Cartoons on Leaders

This month I hope you will enjoy a dozen or so ways of picturing leaders in and out of school. If they get you to smile, let me know.

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Judging Reform “Success” and “Failure”: The Gary, Indiana Case

In previous posts about the label “failure” attached to school reform, I laid out an argument that making such a judgment is tricky. Who makes the judgment and what clock they listen to matters in judging “failure” or “success.” In this post I look at a K-8 school reform from a century ago and ask you whether it was a “failure.”

In 1906 in a town built by U.S. Steel on the shores of Lake Michigan, a new superintendent introduced an educational innovation that hundreds of school districts adopted in the next decade. Visitors traveled thousands of miles to meet Superintendent William Wirt, sit in classrooms of cheerfully decorated schools, and marvel at how children of immigrants learned during the day while their non-English speaking parents attended classes at night. Even though U.S. Steel owned the property and employees largely ran the town, the educational experiment converged with company interests in providing what observers called a productive education for both white-collar and blue-collar employees.

Progressives of the day, imbued with the revolutionary ideas of John Dewey and Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, wrote articles and books praising the combination of work and play, of school and community, of efficiency and civic-mindedness, that put the name of Gary, Indiana on the early twentieth century map of school reform.

The Platoon School (or Gary Plan) was introduced in a remodeled elementary school holding children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Administrators divided the student body into two groups or “platoons.” One platoon would be in the classrooms or auditorium while the other would be in the basement where there were woodworking, printing, and other shops; upstairs in music, art, and play rooms; or outside on the playground. During the day, each platoon would change places, giving each child academic, practical, recreational, and aesthetic experiences while using the entire facility. Most urban elementary school children in 1906 stayed the entire 6-8 hour school day in a self-contained classroom with one teacher; Gary pupils worked with many teachers during an eight-hour day, even receiving released time for religious instruction.

Moreover, because Superintendent William Wirt believed in tying the city of Gary to schools, adults (many of whom were recent immigrants working in the steel mills) would attend evening classes to learn English, hear lectures, and use various shops to learn industrial skills. Such a work-study-play-community school arrangement—a revolutionary shift in school organization and curriculum—made it possible to have many more students attend school since the schedule permitted all available space to be used by students during the day and adults at night. The Gary innovation spread swiftly across the nation. Educational pundits of the day applauded its success.

In 1918, however, two educational experts completed a study of the Gary schools. It praised some aspects of the platoon plan but raised serious questions about the quality of academic work and weak student performance on achievement tests. Soon after, national interest in the Gary Plan ebbed considerably. By the mid-1920s, the innovation had receded and virtually disappeared from the national scene. In Gary, it lasted in some form or another into the 1940s (see here and here)

Today Platoon Schools are largely forgotten. Yet the ideas of using buildings fully, offering a diversified curriculum combining academic subjects, practical tasks, and play in which students move to various parts of the school building, and having the school as an educational, social, and recreational center for adults have become mainstream features of elementary schooling. The Platoon School foreshadowed the modern elementary school.

Was the Platoon School a success, then, because it became popular in the media and spread swiftly to hundreds of school districts? Or was it successful because it lasted for over four decades in Gary and evolved into the modern elementary school? Or was the reform a failure? After all, the Gary Plan soared in popularity, matured, and then vanished from the national scene. Few present-day school reformers would recognize the name or remember the program. The Gary story suggests the puzzling ambiguity of, if not confusion in, determining the “success” and “failure” of school reforms.

I argue that most highly touted school reforms today (e.g., charters, pay-4-performance, KIPP schools) are like the Platoon School. They are adopted and, as they are implemented, undergo changes that transform them in ways that few of the designers of the original reform could predict, or even claim ownership.

Because schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools, judging an innovation’s success or failure is no easy task. Such doubts, however, have hardly prevented policy elites (then and now) from rushing to judgment in employing their standards of judging success. Media amplify elite opinions, often framing the reforms as winners and losers. As a result, some promising reforms that evolve too slowly for impatient policymakers and media pundits are aborted while others that are earmarked as winners by opinion-setters in the horserace for public attention often fade and disappear. I argued that the judgment of “failure” is anchored in the time-scale each group uses–their “clocks” (see here and here)

The crucial piece to evaluating school reforms is asking : What standards are used to make judgments? Whose standards are they?  In subsequent posts I answer these questions.

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The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 3

Practitioner time. If media time (see previous post) often looks like speeded-up Chaplinesque frames from 1920s films, then think of practitioner time as slow motion. One example should suffice.

As computers spilled into schools during the 1980s, news media carried stories of an imminent revolution in teaching and learning. Districts bought machines like popcorn, placing them in classrooms and labs.

In schools saturated with computers, some teachers were using machines for lessons a few hours a week. Even after media predictions of an impending revolution in teaching and learning, however, most teachers remained casual or non-users.

By the early-1990s,  in characteristic hastiness, media had already pronounced the “computer revolution” dead on arrival. That judgment was premature. Over decades, a slow growth in teacher use of computers has registered on the practitioner clock rather than the media’s and policymakers’ faster tick-tock of  months and a few years. With the ubiquity of tablets and laptops, computer devices are in the hands of first graders and Advanced Placement physics students. With the hyped-up push for “personalized learning” and online instruction,  the media clock is ticking as is the policymaker clock when policies for rebuilding district computer infrastructures for school teacher andstudent access. Devices have become part of the unfolding of daily lessons across the nation’s classrooms. “Failure?”

Lag times between different clocks is also evident when student learning is considered.

Student learning time. Reformers want students to learn more, better, and faster. But this student-learning clock doesn’t tick fast. It is a very slow-moving, difficult to read, and the numbers are out of order.

Because school-based learning cannot be separated from home-based learning (including high-tech devices), learning may show up years after formal schooling ended since children learn at different rates. Finally, school-based learning contains both intended and unintended effects. Most students, for example, learn to read, calculate, and write sufficiently to pass tests and leave school with credentials. But students learn much that goes untested: taking turns; handling anger in public situations; dealing with schoolyard bullies; not snitching; the rudiments of sex beyond formal lessons; and scores of other useful social knowledge and skills beyond the classroom curriculum. With all of these caveats about the student time zone, how can this clock be read at all?

Think of two hands on this clock. The big hand marks teacher grades and the annual standardized paper-and-pencil tests taken periodically during the school year. As standardized tests have become primary means of estimating student academic performance over the last four decades, the big hand is noted most often by media and policymaker clock-watchers. When a new program is launched in a flurry of publicity, test scores are inspected swiftly to determine effectiveness.

The second hand on this clock is much slower because of all the complications noted above. With the lag time of learning stretched over a student’s school career and the difficulty of sorting out intended from unintended effects, the second hand creeps across the face of the clock at a snail’s pace and often goes unnoticed.

Reading different clocks may help travelers, but it is unclear how reformers knowing that there are separate ones for media, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and student learning is practical. I offer two reasons why anyone interested in improving classrooms and schools across the U.S. should consider the metaphor of different clocks to get at the truth, not the myth of failed school reform.

(1.) Paying more attention to slower-paced clocks could shift public debate to substantial matters of classroom teaching and learning. The point of the tsunami of policy talk and attention given to charter schools, pay-for-teacher performance, and new technologies in recent years was to improve what happens between teachers and students. Yet somehow that purpose got lost in the media and policymaker time zones. Because public attention was riveted on those fast-paced clocks, impatience with the slowness of bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning time led to premature and inaccurate judgments of reform failure.

(2.) Those seeking school reform need to expect that important changes occur in slow motion.

The media clock, for example, is watched more closely by policymakers who respond to electoral cycles. The media clock not only identifies what policymakers ought to consider but also certifies that what is reported is legitimate and worthy of policy attention. Moreover, because fast-moving media clocks register more failures than successes–after all, a publicly funded flop will attract readers and viewers–reforms that get adapted and prove successful over time as recorded by the bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning clocks are less eye-catching, less newsworthy, and often over-looked.

As a consequence, concentrating on media time strengthens the belief that most school reforms fail. Policymakers come to assume that belief without fully questioning it. Public and practitioner faith in improving schools flags. Teachers and activist parents ask: What’s the use of trying anything different? Such a belief destroys professional and lay-reformer self-confidence and, worse, is inaccurate.

Slower clocks have become seriously devalued by policymakers. But such slow-motion time counts far more for students and their teachers than the faster-paced, high-profile media time or election-driven policymaker time. Reformers need to heed this fact–“The time-line of reform is longer than the shelf life of reformers.”*–and make it clear to those outside of classrooms and schools.

For these two reasons, those committed to school improvement need to ignore the myth of failed reforms and pay attention to other clocks that record the long journey of school improvement.

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*Louise Waters, CEO of Leadership Public Schools, February 1, 2011

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The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 2

In 1990, Seymour Sarason published The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. A decade later, Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:A Century of Failed School Reforms hit booksellers. Now, not a week goes by that failures of public school reform are dissected, tallied, and trotted out as exhibits for wannabe reformers. The next two posts re-frame school reform as looking at different clocks to show that the concept of reform  “failure”  has to include who makes the judgment and when.

Clocks?

In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, clocks show times across the globe.  Different time zones alert travelers to what time it is in the city they wish to call.

There are such clocks for school reform also. Different reform clocks record the different speeds of reform talk, policy adoption, what happens in classrooms, and what students learn. Were these clocks in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that changes in policy talk and action have occurred but at different speeds, some far too slow for impatient reformers to notice. Framing reform as being recorded by different clocks gives a glimpse into the myth of reforms constantly “failing.”

The myth, of course, has a history. It is anchored in commission reports (e.g., Nation at Risk), books (e.g., Left Back), and studies (e.g., Spinning Wheels) over the last century that document flurries of curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms. The myth also comes from the feverish rhetoric of entrepreneurial reformers who see failure everywhere in order to sell their particular product (e.g., “personalizing learning,”charter schools).

Yet the hyped policy talk, books, and documents seldom distinguish between major reforms that have stuck such as kindergartens, comprehensive high schools, coed and desegregated schools and those that have disappeared (e.g., educational radio and television, The Platoon School). Historians and thoughtful observers, however, have learned that school reform has a series of clocks that move at different speeds.

Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. What is  eye-grabbing and controversial registers on the media clock. Tweets, blogs, social media–and don’t forget newspaper and TV headlines–document immediate events and opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on school reform agendas. Condom distribution in high schools, for example, received strong media exposure as a school policy aimed at solving teenage pregnancies. Policymakers talk about online technologies that will revolutionize teaching and learning.  In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere and that what is reported actually occurred. And what didn’t happen in media time was evidence of “failure.”

Policymaker time. This clock chimes every year campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some places, policymaker clocks tick faster when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

To offer a recent example, federal policymakers have defined schools as an arm for the economy. Since the 1990s, higher academic standards, copying corporate business practices, and advocating charters have been converted by top officials into campaign slogans. Presidents George H.W. Bush and son, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have pushed for world-class standards, charters,  and business-inspired reforms to raise students’ performance.

Policymaker time, then, runs on election cycles. “Failure” takes time. No Child Left Behind lasted nearly 15 years before it was replaced by Every Student Succeeds Act (2016).

Other clocks measure whether the overblown reform hype and adopted policies have turned into action, have been implemented. Enter the bureaucratic time zone.

Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative actions aimed at putting policy decisions into practice. Often the hands of the faster media and slower policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time occurs because of the complexity in converting policy into feasible, clear procedures for principals and teachers who do the actual work of schooling. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased departmental coordination occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned legally segregated schools. Studies recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with implementing the decision—a school reform–between the 1950s and 1980s.  States and districts, prodded by federal court orders, slowly embraced open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were opened. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, Southern and Southwestern schools had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).Since then, de facto, not de jure re-segregation in many urban, suburban, and rural districts has returned.

The media, policymaking, and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Important details that can spell the difference between “successful” and “failed implementation” take considerable time to craft and put into practice. Often political, demographic, and other non-school factors create greater lag time between the clocks making judgments of “failure” premature.

There are other clocks as well. The next post takes up practitioner and student learning clocks.

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The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, (Part 1)

Were the “Open Space” schools of the 1960s and 1970s a reform failure?.

Instead of self-contained, four-walled classrooms of about 900 square feet holding one teacher and 25 students that opened up into long hallways, school boards hired architects to design schools without walls with large open spaces—sometimes called pods– where teams of teachers would teach multi-age children, collaborate with one another nearby and come up with innovative lessons that would engage students and sustain academic achievement. The newly designed physical structure would alter traditional age-graded schools in organizing students (e.g., multi-age groups rather than separating children and youth by age) how teachers worked together (e.g., team teaching rather than teachers assigned to separate classrooms) and how they taught the required curriculum by tailoring instruction and learning to the differences among students in abilities and their needs (e.g., small groups, individual work, and crossing subject boundaries with thematic units rather than whole-group instruction, textbooks, homework, and tests). Student-centered teaching, not the familiar teacher-centered lesson–would become the norm, open space reformers assumed.[i]

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Open space architecture and enthusiasm for innovative grouping of children, teaching, and learning customized to individual students spread rapidly across the U.S. In the Washington, D.C. area, for example,

The District of Columbia schools spent $163 million in the 1970s to build 17 open space schools. In the same decade, Arlington County (VA) spent $25 million to convert 13 traditional schools into open space facilities. Montgomery County (MD) spent $32 million to build t 21 open space schools and Fairfax County (VA) spent $48 million on 13 buildings that combined both open and closed space. [ii]

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Yet within a decade, these open space schools had put up partitions, built walls and went back to self-contained classrooms where again traditional lessons reigned. By the end of the 1980s, open space schools were a prime example of a seemingly “failed” reform. [iii]

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century. Open space architecture in brand new building and refurbished older buildings has reappeared. Fueled by the ubiquity of computer devices and rhetoric about new technologies in practice such as “blended learning” and “personalized instruction” new schools have been erected that have flexible space—common areas for clusters of classrooms, small conference rooms, and space for individual students to read alone, work on devices to see exercises and do exercises and write. Multiple-sized spaces have returned in many buildings for both students and teachers to use new technologies in daily lessons. These new spaces again promised that teachers would shift from traditional lessons to student-centered ways of teaching that differentiated instruction and involved children and youth in daily activities. [iv]

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Does this historical recounting of the once innovative open space architecture in schools in the late-1960s mean that it was a “success” for a brief moment in time—a shooting star—but eventually “failed” because walls and self-contained classrooms returned by the 1980s? Or have open space schools “succeeded” in that they returned and have been adapted to the technological context of the 21st century?

This example of a once highly touted school reform disappearing and returning–and I can name many others including “new” technologies–raise serious questions about the time scale policymakers, researchers, and practitioners use to judge reform “success” and “failure.”

Subsequent posts take up how the concept of time itself prompts premature judgments of “failure.”

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[i] Open space schools refers to the interior architecture of the school where large , medium, and small spaces can be used to accommodate large-group, small-group, and independent work by students and teachers. Often confused with open space schools are “open education” and “open classrooms.” Although these pedagogical reforms are linked, they are independent of one another.

Open education surged in popularity in the late-1960s as a British import of progressive way of teaching primary and upper-grade children through small-group and independent work, much student decision-making in choosing the “learning centers” they would move through during the school day in traditional age-graded classrooms. The role of the teacher was closer to a coach and guide rather than engaging in teacher-directed lessons, using textbooks, administering quizzes and exams, and assigning nightly homework. Many advocates of “open education” also promoted open space schools to get rid of the age-graded school thus linking the two reforms. See Larry Cuban, “The Open Classroom,” Education Next, 2(4), 2004, pp. 69-71.

[ii] Judith Valente, “Open Space Classes: Results Doubtful?,” Washington Post, December 11, 1979 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1979/12/11/open-space-classes-results-doubtful/40c6e267-0287-4e56-89ca-d18ea82ef2c3/?utm_term=.594263c9f3c8

Howard Libit, “ ‘Innovation’ Still Besets Some Schools: 1960s Trend to Open Space Failed Quickly,” Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1995 at: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1995-10-08/news/1995281062_1_open-classrooms-teachers-open-schools

[iii] I served as superintendent in the Arlington (VA) Public Schools between 1974-1981. I visited schools and classrooms a few days each week and by the end of my first year, I noticed that in at least a half-dozen open space elementary schools built in the late-1960s and early 1970s, partitions made of book cases, newly installed accordion separators, and plastered walls had been erected to re-create separate classrooms for K-6 teachers.

[iv]Michael Horn, “Tear Down This Wall! A New Architecture for Blended Learning Success,” EdSurge, June 29, 2015 at: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-06-29-tear-down-this-wall-a-new-architecture-for-blended-learning-success

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The Analog and Digital Lives We Live

Did you know that new calendars, appointment books, and planners had increased sales of nearly 10 percent over 2014-2015 amounting to nearly a half-billion dollars?

Did you know that over a half-billion print books were sold in 2015, nearly four percent more than the previous year while e-book sales fell?

Did you know that the sale of vinyl records, board games, film photography and paper journals have increased annually over past few years?

The resurgence of analog products in the midst of a digital revolution in how we now live is a marker, an early sign of millions of people (and I include myself) figuring out what’s important in living a life fully in a world that has become increasingly digital.

Feeling the pages of a book, having a watch with numbers and a sweep second hand, playing Monopoly and chess on an actual board with others, taking family photos with an actual camera– while easy to dismiss as whiny nostalgia–are signs of many people figuring out pathways to a life that mixes the analog and digital.

The persistence of the analog also means that interacting with people at work, at Costco, in a hospital and home care, in churches, playgrounds, in bars and at home matters a great deal. Face-to-face relationships are analog. They are the bonds that bind each of us to one another in families, among intimate friends, neighborhoods, and workplaces. They matter far more than Facebook “friends.”

Consider the helping professions (e.g., doctors, therapists, nurses, ministers, social workers, teachers). Doctors and nurses have patients; therapists and social workers have clients; ministers, rabbis and imams have congregants, and teachers have students. Each of these professionals is immensely aided by new technologies they use daily yet their work depends upon human interaction and unfolding relationships. And in these relationship-bound professions is where the analog and digital intertwine. Not either/or, one or the other–analog and digital easily mix in these helping professions. And it is in schools especially where face-to-face contacts occur daily, where relationships begin and mature, where the analog and digital world come together.

Because schools are relationship-driven, where adults interact daily with children and youth, they are basically analog institutions in democratic, market-driven societies. They won’t go away. Bricks and mortar schools will be around for the rest of the century because communities need them to convey to children and youth knowledge, values, skills and attitudes essential to that society and becoming adults who will contribute to their communities. Schooling is as much about the head as it is about the heart. A fact often forgotten by those avid reformers (and parents) who see schools as efficient escalators to the workplace, who see children and youth as brains on a stick.

The head and heart come together in schooling through adults interacting daily with children and youth in and out of classrooms. Digital tools, hyped as they are, have surely entered  teachers’ repertoires to reduce administrative work, increase efficiency while enriching instructional preparation. But the digital will not (and cannot) replace teachers with online schools, robots, virtual reality goggles or similar fantasies. Those schools that work best socialize the next generation into thinking, feeling, and acting beings who work in communities, thrive in workplaces, and learn to live fully in a digital world.

How can I be so confident of schools as analog places where relationships are central and not be replaced by the brave new digital world?

My half-century of experience in schools, awareness of the central role of schooling in a democratic, market-oriented society, and awareness of classrooms across the nation but especially in Silicon Valley have convinced me that schools as analog institutions will persevere and outlast the magical thinking that technologically-driven reformers peddle.

In the past year, I have observed scores of teachers integrate new technologies in their classrooms in the heart of Silicon Valley. These teachers and the schools in which they work have blended the analog and digital into a mix of activities and personal interactions that are both familiar and new.

Familiar in that teachers work in age-graded schools–a two-century old institution–where daily lessons, teacher/student relationships, and classroom situations echo school practices from earlier generations. Yet overlaid with the familiar is the new, the device-driven activities during the school day, the mix of digital and analog. In a  first-grade room, students work in whole groups, small groups, and individually over the course of a six-hour day. For part of the day, they move to different learning stations (e.g., math, reading, science, art), some of which are device-driven while other children settle into independent work, and even other stations where pairs of six year-olds figure out a task together. And the teacher? She would be working one-on-one with students who were plowing ahead of the lesson, falling behind, or just keeping up with the work. The digital and analog come together easily such classrooms.

No one observing these first-graders during a school day would say that schooling has become a digital institution.

With the current resurgence of analog devices and activities noted above, adults also are learning to combine the analog with the digital to live their lives fully.

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Technology Trade-offs in a Physics Classroom (Alice Flarend)

“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania.  She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years.  She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State.  She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education  and public K-12 schools.”

One of the first uses of computers in many physics classes decades ago was to graph data using Excel. This innovation prompted lengthy discussions among physics teachers at meetings and conferences about the trade-offs of having students use this aid rather than graphing by hand. Excel could make graphing so easy, but the students could lose the skill of creating axes, legends, and interacting with their data.

I have found these types of discussions distinctly lacking as we move more classroom activities onto the digital world. I want to call attention to the often overlooked trade offs between efficiency and quality of information that occur when classroom tasks are handled electronically. While the examples I present  are from my world of physics teaching, I have seen similar ones in my high school as we have moved through a 1-to-1 iPad initiative.

Physics classes are inherently hands on. We drop marbles and roll balls down inclines, usually with stop watches in our hands. Computer simulations and digital data collection for laboratory experiments are replacing those stop watches. Computers allow students to collect more and cleaner data than ever before. Calculations are done internally and instantly displayed graphically. Patterns are easier to discern. Multiple trials are accomplished with a click.

However, that simple click masks information about the data collection and processing. It hides the messy experimental and mathematical work that is the basis for the patterns. My students believe that any graph on the screen must be an accurate representation of a ball in motion, even the wildly inaccurate ones caused by ball being nowhere near the digital sensor. It is so easy for students to lose sight of the actual physical world as they analyze those pretty digital graphs.

My early experiences with an internet-based homework service were more positive than turning in paper homework. Particularly with difficult problems,  paper homework tends to be more of a “I didn’t understand this but at least I got something to turn in” type of experience. Internet-based homework gives students a particular number of attempts so they keep trying a problem until they get it right. I could give my students challenging work and their grades would not suffer terribly because they could keep working until they got it right. Because my homework service does not have a sophisticated “help” function, students would come to me for aid. They gained a deeper understanding as we talked and I gained valuable formative assessment feedback.

In the last few years, however, there has been a disturbing trend of students searching online for solutions. The problem is these online solutions are not educative solutions. They just give a bare-bones derivation and students then plug in their numbers into the final equation. Students get the problem marked correct but they do not actually understand the solution. With increased use of these online tools, I have more students who take only a single try to get each homework problem correct, but then fail the test.

This automatic grading, a feature of many digital products, saves me time and the students get immediate feedback. They can be used in real time in the classroom. For the most part, these grading programs are limited to multiple choice questions or numerical solutions. As an experienced teacher, I can create these types of questions to probe my students’ knowledge, but they are limited to more simple ideas and preprogrammed choices. I prefer open-ended types of questions where the students write a long enough answer so their misconceptions and uncommon ideas can emerge and be explained in unique ways. I can look at their work with mathematical problems. That is where I find the most useful formative assessment. With digital grading programs, I lose a lot of that valuable information.

Tools like Google Classroom are supposed to ease communication between teachers and students. They allow efficient dissemination of classroom materials to students and collecting their work. The perennial excuses of “I lost the handout” or “My printer ran out of ink” are no longer applicable when students can just download another copy or email me their documents. I can easily add comments to those documents submitted to me, helping students to improve their work. All of this can be done at any moment that the student or teacher wishes, at school or at home.

In my experience, I have seen little evidence that this ease of communication has increased the quantity or quality of my students’ work. Students who neglected to turn in paper homework also neglect electronic versions. Students who lose handouts do not download new copies. I can write many helpful comments on students’ work and they will receive a notification that a comment has been posted. Nothing in the program, however, makes the students read these comments and improve their work. Now the same can be said for comments written on paper, but in judging the large numbers of requests I receive for translation of my third-grade handwriting, my students do tend at least to read my handwritten comments.

Overall, this apparent ease of accomplishing classroom work has created a larger gap between the students. Students who work to understand the material and see a purpose in school, do take advantage of the affordances of the technology as they do all other supports.   Many other students disconnected from learning in school are not lured into learning because of screens, despite the promises of the tech literature. They do not take advantage of internet tutorials to increase their understanding. They do not look at my comments and do a rewrite of their rough draft. They do not open up lines of communication outside of classroom time, despite having a device and programs that will do this with only a few clicks. This gap has always existed, but the digital aspect has increased it, or at least made it more visible.

What I have learned from these experiences is to be vigilant in the use of technology. It offers many advantages in making tasks easier and more efficient. It does not, however, easily transform any classroom activity into one where deep learning occurs. In fact, it can easily do the opposite and mask difficulties in a flurry of correct answers and perfect graphs.

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