A Continuum on Personalized Learning: First Draft

After visiting over three dozen teachers in 11 schools in Silicon Valley and hearing an earful about “personalized learning,” I drafted a continuum where I could locate all of the different versions of “personalized learning” I observed and have read about.

If readers have comments about what’s missing, what needs to be added or how I organized the continuum conceptually, I would surely appreciate hearing from you.

In 2016, when I visited Silicon Valley classrooms, schools and districts, many school administrators and teachers told me that they were personalizing learning. From the Summit network of charter schools to individual teachers at Los Altos and Mountain View High School where Bring Your Own Devices reigned to two Milpitas elementary schools that had upper-grade Learning Labs and rotated students through different stations in all grades, I heard the phrase often.

But I was puzzled by what I saw and heard. When asked what a teacher, principal or district administrator meant by “personalized learning I heard different definitions of the policy. Not a surprise since the history of school reform is dotted with the debris of earlier instructional reforms that varied greatly in definitions (e.g., New Math, Socratic seminars, mastery learning, individualized instruction). No one definition of personalized learning monopolizes the reform terrain. [i]

When I went into classrooms to see what “personalized learning” meant in action, I observed much variation in the lessons and units that bore the label. None of this should be surprising since “technology integration” and other reform-minded policies draw from the hyped-up world of new technologies where vendors, promoters, critics, and skeptics compete openly  for the minds (and wallets) of those who make decisions about what gets into classrooms.

Not only have definitions of “personalized learning” among policymakers and entrepreneurs varied,  but also diverse incarnations have taken form as the policy   percolated downward from school board decisions, superintendent directions to principals, and principals’ asking teachers to put into practice a new board policy. Teacher adaptations of policy is as natural as a yawn and just as prevalent. Variation in district schools and classrooms is the norm, not the exception.

Translated into practice in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the concept of “personalized instruction” is like a chameleon; it appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, the AltSchool, and the Agora Cyber School blazon their personalized learning  (or competency-based learning) placard for all to see yet it differs in each location.[ii]

The Personalized Learning Continuum

To make sense of what I observed in Silicon Valley schools and what I know historically about instructionally-guided reforms over the past century, I have constructed a continuum of classrooms, programs, and schools that encompass distinct ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons seeking short- and long-term goals for schooling the young.

Let me be clear, I place no value for either end (or the middle) of the personalized learning continuum. I have stripped away value-loaded words in my writing that suggest some kinds of personalized learning are better than others. Moreover, the continuum does not suggest the effectiveness of “personalized learning” or achievement of specific student outcomes.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons within the traditional age-graded school. These classrooms and programs, switching back and forth between phrases on “competency-based education” and “personalization,” use new technologies online and in class daily that convey specific content and skills, aligned to Common Core standards, to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market and become adults who help their communities.

The format of these lessons including the instructional moves the teacher makes in seguing from one activity to another, handling student behavior, time management, and student participation in activities to reach the lesson’s objectives typically call for a mix of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently. At this end of the continuum, these lessons contain a mix of whole group, small group, and independent activities but with a decided tilt to teacher direction and whole-group work.

For examples, consider the New Hampshire Virtual Learning Center, USC Hybrid High School CA), and Lindsay Unified School District (CA). While these examples inhabit the teacher-centered end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from New Hampshire Virtual Learning Charter. [iii]

Yet I cluster these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using online and offline lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Specific behavioral outcomes guide what is expected of each and every student. The knowledge and skills are packaged by software designers and teachers and delivered to students daily and weekly. Students use applications that permit them to self-assess their mastery of the specific knowledge and skills embedded in discrete lessons. Some students move well ahead of their peers, others maintain steady progress, and some need help from teachers.

Even though these schools and programs often use the language of student-centeredness (e.g., students decide what to learn, students participate in their own learning), and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, the teacher-crafted playlists and online lessons keyed to particular concepts and skills determine what is to be learned. Finally, these programs and schools, operating within traditional K-12 age-graded schools, are descendants of the efficiency-minded wing of the Progressive reforms a century earlier.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered classrooms, programs, and schools often departing from the traditional age-graded school model in using multi-age groupings, asking big questions that combine reading, math, science, and social studies while integrating new technologies regularly in lessons. These places seek to cultivate student agency and want children and youth to reach beyond academic and intellectual development. They want to shape how individual students grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

Moreover, these programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions including community-based activities. The overall goals of schooling at this end of the continuum are similar to ones at the teacher-directed end: help children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults. Like the other end of the spectrum, these approaches draw from the pedagogical wing of the Progressives a century ago.[iv]

For example, there are over 60 Big Picture Learning schools across the nation where students create their own “personalized learning plans” and work weekly as interns on projects that capture their passions. Or High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), The Open Classroom at Lagunitas Elementary in San Geronimo (CA), the Continuous Progress Program at Highlands Elementary in Edina (MN)–all have multi-age groupings, project-based instruction, and focus on the “whole child.” And there are private schools such as San Francisco-based AltSchool, a covey of micro-schools located in big cities and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well. [v]

Lesson formats in schools at this end of the continuum commonly call for a blend of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently–with alignment to Common Core standards. At this end of the continuum, these lessons bend noticeably toward small group and individual activities with occasional whole group instruction.

Many of these schools claim that they “personalize learning” in their daily work to create graduates who are independent thinkers, can work in any environment, and help to make their communities better places to live. There are many such schools scattered across the nation (but I found no public school in Silicon Valley that would fit here). Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum, much variation exists among these schools harbored at this end of the continuum.[vi]

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrid programs and schools mixing teacher-directed and student-directed lessons. In this diverse middle are teachers, schools and programs that provide blends of whole group, small group, and independent activities in lessons. Some teachers and schools, in their quest to personalize learning tilt toward the teacher-directed end while others lean toward the student-centered pole. But they occupy slots in the middle of the continuum.

These classrooms, schools, and programs combine online and offline lessons for individual students and teacher-directed whole group discussions, and small group work such as ones taught by Mountain View High School English teacher, Kristen Krauss, Aragon High School Spanish teacher, Nicole Elenz-Martin, and second-grade teacher Jennifer Auten at Montclaire Elementary School in Cupertino (CA) into blends of teacher- and student-centered lessons.

The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 charter school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting toward the teacher-directed end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on.

I would also include the nine teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed  who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While the two Summit schools in which I observed teachers had explicitly committed itself to “project-based learning,” the projects were largely chosen by the teachers who collaborated with one another in making these decisions for all Summit schools; the projects were aligned to the Common Core state standards.

While choices were given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects were in teachers’ hands. That is why I placed these teachers, programs, and schools in the center of the continuum, rather than the student-centered end.

Such schools and teachers mix competency-based, individual lessons for children with lessons that are teacher-directed and pursuing project-based activities. The format of lessons continue the inevitable mix of whole, group, small group, and independent learning with inclinations to more of one than the other, depending on lesson objectives and teacher expertise. In no instance, however, does whole-group activities dominate lesson after lesson.

Like those at the teacher- and student-centered ends, these programs lodged in the middle of the spectrum contain obvious differences among them. In hugging the middle, however, these programs also embody distinct traces of both the efficiency- and pedagogical wings of the century old Progressive reformers.

The popular policy innovation of “personalized learning” has a history of Progressive reformers a century ago embedded in it. Implementation today, as before, depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that rigorous–however it is defined–lessons will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of the policy. And putting “personalized learning” into classroom practice means that there will continue to be hand-to-hand wrestling with issues of testing and accountability.

Yet, and this is a basic point, wherever  these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.

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[i] In the glossary of educational terms, the entry describes a full array of meanings for the phrase. One of the longer entries in the glossary, personalized learning includes programs, instructional applications, and academic strategies. See: http://edglossary.org/personalized-learning/

[ii] Each of the programs named claim that they have personalized learning. See their websites for descriptions of what each does. Rocketship can be found at: http://www.rsed.org/

Alt/School can be found at: https://www.altschool.com/

Agora Cyber School can be found at: http://www.agora.org/home

[iii] The New Hampshire Virtual School’s website describes its format and content at: http://nhva.k12.com/

An article on the virtual school’s creation and operation is: Julia Fisher, “New Hampshire’s Journey toward Competency-Based Education,” Education Next, February 1, 2015; USC Hybrid High School’s website is at: http://www.ednovate.org/about-usc/#image1-1

Also see Mike Syzmanski, “USC Hybrid High School Graduates Its First Class, with All 84 Heading to College,” LA School Report, June 13, 2016.

For Lindsay Unified School District, see Christina Qattrocchi, “How Lindsay Unified Redesigned Itself from the Ground Up,” EdSurge, June 17, 2014.

[iv] See Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) in chapters on New York City and Denver for student-centered reforms in the 1920s and 1930s.

[v] Descriptions of Big Picture Learning schools can be found at: Katrina Schwartz, “Can Truly Student-Centered Education Be Available To All?” KQED News, December 8, 2015 at: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/12/08/is-the-public-system-scared-to-put-students-at-the-center-of-education/

Stephen Ceasar, “For Students at L.A.’s Big Picture Charter School, Downtown Is Their Classroom,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2014; for a YouTube description that includes interview with one of the co-founders of Big Picture Learning, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT716pobd2o

For Mission Hill School, see: http://www.missionhillschool.org/

Open Classroom at Lagunitas can be found aat: http://lagunitas.org/open/

Edina’s Continuous Progress elementary school option is at: http://webapps.edinaschools.org/sw/cp/newcpinfo.html

Private micro-schools called AltSchool can be found at: https://www.altschool.com/

The Khan Lab School, a private school, is at: http://khanlabschool.org/

[vi] Mission Hill School’s website is: http://www.missionhillschool.org/

Lagunitas Open Classroom’s history and offerings are at: http://lagunitas.org/open/history/

Continuous Progress School in Edina (MN) has a description of its program at: http://webapps.edinaschools.org/sw/cp/newcpinfo.html

On the AltSchool, see Rebecca Mead, “Learn Different,” New Yorker, March 7, 2016; for the Khan Lab School, see Jason Tanz, “The Tech Elite’s Quest to Reinvent School in Its Own Image,” Wired, October 26, 2015 at: https://www.wired.com/2015/10/salman-khan-academy-lab-school-reinventing-classrooms/

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How Technology Integration Has Altered Doctor/Patient Care in Hospitals (David Rosenthal, M.D. and Abraham Verghese, M.D.)

Over the past few years, I have compared physicians and teachers because even with so many differences in preparation and the nature of their work, they share two core principles. Both professionals belong to helping professions where their success, in part, is dependent upon the patient and the student. And success, however defined, depend upon each professional developing close relationships with their patients and students. The degree to which labor-saving devices have increased the efficiency of both physicans and teachers in carrying out their daily work, there are, nonetheless, tradeoffs that have become apparent as professionals practice in hospitals and schools.

The following article, “Meaning and Nature of Physicians’ Work,” appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, November 16, 2016. To see citations, click on footnote number in NEJM article.

….Typically in our field, internal medicine, residents arrive at the hospital at 7 a.m., get sign-outs from nighttime residents, and conduct “pre-rounds” to see patients they have inherited but don’t know well, before heading to morning report or attending rounds. Attending rounds often consist of “card-flipping” sessions held in a workroom, frequently interrupted by discharge planning and pages, calls, and texts from nurses and specialists. Finalizing discharges before noon can feel more important than getting to know new patients. Increasingly, the attending physician doesn’t see patients with the team, given the time constraints.

No longer are there paper charts at the bedside. The advent of the electronic era, while reducing the time required for tracking down laboratory or radiology results, has not substantially changed the time spent with patients: recent estimates indicate that medical students and residents often spend more than 40 to 50% of their day in front of a computer screen filling out documentation, reviewing charts, and placing orders. They spend much of the rest of their time on the phone coordinating care with specialists, pharmacists, nutritionists, primary care offices, family members, social workers, nurses, and care coordinators; very few meetings with these people occur face-to-face. Somewhat surprisingly, the time spent with patients has remained stable over the past six decades.1

The skills learned early by today’s medical students and house staff — because they are critical to getting the work done — are not those needed to perform a good physical exam or take a history, but rather the arts of efficient “chart biopsy,” order entry, documentation, and sign-out in the electronic age. When a medical team gets notice of a new admission, it seems instinctive and necessary to study the patient’s record before meeting him or her. This “flipped patient” approach2 has advantages, but it introduces a framing bias and dilutes independent assessment and confirmation of history or physical findings.

In short, the majority of what we define as “work” takes place away from the patient, in workrooms and on computers. Our attention is so frequently diverted from the lives, bodies, and souls of the people entrusted to our care that the doctor focused on the screen rather than the patient has become a cultural cliché. As technology has allowed us to care for patients at a distance from the bedside and the nursing staff, we’ve distanced ourselves from the personhood, the embodied identity, of patients, as well as from our colleagues, to do our work on the computer.

But what is the actual work of a physician? Medical students entering the wards for the first time recognize a dysjunction, seeing that physicians’ work has less to do with patients than they had imagined. The skills they learned in courses on physical diagnosis or communication are unlikely to improve. Despite all the rhetoric about “patient-centered care,” the patient is not at the center of things.

Meanwhile, drop-down menus, cut-and-paste text fields, and lists populated with a keystroke have created a medical record that (at least in documenting the physical exam) at best reads like fiction or meaningless repetition of facts and at worst amounts to misleading inaccuracies or fraud. Given the quantity of information and discrepancies within medical records, it’s often impossible to discern any signal in the mountains of noise. Yet our entire health care system — including its financing, accounting, research, and quality reporting — rests heavily on this digital representation of the patient, the iPatient, and provides incentives for its creation and maintenance.3 It would appear from our hospital quality reports that iPatients uniformly get wonderful care; the experiences of actual patients are a different question.

It’s clear that physicians are increasingly dissatisfied with their work, resentful of the time required to transcribe and translate information for the computer and the fact that, in that sense, the work never stops. Burnout is widespread in the workforce, and more than a quarter of residents have depression or depressive symptoms.4 In response, health care leaders have advocated amending the “Triple Aim” of enhancing patients’ experience, improving population health, and reducing costs to add a fourth goal: improving the work life of the people who deliver care.

A 2013 study commissioned by the American Medical Association highlights some of the factors associated with higher professional satisfaction. Perhaps not surprisingly, the investigators found that perceptions of higher quality of care, autonomy, leadership, collegiality, fairness, and respect were critical. The report highlighted persistent problems with the usability of electronic health records as a “unique and vexing challenge.”5

These findings underscore the importance of reflecting on what our work once was, what it now is, and what it should be. Regardless of whatever nobility inhered in the work of physicians in a bygone era, that work was done under conditions and quality standards that would now be unacceptable. We practice in a safer and more efficient system with measurable outcomes. Yet with the current rates of burnout, our expectations for finding meaning in our profession and careers seem largely unfulfilled.

We believe that if meaning is to be restored, the changes needed are complex and will have to be made nationally, beginning with a dialogue that includes the people on medicine’s front lines. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for improving our professional satisfaction in the short term lies in restoring our connections with one another. We could work on rebuilding our practices and physical spaces to promote the sorts of human connections that can sustain us — between physicians and patients, physicians and physicians, and physicians and nurses. We could get back to the bedside with patients, families, and nurses. We could get to know our colleagues from other specialties in shared lunchrooms or meeting spaces.

In addition, we believe that in the coming years, the U.S. medical community will have to rethink the human–computer interface and more thoughtfully merge the real patient with the iPatient. We have an opportunity to radically redesign electronic health record systems, initially created for fee-for-service billing, as our organizations shift toward bundled payments, capitation, and risk sharing. Perhaps virtual scribes and artificial intelligence will eventually reduce our documentation burden.

But technology cannot restore our professional satisfaction. Our profession will have to rebuild a sense of teamwork, community, and the ties that bind us together as human beings. We believe that will require spending more time with each other and with our patients, restoring some rituals that are meaningful to both us and the people we care for and eliminating those that are not.

Solutions will not be easy, since the problems are entangled in the high cost of health care, reimbursement for our work, and obstacles to health care reform. But we can start by recalling the original purpose of physicians’ work: to witness others’ suffering and provide comfort and care. That remains the privilege at the heart of the medical profession.

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Where is the U.S. in School Reform in 2017?

To answer this question, I will do what lawyers often do when arguing a case. I will stipulate certain statements as facts. These statements may not sound like facts but as an historian and practitioner of school reform I claim they are.  Should readers quarrel with these statements, I do have supporting references and we can discuss those in dispute later. I stipulate the following:

FACT 1

Historically, school reformers have overstated defects in the existing system and made gloomy predictions of disaster. Then they have understated difficulties of changing the system by proposing rose-colored solutions.

Exhibit A is what has occurred over the past three decades in the U.S.

Market-inspired school reformers, endorsed by policy elites, media and parents, using low U.S. scores on international tests time and again, have blamed chronically low-performing public schools for hampering national economic growth, innovation, and productivity by  producing graduates mismatched to the job skills employers needed to compete in a constantly changing global marketplace.

To solve this serious problem of low academic performance and inadequately prepared graduates, state and federal officials have–between the early 1980s until 2015–created and legislated a federal and state reform agenda containing the following items:

*Common (and high) K-12 academic standards,

*State and national tests to determine if all students meet those standards,

*Student test scores as the primary metric to determine success of policies,

*Accountability regulations that hold districts, schools, students, and teachers responsible for results,

*Expanded parental choice, mainly through publicly financed charter schools,

*Deploy and use new technologies to get students to learn more, faster, and better.

*Teacher and administrator evaluation and compensation on the basis of student test scores.

Business and civic leaders, public polls, and  bipartisan policymakers endorsed this school reform agenda. The evidence, however, showing that this popular strategy has improved schooling for U.S. students, including minorities in urban districts or that skilled human capital has, indeed, led to national economic growth and an improved market position—remains seriously contested.

Moreover, with the U.S Congress and President dropping the No Child Left Behind Act and passing Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), of the seven items on the reform agenda, power has devolved to the states meaning that each item will be differentially implemented  across the nation. Only three remain: common curriculum standards–and that varies greatly among the states, the expansion of parental choice, and the ubiquity of new technologies in schools.

FACT 2

Of the multiple and competing economic, political and social purposes for public schools in a democracy, the economic aim of preparing students for a market-based democracy continues to dominate public schools in the 21st century.

In the early years of the 20th century, a business and civic coalition of educational progressives lobbied state and federal governments to create vocational schools and curricula  to prepare youth for industrial jobs. The federal government began subsidizing vocational courses during World War I. Progressive reformers created the comprehensive high school in the 1920s with multi-tracked curricula, including vocational education, that sorted students by their probable destination upon graduation into blue- and white-collar jobs.

By the 1970s, however, reformers were dismantling separate vocational curricula. While the comprehensive high school still exists, vocational education courses have migrated to community colleges and other venues.

Currently, the three-decade long concentration on schools as instruments for national economic growth has created a college prep curriculum for all students. The present market-inspired reform agenda, like the earlier movement for vocational education, has overwhelmed other collective purposes that have driven U.S schools since the 19th century.

Preparing youth for the labor market has competed with the public’s expectation to prepare children to participate politically and socially in the community, expand equal educational opportunity, and, at the same time, help individuals climb the social ladder to success. This last purpose of schools as a vehicle for social mobility has meant that parents see schools as an individually acquired consumer good to help their sons and daughters achieve success in life.

The economic purpose for tax-supported schooling—a public good–has dominated policy debates for well over a century and in the past three decades has joined social mobility, a private good, to suck out all the oxygen in any discussion of civic or other purposes for public schools.

FACT 3

Most reformers, the general public, and educators have yet to distinguish between cycles of policy talk and action from what actually happens to policies when they are put  into practice  in schools.

Policy talk refers to reformers’ cyclical rhetoric of gloomy assessments of schooling problems married to  over-confident solutions. Hyper-excited policy talk occurred over national defense during the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950s; we hear echoes of it now with fears of Chinese economic and military hegemony in Asia. Ditto for policy talk about online instruction transforming U.S. schools and colleges in the 1960s, 1990s, and, now. Pronouncements from federal officials—take a look at the 2010 National Technology Plan—and for-profit companies promise a brave new high-tech world of individually tailored online learning, blending of face-to-face learning with online and the enactment of “personalized learning.”

In short, policy talk (either of the sort that says schooling has failed or its reverse side, an edutopian, high-tech solution) is hyperventilating rhetoric that we have heard repeatedly.

Policy action refers to the decisions governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make in adopting policies to solve school problems. Examples range from school boards buying iPads for kindergartners to superintendents establishing new math programs to the U.S. Congress and President approving ESSA. Like policy talk, there have been cycles of adopting similar policies in phonics, dropouts, and technologies.

Policy implementation in schools, however, is not cyclical. It is linear. There are trends. Schools as institutions have structures, cultures, and history. Regularities in structures and culture change slowly and incrementally so that trend lines become noticeable over time.

Implementing new programs stretch out over five or more years. When researchers, for example, observe classrooms to see how computers are used by teachers in activities they find great variation across classrooms in the same school and among schools in the same district. Some teachers pick and choose elements of the program; others change policy by redesigning activities and lessons. Because of school culture and organizational realities, change is gradual and episodic. But trends do appear over time. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the hyperbole and gloom accompanying cyclical policy talk and action.

These three statements about current patterns in school reform, I stipulate as facts answer the questions of where the U.S. is in school reform in 2017.

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Teachers and Researchers: Searching for the Truth of Classroom Change

I am preparing to write a section in my forthcoming book on technology integration about  the different perspectives that teachers and researchers have on changes in classroom lessons. To do that, I have looked back at the handful of posts I have written since 2009 on this point so I can figure out what to say in this forthcoming book.

Here is one from November 2009 along with a reader’s thoughtful comment (and criticism) of the position I take in the post.

Over the years, I have interviewed many teachers across the country who have described their district’s buying computers, deploying them in classrooms while providing professional development. These teachers have told me that using computers, interactive white boards, and other high-tech devices with accompanying software have altered their teaching significantly. They listed changes they have made such as their Powerpoint presentations and students doing Internet searches in class. They told me about using email with students.Teachers using interactive white boards said they can check immediately if students understand a math or science problem through their voting on the correct answer.

I then watched many of these teachers teach. Most teachers used the high-tech devices as they described in their interviews. Yet I was puzzled by their claim that using these devices had substantially altered how they taught. Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered, or progressive approaches. All of this in years when No Child Left Behind, extensive testing, and coercive accountability reigned. What I encountered in classrooms, however, departed from teachers’ certainty that they have changed how they teach.

I am not the first researcher to have met teachers who claimed substantial changes in their teaching in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”

In the mid-1980s, California policymakers adopted a new elementary math curriculum intended to have students acquire a deep understanding of math concepts rather than memorizing rules and seeking the “right” answer. The state provided staff development to help elementary teachers implement the new curriculum. Then, researchers started observing teachers using the new math curriculum.

One researcher observed third grade teacher Mrs. Oublier (a pseudonym but hereafter Mrs. O) to see to what degree Mrs. O had embraced the innovative math teaching the state sought. Widely respected in her school as a first-rate math teacher, Mrs. O told the researcher that she had “revolutionized” her teaching. She was delighted with the new math text, used manipulatives to teach concepts, organized students desks into clusters of four and five, and had student participate in discussions. Yet the researcher saw her use paper straws, beans, and paper clips for traditional classroom tasks. She used small groups, not for students to collaborate in solving math problems, but to call on individuals to give answers to text questions. She used hand clapping and choral chants—as the text and others suggested—in traditional ways to get correct answers. To the researcher, she had grafted innovative practices onto traditional ways of math teaching and, in doing so, had missed the heart and soul of the state curriculum.

How can Mrs. O and teachers I have interviewed tell researchers that they had changed their teaching yet classroom observations of these very same teachers revealed familiar patterns of teaching? The answer depends on what each person means by “change” and who judges the worth of the change.

Change clearly meant one thing to teachers and another to researchers. Teachers had, indeed, made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers intended, looked for fundamental changes in teaching. In the case of Mrs. O—from memorizing math rules and getting the correct answer to focusing on conceptual understanding. Or in my case, getting teachers to shift from traditional to non-traditional instruction in seating arrangements, lesson activities, teacher-talk, use of projects, etc. In one instance, teachers saw substantial incremental “changes,” while researchers saw little fundamental “change.”

Whether those teachers’ incremental changes or the fundamental changes state policymakers sought led to test score gains, given the available evidence, no one yet knows.

So whose judgment about change matters most? “ Should researchers “consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of new policies….[or intentions of policymakers]? Or should they be considered from the teachers’ vantage point? (p.312).

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O seldom tell their side of the story. Yet teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they have indeed altered their practices incrementally and as any practitioners (lawyers, doctors, accountants) will tell you, that is very hard to do. How to honor teachers’ incremental changes while pointing out few shifts in fundamental patterns of teaching is the dilemma with which I have wrestled in researching high-tech use in schools.

____________________________

I now include a long comment to the above post from Brian Rude, a community college teacher. It was written on November 18, 2009

Larry, you sound frustrated. You are frustrated because teachers don’t do things quite the way you believe they should? So who’s right, you or the teachers?

I am no fan of B. F. Skinner, but he did say one thing that I think is very important. (At least I think it was Skinner. It was decades ago when I read this.) He said “The mouse is always right.” The context here is a psychologist doing an experiment with a mouse, and being frustrated because the results don’t come out as the psychologist would like and expect. It is quite understandable that the psychologist would blame the mouse, but it doesn’t take much reflection to realize how wrong that is. Of course the mouse doesn’t get it! It’s a mouse!

You say, “Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered, or progressive approaches.” Why on earth should it? Who’s right, the policy makers or the teachers? High tech is going to change the essential nature of teaching? Why should it?

I think my view is evident by now. If we want to learn about teaching and learning, we’d better look closely at what teachers and learners actually do, not what we think they should do. We need to ask why they do what they do, not why they don’t do what someone else thinks they should.

I teach lower level math courses in a community college. Every day I struggle with how to make students understand. I use high tech, everyday. I’m using high tech right now to write this. I’m not writing with a pencil or a fountain pen as I did in my youth. But that is pretty much irrelevant to the essential task of stringing words together in a way that will effectively communicate thoughts. Similarly the essential tasks of teaching have never changed. You need some way to present information. Students must attend to that information. They must build structures of knowledge in their minds. A lot of feedback is necessary for this to happen. My job is to provide them with the raw materials to build those structures of knowledge, and to guide them, as best I can, in how to build those structures of knowledge. Thus everyday I go to class and very carefully explain mathematical ideas and how to put them together. Everyday I do my best to put together well chosen problems for well designed homework assignments. Everyday I complain, at least to myself, about the bad textbooks we are stuck with. Every day, both in class and helping students individually in my office, I get questions that reveal misconceptions and errors of one sort or another in the thinking of students. I struggle to understand those misconceptions and errors of thinking, and to set the students on the right path again.

Almost everyday I make out handouts (usually pull them up from previous semesters and revise as needed) because that’s often the best way to make an assignment that meets my idea of what a good, effective, productive assignment should be. Well designed homework assignments are crucial, in my opinion. That’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Math is a subject of ideas, but almost all math is learned by almost all students by doing problems. And they have to be the right problems, problems that provide the framework for students to put together mathematical ideas in ways that construct real knowledge. I am quite aware that many would dismiss me as a “worksheet teacher”. Who cares? I use high tech to make these handouts. But that is irrelevant to the essential nature of what I am doing. I am essentially doing the very same thing I did as a young teacher in the 60’s when I would make handouts on a spirit duplicating machine (and the kids would sniff them when they got them). All that high tech is no more central to the essence of teaching than is having a nice car to get me to work, rather than the 55 Chevy that took me to work in the early sixties.

I’m not claiming Mrs. O and the other teachers you describe are doing the best possible job in every situation. And I’m certainly not claiming that I do a perfect job in every situation. I am just saying that to be frustrated because they don’t do things the way you think they should, is to be like the psychologist who blames the mouse. The mouse just doesn’t get it. Of course. It’s a mouse. The teachers just don’t get it? Of course, they are teachers. They have reasons for what they do, though they may be no good at all in explaining those reasons, or even recognizing them. When there is a difference in what researchers and policy makers think is desirable, and what teachers actually do in the real world, I’ll go with the teachers every time.

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“Trapped in a History They Do Not Understand”

They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

James Baldwin referred to white people when he said “they.” Examples that he cited then and since along with a large cadre of journalists, researchers, and essayists make the point with examples after he died in 1987 such as police beatings of Rodney King in Los Angeles and Dylan Moore killing of African American parishioners in Charleston (SC).

A recent but less lethal example of being “trapped in a history they do not understand” is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’s comment that historically black colleges were “pioneers” and stellar examples of school choice, a policy she is determined to expand through vouchers and charter schools.In a PR statement she released after meeting with the President and leaders of HBCUs, she said:

A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.

HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.

Their counsel and guidance will be crucial in addressing the current inequities we face in education. I look forward to working with the White House to elevate the role of HBCUs in this administration and to solve the problems we face in education today.

The ignorance of the remark—HBCU’s arose in the 19th and 20th centuries because white colleges, by law, would not accept black applicants—stuns anyone familiar with the history of legally segregated education in the U.S. After the dismantling of Reconstruction following the Civil War and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) Jim Crow was the law in Southern states. That segregation was alleviated by a myriad of court cases between the 1930s and 1950s to get white colleges to at least provide equal (albeit separate) resources for black applicants. Not until the Brown v. Board of Education did Jim Crow K-12 and higher education begin to weaken and eventually dissolve but leaving HBCUs in strapped financial straits. Those “trapped in history” seldom offer context for their remarks, as Devos failed to do.

Devos quickly backtracked in her remarks after  a storm of criticism from college presidents and pundits by tweeting the context of racism and segregation that she neglected to provide in her initial comments. Were James Baldwin alive now, his expressive face would not have registered shock at the U.S. Secretary of Education mindless comment.

Another member of President Trump’s Cabinet also, “trapped in a history they do not understand” is U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. In this instance it is a highly educated African American who said to HUD staff:

That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity…. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.

After an uproar in social and print media, Carson backtracked in a Facebook entry.

The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity. In contrast, slaves were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities. We continue to live with that legacy.

Yet there is another issue here: forgetting the terror and shamefulness of the slave past. Dropping the historical context from this three century chattel experience in exchange for unalloyed optimism–or as one writer put it “state-sanctioned sunniness” (which both DeVos and Carson revealed) mocks any knowledge of the past.

History provides context for what happened. Without the context, ignorance reigns supreme around policies seeking improvements. That the U.S. continues to have an independent media broadcasting such non-historical comments from our top leaders to their readers gives hope to those aware of the U.S. past and who work toward the time when leaders and average citizens step outside of that trap.

They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. .

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The School District and Technology Integration: The Path of the Butterfly or Bullet?

For the past year I have observed the integration of new technologies in classroom lessons, school programs, and districts. I have begun writing chapters for a book that will appear in 2018. From time to time I will publish posts here taken from the manuscript that I am writing. 

In Silicon Valley there are 77 school districts arrayed across five counties in the San Francisco Bay area. All have technology plans for their schools. These districts buy lots of hard- and software, wire schools with WiFi, provide classroom carts of laptops and tablets, offer teacher workshops on technology integration and then cross their fingers that teachers will use what the district has provided for daily lessons. Voluntary participation is the rule. Teacher choice of using devices and software means that great variation exists not only in every single school within a district but across each district heralded as embracing high-tech.[i]

Only two districts, however, have gone beyond having a plan, buying devices, building infrastructures and then crossing their fingers that teachers will use all of the available hardware and software in daily lessons. Only two districts have adopted policies that nudged all teachers in every school to use new technologies, blend learning, and create personalized lessons.  Only two districts have built a systematic infrastructure of broadband and WiFi, incorporated newly developed software, sponsored professional development, and provided technical assistance with the explicit expectation that all district teachers would go beyond considering use the new technologies in their daily lessons and actually incorporate the hardware and software into their 45 to 90-minute customary sequence of activities.

These two districts are Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District and Milpitas Unified District.

In the Mountain View-Los Altos district I profiled two of its schools and described 10 classroom lessons I observed in both schools. In Milpitas, a dozen miles away, two elementary school principals invited me to observe their primary and upper-grade classrooms. I did visit classrooms and interviewed principals and teachers at each school as well as district administrators.

Knowing that each level of schooling–classroom, school, and district–contains its unique complexities and knowing that districts are not command-and-control organizations, I used a tri-focal lens—classroom, school, and district. I sought to understand how implementing policies aimed at changing what classroom teachers do, altering how schools operate daily, and improving district performance is no easy walk in the park.

Describing the move from policy to practice illustrates the complexity of all the interacting factors that come into play when policymakers seek to see their decisions unfold in classrooms, schools, and districts.

Each of these three systems is nested in one another. Each level affects the other as teachers go about doing what is expected in classrooms, school staff wrestle with instruction and curriculum, and both individual teachers and school staffs connect to the district school board, superintendent, and administrators from which policies and resources flow downward. These three levels of schooling are Siamese triplets that are separate and interactive but cannot be severed.

There are so many moving parts in this loosely-coupled system called a district.  Because there is so much interaction and overlap in these nested communities, any hope of effective implementation depends not only on having money and staff but also continuity in student/teacher relationships, principal/staff cooperation, and school board/district administrators building and sustaining a culture of working together. Not an easy set of tasks to keep settings smoothly operating, especially since districts and schools are vulnerable to outside influences ranging state policies impinging on district actions, angry parents condemning a new curriculum, vendors lobbying administrators, civic and business leaders wanting quick improvements in student performance, and controversies over teaching evolution, language in textbooks, and other similar issues.

Furthermore, district and site administrators unendingly search for resources and support from groups inside and outside the system. Include also among the many moving parts, the ever-changing political interests that have their own ideas of what is a “good” teacher and what is a “good” school district.

The fact is that classrooms, schools, and districts are open systems with permeable boundaries that can be easily crossed by outside groups such as single issue advocates, state officials, national lobbies, etc. It is one fact that policymakers, researchers, and parents have to not only grasp but also show it in their decisions about access and use of new technologies in classroom lessons.

If educational decision-makers cannot let go their vision of command-and-control organizations and wrap their minds around open, loosely-coupled places established to help students (not customers), these top decision-makers will continue to flit here and there seeking school reform in brand new technologies yet be ever disappointed in the results.

District work is not for the faint-of-heart or those who fail to grasp that complexity across and within each of the three organizational levels. The path toward classroom, school, and district improvement is closer to zig-zags of a butterfly than a bullet fired at a target.

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[i] I have an expanded view of “Silicon Valley” which historically referred to the stretch of land between San Jose and San Francisco. But the label for the terrain in 2017 encompasses Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties in the Bay area. Other researchers could include other counties. I chose these five. From these counties, I identified 77 school districts.

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Decision Making among Jazz Musicians, Basketball Players, and Teachers

From time to time, I will re-visit earlier posts that have resonance to recent debates about classroom teaching. Teacher decision-making, particularly how frequent and improvisational during the lesson (as opposed to all the decisions made in planning the lesson) is often misunderstood by policymakers, educational pundits, and researchers whose last visit to a classroom was when they were students. I wrote this post about decision-making across professions in 2011.

I have revised and updated it because state and local policymakers who make consequential decisions about school budgets, professional development, and evaluating teachers need a deeper understanding of teaching and student learning in classrooms. Part of that deeper understanding requires a look at teacher decisions including questions they ask), their frequency, scope, and ad-libbing during a lesson. I also offer this revision for those teachers who practice expert decision-making during lessons and simply consider it part of the job not fully realizing they are kissing cousins of  jazz musicians and professional basketball rebounders.

When top jazz musicians select notes from a chord to improvise a melody,  stellar basketball players drive toward the basket on a pick-and-roll, and effective teachers ask questions of students, the cascade of  instantaneous micro-decisions that occurs in the heads of trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzky, and kindergarten teacher/author Vivian Paley would stun most non-musicians, non-basketball players, and non-teachers.

Consider jazz and the swift decisions a Wynton Marsalis makes as he improvises. Jonah Lehrer describes a neuroscientist who used MRIs to study brain activity of jazz musicians improvising. One center that showed much activity was during improvisation had been identified for its function in language and speech. The neuroscientist argued that creating new melodies depends on that part of the brain where sentences are invented where every musical note is like a word. In short, decisions are made.

Turn now to the act of basketball players rebounding as an instance of super-quick decision-making “that reflects an astonishing amount of cognitive labor.” Here Jonah Lehrer points out the subtle and swift decisions rebounders make.

“The reason we don’t notice this labor is because it happens so fast, in the fraction of a fraction of a second before the ball is released. And so we assume that rebounding is an uninteresting task, a physical act in a physical game. But it’s not, which is why the best rebounders aren’t just taller or more physical or better at boxing out – they’re also faster thinkers. This is what separates the [Lebron James] and Kevin Loves … from everyone else on the court: They know where the ball will end up first.”

Here is where I turn from improvising jazz and basketball rebounding to classroom decision-making. Non-teachers would be amazed at the total number of decisions teachers make during a 45-minute lesson, the frequency of on-the-fly, unplanned decisions, and the seemingly effortless segues teachers make from one task to another. Decisions tumble out one after another in questioning students, starting and stopping activities, and minding the behavior of the class as if teachers had eyes in the back of their heads.

What decisions do teachers make during lessons?

I know of no MRIs that neuroscientists have used with teachers in experiments on classroom decisions. Nonetheless, the number and frequency of decisions teachers make during a lesson have been examined sporadically (mostly in the 1970s and 1980s) through simulations and video analysis but seldom since then. (Readers who know of recent studies, please let me know).

In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-made routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions–were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, equipment breakdown). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected piled up teacher decisions in each lesson. Few observers sitting in the back of the classroom notice the quick processing of information teachers make because in happens in nano-seconds. Even fewer policymakers and pundits can acknowledge that such instantaneous decisions even occur in a lesson.

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

Effective teachers, then, like top jazz musicians and basketball rebounders improvise–decide in the moment–as they deal with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.

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