Category Archives: school reform policies

Is Your Edtech Product a Refrigerator or Washing Machine?(Julia Fisher)

Julia Fisher is Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This post appeared in EdSurge on April 12, 2017.

Education innovators love to talk about adoption curves. It’s a fancy way of looking at a pretty basic concept: the rate at which a given tool, model or approach saturates a market.

Lately, I’ve been seeing these curves crop up a lot in the conversation about personalized learning. As more school systems attempt to customize learning environments and more education advocates and funders champion personalized models, people are increasingly anxious to know: At what rate might we can expect new ideas and tools to permeate the traditional school system?

But not all adoption curves are created equal. Depending on the features of the tools and their intended users, the arc of adoption might look vastly different. One of those distinctions hinges on the degree to which a new tool or model conforms to the traditional school structure.

To understand these differences we can look to historical data on how consumers absorbed all sorts of new gadgets that hit the market throughout the 20th century. My colleague at the Christensen Institute, Horace Dediu, has researched these patterns to try to explain such trends and interrogate anomalies. Last year, he highlighted a puzzling divergence in the data on the early adoption of home appliances. In the 1930s, two delightfully convenient innovations hit the market: the refrigerator and the washing machine.

Refrigerators quickly took hold, gaining over 90 percent adoption by the late 1950s. But households crept much more slowly up the washing machine adoption curve, only getting close to market saturation in the late 1990s. Dediu hypothesizes that this had little to do with housewives’ weighing the pros and cons of being clothed or fed. Instead, he argues, the disparate adoption rates reflect the relative conformability of each innovation to the midcentury home or apartment. Most households had electrical outlets that refrigerators could plug into directly, thus leaving iceboxes in the dust. But few homes had the pipes and drain lines required to install a washing machine.

In other words, homes at the time were never designed with washing machines in mind. As a result, to take advantage of the new technology households didn’t just have to shell out money; they had to hire a plumber to configure the pipes that would pump water into and drain water out of the new contraptions.

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The same might be said of the various technological innovations hitting the education market today. Most edtech companies enthusiastically claim to make teaching and learning more effective, efficient and convenient. But not all tools plug into the same interfaces, and not all schools and classrooms were built with these modern innovations in mind. Some tools are proving to be plug-compatible tools that can be inserted into traditional classrooms relatively seamlessly. For example, short cycle tutorial tools, like Khan Academy, fit tidily into many classrooms and can unobtrusively supplement traditional models on the margin. These tools tend to help classrooms achieve outcomes along traditional dimensions like boosting average test scores and providing help to learners who are struggling on a given topic.

On the other hand, other edtech products and models can’t simply plug into the traditional classroom structure or school schedule—the school instead has to fundamentally change or adapt its infrastructure in order to accommodate the tool. For example, models like Teach to One or Summit Learning’s Platform require far greater re-engineering of classrooms processes. Schools need a new set of proverbial pipes—potentially new infrastructure, new schedules, and even entirely new approaches to teaching—to adopt these innovations and to use them to their full potential.

It also bears noting that unlike the drainpipes, this reconfiguration of schools is extremely complex and often interdependent with local policies, culture, and geographic or financial limitations. It’s not surprising, then, that the past few years have seen a flourish of intermediaries, like Transcend and 2Rev, that are stepping in to work alongside schools to help them to fundamentally reengineer their pipes and plugs.

Sketching out these distinct adoption curves might feel bleak if you’re an entrepreneur building the proverbial washing machines of edtech, or a funder hoping for speedy adoption of next-generation models that disrupt traditional classrooms. But they should also lend us a healthy dose of hope and reality about what adoption looks like depending on how much reengineering customers will be expected to do in order to absorb a new tool. It should also help us to better align resources that philanthropists and policymakers are investing in moving people along edtech and personalized learning adoption curves.

Luckily, it’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that we need to pair investments in edtech tools with investments in professional development. But for the tools and models that least conform to traditional school structures, we’re also likely to need investments in fundamental reengineering—that is, not just developing teachers’ proficiency in using tools but rethinking processes like schedules, evaluations and staffing throughout an entire school building or district.

With that dose of reality we can start to predict adoption with greater precision. We can also predict when adoption might not take off. On the other hand, if we ignore the costs of conformability and hope that schools will just figure out how to use wholly new models within their existing paradigm, the promise of new innovations may fall short. It’s like trying to plug a washing machine’s hose into an electrical outlet. It doesn’t end well.

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More Comments on Personalization Continuum (Tom Hatch)

Tom Hatch is an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. I met Tom at Stanford University when his wife, Karen Hammerness, was a graduate student and took one of my classes. Hatch had worked closely with Ted Sizer, Howard Gardner, and James Comer–leaders of whole-school reform movement in the 1980s and 1990s. He subsequently wrote thoughtfully about theories of action. I used an article he wrote in my seminars for many years (“The Difference in Theory That Matters in the Practice of School Improvement,” 1998 in American Educational Research Journal).

He posted this letter to me April 7, 2017. In it, he offers comments on the  Personalization Continuum that I had drafted, weaving together readers’ comments with his own research and experiences. 

Dear Larry

Your recent post describing the many versions of “personalization” you’ve seen in your visits to schools seems particularly relevant these days for a number of reasons:

Ironically, it’s probably worth noting that this surge in interest in personalization coincides with the closing of the national organization of the Coalition of Essential Schools – founded by Ted Sizer who put personalization on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Your post prompted me to reflect on some of these developments and what I have been seeing in my own research on improvement efforts and “innovation” in several developing and developed countries.  In particular, I think your draft of what you call a “continuum” of personalization in many of the “lessons” you’ve observed nicely highlights the way that personalization often involves a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered activities. One way to expand the continuum and get at some of the complexities that you and your commentators have acknowledged might be to look at the extent to which several different educational decisions are made by teachers and/or students.  For example, many approaches to personalization talk about customizing the goals, the content, and the pace of educational activities. It seems like those approaches at your “teacher-directed” end of the spectrum adapt instruction to the needs/interests of students, but, for the most part teachers are still making the decisions about:

  • What the students should be learning (and why)
  • The materials they should use and the paths they should follow
  • The speed with which they move along those paths

At the other end, students may be making more of those decisions themselves.  In the middle, teachers and students may be sharing those decisions, teachers may make some decisions and students others, and teachers may make those decisions sometimes while students make them at others (e.g. higher performing students may be allowed/encouraged to make more of those decisions than their peers).

To make things more complicated, each decision about goals, content, and pace can be broken down into a whole series of related choices. Decisions related to content and materials, for instance, include who chooses reading materials, what to focus on in the reading, how to read it, and how material should be presented (as one of your commenters, Dylan Kane, noted).

It’s also possible to imagine a whole bunch of other decisions that we might (or might not!) want to take into account.  For example, I’m beginning to experiment with letting my graduate students choose not only when to take on particular assignments but also where (e.g. in the classroom or not; alone or with others).  I also remember passionate discussions at one meeting of educators working on designing a new school (the Celebration School, developed as part of the planned community connected to Disneyworld) about whether or not to enable students to determine the kind of lighting that best suited their “learning style.”

Adding to the complexities, as Laura Chapman pointed out in the comments, these decisions can also be made by those who develop the technologies used to support personalization.  It’s also possible, with the developments in distance and blended learning to imagine a variety of other people, including parents, taking a more direct role in these lesson-level decisions as well. (Extending the scope of personalization beyond “lessons” and courses, and making it a core concept in a reimagined system of education as in approaches like ReSchool Colorado can make it more complicated still.)

However we define the key instructional decisions, I think you’re right that the extent to which teachers or students make those decisions distinguishes many of the current approaches.  I’d be interested to know, though, how often you see personalized approaches that really give students wide latitude and extensive control over their own learning? Chris Ongaro, a graduate student here at Teachers College, is looking at student’s experiences in a variety of “personalized” courses (many of them online), and he tells me that even when students are given choices, those choices are usually extremely limited, rarely allowing students to imagine or pursue their own options.  As he said to me, students may play a role in shaping the means, but the ends are often predetermined.

While I raise these questions, following your descriptive lead, I’m trying not to place a particular value on one end of the continuum or the other.  But as we describe the role of the teacher and the student, I’m also reminded again of what Sizer often said (quoting James Comer, eminent psychologist and founder of the School Development Program):  The three most important things in schools (and school improvement) are “relationships, relationships, relationships.” For Sizer, personalization grew out of the belief that “we can’t teach students well if we do not know them well.”  That relationship both allows those in the role of teacher to recognize and respond to each student’s needs and interests, but it also opens up those in the student’s role to opportunities and challenges they may never have encountered on their own. While I often ask my students these days to explain to me why teachers are needed in schools (truth be told, I also ask them why we need “students”), it may be worth trying to capture something about the nature of the teacher-student relationships in these approaches to personalization as well.  But now your straightforward and clear continuum looks a lot more like one of those polygons and polyhedrons that you and W[ilfred] Rubens discussed…

At the end of the day, though, I see many of the same things you do: approaches to personalizing activities, classes, and courses that are often carried out in the regular school day or within typical course structures and with the expectation that “success” will mean meeting conventional graduation standards, going to college and getting a “good” job.  Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that under these circumstances, as you… put it:

…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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Have Silicon Valley Teachers Using Technology Daily Altered Their Classroom Practice? (Part 3)

Eleven percent (N=4) of the teachers answered both yes and no. These teachers made a distinction between how they taught lessons before they had new technologies and what they now do with devices and software. They referred to students having more information available than before and how essential aspects of their lessons could be done easier and faster than before were common themes. But they drew a distinction between the help that high-tech tools give them and the constancy of core practices that are part of their planning and interactions with students during a lesson. They saw both change and stability in their lessons as a result of integrating digital tools into their teaching.

Nicole Lenz-Martin teaches in the San Mateo Union High School District at Aragon High School. An 11-year veteran of teaching, she teaches Spanish level 3 through level 6 (including Advanced Placement). Elenz-Martin is also an instructional coach in the district and an instructor in the Stanford World Language Project. Here is her “yes” and “no” answer to my question.

My teaching — in terms of pedagogical strategy and philosophical beliefs about World Language instruction — has not changed because of my regular use of technology; however, the regular use of Chromebooks in my classroom has dramatically changed my access to student learning, monitoring of their proficiency development, and my ability to cover more material over the course of a school year. 

Why yes:

 My students are required to be much more engaged and participatory in their learning because of their interaction with my lessons through technology.  When covering material in class, every student can interact with the presentation on my SmartBoard to share answers, respond to polls, or ask questions (Peardeck, Nearpod, Google Forms, etc.)  This has informed my instruction immensely and has allowed me to change my lesson “on-the-fly” to ensure understanding before moving on.

 Students practice new vocabulary and/or comprehension questions with Quizlet, for example, and I can see their results and areas of challenge in real time.  It allows me to change my path of instruction if necessary, as stated above, and it also allows me to personalize the learning for each student’s level and need.  

 Students have built classroom community and have strengthened camaraderie with review games (Quizlet Live, Socrative Space Race, and Kahoot!).  Not only has light ‘gaming’ sparked excitement and interest for the students in learning the material, but it has allowed me to formatively assess each students’ understanding and learning on a daily basis.  The comfort level and “fun” among classmates has allowed them to be better risk-takers and communicators with one another, and this is critical for a language class where students really need to feel confident and safe around their classmates.    

 Students have had individual access to more authentic materials from around the world, which is of course extremely important for culture and language learning.  Their interaction with videos, texts, and audio can be documented in EdPuzzle, GoFormative, and Google Classroom.  I can see their engagement with the material in a way that I was never able to assess before, and I can respond to students both individually and as a group much more efficiently and effectively.  I can see what they are learning about a culture and I can motivate them to respond more critically to what they are seeing and comparing to their own culture….

Why not?

Certain parts of teaching can never be replaced, enhanced, or changed by technology.  The very most critical aspect of my teaching is the relationship that I create with each and every one of my students.  Without having a strong, trusting, solid, and respectful relationship with each student, he or she is lost in my classroom and will be unable to learn from my teaching.  Because I speak almost exclusively in Spanish, the oral communication in my classroom and the relationships with my students are the very cornerstones of my teaching.  Therefore: 

  • Technology has not replaced the way I speak or communicate with my students, and since I am a Spanish teacher, they are still listening and responding to me and to each other through oral communication much more than with the technology.  The amount that I expect them to speak with me and communicate with one another is the same as it has always been, even before technology access. 
  • Complex Instruction and Groupworthy tasks:  I passionately believe in the importance of “student talk” and participation for learning, especially when it comes to working with partners and small groups on a communicative and/or complex task.  Technology is almost non-existent in my classroom when students are working on an assignment that involves learning through talking with one another.  Without going into too much detail — technology hardly has changed the way I engage students in partner and groupwork….[i]  

And here is Sarah Press who has been teaching English at Hillsdale High School in the San Mateo Union High School District since 2007. Press, like Elenz-Martin, makes similar distinctions between the deeper aspects of teaching that cannot be altered by digital tools and the features of teaching that can change.

In some ways, my teaching hasn’t changed much at all. My goals are the same—to give my students opportunities to do something with the ideas I suggest to them in class, to engage with each other around those ideas and to offer lots of ways to be smart. I still have a heavy focus on literacy—sustained engagement with text and inquiry around meaning making. I continue to try to find authentic ways for students to show what they’ve learned and what they think, not just regurgitate what they’ve heard.

I also struggle with many of the same issues I always have: what to do with the huge range of skill sets in my room, how to differentiate activities and assessments to meet the needs of all learners, how to give feedback in meaningful and timely ways, how to engage all learners despite varying interests and abilities, how to create a positive socio-emotional atmosphere in my classroom so students feel comfortable taking and learning from risks.

So I think it’s important to remember that technology is just one of many tools I have available to me to try to meet those goals. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful tool, and I do see some potent ways in which technology helps me get closer to being the teacher I hope to, someday, become.

A huge one is the amount of choice I am able to offer students, about what they learn and how they learn it….

Another is the increased sense of collaboration in my room. While I have always striven to have students use each other as resources, to value each other’s expertise…I have not always been successful. Because technology allows students to simultaneously have access to a group project in a shared digital space that is co-editable…everyone can see a developing project and no can ‘mess it up.’ It’s also easier to track exactly what each student has contributed….

It’s a not insignificant note here that risk-taking becomes easier to encourage when erasing or changing work is as easy as ‘Control + Z’ or ‘Delete….’

Finally, technology is powerful because it makes it so much easier and faster to collect, distribute, and respond to data. I find myself experimenting more and more with forms of assessment when I can instantaneously collect responses from every student in my class….All this helps me adjust, clarify, and re-teach in much tighter, shorter cycles than before….[ii]

Like Elenz-Martin, Sarah Press saw both constancy and change in her lessons after adopting high-tech tools.

______________________________________________________

[i] Nicole Lenz-Martin’s email received May 8, 2016. In author’s possession. A description of the lesson I observed is at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/part-2-from-the-classroom-teachers-integrating-technology/

[ii] Sarah Press’s email received May 12, 2016. In author’s possession. A description of the lesson I observed is at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/from-the-classroom-teachers-integrating-technology-part-1/

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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 Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire,  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  Virtual Learning Academy 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 Learning Academy Charter website describes its format and content at: http://vlacs.org/ .

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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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.

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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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Filed under how teachers teach, medicine and schooling, research

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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Filed under school reform policies, technology

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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