Category Archives: how teachers teach

Reforms That Stick: How Schools Change

There is a strongly-held myth many academics, policymakers, and reformers repeat weekly: schools hardly ever change. Those who believe in this myth often cite the large literature demonstrating failed innova­tions in schools or point at calcified bureaucracies and stubborn teachers and principals who block reform after reform (see here and here). Like all myths, this one has a factual basis. There have been many failures to transform schooling in the U.S.  From open-space schools to vouchers, there have indeed been vain attempts to alter the course of schooling.

Such a myth is useful for those who beat the drums that U.S. schools are broken. After all, they seek changes that meet their view of what constitutes a “good” education. “Troubled” schools is the basis for the profound pessimism that presently exists over the capacity of public schools to improve. So it is a politically useful myth, but it is inherently mistaken nonetheless.

The fact is that over the last century there have been many organizational, governance, curricular, and even instructional changes in public schools. Such changes have been adopted, adapted, implemented, and institutionalized. In most instances, these changes departed from what reformers in past generations wanted but they were changes nonetheless. Many of these changes have been incremental, that is, additions to existing structures and processes of schooling. However, a few of these changes have been fundamental, altering substantially public schools. Consider the following changes in U.S. schools over the past half-century:

  • Creation of small high schools;
  • Increased qualifications for teachers and administrators;
  • Decreased teacher/student classroom ratios;
  • Increased choices of schools, curricula, and programs available to parents;
  • New subjects in curriculum (environmental studies, advanced placement courses biology, calculus, history, etc.);
  • Use of small-group and individual approaches to classroom organization and instruction;
  • Public school desegregation of black children since 1954;
  • Increased access of children with disabilities to public school classrooms since the early 1970s.

Why has such a myth about the incapacity of schools to change become mainstream wisdom?

The basis for this myth about public schools seldom changing is due, in part, to reform-driven observers and participants failing to get what they wanted, ignoring past reforms,  overlooking how schools absorb innovations and transform them into stable routines, and failing to distinguish between the core of schooling and the periphery.  Amnesia, myopia, and sour grapes are congenital defects afflicting reformers. I will argue that there are clear lessons that can be both learned and applied by reform-minded policymakers, researchers and practitioners in understanding how changes get converted into institutional routines. And how some changes are at the center of the existing U.S. system of schooling and some migrate to the periphery but still exist.

How Fundamental Changes Become Incorporated as Incremental Ones

The kindergarten, junior high school, open-space architecture, and the use of computers, for example, are instances of actual and attempted fundamental changes in the school and classroom since the turn of the century that were widely adopted, incorporated into many schools, and then, over time, were marginalized into incremental changes.

How did this occur?

A familiar example is the curricular reform of the 1950s and 1960s, guided, in large part, by reform-inspired academic specialists and funded by the federal government. Aimed at revolutionizing teaching and learning in math, science, and social studies (spurred in part by a popular perception that Soviet education was superior to American schools, as evidenced by Sputnik), millions of dollars went to producing textbooks, developing classroom materials, and training teachers. Using the best instructional materials that scholars could produce, teachers taught students to understand how scientists thought and experienced the pleasures of discovery, how mathematicians solved math problems and how historians used primary sources to understand the past. Published materials ended up in the hands of teachers who, for the most part, had had little time to understand what was demanded by the novel materials or, for that matter, how to use them in lessons.

By the end of the 1970s, education researchers were reporting that instead of student involvement in critical thinking, problem solving, or experiencing how scientists worked, they had found the familiar teacher-centered instruction aimed at imparting knowledge from a text. There was, however, a distinct curricular residue of these federally funded efforts left in the textbooks published in the 1970s. The attempt to revolutionize teaching and learning evolved, in time, into new textbook content (see here, here, and here). Reformers were sorely disappointed at the small returns from major efforts.

Another way that fundamental changes get transformed into incremental ones is organizationally shunting them from the core of schooling to the periphery of the  system. For example, innovative programs that reduce class size (e.g., dropout prevention), integrate subject matter from diverse disciplines (e.g., gifted and talented programs), and structure activities that involve students in their learning (e.g., vocational programs) often begin as classroom experiments, but, over time, migrate to the periphery of the system. The schools have indeed adopted and implemented programs fundamentally different from what mainstream students receive. Yet it is the outsiders—students labeled as potential dropouts, vocational students, pregnant teenagers,those identified as gifted, at-risk, and disabled—who participate in the innovative programs initially. Thus, some basic changes get encapsulated, like a grain of sand in an oyster; they exist within the system but are often separated from core programs (see here and here).

Such conversions of fundamental changes into incremental ones occur as a result of deep-seated impulses within the organization to appear modern and to convince those who politically and financially support the schools that what happens in schools is up-to-date, responsive to the wishes of its patrons, but yet no different from what used to happen in the “real schools” that taxpayers remember from their youth—schools containing homework rows of desks in classrooms, and teachers who maintain order. Thus, pervasive and potent processes within the institution of schooling preserve its independence to act even in the face of powerful outside political forces intent upon altering what happens in schools and classrooms (see here, here, and here). Reformers seeking to “transform” schooling see such adaptations as failure; less self-interested observers see this as how organizations adapt politically to their environment.

So, to sum up what I have asserted thus far:

  1. Schools have changed a great deal.
  2. These changes have been in virtually all areas of governance, organization, curriculum, and classroom instruction.
  1. Most of these changes have been incremental; only a few have been fundamental.
  1. Many of these changes were adopted, implemented, and then became institutionalized. Some fundamental changes were incorporated into the core of the mainstream school system as incremental innovations, but many others became permanently lodged at the periphery of the system.
  1. Over time, many changes in schools preserve the overall stability of schooling.

With all of these changes that I have detailed, why is there this myth that schools are so resistant to change?

The answer, I believe, is located in cultural attitudes that Americans have toward the idea of change. Most Americans see change as a good thing. Annual changes in car styles and clothes are matched to a political system of annual, biennial, and quadrennial elections and a passion for moving from one place to another cherish the new and different. These attitudes are strong, abiding, and fed continually by a consumer culture that stresses new products, rotating name brands, and the search for different experiences.

Because the dominant belief is that change is good, planned change is viewed as even better. Anchored in evolutionary ideas that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and wedded to historic values of the American culture, the idea of progress has been honed to sharpness by generations of theorists, policymakers, and publicists. Planned change in schools (i.e., reforms) spill over public schools again and again because schooling is seen as a public good that also benefits individuals climbing the ladder to success. High expectations for what diplomas and degrees can do to one’s life chances drive Americans.  But U.S. schools are vulnerable to socioeconomic pressures coming from outside schools. After all, tax-supported public schools are political institutions. When changes occur and differ from what that generation of reformers sought, the label of failure gets glued to public schools.

With the rhetoric of failed U.S. schools driving the past 30 years of reform–recall A Nation at Risk–high expectations for schooling to bolster the economy over the past 30 years, reforms have flowed over U.S. schools. Many have stuck as incremental changes. Other changes have morphed into programs lodged at the periphery of schooling. Schools have indeed changed. Only disappointed, myopic and amnesiac reformers hang onto the myth of unchanging schools.

 

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A Math Teacher Remembers Her Students (Education Realist)

 

This abridged post comes from the blog Education Realist. The teacher who writes this blog prefers to remain anonymous. I have observed this teacher teach math and social studies lessons; we have also met and had lunch discussing many issues in public schools.

In the fall of 2012, I began my first year at this school. I met a group of 29 freshmen in their first high school math class: geometry.  From the beginning, we all clicked. A new school didn’t seem quite so intimidating because every day of that first semester started with camaraderie and good times–and some learning, too.

Of the 26 who stayed the whole year, all but one passed. Nearly half Asians (from every part of the continent), over half the rest Hispanic, and seven whites, and one African American. Ten athletes, including two who turned their ability into scholarships. The eventual senior prom queen. All those who passed made it through trigonometry, at least. Most made it to pre-calculus. Only a few made it to Calculus or Advancement Placement Statistics.  They reflected the school’s population writ large: diverse, athletic, not overly focused on academics, but smart enough to get it done.

A few others were never in one of my classes again, but I saw them frequently; they’d always shout a greeting across the quad, identifying themselves because they know I never wear my glasses.

The remaining saw me in at least one subsequent math class. None seemed to mind.

When we talked, as we did often, we’d regularly refer to “that first geometry class”.  Our touchstone memory, kept alive through four years of their education.

One of my “three-timers”, a sweet, tentative young man who never had another math teacher until pre-calc, stopped by with his yearbook. As we thumbed through the senior pages, calling out familiar faces, he suddenly said, “Man, I bet you’ve taught most of the seniors at least once.”

We counted it together—of the 93 rows of four students each, I’d taught 288 of them, or roughly 75%. Many more than once.

In the face of that percentage, I decided it was time to work around my dislike of crowds, speeches, and heat in order to represent on their big night. So at 4:30, I showed up at the stadium to help assemble them for the procession.

At first, the seniors were gathered in informal groups outside the staging area, taking pictures, talking, dancing about impatiently. Many called me over or waved, shouting out their names.

As they moved into the cafeteria for the staging, I wandered around, touching base, asking about plans, saying goodbye. As I’d expected, they needed teachers to organize the alphabetized lines for the procession, so I took a list of twenty. Rounded them up, hollered them into line, while the fourteen students I’d taught before joked that in less than three hours they’d never have to listen to me again. “And that’s why you became a teacher!” a bunch of them chorused.

Finally, the graduation manager gave the sign for zero hour. Suddenly well-behaved and serious, they streamed out in order, paused for a few minutes at some inevitable delay, and then the music started. I stood about 15 feet away from them, put on my prescription glasses, even in the sun, the better not to miss any face.

Waved and cheered at brand new adults who waved and cheered back, glad I was there, happy to see me, happy that I was wearing my glasses and could see them.  And when the last student–one of mine–turned for one final smile, I decided that the graduation itself, the heat, the speeches, the names, would dull the joy I felt in this moment. Time to go.

As I walked back to where I’d parked my car, latecomers were hustling to the stadium, many holding signs and pictures. I saw pictures I knew, stopped to congratulate the parents and send them on their way.

And suddenly:

“Hey, it’s my geometry teacher!”

I smiled at the pretty, lively young woman holding a…toddler? infant? gurgling happily walking towards me, waving.  But I’ve only taught three geometry classes in those four years, and was coming up blank.

“You don’t remember me? I’m Annie!” and I gasped.

“Oh, my God. Annie! I thought…I haven’t run into you for so long…you didn’t go back to live with your mom? I don’t think I’ve seen you in..three years? I didn’t recognize you. You’re all grown up! ”

Annie was the only one in the geometry class that didn’t pass.

“How’s your dad? You look fantastic. And how’s this little guy? How old is he, fifteen months?”

“Nope, just nine months.”

“He’s gorgeous. How are you? Come to see the grad…well, duh, yes.”

She laughed, and hitched the baby to her other hip. “It’s great you came! I still think about that geometry class. It was so fun!”

“I wish I’d run into you more. Go, get going, you don’t want to be late. Take care of this adorable one. I’m happy to see you.”

“Me, too. Take care. Bye!” and off she went, striding confidently into her future.

I watched her, thinking of all the questions I wanted to ask: did she graduate? Go to our excellent alternative high school? Is the baby’s dad in the picture? What are your plans? and being so very glad I didn’t ask.

I resist presenting Annie as a tragedy. I didn’t feel guilt.  But I did feel…awareness, maybe? I’m good with unmotivated underachieving boys. Am I as good with girls?

Could I reach out more? Give them reasons to try, to play along?

I then remembered a saying from my ed school professor

“You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

I told him that the two sentiments don’t follow. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.

Goodbye, class of 2016.

Goodbye, geometry class. I’ll miss you.

 

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The Perils of PBL’s Popularity (John Larmer)

Recently, I have published posts on Project-based Learning. A student and foundation official  have raised questions with and about PBL as an appropriate instructional approach. As this instructional reform, once the darling of early and mid-20th century Progressives, has surged again in practitioner and researcher circles, criticism of its implementation and use needs to be aired. For this post, I turn to John Larmer, a champion of PBL, who believes deeply in the instructional approach but shows concern over its potential faddishness and too easy acceptance. Former high school teacher of social studies and English, Larmer is Editor in Chief of publications at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). He writes often about Project-Based Learning. This post originally appeared March 21, 2016

As readers of this blog well know, Project Based Learning is a hot topic in education these days. The progressive teaching method is being touted as one of the best ways to engage 21st-century students and develop a deeper understanding of content as well as build success skills such as critical thinking/problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and self-management.

At the Buck Institute for Education, we think PBL is even more than that; it can be absolutely transformative for students who experience enough high-quality PBL in their K-12 years. They gain not only understanding and success skills but also confidence in their ability as independent learners and a greater sense of their own efficacy and power.

PBL is transformative for teachers and schools, too, as they create real-world connections to learning, change school culture, and guide students to successfully complete high-quality projects. And teachers who use PBL regularly can experience  “the joy of teaching,” which they may not – make that likely will not – in a test-prep, drill-and-kill environment.

You’ll notice I use the term “high-quality” twice in the above, which points to a real concern we have at BIE. We don’t want PBL to become yesterday’s news, another education fad for which much is promised and little delivered. This is why BIE developed and promotes the Gold Standard PBL model: to help ensure PBL’s place as a permanent, regular feature of 21st century education for all students.

If it’s not done well, I see PBL facing three dangers:

1. Unprepared Teachers & Lack of Support
Teachers who are not prepared to design and implement projects effectively will see lackluster student performance and face daunting classroom management challenges. Shifting from traditional practice to PBL is not a simple matter of adding another tool to a teacher’s toolbox. PBL is not just another way to “cover standards” that’s a little more engaging for students. PBL represents a different philosophy about what and how students should learn in school, and many teachers and school leaders do not yet realize its implications. It was born in the progressive education movement associated with John Dewey, with more recent ties to constructivism and the work of Jean Piaget. Adding to this situation is the fact that most teachers teach the way they were taught, and did not experience PBL when they were students – so they don’t have a vision for what it can be.

Schools and districts need to provide teachers with opportunites for extensive and ongoing professional development, from workshops provided by experts (like BIE’s) to follow-up coaching, to work in their professional learning communities. Policies around grading, pacing guides, benchmark assessments, and more will need to be re-examined. It also means having longer class periods or blocks of time for project work, and rearranging how students are assigned to classrooms to allow for shared students for secondary-level multi-subject projects. And – I can’t stress this enough – teachers will need LOTS of time to plan projects and reflect on their practice. This means changing school schedules to create collaborative planning time, re-purposing staff meetings, perhaps providing (paid) time in the summer, and finding other creative solutions. All of this is a tall order, I realize, but these are the kinds of changes it will take for PBL to stick.

2. PBL-Lite
Many teachers and schools will create (or purchase from commercial vendors) lessons or activities that are called “project-based” and think they’re checking the box that says “we do PBL” – but find little change in student engagement or achievement, and certainly not a transformation. I’ve been seeing curriculum materials offered online and in catalogs that tout “inquiry” and “hands-on learning” that, while better than many traditional materials, are not really authentic and do not go very deep; they do not have the power of Gold Standard PBL. (For example, I’ve seen social studies “projects” from publishers that have kids writing pretend letters to government officials – instead of actually taking action to address a real-world issue – and math “projects” where students go through a set of worksheets to imagine themselves running a small business, instead of actually creating a business or at least an authentic proposal for one.)

With materials that are PBL-lite, we might see some gains in student engagement, and perhaps to some extent deeper learning; many of these materials are in fact better than the traditional alternatives for teaching the content. But the effects will be limited.

3. PBL Only for Special Occasions or Some Students
PBL might be relegated to special niches, instead of being used as a primary vehicle for teaching the curriculum – or being provided equitably for all students. I’ve heard about really cool projects that were done in “genius hours” or “maker spaces” or Gifted and Talented programs, or by A.P. students in May after the exams are over… but most students in the “regular program” did not experience PBL. Or schools might do powerful school-wide projects that do involve all students once a year or so, but the teaching of traditional academic subject matter remains unchanged. If this happens, the promise of PBL to build deeper understanding, build 21st century success skills, and transform the lives of all students, especially those furthest from educational opportunity, will remain unfulfilled.

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Project-based Learning Needs More Learning (Gisèle Huff)

Gisèle Huff is the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation. This post appeared on Flypaper, August 3, 2016

After almost eighteen years in the field of education, I have become convinced of the need to transform the way our children learn so that they can confront the unknowable challenges of the twenty-first century. I applaud any effort aimed at changing the mindset of those involved in the education system so that they can leave behind the traditional twentieth-century paradigm, which was (and in most places still is) an industrial model. Today’s enthusiasm for project-based learning (PBL) fits into the paradigm-shifting category, helpfully emphasizing that we learn best by doing. As a complete educational philosophy or strategy, however, it falls short on many fronts.

At some level, doing must be based on knowing. Yet in almost every PBL model that I’ve observed—Summit Public Schools being the main exception—little or nothing is said about the acquisition of knowledge. Instead, these models emphasize the completion of the project, and whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed. Of course, it’s true that knowledge alone is insufficient for today’s economy. Skills and dispositions must be developed in the learner for content to be relevant and engaging. But it is that “content” (a.k.a. knowledge) that students must master in order to apply it to hands-on projects. There is no need to sacrifice the rigor of content. Only its delivery and assessment must be changed to move from Carnegie units and seat time to competency-based learning.

The second problem with PBL as the main vehicle for students’ learning experience is that it is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe. One of the big problems that personalized learning seeks to solve is the “Swiss cheese” problem.  Because we all learn differently, moving along at a one-size-fits-all pace means that slower students are left with big gaps of knowledge and skills—gaps that will come back to haunt them later on. That is of particular concern when PBL occurs at the elementary level, when youngsters are building their knowledge base.

When PBL is deployed, knowledge acquisition is driven by the demands of a given project. The object may be “deeper learning,” but the outcome is definitely narrower, potentially excluding other critical knowledge and skills. This should be solvable, yet the PBL instructional models make no specific reference to mastery. In other words, students can complete a project without mastering the skills in that project or the knowledge underlying its successful completion.

PBL also suffers from a significant “free rider” problem. Because most PBL schools have students work in groups and do little tracking of individual performance, some students naturally coast on the work of others. In his five-minute “commencement speech” on the Getting Smart website, Tom Vander Ark encourages listeners to develop skills in team leadership and project management in order to succeed in the new economy. But each team has only one leader and one manager. Where does that leave the other members? In Most Likely to Succeed, a film focused on the largely PBL-based High Tech High, one of the two main students takes over a project that he has obsessed over and then fails to complete it in time. Somewhere along the line, the classmates who were once part of his group disappear. They seemingly abdicated their roles, and it is not clear how they benefited from the experience or how they were able to demonstrate their achievements in order to be assessed. The featured student himself doesn’t even master the knowledge and skills critical to the project! While embracing failure is an important part of a robust learning system, such setbacks should be used to help students revisit and master the requisite competencies. Kids should be provided with more insights into why they failed and what to do about it, so as to increase their likelihood of future success. Failure of core knowledge and skills is not an option in any effective learning environment.

Finally, PBL relies heavily on highly qualified teachers, so much so that High Tech High now trains its own. That’s well and good for High Tech High, but it isn’t a satisfactory formula for mass adoption of PBL. American public education faces an immense human capital problem that we have not been able to resolve since “A Nation at Risk” sounded the alarm in 1983. We cannot rely on extraordinary people to deliver a twenty-first-century education to all our children; not enough such people exist. We have to deploy strategies that empower the learners and teachers as they are, where they are. In its current form, PBL may work well for kids in boutique school settings. But it offers scant hope of solving education problems on the scale that America needs.

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Why I’m Unsure Project-based Learning Prepares Students for College (Ronnie Estoque)

“Ronnie Estoque is a junior at Seattle’s Cleveland High School. He is a staff writer for Cleveland Publications, an intern at The Seattle Globalist and is interested in pursuing a career in journalism.” This appeared in the Seattle Times, June 16, 2016.

As a junior attending Cleveland High School, I am slowly approaching the arduous process of college applications. This has led me to reflect on whether or not Cleveland has prepared me for college-level work.

In the fall of 2010, Cleveland became a STEM high school with a focus on project-based learning. The newly designed curriculum was meant to emulate a work environment for students while teaching them how to use technology in their school work. Cleveland classes revolve around group work and projects. This unique way of teaching helps students build group-work skills, but does it prepare students for college, where students mostly work independently?

Linda Chen graduated from Cleveland in 2015 and is a freshman at the University of Washington. She enjoyed her time at Cleveland, but now sees one major flaw of project-based learning.

“The one thing I hated was that they (teachers) didn’t enforce student accountability during projects,” Chen said. “Most of the time it was me just doing all the work and someone else taking the credit.”

Group projects, in other words, don’t accurately reflect students’ individual knowledge and, more often than not, the students who work hard and complete their portion of projects also have to do more work to make up for the students who aren’t pulling their weight.

Kiet Sam also graduated in 2015 and is a freshman at the University of Washington majoring in computer science. Sam describes in stark contrast his college-level and the project-based learning at Cleveland.

“In college, almost all my work is completed independently.” Sam said. “Depending on your major there may be more projects, but in general, college is mostly to measure a student’s individual ability to perform.”

Cleveland students are judged on their individual knowledge through tests, but not as frequently as other high schools that don’t use project-based learning. Catherine Brown, the School of Life Sciences principal at Cleveland, said she thinks project-based learning has been good for the school.

Before, there were small pockets of success among the student population,” Brown said. “Now success is the new norm.”

And there’s evidence that the changes at Cleveland have made a difference. According to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, only 17 percent of 10th-graders at Cleveland met state standards for math in the 2009-10 school year. During the 2013-14 school year, that number dramatically increased to more than 80 percent.

Cleveland teacher Steve Pratt, who has taught at the school for 10 years, said the implementation of STEM and project-based learning at Cleveland has also led to a drastic change in student culture. According to Pratt, before STEM and project-based learning, students weren’t as engaged and eager to learn in class. Now, he sees more students striving to take their work more seriously.

“It has done great things for Cleveland even though there are still some things that need to be improved,” Pratt said.

Pratt is one of the teachers who enforces student accountability. In his classes, students can “fire” their group members during projects. Pratt holds a high standard for his students’ group work contributions, but not all Cleveland teachers do the same. He also believes that it can be difficult for students to adjust to project-based learning if they’re coming from a conventional style of teaching, and students can quickly fall behind in the workload. I believe more teachers, like Pratt, should hold students to higher standards.

While project-based learning, along with STEM, has done great things for Cleveland as a whole, I worry that many students won’t be as prepared for college as they need to be. I believe that more teachers at Cleveland need to hold students more accountable for the roles they play in projects. By holding students to higher standards during group projects, teachers will be able to teach them more about responsibility, time management, and prioritization.

Students like Chen and Sam, who do their share of project work — and more — are doing fine in college, although Chen said the adjustment to individual work was tough at first. I am concerned about the students who are piggybacking their way through Cleveland’s system. Those are the ones who will suffer most when they get to college. This worries me, as I also have been a student who has had to do the work of peers who didn’t do their share.

What will happen to them?

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Consumer Choice in Schooling: Algorithms and Personalized Learning (Part 1)

“The consumerist path of least resistance in America takes you to Amazon for books, Uber for transportation, Starbucks for coffee, and Pandora for songs. Facebook’s ‘Trending’ list shows you the news, while Yelp ratings lead you to a nearby burger. The illusion of choice amid such plenty is easy to sustain, but it’s largely false; you’re being herded by algorithms from purchase to purchase.”

Mario Bustillos, This Brand Could be Your Life, June 28, 2016

 

I wish I had written that paragraph. It captures a definite feature not only of our consumerist-driven society but also in recent school reform (e.g., the growth of charter schools and expanded parental choice). I also include the media hype and techno-enthusiasm for “personalized learning.” The centerpiece of any form of “personalized learning” (or “adaptive learning“) is algorithms for tailoring lessons to individual students (see here, here, and here). What Bustillos omits  in the above article about the dominance of consumerism driven by algorithms is that regression equations embedded in algorithms make predictions based on data. Programmers decide on how much weight to put on particular variables in the equations. Such decisions are subjective; they contain value judgments about the independent and dependent variables and their relationship to one another. The numbers hide the subjectivity within these equations.

Like Facebook designers altering its algorithm so as to direct news tailored to each Facebook consumer “to put a higher priority on content shared by friends and family,” software engineers create different versions of  “personalized learning” and insert value judgments into the complicated regression equations with which they have written for online lessons. These equations are anchored in the data students produce in answering questions in previous lessons. These algorithms predict (not wholly since engineers and educators do tweak–“massage” is a favored word–the equations) what students should study and absorb in individualized, daily, online software lessons (see here).

Such “personalized” lessons alter the role of the teacher for the better, according to promoters of the trend. Instead of covering content and directly teaching skills, teachers can have students work online thereby freeing up the teacher to coach, give individual attention to students who move ahead of their classmates and those who struggle.

Critics, however, see the spread of online, algorithmic-based lessons as converting teaching to directing students to focus on screens and automated lessons thereby shrinking the all-important role of teacher-student relationships, the foundation for social, moral, and cognitive learning in public schools. Not so, advocates of “personalized learning” aver. There might be fewer certified teachers in schools committed to lessons geared to individual students (e.g., Rocketship) but teachers will continue to perform as mentors, role models, coaches, and advisers not as mere purveyors of content and skills.

As in other policy discussions, the slippage into either/or dichotomies beckons. The issue is not whether or not to use algorithms since each of us uses algorithmic thinking daily. Based on years of experiential data we have compiled in our heads (without regression equations) step-by-step routines just to get through the day (e.g., which of the usual routes to work should I take; how best to get the class’s attention at the beginning of a lesson). Beyond our experiences, however, we depend on mathematical algorithms embedded in the chips that power our Internet searches Internet, control portions of our driving cars and operate home appliances.

The issue is not that algorithms are value-free (they are not) or data rich (they are). The issue is whether practitioners and parents–consumers of fresh out-of-the-box products–come to depend automatically on carefully constructed algorithms which contain software designers’ value judgments displayed in flow charts and written into code for materials and lessons students will use tomorrow. Creators of algorithms (including ourselves) juggle certain values (e.g., favorite theory of learning, student-centered instruction, small group collaboration, correctness of information, increasing productivity and decreasing cost, ease of implementation) and choose among them  in constructing their equations. They judge what is important and select among those values since time, space, and other resources are limited in creating the “best” or “good enough” equation for a given task. Software designers choose to give more weight to some variables over others–see Facebook decision above. Rich, profuse data, then, never speaks for itself. Look for the values embedded in the algorithmic equations. Such simple facts are too often brushed aside.

What are algorithms?

Wikipedia’s definition of an algorithm is straight forward: a sequence of steps taken to solve a problem and complete a task. Some images make the point for simple algorithms.

algorithmmaxresdefault

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or if you want a Kahn Academy video to explain an algorithm, see here.

Complex algorithms

Most algorithms are hardly simple, however. Amazon’s proprietary algorithms on searches and popularity of books, for example, are unavailable to the public yet are heavily leaned upon by advertisers, authors, and consumers (e.g., also Amazon’s  algorithmic feature that appears on your screen: “customers who viewed this also viewed….”).  Among school reformers interested in evaluating teachers on the basis of students’ test scores, algorithms and their complex regression equations have meant the difference between getting a bonus or getting fired, for example,  in Washington, D.C. . And for those “personalized learning” advocates eager to advance student-centered classrooms,  algorithms  contain theories of action of what-causes-what that tilt toward one way of learning. In short, software designers’ value judgements matter as to what pops out at the other end of the equation. and then is used in making an evaluative judgment and an instructional decision.

Part 2 will look at values in algorithms that evaluate teachers and customize learning.

 

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Hype on Steroids: Self-Driving Cars and School Technologies

A full week of mainstream and social media swept across the nation about the death of a Tesla car owner killed in Florida using the self-driving option. With the auto-pilot function turned on, the Tesla driver collided with a tractor-trailer and became the first known fatality in the industry’s surge to produce self-driving cars. Google and Tesla and 30 other companies (e.g., Honda, Ford, GM,Toyota) compete for what is hyped as the “next big thing”; such cars, they claim, will “disrupt” the century-old personal transportation market.

A Morgan Stanley Blue Paper announced in 2013:

Autonomous cars are no longer just the realm of science fiction.They are real and will be on roads sooner than you think. Cars with basic autonomous capability are in showrooms today, semi-autonomous cars are coming in 12-18 months, and completely autonomous cars are
set to be available before the end of the decade

Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk said the self-driving function on the Tesla meant that “[t]he probability of having an accident is 50 per cent lower if you have Autopilot on” …. “Even with our first version, it’s almost twice as good as a person.”

Skeptics have tossed in their two cents (see here and here; for rebutting skeptics, see here) but when it comes to questioning new technologies in U.S. culture, skeptics are alien creatures.

While the hype pumping up self-driving cars can lead to accidents and deaths, no such serious consequences accompany promoters of technological innovations who have promised increased teacher efficiency, improved student achievement, and the end of low-performing schools for the  past half-century.  Need I mention that Google has a “Chief Evangelist for Global Education?”

Nothing surprising about hype (even when  injected with steroids)  in a consumer-driven, highly commercial society committed to practicing democracy. Hype is hype either for self-driving cars or for school technologies. Parsing the hyped language and images becomes important because real-life consequences flow from these words and pictures.

 

Consider these advertisements championing new technologies since the 1950s.

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Over-stated claims are  commonplace when it comes to pumping up the benefits of the “next big thing.” Early adopters of new technologies discover the bugs in new hardware and software soon enough.  Glitches, however, seldom dissuade this crowd from peering around the corner for its replacement.

Does hype serve any social and political purpose other than to stimulate consumers to buy the product? I believe it does.

1. Over-the-top statements strengthen the popular belief that change is “good” for individuals and society overall. Not only is change “good” for Americans but in the technology industry and culture of school reform, change morphs into improvement. In Silicon Valley argot, “making the world a better place,” means a new product, a new service, a new app will improve life (a parody of this oft-repeated phrase can be seen here)

Equating change with improvement is a cognitive error. Surely, an improvement implies a change has occurred but because the change has happened, improvement does not necessarily follow. A moment’s thought would quickly squelch equating change with improvement. Stepping on a scale and seeing that you have gained five pounds while on a low-carb diet is clearly a change but not, in your view, an improvement. Think of a divorce in a family. The spouse initiating the divorce sees the split as a change for the better but for the others involved including children, few would see it as an improvement with two homes, living with different parents or weekend visits. Change occurs constantly but improvement is in the mind of the beholder.

Consider whether a new app that has a “smart” button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down or another app that locates rentable yachts are improvements to one’s life (see here). To those individuals who buy and download these apps they appear as improvements promising a better life but to others, they appear as trivial indulgences that hardly make the “world a better place.”

School reformers who believe that changes lead to improvements in teaching and learning, for example, often refer to gains in student test scores, increases in teacher productivity (i.e., less time to do routine tasks), and other measurable outcomes as evidence of  better schooling. Reformers holding divergent values (e.g., higher civic engagement, student well-being), however, would differ over whether test scores, et. al. are improvements. Quite often, then, the definition of improvement depends upon who does the defining and the values they prize.

2. Hype over new technologies raises questions about the existing institution’s quality.  Consider current health care where millions still lack health insurance, emergency rooms are over-crowded, wait time to see specialists physicians increases, and patients get less and less time when they do see their doctors. Hyping the “next big thing” in medical technology becomes a direct criticism of existing health care. Think of “hospital in a box,” or patient kiosks placed in pharmacies, where ill people go to the kiosk for video conferencing with one or more doctors about what ails them. Such new technologies raises implicit questions about access to adequate health care and to what degree the relationship between doctor and patient is important in improving health.

Or consider the thousands of lives lost on the nation’s roads to accidents and human error in driving. Self-driving cars, once prevalent on the nation’s highways will, promoters claim, dramatically reduce the 32,000 deaths in car accidents while increasing worker productivity since with self-driving cars owners can complete other tasks that heretofore would have not been done. Self-driving cars raises anew questions about the lack of adequate public transportation and a society committed to one-person-per car.

And hype for technological innovations in schools for “personalized” or “adaptive” learning pictures the existing system as factory-like  whole-class, age graded, teacher-dominated instruction that ignores, even neglects individualized lessons, student-centered learning, and reconfigured classrooms.

3. Hype shrinks the time to show results to immediately. Most software products in the educational arena, for example, take time for teachers and students to grasp, understand, and use them in lessons. Education proceeds by short not long steps. Hyping these products leave the distinct impression that unless the desired result hasn’t happened in a few months then someone (note the beginnings of blame) has failed to do it right. And it ain’t the software developer.

4. Software and hardware developers come to believe their own hype. The cliche of “drinking the Kool-Aid–applies here and such self-deception occurs. And when it does, CEOs of start-ups and other companies start making short-cuts to get products into schools and stores. Those short-cuts increase software glitches, highten arguments with consumers of the products, and diminish faith in the innovation.

These outcomes of hype are not justifications for its ubiquity. They  help me understand the role that it (and its cousin, “magical thinking”) perform in U.S. society.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use