Category Archives: how teachers teach

Technology Trade-offs in a Physics Classroom (Alice Flarend)

“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania.  She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years.  She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State.  She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education  and public K-12 schools.”

One of the first uses of computers in many physics classes decades ago was to graph data using Excel. This innovation prompted lengthy discussions among physics teachers at meetings and conferences about the trade-offs of having students use this aid rather than graphing by hand. Excel could make graphing so easy, but the students could lose the skill of creating axes, legends, and interacting with their data.

I have found these types of discussions distinctly lacking as we move more classroom activities onto the digital world. I want to call attention to the often overlooked trade offs between efficiency and quality of information that occur when classroom tasks are handled electronically. While the examples I present  are from my world of physics teaching, I have seen similar ones in my high school as we have moved through a 1-to-1 iPad initiative.

Physics classes are inherently hands on. We drop marbles and roll balls down inclines, usually with stop watches in our hands. Computer simulations and digital data collection for laboratory experiments are replacing those stop watches. Computers allow students to collect more and cleaner data than ever before. Calculations are done internally and instantly displayed graphically. Patterns are easier to discern. Multiple trials are accomplished with a click.

However, that simple click masks information about the data collection and processing. It hides the messy experimental and mathematical work that is the basis for the patterns. My students believe that any graph on the screen must be an accurate representation of a ball in motion, even the wildly inaccurate ones caused by ball being nowhere near the digital sensor. It is so easy for students to lose sight of the actual physical world as they analyze those pretty digital graphs.

My early experiences with an internet-based homework service were more positive than turning in paper homework. Particularly with difficult problems,  paper homework tends to be more of a “I didn’t understand this but at least I got something to turn in” type of experience. Internet-based homework gives students a particular number of attempts so they keep trying a problem until they get it right. I could give my students challenging work and their grades would not suffer terribly because they could keep working until they got it right. Because my homework service does not have a sophisticated “help” function, students would come to me for aid. They gained a deeper understanding as we talked and I gained valuable formative assessment feedback.

In the last few years, however, there has been a disturbing trend of students searching online for solutions. The problem is these online solutions are not educative solutions. They just give a bare-bones derivation and students then plug in their numbers into the final equation. Students get the problem marked correct but they do not actually understand the solution. With increased use of these online tools, I have more students who take only a single try to get each homework problem correct, but then fail the test.

This automatic grading, a feature of many digital products, saves me time and the students get immediate feedback. They can be used in real time in the classroom. For the most part, these grading programs are limited to multiple choice questions or numerical solutions. As an experienced teacher, I can create these types of questions to probe my students’ knowledge, but they are limited to more simple ideas and preprogrammed choices. I prefer open-ended types of questions where the students write a long enough answer so their misconceptions and uncommon ideas can emerge and be explained in unique ways. I can look at their work with mathematical problems. That is where I find the most useful formative assessment. With digital grading programs, I lose a lot of that valuable information.

Tools like Google Classroom are supposed to ease communication between teachers and students. They allow efficient dissemination of classroom materials to students and collecting their work. The perennial excuses of “I lost the handout” or “My printer ran out of ink” are no longer applicable when students can just download another copy or email me their documents. I can easily add comments to those documents submitted to me, helping students to improve their work. All of this can be done at any moment that the student or teacher wishes, at school or at home.

In my experience, I have seen little evidence that this ease of communication has increased the quantity or quality of my students’ work. Students who neglected to turn in paper homework also neglect electronic versions. Students who lose handouts do not download new copies. I can write many helpful comments on students’ work and they will receive a notification that a comment has been posted. Nothing in the program, however, makes the students read these comments and improve their work. Now the same can be said for comments written on paper, but in judging the large numbers of requests I receive for translation of my third-grade handwriting, my students do tend at least to read my handwritten comments.

Overall, this apparent ease of accomplishing classroom work has created a larger gap between the students. Students who work to understand the material and see a purpose in school, do take advantage of the affordances of the technology as they do all other supports.   Many other students disconnected from learning in school are not lured into learning because of screens, despite the promises of the tech literature. They do not take advantage of internet tutorials to increase their understanding. They do not look at my comments and do a rewrite of their rough draft. They do not open up lines of communication outside of classroom time, despite having a device and programs that will do this with only a few clicks. This gap has always existed, but the digital aspect has increased it, or at least made it more visible.

What I have learned from these experiences is to be vigilant in the use of technology. It offers many advantages in making tasks easier and more efficient. It does not, however, easily transform any classroom activity into one where deep learning occurs. In fact, it can easily do the opposite and mask difficulties in a flurry of correct answers and perfect graphs.

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Personalized Learning at Pomeroy Elementary School (Milpitas, CA)

The recently built Learning Lab at Pomeroy Elementary School is a large room with multi-colored chairs, cubbies for students to sit in, and tables where students work together. Part of the previous Superintendent’s plan for staff to redesign their schools for blended learning (see here), Pomeroy’s Learning Lab the morning of October 21, 2016 was filled with 28 sixth graders working on different tasks. “We are,” their teacher Deanna Sainten said,”doing blended learning to the max.”

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After listening to the veteran teacher who has spent ten years at Pomeroy, I walked around and spoke to students sitting in pairs, trios, and alone. Three students told me that they were looking at a Scholastic News article called “Vote for Me,” about the Clinton/Trump campaign for president. They were reading the article and moving back-and-forth from the text to the worksheet with questions to answer. Another boy was writing in his notebook as he paged through his math text.

Two other 6th graders were working on their Personal Learning Plan checking which items they had “mastered,” (these show up in green on their screens) and ones that they have yet to complete (they show up in red). I asked them whether they had set goals for themselves–the PLP helps students acquire skills of self-assessment–and one showed me a screen shot of his goal labeled “Going to College.” The other boy still was at sea in figuring out how to use that part of the PLP.*

Elsewhere in the Learning Lab, I saw a line of about five students waiting to see Sainten sitting at a small desk. The students wanted the teacher to check their work  or were asking questions about the task they were working on.

I walked over to other students to see what they were doing. One boy was writing out answers on a worksheet about Ron Jones’ Acorn People and then transferring his answers to his Chromebook.  I asked him why he was doing that. He said: “It’s neater.” Two girls were working on the Scholastic News article on the presidential campaign and Googling on their tablets for information to answer questions. A boy and girl at a table were working on the Paleothic unit on their Chromebooks. Both were taking notes on their tablets from the readings they had done on screen. They said that after they were finished with the notes they would submit them to Ms. Sainten for her approval before they could move to assessing on screen how much they learned on this part of the Paleolithic era.

As I scanned the room every trio, pair, and individual were at work on different tasks.

At the 12′ X 12′ whiteboard under the banner: The Mind Is Not a Vessel To Be Filled But a Fire To Be Ignited–see above photo–a boy and girl were working out math problem called “opposites of numbers.” They were talking to one another and jotting down notes to be sent to the teacher after they were finished.

The teacher tells class that they have five minutes left to complete their work before returning to their room. Four students wait in line to see Sainten. She looks around the Learning Lab and says aloud to the group, “Make sure conversations are on task.”

With a minute before the buzzer sounds, teacher tells class: “You have to leave Learning Lab cleaner than you found it.” Students straighten out tables and chairs, pick up scraps of paper on the floor. Buzzer sounds. Students return to their classroom.

In those classrooms when upper-grade teachers are not in the Learning Lab,  Sainten and colleagues organize their daily lessons around switching students between small groups, individual work, and large group instruction. The teachers rotate their students through various activities (reading, math, independent work using Chromebooks whenever appropriate) within a 45-minute lesson. For the primary teachers who do not have access to the Learning Lab, they do rotation of activities within the classroom (see below).

Pomeroy Elementary School has 761 students of whom 72% Asian, 12% Hispanic, 5% white, 1% African American and 10% mixed race or other. In addition, the school has 36% English Language Learners and 25% Free or Reduced Lunch (2015). Sheila Murphy Brewer is principal. She and an assistant principal, 29 teachers and 19 staff members run the school. Teachers and students live for six or more hours a day in a remodeled main building and a host of portables, many of which have been made permanent.

Built in 1967 as an “open space” school, within a few years walls went up and teachers reclaimed their own classrooms while still retaining common space in the primary grades. As the school grew in enrollment, portables were added and renovations occurred as did the addition of even more portables. The Learning Lab space is, in effect, a resurrection of “open space” in the original part of the school.

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After leaving the Learning Lab, I walked over to visit Akshat Das’s 5th grade class. With 29 students, each wall laden with posters, students’ work, and photos, the room felt crowded. Students leave their back packs outside the room.

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Das was seated at a table in the front of the room working with individual students who she called up one at a time to meet with her. The rest of the class were at work on different activities, some reading from their Chromebook screens, others in pairs taking notes and talking to one another, and even others helping classmates with a question. Das looks across the room and says: “eyes and ears up here,” meaning that students stop and look at her. “You have been working in pairs and if you need more help you can turn to others at your table, she says.”

A former parent at the school and volunteer, Das eventually acquired her credentials and began teaching at Pomeroy five years ago. Like her upper grade colleagues, she participated in Summit’s Base Camp and created lessons that could be used (and shared) among 5th grade teachers.

After class, Das told me that she works closely with one other 5th grade teacher, particularly on how best to manage time and do all that is required to help kids especially those who need help. She has shifted, she says, from “direct instruction” in content (she teaches science, language arts, math, social studies) to using the Personal Learning Plan after her summer work with Base Camp. Now, she says, content is available to students on their Chromebooks as they learn subject matter in different “modalities.”

Das also pointed out to me that 5th graders now learn far more and explicitly from each other. They work on their individual PLPs and know what they have finished and what they have to work on. They know how many items they have “mastered” and how many items in lessons need further work. She now parlays small groups working together, pairs, whole group instruction, and individual attention from her–as she was doing when I entered the room–into a complex lesson that unfolded as I was there.

According to Das, she has decentralized her instruction by using PLPs. Moreover, she has trained members of the class to be “mentors” to other students who need help on a particular skill. On one wall is a list of  student names and the skills they have mastered. After being approved by Das, students write in their names and what content and skills they can help  other 5th graders. When these  “mentors” complete their tasks during a lesson they are then allowed to help other students who have asked them for aid.

Upper grade teachers had access to Learning Lab and had learned to use the PLP. What about the primary grades?

On another day, after interviewing the principal, I visited Pomeroy to see how primary grade teachers put “blended learning” into practice. As part of the school plan, these teachers did not have access to the Learning Lab. I saw two second grade classes (with a large common space between the two rooms) teach lessons by rotating students through three activities within the classroom.

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For example, in Vicky Ramirez’s second grade room there are 23 boys and girls. She has been teaching at Pomeroy for over 20 years. Sitting in the back of the room I see 11 students using the iReady application with   earphones/ear buds sitting at tables working on math in their Chromebooks (there is a cart of devices in the room). Ramirez, sitting in a rocker, works on reading with eight students sitting on rug. Elsewhere in the room, four boys are lying on rug working on clipboards that they have with tasks to complete.

Ramirez has divided the lesson into three activities: teacher-led reading group, independent work–boys with clipboards–and others using iReady. After about 15-20 minutes, the teacher announces that the students will rotate to another activity. Students respond quickly and some go up to Ramirez for reading, another group dons earphones and buds, and the rest work independently on worksheets.

Over the two morning visits to Pomeroy Elementary school, “blended learning” and “personalization” operated differently in the primary and upper grades of the school. The Learning Lab catered to the upper grades and in-class rotation of activities in the  primary ones. In both instances, the use of the devices were in the background, not the foreground of each teacher’s lessons.

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*The Personal Learning Plan and individual playlists for 5th and 6th graders in language arts, social studies, science, and math come from Pomeroy teachers’ involvement with Summit charter network creation of a Base Camp (see here). Fifth and 6th grade teachers at Pomeroy and Weller elementary schools had joined the Summit Base Camp during the summer of 2015 and that school year and the following summer had learned how to have students use the PLP and, in addition, had customized playlists for their upper-grade elementary school students. Sixth grade teacher Deanna Sainten, described above, had attended the Summit Base Camp.She and her colleagues had created lessons and units adapted to upper elementary grades since the Base Camp was tilted toward secondary schools.

The above description of Pomeroy students in the Learning Lab draws from this partnership with the Summit network of schools reaching out to other public schools (Interview with Principal Sheila Murphy-Brewer, October 21, 2016).

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Personalized Learning in Milpitas (CA): District Reforms

A former high school science teacher in a small Northern California district, Cary Matsuoka eventually moved into administration and became superintendent in 2006 in Los Gatos-Saratoga Union school district with two high schools, one of which he had taught in for 13 years. After five years as superintendent, he applied for and was chosen superintendent of the larger Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) in 2011. Milpitas then had 13 schools (nine elementary, two middle, and one high school) serving about 10,000 students, far more diverse than the smaller mostly white Los Gatos-Saratoga Union district. Matsuoka left MUSD in 2016 to serve the larger Santa Barbara district of 22 schools and over 15,000 students (see here and here).

But, oh what a five year run in technology integration it was for Milpitas.

A year after Matsuoka arrived, district voters approved a $95 million bond proposition for new buildings and technology infrastructure. In that year, the superintendent posed a question to district staff.

*”If you could design a school what would it look like?”

Taken with how contemporary designers pose problems and involve those who have to execute decisions in classrooms (see here), Matsuoka involved staff, the school board, and teacher union in answering this critical question. No top-down answers or direction from the board or superintendent. No command-and-control decisions. Answers would come from those who had to execute the designs. An unusual process in most districts.

He and Chin Song, director of technology, took groups of teachers, administrators, and board of education members to see about 50 schools throughout California. Also as Song explained, “We wanted to bring people to campus because it was easier timing-wise.Maybe it’ll be teachers from Rocketship, maybe Summit, maybe Santa Barbara… we like variety.”

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[Matsuoka on left; Song, right]

The answers came slowly but clearly over the next school year driven by the widely shared truth of teaching in public schools: classrooms with 30-plus students in age-graded schools, tailoring instruction to meet differences among students and individualizing learning is very hard to do.

With construction and technology funding, district administrators asked schools to come up with designs, new models, for their schools. Matsuoka said that the models schools came up would be judged and a few selected to become pilots for the district. The designs had to meet these criteria:

“The models had to 1) integrate technology, 2) use data to inform instruction 3) be student-centered and 4) be flexible in how they used space, time, and student grouping.” (see here)

District committees chose two elementary schools  to be pilots. By the end of 2013, the direction was clear. The pilots and work at one middle school showed that a newly designed school could integrate technology into daily lessons.  All district schools would have blended learning with special spaces set aside for newly constructed Learning Labs.

By 2013, with money from the approved bond proposition, nearly 5,000 Chromebooks had been purchased and distributed across the district. By 2015, six elementary schools, one middle school and the one district high school had been remodeled to include Learning Labs (Matsuoka letter to Milpitas Post, September 2014).

In the primary grades of elementary schools teachers would rotate learning stations during a lesson: students would move from small groups in reading, to math, and then tablet computers to work individually).  In the upper elementary grades, rotation of classes through the Learning Lab would occur. In middle and high schools, the newly built Learning Labs became centers for technology integration. Individual teachers and departments scheduled their classes to use the new spaces. This became the blended learning model that MUSD gradually–not in one fell swoop–spread through the district (see here and here).

This also became the district version of “personalized learning.” As the Superintendent put it in a letter to the Milpitas Post in September 2014:

What does personalized learning look like?  It begins by looking at education as both acquisition of information and application of information.  Then we must create learning environments that nurture a strong relationship between the teacher and the student, and a strong sense of community within each classroom.  Students should have opportunities for collaboration and learning with and from their peers.  Students should have more choice about what they learn, more control over time and pacing, and use technology to create a personalized learning pathway

In the Fall of 2016, I visited two of the elementary schools that have been involved in the redesign of their schools, one of which had been selected as a pilot for blended learning, and spent two mornings each observing primary and upper-grade lessons and interviewing  teachers. The following posts will describe what I saw and heard.

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The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).

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Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and in the second decade of the 21st century.

Recent posts on the AltSchool (Parts 2 and 3) and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–-a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–-have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective (and deeper understanding) to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of a science of education.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured buildings, teacher performance, and student achievement. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives” and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neo-progressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and more interaction with the “real” world, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to other stations in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade as a new generation of reformers promised “back to basics” (see here).

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” today resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging  cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” (and the many definitions of each) is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Except for  AltSchool and other private schools, tensions arise in public schools over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging academic performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet faced these conflicts in the DNA of this popular reform.

So current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction through use of digital tools combine anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.

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*This post is an updated version of the one that originally appeared June 9, 2015.

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The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 3)

Located in the South-of-Market district (SOMA) of San Francisco this micro-school of 33 middle schoolers is a few blocks away from Yerba Buena (see Part 2). I spent a morning there speaking with the Head of School, Emily Dahm (who also is in charge of Yerba Buena), observing two lessons taught by “core educators” James Earle (social studies/English) and Eman Haggag (science), and interviewing Katie Berk, a product manager, from the technical side of the “micro-school.”

Facing busy Folsom Street, AltSchool space is divided into four large carpeted rooms two of which were used that morning for lessons (no class I observed was larger than 15). The other two spaces include a room with desktop computers and commons area for the entire school to meet. Software engineers and staff (coders, designers, and product managers) were located in a large space in the back of the building adjacent to the classrooms and commons area.

Each classroom space has wall-mounted cameras and microphones hanging from the ceiling–called Altvideo–that produce data for teachers to view later privately about the lesson they taught.  The technical staff has produced an app that teachers can use to find the precise part of the lesson they want to see. This self-evaluation occurs during the school day and other times.

On November 7, 2016 I arrived at 8:00 AM and interviewed the Head of School and both core educators. School began at 9:00 with a “morning meeting.” There were 21 twelve to fourteen year-olds sitting in a circle with Eman Haggag counting down from 10 to 0 to secure quiet for the “morning meeting” to begin. On a whiteboard are listed announcements:

Good Morning,

How are you? I am quite marvelous. Cupa’ tea?

Few things:

–Feynman bring phones to class powered off (students are in different groups–(the internationally known physicist Richard Feynman)–is name of one group of students)

Field trip Wednesday–Altschool shirts + pencil + paper

–Ceramics class 11/17, 11/18/,11/22

Students ask logistics questions about upcoming field trip, teachers answer their questions.These morning meetings are to inform students of daily activities and build bonds of community among both students and adults.

At 9:10, students go to the Earle’s and Haggag’s spaces. I go to observe a 90-minute lesson in James Earle’s room.

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*The camera is a red dot in a small square below “Join or Die” poster; the mics are in the ring suspended from the ceiling.

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There are 14 students in Earle’s class, one with desks and chairs along the windows and walls facing the center. The students sit on the desks with their backs to windows and walls and their feet on the chairs.They appear used to the informality of the seating arrangements and easily shift to sitting at their desks later in the lesson.

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In his third year at SOMA, Earle taught global cultures using art, literature, history, and science for eight years at a private school in East Hampton (NY). There he used digital tools extensively. He was attracted to AltSchool for its “public mission, inclusivity, and freedom to work on an integrated curriculum.” *

Earle, wearing a checked long-sleeved shirt with a loosened gray tie over jeans, stands in the center of the room ready to launch the lesson on students writing their position papers on the struggle between colonists and Britain over trade, taxes, and loyalty to the Crown.

To pairs of students, he has assigned actual characters who lived in the years before the American Revolution when colonials were divided among themselves as patriots who sought representation in Parliament and loyalists  to the Crown (e.g. British commander Jeffrey Amherst, Admiral Samuel Hood, colonist William Franklin).  King George III and British Parliament were also divided over how to best treat the uppity colonists who didn’t want to pay taxes that would recoup British costs in defending the colonies in an earlier French and Indian War that had lasted seven years.

Students have researched the person about whom they are expected to write a position paper.  Earle had created playlists of sources, video clips, and readings located on students’ Chromebooks covering these years and different individuals he had assigned to pairs of students.  Some members of the class are just beginning to get a sense of their character’s personality; others are at sea and today’s lesson is aimed at answering students questions and get them to dig into the writing.

Earle stresses the importance of students knowing their character’s personality and what positions the person would take on trade with Britain and colonists’ representation in Parliament. He goes over the slide listing instructions on writing a position paper, paragraph by paragraph, and the importance of the students writing an internally consistent paper that reflects who their character is, their personality, and what stands that the person would take in this on-going struggle with the mother country.

After going over the parts of the position paper, Earle then says “Let’s go around and ask questions.” There are many.

One student asks about William Franklin, a colonial Loyalist (and son of Ben) and his personality that she gleaned from sources she used. Earle responds about how to develop a plan consistent with the character each team is going to write about. Knowing their character’s views on trade, for example, become part of the position paper. Another student asks about her character who is a British soldier and how he would address his commander.

Earle interrupts the class for a moment as he sees six students who have opened their Chromebooks and have begun tapping away. He asks them to close their lids for now since the questions others ask can apply to their work. They do.

Students resume their questions. One asks whether they will work on the Island simulation (lessons that Earle created to show students the different factions in the colonies; the simulation has six islands with different resources where competition and cooperation do exist but change over time.  An upcoming debate among the Islands will occur). Earle says they will have the debate. He turns to another student question.

After another few minutes of questions, Earle asks students to now sit at the desks so he can see what they are working on as they begin writing. All of the students either open their Chromebooks to read and re-read sources in their playlists or begin writing. Some students have their partners in the room and some are in the other class with Eman Haggag and even others are at Yerba Buena.

I speak to three students near me and ask what they are doing. One shows me the playlist she has and the video she is watching; another explains to me about the British soldier she is going to write about. One student has William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, and wonders how to address and write a letter as a member of the House of Lords.

Earle goes to each student, listens to what the student is concerned about in the position paper or character he or she has been assigned, and has a mini-conversation before moving on to another student. To one student, he says, “get your fingers moving on the keyboard.” The student does. For the remaining time in the lesson, students are figuring out their character’s positions on different issues roiling colonist-British relations and at various stages of writing their position paper.

I leave the room and  walk a few steps to the open space where Eman Haggag’s science lesson on “Speed Machines”is underway. Part of the lesson is a lab measuring the speed of a marble going down a ramp. The open space is furnished with a series of black-topped lab tables (resistant to stains and flaking) holding three to four students facing the front of the space where there is an interactive white board that shows slides for the lesson.

Haggag came to SOMA this school year. She has taught eight years in charter and private schools in the Washington, D.C. area. In those different schools she had one laptop per students, interactive white boards and a host of digital tools available to her. What attracted her to AltSchool was the concept of experimenting in a “lab school” where different ideas about schools and classroom lessons can be tested. “Here,” she says is the “autonomy I have sought in teaching.”  Moreover, she says: “I feel ownership of what I do. In this lab setting, I can practice what I preach.”

By the time I enter the room, Haggag–wearing an ankle-length black skirt with a flowered blouse over a long-sleeved shirt and a blue scarf—has organized the 13 students into groups of three and four students collecting data on how fast a marble rolls down a ramp. Like Galileo rolling balls down an incline and measuring their speed, this lab sought to  apply the formula:

SPEED =DISTANCE  (DIVIDED BY)  TIME

Students had already constructed an inclined plane out of 2′ X 3′ pieces of hard cardboard and scotch-taped a yard stick, marked off in 3″ segments. The task for each group is to time how long the marble takes to go from the first segment to the second and then from the second until the next all the way to the 10th and last segment.  Each student in the group has a task. One uses her smart phone as a stop-watch; another catches the marble at each segment and another records time and length of drop.

As I walk around the room, these 12 to 14 year-olds are engaged in the doing each step of the experiment and recording the data. Haggag walks to each group, inquires if there are any problems, and answers questions. At one point she says to the class: “You’re getting into the groove. That’s awesome.”

I overhear one student–the marble catcher in a nearby group say to her group -mates: “This is really stressful.”

Haggag asks students to begin looking at the data they have collected and enter it into a Data Table with columns for distance in centimeters (each segment of the yardstick), time, and speed. They are to calculate the speed of the marble for each segment by dividing the distance by the time it took to traverse the distance. Students enter data and have many questions. Some are answered by group members and friends in other groups; others by the teacher who goes to each group and checks on the data they entered. A few students say out loud the mistakes they made in setting up the experiment and executing it.

With about 20 minutes left to the lesson, Haggag stands on a chair with a four foot high “rain stick” that has small pebbles in it. She turns “the rain stick” upside down and the  sound of the pebbles falling inside the stick is a sign that the teacher wants students’ attention. The class quiets down. She then gives students instructions to disassemble cardboards, yardstick, and scotch tape, clean up any debris on floor and reassemble at their lab tables.

The students scurry about, clean up, and sit in their groups at each table.

Haggag then asks the whole group to think about what they learned from the experiment. Some students said that they did too many trials using the marble; others said they didn’t do enough trials. One student said how hard it was to release the marble and get an exact time. In each instance the teacher asked what the student had learned from their mistakes. Carrying off an experiment, one student said, depends on how well a procedure is done. Done poorly, he said, then the data are wrong. Haggag compliments students for their candor in enumerating their mistakes.

The teacher now asks students to calculate the data they collected. Students talk among themselves as they enter the numbers in the Data Table.

After about five minutes, Haggag asks the class to review the data and think about the hypothesis they had from previous lessons and how certain many members of the class were then that “numbers never lie.” She then goes over the estimates of speed that groups had calculated and how much variation existed among the groups using similar ramps, yardsticks, and marbles.

Even with these varying estimates, Haggag wants each group of students to graph the curve of the marble’s speed that they recorded.  She demonstrates on a slide how to put the various points on the grid–one axis is time and the other axis is distance–by counting the little blocks and where to insert a dot that with other dots will eventually produce a curve. She tells students that graph will show the “Speed of a Marble.”

quadrillesheet

Students work on this in groups as I leave the lesson to have an interview with Katie Berk, a product manager on the technical side of the AltSchool. The technical staff are lodged on the same floor in a large space at the back of the building.

Of nearly 160 employees in the network of “micro-schools” in San Francisco, there are more than 70 educators and about 30 are on the technical staff (they are not teachers) working on products, as coders, designers, and product managers. I interviewed Berk. In her third year at AltSchool, she was previously a Lead Product Manager at Zynga where she led a team that produced games.

At AltSchool, the technology side of the school receives a gigantic flow of data from “network” schools, digests the information, and designs software that solve problems that teachers and students have with current platform and programs while coming up with different ways to help teachers make their work both easier and efficient to reach the goals teachers have set for their students.

Berk tells me that the main job of the technology side is to help teachers teach and students learn more efficiently. They accomplish this, she says, by having close contact with what both teachers and students are doing by having engineers and designers spend time every week watching teachers teach and talking with them..

Teachers, Berk told me, run into problems with certain aspects of the platform used across AltSchool and they want simple ways to do an “end-around” the problem. Also teachers have ideas on what can make lessons, say, in science or math, easier for students to grasp and have an idea that can turn into an item on a playlist or the designer can wrestle with what the teacher wants and figure out a solution that she and her colleagues can create for the teacher. This collaboration between teachers and technical staff at AltSchool was one of the reasons that Berk came to the “network” of “micro-schools.” I thanked her for the time she spent with me and left.

_________________________

As I drive home after my interview with Berk, I think how unusual this partnership between educators and the technologist side of a school really is. On-site, skilled technical staff that confer frequently with their “users” to come up with solutions to teaching and learning problems while, at the same time, smart, experienced teachers can turn to designers and engineers to try out software ideas that teachers believe might help them teach and students learn is uniquely innovative. That partnership is uncommon in schooling today, both public and private.

Yes, I thought, there are issues of privacy for both teachers and students amid constant surveillance during school hours that still need to be negotiated.  Firewalls to prevent hacking or sharing information have to be strong enough not to be breached. That issue will not disappear.

Another thought occurred to me as I drove south on the freeway. AltSchool was practicing a form of progressive pedagogy that would have had John Dewey nodding in agreement.  Yet, at the same time, AltSchool had married their progressive ways of teaching and learning to the sought-after classroom and organizational efficiencies that new technologies provide in the “micro-school” network. Maybe Edward Thorndike, that early 20th century “educational engineer” who thought everything could be measured and analyzing data would point the way to better managed and efficient schools would, along with John Dewey, be nodding in agreement for the first time (see here).  Bringing together these two wings of the progressive movement a century ago finally  into one network of schools can be done, reformers might conclude, albeit at $26K per student a year.

__________________

* In an interview prior to the lesson, Earle succinctly told me how digital tools at the Ross School where he taught previously and here at the AltSchool have helped him negotiate the inherently impossible task of “managing the complexity of teaching.” He appreciates how many decisions, how many activities, how many student psyches come into play with his expertise and personality in a lesson. He seeks to have students acquire the skills and concepts he wants to communicate and have students not only grasp both but also come to understand and use in their school career. Negotiating this daily complexity of teaching is, according to Earle, aided, in part, by the digital tools he has available and uses with his students. Those tools are helpful to “manage the complexity of teaching,” he says, but it is still a high mountain to climb every day.

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Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to the Truth (Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew)

Sam Wineburg is a professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Sarah McGrew is pursuing her doctorate in curriculum and teacher education at Stanford.

This commentary  appeared in Education Week, November 1, 2016.

Did Donald Trump support the Iraq War? Hillary Clinton says yes. He says no. Who’s right?

In search of answers, many of us ask our kids to “Google” something. These so-called digital natives, who’ve never known a world without screens, are the household’s resident fact-checkers. If anyone can find the truth, we assume, they can.

Don’t be so sure.

True, many of our kids can flit between Facebook and Twitter while uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to using the Internet to get to the bottom of things, Junior’s no better than the rest of us. Often he’s worse.

In a study conducted by Eszter Hargittai and her colleagues at Northwestern University, 102 college students went online to answer questions about things that matter to them—like how to advise a female friend who’s desperate to prevent pregnancy after her boyfriend’s condom broke. How did students decide what to believe? One factor loomed largest: a site’s placement in the search results. Students ignored the sponsoring organization and the article’s author, blindly trusting the search engine to put the most reliable results first.

Research we’ve conducted at Stanford University supports these findings. Over the past 18 months, we administered assessments that tap young people’s ability to judge online information. We analyzed over 7,804 responses from students in middle school through college. At every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation: middle school students unable to tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students taking at face value a cooked-up chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee; college students credulously accepting a .org top-level domain name as if it were a Good Housekeeping seal.

One task asked students to determine the trustworthiness of material on the websites of two organizations: the 66,000 member American Academy of Pediatrics, established in 1930 and publisher of the journal Pediatrics, vs. the American College of Pediatricians, a fringe group that broke with the main organization in 2002 over its stance on adoption by same-sex couples. We asked 25 undergraduates at Stanford—the most selective college in the country, which rejected 95 percent of its applicants last year—to spend up to 10 minutes examining content on both sites. Students could stay on the initial web page, click on links, Google something else—anything they would normally do to reach a judgment.

More than half concluded that the article from the American College of Pediatricians, an organization that ties homosexuality to pedophilia and which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a hate group, was “more reliable.” Even students who preferred the entry from the American Academy of Pediatrics never uncovered the differences between the two groups. Instead, they saw the two organizations as equivalent and focused their evaluations on surface features of the websites. As one student put it: “They seemed equally reliable to me. … They are both from academies or institutions that deal with this stuff every day.”

Ironically, many students learned so little because they spent most of their time reading the articles on each organization’s site. But masking true intentions and ownership on the web has grown so sophisticated that to rely on the same set of skills one uses for print reading is naive. Parsing digital information before one knows if a site can be trusted is a colossal waste of time and energy.

This became clear to us when we gave our tasks to professional fact-checkers. Three strategies separate checkers from the rest of us:

  • Landing on an unfamiliar site, the first thing checkers did was to leave it. If undergraduates read vertically, evaluating online articles as if they were printed news stories, fact-checkers read laterally, jumping off the original page, opening up a new tab, Googling the name of the organization or its president. Dropped in the middle of a forest, hikers know they can’t divine their way out by looking at the ground. They use a compass. Similarly, fact-checkers use the vast resources of the Internet to determine where information is coming from before they read it.
  • Second, fact-checkers know it’s not about “About.” They don’t evaluate a site based solely on the description it provides about itself. If a site can masquerade as a nonpartisan think tank when funded by corporate interests and created by a Washington public relations firm, it can surely pull the wool over our eyes with a concocted “About” page.
  • Third, fact-checkers look past the order of search results. Instead of trusting Google to sort pages by reliability (which reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how Google works), the checkers mined URLs and abstracts for clues. They regularly scrolled down to the bottom of the search results page in their quest to make an informed decision about where to click first.

None of this is rocket science. But it’s often not taught in school. In fact, some schools have special filters that direct students to already vetted sites, effectively creating a generation of bubble children who never develop the immunities needed to ward off the toxins that float across their Facebook feeds, where students most often get their news. This approach protects young people from the real world rather than preparing them to deal with it.

After the vice presidential debate, Hillary Clinton’s campaign tweeted, “Unfortunately for Mike Pence and Donald Trump, Google exists (and we aren’t stupid).” Yes, Google puts vast quantities of information at our fingertips. But it also puts the onus for fact-checking on us. For every political question swirling in this election, there are countless websites vying for our attention—front groups and fake news sites right next to legitimate and reliable sources.

We agree with the tweet from the Clinton campaign. We’re not stupid. But when we turn to our screens for information and answers, we need to get a lot smarter about how we decide what’s true and what’s not.

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What I Learned about Computers and Paper in My Classroom (Steve Cannici)

Steve Cannici introduces himself:

“Originally from northern New Jersey, I earned my undergraduate degree from the University of Rhode Island as a double major in secondary education/chemistry. From there, I was offered a position at Middlebridge School in RI. Middlebridge has been built from the ground up to work with students diagnosed with learning disabilities. It was their first year in existence and they needed a science teacher. I was the first and only science teacher there for the first four years. Over the past eight years, in my role as a science teacher, I’ve helped build the school from 21 students to 75. In the summer of 2016 I completed my Master’s degree through Montana State University, a Master of Science in Science Education (MSSE).”

For readers who wish to contact Steve to ask questions, his email is: steve.cannici@gmail.com

BACKGROUND
I teach at the Middlebridge School in Rhode Island and work with a unique population. All are high school students diagnosed with some type of learning difference. Their areas of challenge are numerous and include time management skills, organization, cause and effect relationships, and almost anything you can imagine related to executive function skills.

So I decided we should run a science fair with them every year.

The same problems showed up year-after-year as I ran the project with them. Students frequently lost notes, could not keep track of all the moving parts associated with designing a science experiment, procedure were very general if they got completed. So, I designed a series of worksheets for them to work through one-at-a-time to help step them through the planning process, essentially following a version of the scientific method.

That worked pretty well for a while! Students still lost stuff and had trouble organizing, but they got the projects done and were often pretty proud of their work and themselves. But, on my side, I was collecting these mounds of paper, giving feedback, organizing them, carrying them back-and-forth between school and home, it was messy. I thought there had to be a better way, which is when I started trying to work out a solution using technology with the hopes of reducing all the paper. This is where my master’s degree project came in. I attempted to break the process down and design a system that would work for both the student and the teacher using existing technology solutions.

METHODS
First, I attempted to define what the action steps were that students and myself needed to go through before an assignment was deemed “completed”.  I was able to describe these steps for short-term (classwork or homework, essentially) and long-term assignments (like a science fair). I called it the “workflow” and it consisted of seven steps (steps contained within parentheses are action steps that students are responsible for).

distribute -> (store -> retrieve -> produce output -> submit) -> generate feedback -> return feedback

Here, the workflow is presented linearly. However, it does not need to be executed linearly, which is what allows the process to  be applicable to long term assignments as well. The long-term assignments are what I am more interested in, since my students really tend to have challenges there.

I took a longitudinal approach, so there were four phases that stretched across several months. These phases alternated between students using the technology solutions I mentioned (Google classroom to manage distribution and submitting of assignments, Google Docs to produce output, and Google Drive to store and retrieve assignments) and just using worksheets, binders, pencil, lined paper, etc. to work through assignments. The treatment was applied during phases one and three.

I created my own instruments. So, similar to Larry’s, mine have not been tested for validity or reliability. I created a survey to gather information on student attitudes towards the use of a computer for work completion in class. It also assessed student attitudes towards use of a pencil and paper. In addition, I created a form to track the methods that students were using to organize artifacts within Google Drive and within their binders during the separate phases. This form also helped me time how long it took students to retrieve their work from the storage location the artifact happened to be in.

RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS
I’ll spare people the numbers, but can provide the actual paper if any one is really interested. It turned out that students were able to retrieve artifacts more frequently and more quickly compared to when they had to use a computer, accessing Google Drive for instance. It wasn’t even close either. Artifacts from a binder were retrieved in seconds compared to minutes with Google Drive (if they were retrieved at all). Here’s the kicker, the survey results showed that most students preferred using the computer and felt they worked more efficiently with it. Go figure…

A few things to consider for sure…I, in no way, consider this a perfect study. There are some interesting tidbits that emerged if anybody wants to read the full paper.

For the start of this year, I’ve been using paper handouts. Students are working really well with them. But, I still have that dream of a system that just replaces all the paper and works really well. Mostly, it should make LESS work for the teacher and students as opposed to MORE, which is what most technology seems to be doing these days.

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