Category Archives: school reform policies

Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach?(Part 2)

Summing up results from the Silicon Valley teachers across nine schools in five districts who responded to my questions, nearly two-thirds of the teachers I interviewed and observed said that digital tools had changed how they teach with frequent mention of saving time in doing familiar tasks and being able to individualize their work with students.

The rest of the teachers had either said no because they had been using high-tech devices for years before I observed them or on substantive grounds as some stressed the deeper, persistent features of teaching that they must perform regardless of what technologies are used in lessons. Even those who said “no” also acknowledged the efficiencies that these high-tech devices brought to their lessons. These teachers saw both change in their use of digital tools daily and stability in the essential features of planning and executing a lesson. Rather than only black-and-white, they saw gray.

Does this mean that most of these elementary and secondary school teachers identified as “best cases” of integrating technology in Silicon Valley have actually altered how they teach because of using new technologies? Almost two-thirds certainly believed so. Yet a full answer to the question requires looking at their perspectives and the views of others.

Insider vs. Outsider: Whose definition of change matters?

As a researcher I observed and interviewed each teacher. I was an outsider identified as a retired Stanford professor. The teachers were insiders telling me, an outsider, their stories.

Because I had not done prior observations of these teachers before they began using these electronic devices I could not confirm whether these teachers had actually changed or not changed from how they had taught previously. From all indications these teachers believed strongly that they had modified their daily practices due to the regular use of digital tools. I believe them.

However, as a researcher who has studied archived written and printed evidence of teaching practices between the 1890s and the present and an outsider to these schools and classrooms, I bring a different perspective to these observations and interviews. I have accumulated well-documented descriptions of the dominant trends that have typified teaching over the past century. I can, for example, compare what I see in these lessons in 2016 in Silicon Valley to the historical continuum of varied teaching practices from teacher- to student-centered stretching back a century. In addition, I have conceptually defined different kinds of school and classroom change ( e.g., incremental and fundamental) distinctions that most reformers, policymakers, and others, including teachers seldom make. Such knowledge I have acquired over decades, however, produces an internal conflict in me. [i]

What does a researcher make of the teacher, for example, who says with passionate confidence that he has shifted his teaching English to eighth graders from teacher-directed activities to student-centered ones; he cites as evidence of the change the different materials and frequent use of digital tools that he uses in daily lessons, ones that the researcher has observed. Yet during the lesson, the researcher sees those very same materials and practices being used in ways that strengthen the teacher-centered activities and under-cut the student-centeredness that the teacher seeks. Neither the teacher or researcher is lying. Each has constructed an authentic, plausible and credible story. I do not imply that such constructions are untrue; only that “plausible” and “credible” are not the same as true stories.. So who do you believe? [ii]

I am not the first (nor last) researcher to have met teachers who described substantial changes in their lessons in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”[iii]

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 and 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 kind of “change” the teacher seeks and who judges—the insider or outsider– the substance of the change and its direction.

Change clearly meant one thing to Mrs. O and another to the researcher. Many teachers, like Mrs. O, had made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons as a result of integrating computer devices into their lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers and reform designers intended, nay sought, looked for fundamental changes in the how those math lessons were taught.

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 teacher’s vantage point?”[iv]

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O and the gracious teachers who let me observe their lessons and answer my questions seldom get to tell their side of the story to an audience outside their family and school.

Teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they are genuine insider accounts that explain how and why they have altered their practices. As two veteran researchers of teaching and teachers said:

We need to listen closely to teachers … and to the stories of their lives in and out of classrooms. We also need to tell our own stories as we live our own collaborative researcher/teacher lives. Our own work then becomes one of learning to tell and live a new mutually constructed account of inquiry in teaching and learning. What emerges from this mutual relationship are new stories of teachers and learners as curriculum makers, stories that hold new possibilities for both researchers and teachers and for those who read their stories.[v]

Yet researchers are more than scribes. They cannot take what teachers say as unvarnished truth and dismiss what is known of the history of teaching as less compelling or immaterial. The answers teachers give to researcher questions are constructed from their insider view. With a historical perspective on past ways that teachers have taught, I have constructed an outsider’s view of what teachers do daily in their lessons with computer devices. Both points of view have to come into play to make sense—to get at the truth as best as I can–of both the teachers’ answers to my questions and what I observed in classrooms.[vi]

As a former high school history teacher between the 1950s and 1970s and a university researcher since 1981, I have tried to manage this dilemma of giving value to teacher stories about classroom change while honoring what I, as a researcher, have learned about teaching, past and present.

This is the dilemma that I negotiate in answering the central question in the book I am writing: Have teachers altered their practice as a result of using new technologies regularly?

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[i] Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Cuban. Hugging the Middle (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[ii] Interview with John DiCosmo and answers to my questions on whether use of technology has changed his teaching.

As a digital native, I have always used computers in my lessons but each year my teaching changes a little more to put students in the center of the lessons. I have used technology to engage my middle schoolers from the first day I stepped into the classroom, but I am increasingly ‘flipping’ lessons to support student access to materials to differentiate my instruction….

Email from John DiCosmo, October 16, 2016. In author’s possession.

For differences in stories told to researchers, see: D.C. Philips, “Telling the truth about Stories,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 1997, 13(1), pp. 101-109.

[iii] David Cohen, “A Revolution in One Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990, 12(3), pp. 311-329.

[iv] Ibid., p. 312

[v]Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin, “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry,” Educational Researcher, 1990, 19(5), pp.2-14. Quote is on p. 12.

[vi]D.C. Philips, “Telling the Truth about Stories,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 1997, 13(1), pp. 101-109.

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Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach? (Part 1)

Have the 41 exemplary teachers in integrating technology into daily lessons that I observed and interviewed in Silicon Valley in 2016 changed their practice as a result of using new devices and software?

Straightforward as the question sounds, it is tricky to answer. Why?

In a society geared to constant change as America is, the word has far more positive than negative connotations. Fashions in clothes, car models, gadgets, and hairstyles change every year trumpeting the next new thing to acquire. Both Presidential campaigners Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016, for example, promised their supporters that America will change for the better. Change is “good.” Embracing the new is progress. It is a norm that Americans revel in.

Especially when it comes to taking on new technologies in the past (e.g., household appliances, radio, television) and present (e.g., desktop computers, laptops, and smart phones). So for teachers, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and elected officials not accepting the next new electronic device and changing their daily practice is often seen as resistance, a fondness for the “old” that is out of step with American values and the future. Reform-driven policymakers, deep pocket donors, entrepreneurs and vendors believe a lack of change or very slow adoption of new digital tools to be a detriment to student learning, patients, clients, customers, and voters. So a social and individual bias toward change, particularly technological change, is built into American society, history, institutions and professional behavior.

Acknowledging a historical bias toward change hints at the trickiness of the question I ask. Judging whether teachers have actually altered their daily classroom practice is surprisingly hard to do. Teachers, imbued with the culture’s values, often say that they have changed their lessons from week to week, year to year due to new district curricula, tests, and programs. Yet policymakers and researchers are less certain of such changes.[i]

Consider that researchers ordinarily find out whether teachers have changed their practices through direct observation before and after change occurred, interviews, surveying faculty opinions, sampling principal evaluations, and soliciting student views. Few researchers, however, have the access, time, or funds to tap all of these sources so they use short cuts and depend upon one or two sources at best and snapshots of one moment in time. Occasional teacher interviews, drop-in classroom observations, and faculty surveys are often what researchers end up using to answer to the question.

Yet even when researchers or other inquirers believe they have sufficient information to determine that teachers have changed how they teach lessons, such a conclusion does not tell you the direction of those changes, that is, from more teacher-centered to more student-centered or whether those changes were superficial or substantial, whether they were a step forward or a step backward in classroom practice.

Think, for example, of a classroom where teachers once used a low-tech device for nearly two centuries to reach students and within the past half-century that low-tech device has morphed into an expensive high-tech tool in classroom. I speak of the chalkboard.

The innovative slate chalkboard introduced in the early 19th century was eventually replaced in the mid-20th century by green boards and then soon after whiteboards using erasable markers. Now electronic smart boards have become pervasive (60 percent of K-12 classrooms have been installed as of 2014). These changes in a classroom technology have helped teachers convey knowledge, students practice skills, and display lesson objectives and activities. And these changes have strengthened familiar teacher-centered practices (e.g., lecture, recitation, guided whole group discussion) that have dominated public school teaching for over a century and a half. [ii]

The evolution of the slate chalkboard into electronic smart boards mark classroom changes in the past century. So what did those Silicon Valley teachers, exemplars of technology integration, tell me about changes that had occurred in their classrooms?

According to what teachers told me, they have altered their practice. These teachers identified as being exemplary in integrating technology took attendance, recorded assignments, checked homework, assessed students, and emailed parents routinely using laptops and tablets and other devices. They organized lessons to include whole-group, small group instruction, and independent student work. Many of the teachers I observed created individual playlists of math, science, and social studies sources for their students to engage in research projects. They individualized lessons and helped students self-assess their grasp of content and skills. So these teachers have, according to their recall of how they taught previously, modified practices when using new technologies.

But just listing new and altered practices associated with the spread of electronic devices does not get at the depth of the change or its direction in classroom practice. Consider the following queries:

*Is using an interactive white board instead of an overhead projector and chalkboard a substantial “change” or simply a modification of a habitual practice?

*Is it a superficial or deep “change” in classroom practice when a teacher takes attendance on her tablet instead of checking off names on a sheet of paper?

*Is it a small or large “change” when students submit electronically their notes and assignments to Dropbox instead of turning in paper homework?

Surely, these queries reveal “changes,” in familiar practices. The teachers I observed and interviewed would readily acknowledge that such alterations in routines have been important to them because these changes saved time and energy. In conversations with these teachers, the word “efficient” popped up repeatedly. Using less time for administrative details and having at one’s fingertips information from multiple sources for students to access was of great importance to teachers. Such changes gave teachers an edge in racing against the clock during a lesson. Teachers perceived such changes as important. Yet ardent reformers often under-appreciate and overlook these changes.

Technologically-driven reformers might begrudgingly admit that these examples are “changes” but not ones that they envisioned. Entrepreneurs eager to help schools dump the “factory model” of schooling (e.g., age-graded school, traditional teaching) might categorize these “changes” as merely shallow or, perhaps, trivial compared to schools that convert to “blended” learning combining online and face-to-face lessons that are “personalized.” Reform-minded policymakers and donors want to see teachers creating individual playlists for students, students working on projects every week, frequently use online lessons, and similar “transformative” changes. They see technologies steering classrooms toward student-centered teaching, a direction they promote. Anything less than these kind of fundamental (or sometimes called “real”) changes in pedagogy, they would be disappointed.

Or researchers, deeply believing in student-centered learning observing lessons in these teachers’ classrooms, might see such changes as mere adjustments that reinforce dominant patterns of teacher-directed lessons. Yet these researchers know that they must be alert to their own values and biases when they collect, analyze, and publish their studies. In analyzing these facets of classroom practice, attention has to be paid to the tacit biases that inhabit those who observe, describe, and analyze how lessons unfold. Where one sits (or stands), surely shapes one’s perspective.

Teachers, principals, parents, researchers, and policymakers, for example, have different organizational roles and experiences. They approach data from varied viewpoints. And they are Americans socialized to see change as progress and an unalloyed good. These differences among academics and members of district and school communities have to be made explicit in making sense of what teachers say and do.

So answering the question of whether widespread student access and teacher use of technologies has “changed daily classroom practices” depends upon who is the asker, who is the doer, and what actually occurs in the classroom.

The next post dips into who asks the questions, the role of teacher and researcher in making sense of what occurs in lessons.

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[i] Diane Stark Rentner, et. al., “Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices,” 2016 (Center for Education Policy, George Washington University).

[ii] Kim Kankiewicz, “There’s No Erasing the Chalkboard,” The Atlantic, October 13, 2016 at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/10/theres-no-erasing-the-chalkboard/503975/

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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.

machines-1491937394.jpg

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.

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[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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