Category Archives: school reform policies

Professor Quits Teaching Because of Students’ Use of Technology in Class

The combination of computer use, Internet, and smart phone, I would argue, has changed the cognitive skills required of individuals…. The student can rapidly check on his or her smartphone whether the professor is right, or indeed whether there isn’t some other authority offering an entirely different approach. With the erosion of that relationship [between professor and students] goes the environment that nurtured it: the segregated space of the classroom where, for an hour or so, all attention was focused on a single person who brought all of his or her experience to the service of the group.

Tim Parks, 2019

In the above epigraph taken from “Dying Art of Instruction in the Digital Classroom,” Novelist, literary scholar, and translator Tim Parks gives the reasons why he is leaving his professorship at the University Institute for Modern Languages in Milan, Italy.  Parks describes his experience with students using devices in his class teaching translation:

In the late 1990s, I had my first experience of students bringing laptops into the classroom. At that time, there was no question of their having wifi connections. Since these were translation lessons, students argued that their computers were useful for the fifteen or twenty minutes when I invited them to translate a short paragraph. They translated better on their computers, they said; they could make corrections more easily.

Nevertheless, I noticed at once the tendency to hide behind the screen. Who could know whether a student was really taking notes or doing something else? The tippety-tapping of keyboards while one was speaking was distracting. I insisted laptops be kept closed except for the brief period of our translation exercise.

When the University renovated classrooms with laptops at each desk, Parks requested an “old fashioned” classroom and got it until the University had no more such classrooms for Parks to use. Bad as that was for Parks’ struggle with students using laptops during translation lessons, the advent of the smart phone did him in.

I continued to fight my fight and keep the laptops mainly closed, and I was holding my own pretty well I think, until the smartphone came into the classroom….

So I have thirty students behind computer screens attached to the Internet. If I sit behind my desk at the front of the class, or even stand, I cannot see their faces. In their pockets, in their hands, or simply open in front of them, they have their smartphones, their ongoing conversations with their boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, or other friends very likely in other classrooms. There is now a near total interpenetration of every aspect of their lives through the same electronic device.

To keep some kind of purpose and momentum, I walked back and forth here and there, constantly seeking to remind them of my physical presence. But all the time the students have their instruments in front of them that compel their attention. While in the past they would frequently ask questions when there was something they didn’t understand—real interactivity, in fact—now they are mostly silent, or they ask their computers. Any chance of entering into that “passion of instruction” is gone. I decided it was time for me to go with it.

So Parks retired.

Is Parks’ experience as a professor in a Milan university who vainly tries to cope with students use of electronic devices common? I cannot answer for the European professoriate but there is data on U.S. faculty attitudes and actions when it comes to computers in classrooms..

There have been U.S. professors who have complained about student use of laptops and phones in their classrooms (see here, here, and here). Yet few leave the privileged job as Parks has done. Is he an anomaly, a singleton, or is he in one of the familiar categories that capture the range of classroom use by both professors and K-12 teachers?

For example, Everett Rogers divides users of innovation, in this instance, classroom technologies into groups. Put Parks in the laggard category.

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A recent survey of U.S. faculty attitudes toward technology use in their classrooms, however, would place Parks in a tiny minority of just over 10 percent of faculty. That same survey puts 90 percent of tenured professors describing themselves as early adopters or inclined to adopt when seeing peers using classroom technologies effectively.

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I cite Tim Parks’ experience as a professor to illustrate the many changes–I do not use the word “improvements”–that have occurred in higher education’s embrace of classroom technologies. That embrace has been duplicated and enlarged among K-12 teachers. I take up access, use, and results of putting technology in public schools in the next post.

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Whatever Happened to Madeline Hunter?

I used to think teachers were born, not made … but I know better now. I’ve seen bumblers turned into geniuses, while charismatic characters turned out happy illiterates.” Madeline Hunter, 1991

A former teacher and elementary school principal, and professor of educational administration and teacher education at University of California, Los Angeles, Madeline Hunter developed a model of teaching that combined instructional techniques applied to all academic subjects across elementary and secondary school classrooms. Called Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP), the teacher-centered, direct instructional model was anchored in, according to Hunter, psychological learning theory and educational research. Academic content was important as were specific student objectives on what they were to learn and the sequence of techniques teachers were to use to reach those content and skill objectives (see here and here).

Hunter’s gift was to convert this model of “mastery teaching” into seven key features that every teacher had to cover within a lesson.  A common template for a “Hunter Lesson” looked like this:

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Administrators and teachers adopted this design for lessons across the country at a time when pressure for students to learn more, faster, and better in reading, math, and academic subjects had increased. Higher curriculum standards and more standardized tests raised the stakes for both teachers and students. So Hunter lesson plans spread.

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In the late-1970s and 1980s, professors taught this research-based model of “effective teaching” to their students; some school superintendents and principals mandated teachers to use the lesson template even including it in annual evaluations, and districts mounted extensive professional development programs.

In Pittsburgh (PA), for example, between 1983-1989, staff development center at Schlenley High School brought nearly one thousand teachers in 11 other district high schools to spend eight weeks learning the Madeline Hunter approach to lessons, content knowledge in their discipline, and ways to improve their teaching through seminars, observations of master teachers, and conferences. After eight weeks, teachers returned to their high school assignments. District evaluations posted high teacher satisfaction with the experience, evidence of many difficulties after they returned to their classrooms in implementing the approach, and teacher reports of gains in student test scores.

Checklists of lesson features appeared and were applied in tens of thousands of classrooms. Schools and classrooms became “Hunterized” (see here and here).

What Problems Did the Hunter Lesson Plan Intend To Solve?

The perceived lack of rigor in teaching content and skills became identified as a problem just before and after A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. To get students to learn more, teachers had to increase their skills of implementing lessons that demanded more of their students and doing it in ways that engaged even the most reluctant of them. The problem of students not learning enough–as international tests had displayed–encouraged the adoption of ways to get teachers to achieve “mastery”and  be more “effective” in their instruction.

What Did Hunter Lesson Plans Look Like in Practice?

David Kirp observed a lesson using the Hunter template in Los Angeles elementary school enrolling mostly poor and minority students in 1990.

In Karen Dawson’s class of second- and third-graders, 20 children are sitting on the carpeted floor. Each has a small wooden board, piled high with loose beans and tubes of 10 beans called bean sticks. “Boys and girls,” Dawson announces, sounding like Mister Rogers, “we’re going to practice putting beans together. When you’re ready to go, put your hands on top of your head.” Forty hands shoot skyward.

The lesson is about adding tens, made concrete with the bean sticks, and ones, represented by the individual beans. Dawson proceeds according to pure Hunter technique, using the seven-step lesson plan with positive reinforcement for right answers and attentive behavior. Step one is a quick review; then comes step two, an account of what’s to come.

“Yesterday, we practiced trading beans for bean sticks,” Dawson says, “and today I’m going to trick you sometimes. Sometimes you’ll trade, sometimes not.”

Dawson calls out problems–“Build this number: 16,” then “Build nine”–and translates them into beans and bean sticks herself. These are the third and fourth steps, what Hunter calls explanation and “modeling,” with the teacher identifying the main concepts and demonstrating them.

After solving a few problems herself, Dawson asks the questions, then calls on students to check for their understanding. This is step five. Doing things this way rather than singling out a child before posing the question, Hunter says, means all the minds are in gear. If problems surface at this point, the lesson can be retaught.

Dawson walks among the youngsters, reviewing each student’s work individually. Most have it down pat, and the teacher says “great job” to Beatriz, Kimiko and Diana, naming them for praise as Hunter urges.

“How do we add three plus four?” she asks Josh, a shy boy who puts his hands together prayerfully. “Can you tell me the answer? Right, that is the answer. Now build six.”

This question-and-answer session is what used to be called recitation. Hunter labels it “monitored practice,” step six, with the teacher catechizing students on what they have been taught. The seventh step invites the youngsters to solve problems on their own.

Kirp comments are critical of the lesson revealing his bias on how this teacher should have taught the lesson.

The point of this math lesson is not to encourage creative thinking. Dawson never asks the students how they got from nine plus six to one bean stick and five beans. Nor does she invite students to see that the beans could represent pennies at the store or miles traveled in the family car. Instead, this lesson seems designed only to elicit the right answer.

Did Hunter Lesson Plans Work?

For anyone following this blog, I have written over a dozen posts on “Whatever Happened to….” Those readers know that my answer to this question often is either “it depends” or the findings of research studies are mixed. Implicit in the hype and reality of Madeline Hunter lesson plans, however, is that if they are followed carefully and executed correctly student academic achievement will increase. That is, test scores will rise. On that point, results are, indeed, mixed (see here, here, here, and here)

What Has Happened to Hunter Lesson Plans in Schools?

As one would expect with school innovations, the teaching reforms Hunter favored in planning and executing lessons ran into much criticism over its emphasis on direct instruction, relative neglect of student agency in making choices, and the behaviorist cast to teaching that she advocated (see here, here, and here).

By the mid-1990s a few years after Hunter died, the lesson plan template, professional development workshops, and teacher education professors advocating the approach diminished and by the early 2000s, ITIP and lesson plan templates seemingly fell of the edge of the reform table.

Yet in the past decade, evidence of Hunter’s influence can still be seen in the continuing support for direct instruction and teachers–both new and veteran–using versions of the lesson template that Hunter had created (see here, here, and here,).

While the adjectives (“Madeline Hunter”) are mostly gone, the noun (lesson) continues to be the core of what a teacher plans and does in her classroom. The lesson is the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. And for over a century, teachers used lessons to conduct teacher-directed classroom work (see here, here and here).

A lesson before Madeline Hunter appeared on the educational landscape and after she left still contained goals and objectives for the 50-90 minute lesson, a review of the previous lesson, the key questions that were to be asked, what instructional materials (texts and software) were to be used, activities (whole group, small group, and independent) students engaged in, and assessments to determine how much students understood. The lesson was the map for the teacher-directed class.

And it was Madeline Hunter’s lesson plans and approach in the 1970s and 1980s that enhanced the dominant teacher-centered instruction that characterized U.S. schooling for nearly a century. Sure, the lyrics and melody may have changed here and there, but it was still the same song.

Yet in the past decade, evidence of Hunter’s influence can still be seen in the continuing support for direct instruction and teachers–both new and veteran–using versions of the lesson template that Hunter had created (see here, here, and here).

The Madeline Hunter approach to teaching and her lesson templates added to and strengthened familiar ways that teachers had taught before, during, and after her name-brand disappeared.

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Metaphors for School Change

For a quarter-century, I have taught graduate students, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members about the complexity of the word “change.”

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

Moreover, most Americans do not distinguish between different kinds of planned change such as incremental (or first-order) and fundamental (or second-order). The latter term is also called “transformational” or “radical”. Surface and deep changes do differ (see here, and here).

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While getting most adults to grasp the concept of change as being highly prized in American culture is easy enough, differentiating between these kinds of planned change (and the how “change” morphs into “reform” among policymakers), is much harder. I believe that making these distinctions is crucial to understanding intentional change especially in education. I have worked hard to do so. But it has been a challenge to me as a teacher and writer.

Over the years I have used the image of a jalopy.

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Incremental change means sanding and re-painting the old car. Getting a tune-up, new tires, and replacement car seats for the torn ones–you get the idea.

Fundamental (or transformational or radical) change, however, refers to giving up the car and getting a different kind of transportation–biking, bus or rapid transit, walking, car pooling, etc.  This metaphor for distinguishing between kinds of change was adequate but not sufficient in getting students and practitioners to not only see the differences but apply both to their organizations.

So I have constantly looked around for a better metaphor. I may have found one. An article about health care in the New York Times captures the differences between incremental and fundamental changes by using the metaphor of an old home than a jalopy.

Bear with me. Here is what a house might look like with all of the various health care plans Americans have that needs improvements (CHIP in lower left corner refers to Children Health Insurancee Program).

 

Journalist Margot Sanger-Katz, introduced the above drawing with these words:

Imagine the United States health care system as a sort of weird old house. There are various wings, added at different points in history, featuring different architectural styles.

Maybe you pass through a wardrobe and there’s a surprise bedroom on the other side, if not Narnia. Some parts are really run down. In some places, the roof is leaking or there are some other minor structural flaws. It’s also too small for everyone to live in. But even if architecturally incoherent and a bit leaky, it still works. No one would rather be homeless than live in the house.

Congressional Republicans in their strenuous efforts to end Obamacare have, as of two years ago, failed 70 times. They have no plan yet.

The current crop of Democrat candidates and leaders in Congress, however, have a raft of plans that try to re-do the above house incrementally and fundamentally. For example, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives put forth a plan that would incrementally alter the above “weird old house.”

About this drawing, Sanger-Katz said:

The most limited Democratic plan, championed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, would deal with the house’s biggest structural issues. It would lower the cost of health insurance for more people and fix some glitches in Obamacare’s design — the home construction equivalent of patching the roof, fixing a saggy porch and repainting. Residents could remain in the house while such minor repairs took place. These changes would not cost a ton of money. The house would still be weird. There would still be some people without a place to live.

 

Then there is the plan that former Vice-President has set forth that does more than Pelosi’s to the house.

 

Mr. Biden, too, would patch the roof and upgrade the windows. But he’d also put on a big new wing: an expansion of the Medicare program that would allow more people to join, sometimes called a public option. Everyone living in the house can stay while the renovations take place, though there might be disruptions. It would cost more, more homeless people would now fit in, and some living in the weirder wings might move into the new addition. People would pay for housing through a mixture of taxes and rent.

All of the above are incremental changes. re-painting, fixing the porch, adding here and there, the house is certainly improved. But the renovated house is still recognizable albeit in far better shape than it was.

Then there are the health insurance plans–Medicare for All–proposed by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The drawing is different now since these plans propose fundamental changes.

 

Sanger-Katz described this plan (Senator Kamala Harris’s plan is a variation of this) as follows:

Bernie Sanders wants to tear down the weird old house entirely and build his dream home. It would be enormous and feature many wonderful amenities. When done, there would be no homeless people at all, and everyone’s bedrooms would look exactly the same. The weirdness would be gone. But the entire old house would be gone, too, which some people might miss, and there could be unanticipated cost overruns in the construction. Some people might not enjoy the aesthetics of a modernist villa. While no one would have to pay rent in exchange for housing there, most people would have to pay more in taxes so the government could maintain the property.

This would be a fundamental change, no more a “weird old house” but a completely transformed one.

OK, what do you think of the “weird old house” metaphor as compared to the jalopy in explaining incremental and fundamental changes in schooling?

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Why Can’t All of Education Look Like This? (Greg Toppo)

From time to time, readers say “Enough, Larry,  about the ubiquity and longevity of age-graded schools and their rules and rhythms or the ‘grammar of schooling.’ ” A few say it is too pessimistic about school reform and plays down efforts to alter the dominant age-graded organization.

Sure, I get defensive and reply that I am a realistic, no, I am a tempered optimist about what thoughtful, passionate educators create in making an age-graded school a “good” one even within a severely flawed, larger political and socioeconomic system that maintains under-funded, re-segregated schools across the nation.  

Then I may go on to point out pieces I have written about the need to have many “grammars of schooling,” not just one. I also write about those uncommon instances of districts and schools, past and present–public and private–that have not only instituted major efforts to alter the prevailing model of schooling but also sustained them over time. I write about such efforts because I  know what has occurred before in school reform.

None of this criticism of age-graded schools or efforts to incrementally improve or even overturn the abiding model is new. A century ago, a wing of the educational progressive movement produced schools that challenged the then dominant model. John and Evelyn Dewey wrote about such innovative schools in Schools of To-Morrow (1915).  There has been this back-and-forth volleying between ardent supporters of the age-graded school and its critics ever since. The following article is within that tradition.  I believe that such efforts will continue long after this blog disappears.

And from that constant creation of different ways to teach and learn within age-graded schools, I sustain my hope. A hope tempered by my experience and research, to be sure, that students in such schools will learn and grow into adults who appreciate that tax-supported public schools are not only politically vulnerable institutions shaped by the larger socioeconomic structures and culture but also a precious public good. Is that the best you can do, Larry? Yes, it is.

This article appeared in The 74 on September 17, 2019

 

In 2013, attorneys at the California Innocence Project, weighed down by a backlog of casework, turned for help to an unusual group: humanities students at High Tech High Chula Vista, a nearby charter school.

The students, all juniors, trained on a past case handled by the San Diego nonprofit, which reviews pleas from prisoners who maintain they’re innocent. Then, in teams of three or four, the students reviewed prisoners’ files and ultimately presented them to Innocence Project attorneys, with a recommendation to either champion a prisoner’s case or take a pass.

The project lives on with a new group of students each year, buoyed by a strain of progressive education philosophy that says students learn best with real work that resembles what they will likely encounter outside of school. It has been kicking around K-12 education for decades but has yet to be widely adopted. In recent years, however, the idea has quietly gained ground as more schools try project-based learning and subscribe to a philosophy known as “deeper learning.”

But does it work?

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor emeritus David Perkins calls it “playing the whole game.” He sees it as an alternative to schools’ traditional approach, which often presents students with atomized, decontextualized pieces of a subject. He conceived of the idea after thinking about the most meaningful experiences he had in high school, which were mostly “outside of the conventional curriculum”: drama, music, science fairs and the like. These and other large scale endeavors, he said, “seemed more meaningful and I reached out for opportunities.”

Laid out most fully in his 2010 book Making Learning Whole, the idea goes something like this: Let students do something big and useful, from start to finish — perhaps a simplified version, but keep it intact. Give them extra help and lower stakes and they’ll work harder, learn more and come up with creative applications and solutions that adults couldn’t imagine.

Though it has yet to be widely adopted outside of project-based schools, “playing the whole game” has quietly thrived for generations in another context: afterschool activities, from team sports to debate club, drama productions and marching band.

“We know intuitively that when we get really serious about a domain of education, it looks more like this,” said Jal Mehta, also a professor at Harvard’s education school.

When students go out for the baseball team, they get an attenuated version of baseball, but they go out each time and play the entire game. “It’s not ‘baseball appreciation,’” Mehta said. Likewise with just about anything that takes place after school.

Afterschool activities also offer a system that supports teachers. Imagine, for instance, a classroom art teacher who wants to mount an exhibition of student artwork. She’d need to figure out how to give students longer blocks of time to complete the pieces; find an exhibition space, and arrange it for exhibition night. Finally, she’d need to get people to attend.

“Now imagine you’re that same teacher and you’re directing a play after school,” Mehta said. “Basically, you need the same things.” But in most schools, these pieces are already in place: long rehearsal blocks, a dedicated performance space, and the expectation that students will annually mount a version of a big Broadway musical and the community will show up to see it. All of that support, he said, is already built in.

“The question we should ask ourselves is: If that’s the kind of method we use when we really want someone to learn something, why don’t we use those methods the rest of the time, for the rest of the students?” Mehta said.

Chris Lehmann, principal and co-founder of Science Leadership Academy, a small public high school at the edge of Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood, said afterschool experiences have another plus: They have student choice “baked-in.”

“You’re getting the kids somewhere they want to be,” he said, “so you already have an advantage there.” These experiences are also usually built around a performance of some sort, with a natural structure, deadline and audience.

Mehta said the best examples he has seen during the school day are in science classes. In one school, instead of “imbibing scientific knowledge that was discovered long ago by famous scientists,” sophomores learned about the scientific method and designed rudimentary experiments — he remembers one that asked whether studying while listening to music through earbuds produced better or worse results.

“That’s not an earth-shattering question, but it’s a real question,” he said. In the process, students learned how to develop a hypothesis, gather data, review the literature and write up their results. By 11th or 12th grade, they were doing more advanced work, including partnering with nearby labs, he said. But students credited the sophomore-year course for getting them excited about — and familiar with — experimentation. “It was the place where they really learned how to do science,” he said.

Sarah Fine, who directs High Tech High’s graduate teaching apprenticeship and who last spring co-authored a book about deeper learning with Mehta, said the larger goal of “playing the whole game” is a kind of authenticity that often eludes students, especially in high school. “Ultimately, school is a contrived situation. There’s no way around that,” she said.

Fine recalled a student once saying to her, “‘Ms. Fine – school is just fake.’ He’s right – school is fake. We are designing experiences for the sake of kids’ learning.”

Yet the goal of the Innocence Project work isn’t necessarily to make students into lawyers. It’s to give them the sense that there’s “some professional domain that has rules and rhythms to it,” as well as a base of knowledge, she said. “It just has to feel real enough to kids — it has to be resonant enough with the real world that it compels them to feel like it’s worth engaging with.”

The students who reviewed prisoners’ cases “talked about feeling like they sort of had people’s lives in their hands,” Fine said. “And that is not a feeling they’d ever had in school before, that something they were doing had real consequences for people beyond themselves.”

Rebecca Jimenez, 18, who graduated last fall from High Tech High Chula Vista, said the Innocence Project gave her sense of working on “an important cause.”

The more research she did on each prisoner’s plea, the more engrossed she became. “I wanted to keep reading and understand the person’s story,” she said. Eventually, she and her classmates would research a case that resulted in a judge throwing out a 20-year-old murder conviction and handing down new charges against the suspect’s nephew.

Novices vs. experts

One important aspect of “playing the whole game,” Mehta said, is interacting with professionals in the real world. “If you do an architecture project and you have real architects examining your work, that’s project-based learning. But it’s really powerful project-based learning because you’re not only showing students something about architecture. It gives them a conception: ‘I could be an architect.”

But Tom Loveless, a California-based education researcher and former director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, advises caution. “Generally speaking, I think we should be skeptical of the whole idea,” he said.

For one thing, playing the whole game confuses novices with experts. “A novice can’t ‘play the whole game’ because a novice doesn’t know the whole game. In order to learn most games, you have to learn the bits and pieces that go into knowing the whole game. And with project-based learning in general, the idea is that you’re giving kids projects to do in order to learn about a particular topic.”

That’s a mistake, Loveless said, since students typically require “a tremendous amount of background knowledge” before they can execute a respectable project on, say, World War I. Without deep background knowledge, he said, “you have a lot of novice learners kind of sharing their ignorance and having a shared experience out of their ignorance — and there’s no guarantee … that they’re necessarily going to gain knowledge, because you’ve left all that in the hands of the students themselves.”

Harvard’s Mehta said “playing the whole game” actually demands more of teachers, implicitly asking them to be not just familiar with a subject but to remain, in a sense, practitioners. Just as we’d expect a good drama director to direct community theater on weekends, so do these schools expect the same of subject-matter teachers: English teachers who publish poetry or novels, or art teachers who sell their paintings, and so on.

Loveless said he hasn’t seen good evidence that students will necessarily enjoy school more if it’s inquiry-based. “It could be that exactly the opposite is true. It could be that actually what kids like is a lot of structure to the presentation of learning. They like the teacher taking responsibility for that.”

A bigger problem, he said, may be that because project-based learning tends to minimize the importance of prior knowledge, “playing the whole game” might work better in wealthy areas or in private schools, where students arrive with a measure of background knowledge about, for instance, World War I or how defense attorneys work. Elsewhere, it’s a riskier strategy.

SLA’s Lehmann would disagree. His school boasts that it draws students from every ZIP Code in Philadelphia, and he can easily bring to mind the challenges that his students — past and present — bring the day they set foot on campus as freshmen.

A 2016 metareview was cautiously optimistic about project-based learning, saying the evidence for its effectiveness is “promising but not proven.”

Ron Berger of EL Education, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group for project-based learning, pointed to a 2016 study by the American Institutes for Research that found students in high schools that subscribed to “deeper learning” were slightly more likely to attend college — about 53 percent vs. 50 percent in other high schools. AIR also found that 22 percent of students at “deeper learning” schools enrolled in four-year colleges compared to 18 percent for their peers elsewhere.

But the schools had little to show in terms of college retention — in both “deeper learning” schools and others, only 62 percent of alumni remained enrolled in college for at least three consecutive terms; about half enrolled for at least four consecutive terms.

Berger said the modest college-going results shouldn’t be the final word on these schools’ success. For one thing, he said, many of them are works in progress: his non-profit, originally a partnership between Harvard’s education school and Outward Bound USA, has spent years pushing project-based schools to improve the quality of their projects, requiring field research, participation of outside experts and “an authentic audience,” among other factors. That’s not always a given, he said.

Where these conditions persist, Berger said, “the schools feel different,” with students able to articulate what they’re learning and why they’re there.

“It’s visceral,” he said. “When you walk into a building and kids are more polite, more mature, engage with you right away and want to tell you about their learning, [they] have a sense of social responsibility – it’s hard to collect quantitative data on this.”

‘Why do I need to know this?’

Lehmann, the Philadelphia principal, embodies this attitude perhaps as well as any secondary educator in America. In conversation with his students, he reminds them endlessly about how much they’ve grown and matured since he met them as freshmen. He has become well-known among educators for his head-on challenge to the notion that the job of high school is to get students ready for what comes next.

“School shouldn’t be preparation for real life — school should be real life,” he said. “We should ask kids to do real things that matter.”

Most significantly, Lehmann asks teachers to rethink the idea that high school is a “moratorium” for young people, a kind of holding pen where they wait out adolescence.

“‘Why do I need to know this?’ should be a real question,” he said. “And the answers we should search out for kids should not be ‘someday’ answers: ‘If you want to major in this you might seek out this information,’ but rather, ‘Why do I need this information now to be a better human being? To affect change in the world?’”

For Jimenez, the High Tech High graduate, playing the whole game changed everything. Early in her high school career, she thought she might major in business. “It sounded really cool and had money attached to the name,” she joked.

But Jimenez liked the work at the Innocence Project so much she spent the entire month of May 2018 interning there — High Tech High juniors undertake month-long internships each spring. “During school, if I want to do something, I might as well be doing something that might actually make a change,” she said.

Now a freshman at the University of California, Riverside, Jimenez is studying political science and plans to attend law school. A first-generation college-goer, she wants to work someday for the Innocence Project.

“It would be great to be back in that environment,” she said.

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Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, research, school reform policies, technology use

Techno-Optimists Meet School: School Wins (Part 2)

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Protests then and now—even fictitious student Bart Simpson–have not stopped technological innovations. That is the power of techno-optimism. Change is good. Change means progress. Changes makes life better. Sure, even if new technologies disrupt industries, people lose jobs, and corporate mergers drive out small businesses, life will be better than what existed before. Techno-optimism reigns in America.

The belief that new technologies can improve individual and collective life–personal health, workplace productivity, home conveniences, school productivity, community engagement– has existed in Europe and the U.S. for centuries (see here and here). It is (and has been) pervasive irrespective of race, ethnicity, social class, and religious belief.

The dream that the Internet would advance democracy, for example, fueled the first generation of global users. Yet after a few years, it became obvious that the Internet, like most technologies, can be used for good or ill; it can expand popular participation in democracies or tighten the grip of dictatorships to control their citizens. Or the Internet turns commercial and invasive in vacuuming up personal data and sold to the highest bidder. Add in social media platforms that  surely connect people to one another while simultaneously becoming a vehicle for bullying, hate-mongering, and interfering with national elections in other countries.

Soiled dreams aside, techno-optimism remains the default belief for most Americans.

And optimism (stripped of its adjective) characterizes educators as well. After all, the men and women who become teachers, principals, and superintendents believe in their heart of hearts that children can change for the better, learning is good, and that all children and youth can profit from “good” schools. Few pessimists about the human condition enter the profession and if they do, they seldom last more than a year or two.

Techno-optimism among practitioners, however, becomes tempered over time. Reforms come and go. Hype is easily recognized and dismissed. Some changes do occur but often fall well below reformers’ expectations. Most important, however, in creating this tempered optimism is the taken-for-granted age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” in which teachers work daily.  Within that organization, school working conditions (e.g., heavy teaching loads, class sizes, limited planning time, insufficient supplies, multiple preparations), the broad range of student abilities and performance stemming from district re-segregation and erratic–if not inadequate support from administrators produce further disappointments stripping away unvarnished optimism particularly when it comes to new technologies.

Younger teachers too often burnout and exit the job. For those teachers who have mastered the craft and retain beliefs in the importance of the work they do, these veterans have learned to parse the hype and select particular new technologies to fit the contours of their classrooms. These teachers retain their optimism about the importance of helping children grow and learn while sharing their expertise with students. They adjust their repertoire of approaches to use devices and software in lessons bending them to the demands inherent to the organization of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

All of the talk of “disrupting” schooling and higher education through MOOCs, online lessons, super-software, “personalized learning” and cyber schools, in the end, has been talk. “Personalized learning,” on line lessons, and MOOCs exist but they remain on the periphery of tax-supported and private schooling in the U.S.

Why is that? And how does it occur?

Organizations have plans for their inhabitants. The ubiquitous and enduring age-graded school  for children and youth, who are compelled to attend between early childhood to 17 or 18, shapes what happens daily in classrooms, corridors, lunchrooms, and nearby playgrounds. Teacher duties, student responsibilities, and administrative actions flow from the organizational structures (e.g., daily schedule of classes, separate classrooms, sliced up curriculum by subject and grade, periodic tests, report cards). This “grammar of schooling” embedded in the age-graded school influences what students do, what teachers teach, and what occurs between 8AM-3PM in U.S. schools. Apart from military and crime-fighting agencies, most Americans underestimate the power of community-based organizations such as schools to shape (but not determine) individual adult and child behavior. And that is a mistake. School organizations do steer (but not control) behavior of those within its confines.

Part of that steering, that guiding of behavior, becomes evident when it comes to new technologies clothed in promises of transforming teaching and learning from people who have spent nary a day in a classroom.

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Most experienced teachers have become allergic to such promises. After all, teachers have been students for 16-20-plus years and know first-hand what happens in classrooms and schools. When faced with reforms that expect major changes in classroom practices, they adapt such policies to fit the students they face daily, their content and skills expertise, and what they believe they should teach and students should learn. They do this, of course, piece-by-piece.

Consider the desktop computer. In the early 1980s, the innovative technology began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk. In a few years, school located desktop computers in libraries then set up separate computer labs. As years passed, prices dropped, schools bought lightweight laptops for each student. Now in 2019, classroom carts with 25-30 tablet computers are stacked and ready for student use in most classrooms. Yet dominant ways of teachers organizing classes, arranging activities, and teaching lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. Surely the language has changed when schools announce that they have “personalized learning” by providing access to devices and teachers agree as lessons unfold with familiar activities.

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You want 180 degree changes in what happens in classrooms, it won’t happen. You want 10 degrees or 20 degrees of change, with teacher understanding, capacity, and willingness, such changes will occur.In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them gradually to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling. Teachers and administrators domesticate  school reforms including new technologies.

None of this is meant as a criticism of teachers or principals. It is simply evidence of how and why organizations have major influence on its inhabitants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Techno-Optimism Meets Schools: Schools Win (Part 1)

From Thomas Edison’s words on film revolutionizing teaching and learning in the early 1900s to the acclaim accompanying desktop computers overhauling K-12 schools in the early 1980s to MOOCs in the 2010s transforming higher education to BrainCo–software that tracks and uses students’ brainwaves in 2019–enthusiasm for the latest technological innovation is boundless.  Every ill has a cure, every problem has a solution, and every school needs the latest software to boost students’ math test scores (Dreambox) or make English-speaking students fluent in French (Duolingo).

Anyone over the age of 40 recognizes this repetitive hype and dashed expectations when it comes to the promise of new technologies in schools. What is often missed in this familiarity with exaggerated claims for new technologies (i.e., access and use of new hardware, software, and now social media) is that schools do, indeed, end up extensively using the new stuff. They domesticate the technology to fit what already exists.

In other words, techno-optimists win in getting much of their hardware and software into schools and classrooms but lose badly in seeing that what occurs as a result falls far short of their dreams of faster, more, better, and personalized teaching and learning. And schools win by having access to new technologies while tailoring their use to fit the “grammar of schooling.”

Nearly three decades ago, I wrote a few pieces on this techno-optimism (see here and here) when it comes to public schools and posed three scenarios then. In the intervening decades, each of these scenarios have real-life evidence that they occurred. Yet one in particular–here’s the spoiler–exists now.

Here are the three scenarios I sketched out in 1992.

The techno-optimist’s dream: electronic schools of the future now. These are schools with sufficient numbers of machines, software, assorted accessories, and wiring to accommodate varied groupings of students in classrooms, seminar rooms, and individual work spaces. The dream is to make teaching and learning far more productive through project-based learning or competency-based instruction than it now is. Machines and software are central to this dream. They are seen as liberating tools for both teachers and students to grow, communicate, and learn from one another. Teachers are helpers, guides, and coaches to students being tutored and interacting both with teachers and machines.

The strategy for achieving the vision is to create total settings that have a critical mass of machines, software, and like-minded people who are serious users of the technologies. Examples of such schools range from cyber-schools to regular elementary and secondary schools fully stocked with devices, software, experienced teachers, and highly-motivated students.

The cautious optimist’s scenario: slow growth of hybrid schools and classrooms. In this scenario, putting computers into classrooms will yield a steady but very slow movement towards fundamental changes in teaching and schooling. Advocates of this scenario see it occurring inexorably, much like a turtle crawling towards its pond. It is slow because schools, as organizations, take time to learn how to use computers to guide student learning. It is inexorable because believers in this scenario are convinced that the future school will mirror a workplace dominated by computers and telecommunications.

The evidence for this scenario is a small but growing body of research. For example, introducing a half-dozen computers into a classroom or creating microcomputer labs, over time, alters how teachers teach (that is, they move from whole-class instruction to small groups and individualized options) and how students learn (they come to rely upon one another and themselves to understand ideas and practice skills). Thus, the classroom organization might shift, albeit slowly, from one that is wholly teacher-directed to one in which students working with peers at machines begin to take responsibility for their learning.

In schools where computer-using teachers and hardware have reached a critical threshold, different organizational decisions get made. Teachers from different departments or grades move towards changing the regular time schedule. Schoolwide decisions on using technologies become a routine matter as do decisions on nontechnological matters. Hybrids of the old and the new, of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, proliferate.

The preservationist’s scenario: maintaining while improving schools. In this scenario, policymakers and administrators put computers and telecommunication technologies into schools, but they end up largely reinforcing existing ways of teaching, learning, grouping for instruction, and curriculum. While some teachers and schools use these technologies imaginatively and end up being profiled by the media, most uses are fitted to what already occurs. New technologies become ways of tinkering towards improvement. The vision embedded in the preservationist’s story is one of schools maintaining what they have historically done; providing custodial care, sorting out those who achieve academically from those who do not, and giving taxpayers as efficient a schooling as can be bought with the funds available.

There is much evidence for this scenario. Some examples: mandating a new graduation requirement on computer literacy or students, adding courses to the curriculum on computer science, creating a computer lab for all the school’s machines, scheduling teachers once a week to bring their classes to the room where an aide helps students use software connected to their daily lessons, placing one computer in each classroom, and buying software that is part of a textbook adoption.

In this scenario, computers are seen as occasional helpers for the main business of teaching students. Adapting these tools to help teachers and students do what they are supposed to do in schools ends up with new technologies reinforcing what schools have done all century.

Writing in 1992, I asked: Which of these scenarios is likely to occur?

The least likely is the electronic school of the future. While such schools will be built, they will remain exceptions and, in time, will probably disappear as the next generation of technology, invariably cheaper and improved, comes of age. Thus, although such schools exist now, few will spread to most other districts. Recent experiences of schools adopting instructional television, language laboratories, and programmed learning in the 1960’s and 1970’s have taught policymakers to be cautious. In districts that built new schools, purchased and installed the hardware and software for those technologies, administrators found in less than a decade that the machinery was either unused by teachers, became obsolete, or could not be repaired after breakdowns. The constant improvement of advanced technologies makes it risky for districts to make large capital investments in new hardware beyond a model program or demonstration school.

The cautious optimist’s and preservationist’s scenarios are basically the same story of computer use in schools interpreted differently. Each stresses different facts and derives different meanings from those facts. Preservationists argue that schools will remain largely as they are because of millennia-old cultural beliefs held by most adults about teaching, learning, and knowledge that form the core of modern American schooling: Teaching is telling, learning is listening, and knowledge is what is in books. Most taxpayers expect their schools to reflect those centuries-old beliefs. Such strongly held beliefs seldom disappear when Apple [products] … show up in school.

Preservationists also point out that the popular age-graded school persists through reform after reform. Age-graded schools, the dominant form of school organization for over a century and a half, have self-contained classrooms that separate teachers from one another, a curriculum distributed grade by grade to students, and a time schedule that brings students and teachers together for brief moments to work. These structures profoundly influence how teachers teach, how students learn, and the relationships between the adults and children in each classroom. They are especially difficult to change. For these reasons, preservationists argue, schools tailor technological innovations to fit the contours of prevailing cultural beliefs and the age-graded school.

Cautious optimists, however, take the same facts and give them a sunny-day spin. The optimists’ version of the story displays much patience in making schools technologically modern. Conceding the many instances of technologies being used to reinforce existing practices, optimists shift their attention to the slow growth of technological hybrids, those creative mixes of the old and the new in schools and classrooms. These hybrids of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, the optimists say, are the leading edge of a movement that will bring schools more in sync with the larger society. Thus, the current reasons for the fumbling incorporation of high-tech machines into schools–not enough money to buy machines, teacher resistance, inadequate preparation of teachers, and little administrative support–will gradually evaporate as hybrids slowly spread and take hold. It is a scenario anchored in a long-term view of decades rather than months or years. While I find the preservationist’s story convincing, I lean more to the optimist’s version.

In Part 2 takes up techno-optimists’ promises and how school do tame new technologies–in other words, reform the reform–as the latter two scenarios suggest.

 

 

 

 

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How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed Over the Decades (Part 2)

A few years ago, Richard Elmore asked me to write a piece about how my ideas have changed over the years. Daily experience in schools as a teacher, administrator, and researcher (and the reflections and writing that I did about those experiences)  altered key ideas I had about the nature of reform and how reform worked its way into districts, schools, and classrooms. He included my piece in a book called I Used to Think… And Now I Think (Harvard Education Press, 2011).  Both posts appeared originally in 2013. There is light editing in Part 2. Part 1 appeared a few days ago.

I used to think that structural reforms (e.g., creating non-graded schools; new district and school site governance structures; novel technologies; small high schools with block schedules, advisories, and student learning communities) would lead to better classroom instruction. And now I think that, at best, such structural reforms may be necessary first steps toward improving instruction but are (and have been) seldom sufficient to alter traditional teaching practices.

In teaching nearly 15 years, I had concluded that policies creating new structures (see above examples) would alter common teaching practices which, in turn, would get students to learn more, faster, and better.

I revised that conclusion, albeit in slow motion, as I looked around at how my fellow teachers taught and began to examine my own classroom practices. I reconsidered the supposed power of structures in changing teaching practices after I left the classroom and began years of researching how teachers have taught following the rainfall of progressive reforms on the nation’s classrooms in the early 20th century and similar showers of standards-based, accountability-driven reforms in the early 21st century.[i]

Still, the job of policymakers is to rely upon  structures. Their strong belief that  structural changes will alter traditional classroom practices is in the DNA of policymakers. Moreover, class size changes, national curriculum standards, small high schools, deploying 1:1 laptops, and other structural changes are visible to both patrons and participants. Such visibility suggests vigorous action in solving problems and has potential payoff in votes and longer tenure in office.

As I write, this generation of policymakers invokes that faith in visible structures. They tout changing urban districts’ governance from elected school boards to mayors running the schools. Federal and state policymakers champion new structures to evaluate and pay teachers for their success in raising students’ test scores. And, of course, they beat the drums loudly for new structures expanding the supply of schools from which parents can choose such as charters, magnets, and other publicly funded alternatives. And do not forget the founding of high-tech schools where every student has individual access to the latest devices and software. Entrepreneurial policymakers assume that these new structures will lead to teachers altering their classroom behaviors and, thereby, improve student learning.

Yet my research and that of others deny the genetic links between structures and teaching practice. Like others, I have concluded that working directly on individual and collective teacher norms, building broader and deeper teacher knowledge and skills in  classroom instruction—not big-ticket structural changes—have a far better chance of improving teaching practices. Getting policymakers to shift their emphasis from creating new structures to attending to capacity-building and classroom routines, however, will be most difficult since evidence from studies that contradict conventional policymaker wisdom has a long history of being ignored.

 

I used to think that the teacher was critical to student and school success. And now, I continue to think the same way. I have not changed my mind about the centrality of the teacher to student learning and school performance. The years I spent in classrooms as a teacher, the years I visited classrooms as a superintendent, and the years I studied classroom teaching have strengthened my belief in the powers teachers have in influencing their students’ minds and hearts. The tempered optimism I have today about schooling children and youth rests in this belief in teachers who have made and continue to make a difference in individual student’s lives.

That a scrum of research studies and policymaker pronouncements in the past few years have affirmed teachers’ influence in students’ academic performance and actual lives supports the faith that I and many other educators have had in teachers. Facts and faith merge nicely.

Yet the current anti-teacher union rhetoric so popular among the entrepreneurial class and the continuing condescension of so many policymakers toward career teachers who have chosen to remain in classrooms erode both faith and facts; they eat away at any gains in respect teachers accrued in the past decade.

These I-used-to-think and now-I-think reflections extracted from nearly a half-century of experience- and research-produced knowledge get at the heart of public schooling in America, especially in cities. That many (but by no means most) schools with skilled and knowledgeable teachers can promote civic, scientific, math, and other forms of literacy, preparation for college, independent decision-making, and thoughtful deliberation in children and youth is central to what schools can do in a democratic society even in the lop-sided three-tiered system of schooling (see Part 1) that perpetuates long-standing societal inequities.

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[i] See How Teachers Taught, second edition (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) and Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009). Other researchers had reached a similar conclusion about reform-driven structures having little influence on classroom practices. See, for example, Richard Elmore, “Structural Reform and Educational Practice,” Educational Researcher, 24(9), 1995: pp. 23-26.

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