for millions of years — face-to-face interaction.

Social abilities are quite complex, but an essential underlying skill is understanding emotion; children learn about emotion even before they learn language by first paying attention to a caregiver’s face. Watching faces and paying attention to the interaction of people around them provides children with essential facts for survival: who can I trust, who will love me and whom should I be scared of? We chose emotion understanding as our measure because of these early and important social learning skills.

Honestly, we were not sure that after only five days of looking at faces versus screens, anything would change. Anecdotal evidence abounds that children who stop using media become magically kind, respectful and patient, but hard data is limited. But there may be some basis for parent intuition, because we found that children’s skills in reading emotion in both faces and videotaped scenes got dramatically better. The time they spent interacting in groups, with their peers and counselors, with no devices in their hands or in front of their faces, made an important difference. The kids at camp improved their emotion understanding, while the kids who were at school did not.

So, what’s the takeaway? Should kids not look at screens anymore? Unless you want to move to Siberia — and I am only saying that figuratively, because chances are even Siberia has the Internet — I think that ship has sailed. Instead, take heart that it took only five days for kids to improve; in other words, screen time does not create irreversible damage to our children’s social skills. The rules are still the same as they always have been — create balance and device free time in your children’s lives. And when kids are small, make sure to give them many opportunities for rich in-person social interaction.

Our call to action is we must examine this question further. Before screens become the only thing we ever look at (remember the movie Wall-E?) let’s devote some resources to study the costs and benefits. The stakes are high, and our children are worth it.



Filed under technology use

Educators’ Love Affair with Change

I put a dollar in a change machine. Nothing changed. George Carlin, comedian [i]

The quip echoes a disappointed reformer eager to improve public schools and classrooms but coming up with zilch. The one-liner suggests that change and its flip side, stability, are inextricably tied together. Just as a shadow cannot exist without light, change and stability cannot be separated from one another in organizations. Constancy and change, as another instance of yin and yang, helps explain why so often well-intentioned leaders often fall on their faces after adopted policies aimed at altering what happens daily in the nation’s classrooms end up unimplemented. Smart, energetic decision-makers frequently miss the importance of seeing both continuity and change at work in classrooms, schools, and districts. Like George Carlin, they insert a dollar when they adopt policies and are disappointed when they see little change.

The embrace of change (one can substitute “progress” or “improvement”) as an unvarnished good, particularly in public schools, is understandable in the U.S. The idea of change is highly valued in the culture and daily life (e.g., high-fashion and automobiles get re-worked annually, re-inventing one’s self is common, moving from one place to another is a national habit, standing in line overnight to buy the most recent technology is unremarkable). Change is equated with progress toward material or spiritual success (or both). Opposition to whatever planned change is proposed in a family, workplace, school, or community is often clothed in negative labels such as “resistance” or “supporting the status quo.” [ii]

Improving education as a worthy goal in of itself has fueled myriad reform efforts over the past century. Reformers from the political left and right—each seeking different goals for U.S. schools–have assumed that public school officials and practitioners often oppose designed changes to keep things as they are. That assumption is in error.[iii]

The organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism” involving both continuity and change to maintain a tenuous balance in classrooms and schools comes into play here. Institutions often fight and embrace change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those parts of changes that will sustain stability.

Consider, for example, school districts where administrators add new courses on critical thinking to meet reformers’ demand for 21st century skills. Or teachers urging students to bring their laptops to class to do Internet searches, take notes, and work in teams to make PowerPoint presentations to class. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining their usual order of tasks and activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching. [i]

Reform-driven policymakers, however, dead-set on redesigning classrooms and schools scorn hybrid teaching practices. They want transformation, not some cosmetic changes. Institutional stability is dysfunctional, they argue. It keeps worthy fundamental changes at arm’s length. Such policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. [ii]

When policymakers intent on improving schools err in viewing schools as complicated rather than complex systems, hurdles multiply quickly to frustrate the turning of reforms into practice. Too many decision-makers lack understanding of “dynamic conservatism” in complex organizations or understand it and choose to ignore it because they see these systems as ineffective, even pathologically unworkable, and in need of re-engineering.

In adopting reforms that will jolt the system sufficiently to substantially alter teaching and learning, policymakers have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance).

No surprise, then, that policymakers treating complicated systems as complex ones in adopting and implementing school reforms–have triggered both active and passive parent, student, teacher and administrator resistance.

Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” at work in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, both continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers lay out in their designs for reform. Sadly, such policymakers fail to understand the complex interaction between stability and change in nearly all organizations. In this failure of understanding lurks the many errors that decision-makers make in repeated efforts to transform schooling, teaching, and learning.


[i]“Funny Comedian Quotes and Videos” at: Retrieved March 10, 2015.


[ii] Robert Nisbet, The History of the Idea of Progress (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995); Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995).


[iii] For a recent and typical example of this genre of critique see Jeff Livingston, “3Ways to Radically Remake U.S. Schools and Education,” U.S. News and Report, February 5, 2013.



Filed under Reforming schools

The Dilemma of Fast, Cheap, and Good: You Can Only Pick Two

Teachers, principals, researchers, and parents face dilemmas daily. For readers of this post, the most common they face is the tension between personal and professional values—spend time with family and friends vs. spend time at work. Because time is limited, you cannot do it all–choices have to be made. Compromises and tradeoffs are inevitable. From CEOs to software designers to single Moms to marketing consultants, these dilemmas are ever present.

For entrepreneurs, start-up innovators, policymakers, principals, and teachers who initiate projects there is a another dilemma that won’t go away. The dilemma is choosing among three competing values: do the project fast, do it cheap, and do it “good.” Why do you have to choose? Because resources are limited–time, people, money–you can only do two. You cannot have it all.













Constraints that won’t go away require choices. You want to have the highest quality project, i.e., “good,” but to get that, it takes time and time often means that costs rise. It won’t be cheap. Film director Jim Jarmusch captures the tensions that exist between speed, quality, and price (not only in dollars but in time and people). These tradeoffs in managing the dilemma derive from not only high-tech start-ups aimed at the school market  but also apply to classroom teachers,  principals, superintendents, and school boards as well.

Consider the Los Angeles fiasco of buying and distributing Apple iPads (see here and here). The Superintendent and school board thought they could get “good” by doing it “fast” and “cheap.” They failed miserably. The superintendent resigned. A year later, the fallout from these decisions still rock the district.

Now consider teachers who want to begin project-based learning (PBL) in their classrooms. What comes across in their accounts is that they didn’t implement it all at once but started a piece of project based learning–say getting students to ask questions–and worked on it before expanding it to an entire lesson (see here and here) . They chose “good”  over “fast.” They invested their time incrementally to learn how best to pull off project-based learning. Those investments of teacher time add up and make it expensive in teacher time but workable with students in a lesson.

For a classroom, putting an innovation into practice is one thing, expanding the innovation to an entire school is another. To build project-based learning across an entire high school is also done in increments and takes longer (see here)   The switch from one pedagogy to another or installing a new way of teaching across all subjects courts failure when done in one fell swoop. In those high schools where teachers put into practice PBL, more often than not, it occurred in chunks. Two steps forward, one step backward. Trial and error. And it takes time.  “Good” trumps “fast.” Implementation involving teacher time in picking up expertise at every step of the way, however, is seldom cheap.

The same constraint-ridden dilemma of choosing among “good,”fast”, and “cheap” and then putting the program into practice incrementally applies to a district also. Look at a largely minority district with nearly 25,000 students that has, over thirty five years–yes, for more than three decades–sustained academic improvement, reduced the achievement gap between minorities and whites, and introduced many organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional changes slowly, carefully, and incrementally in those years. The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. For an urban district, that kind of continuity in leadership borders on extraordinary.

Using pilot programs to introduce innovations slowly and evaluating outcomes, the district has approached implementation of new ideas and practices incrementally in order to offer quality programs to students. Fast and cheap rollouts of technology, new curricula, and different organizations seldom occurred.  For  example, in 2006, school officials introduced the a Spanish Immersion program in the elementary schools.Teachers were recruited, selected, trained to offer the instruction. Students spent 90 to 135 minutes weekly in Spanish beginning in kindergarten and then eventually instruction extended into the upper grades. At each step of the way, district officials communicated with parents, listened to their concerns and those of teachers, and made changes as the program was rolled out. Spanish Immersion language programs are currently in 17 out of 22 Arlington County elementary schools. Over a decade, then, a new program was introduced incrementally and is considered by school officials, practitioners, and parents. “Good” trumped “fast.” Costs in administrative and teacher time, professional development,and instructional materials surely added up and the dollar cost would appear large until those costs are amortized over a decade and the number of students served.

Classes using new pedagogies, schools putting instructional innovations into practice, and total district changes have to deal with iron-clad constraints–“fast,” “cheap,” and “good”. Choices have to be made because no one can have it all. With continuity in leadership, a commitment to careful implementation in bite-sized increments, the dilemma can be managed successfully.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use