Category Archives: how teachers teach

Teaching To The Middle: Teaching as Mediocrity?

This time of year, when classes are over, but I haven’t yet graded, I start thinking about what I could have done differently. Inevitably, I think about the students I didn’t quite seem to reach, the ones I could have helped more. Inevitably, those are students at either end of the spectrum, the top and the bottom. Without intending to, I often teach to the middle.

Sure, the students could have done more themselves. They could have come to class more or pushed themselves more, but often, they don’t even know what to do. And that’s where I think I could step in more and offer more guidance….

The top students, I think, are less harmed by my inability to teach to them. They will push themselves anyway, if not in my class, in another class along the way. It’s the students at the bottom that I feel like I’ve let down. And some of them, frankly, are not motivated and would likely balk at my strategies for helping them, or they would do the tasks in a half-hearted way. I could insist and insist, but ultimately, it’s up to them to do the work. And, of course, that’s how I justify not putting forth the extra effort, thinking to myself, well, they wouldn’t do it anyway.

A middle school math teacher wrote this in 2005. It applies, I believe, to most public school teachers who face 25-30 students (or more) in an elementary school classroom and use ability grouping for about six hours or 150-plus students daily in 50-minute segments who are tracked into math, science, or history classes for a secondary school teacher.

It surely applied to me in the 14 years that I taught high school history and social studies between the mid-1950s and early-1970s and then in the mid-1990s. That I was doing so in schools where students were tracked by subject area was unclear to me in the early years of making lesson plans for my classes. But it became clear to me by the third or fourth year that I was doing exactly that. I had mentally divided up each class into top-of-the-ladder, middle rungs, and bottom of the ladder students. Sure, I varied my questions, activities, and assignments to get across-the-board student participation but my choice of content and skills aimed at the high-middle of my imagined distribution in performance across classes.

And this was true for me, as I suspect for others, who teach (or taught) classes tracked for similar abilities and performance. In Washington, D.C. in the 1960s where I served for a decade, the “track system” used group intelligence test scores to sort students into the “Honor,” “College Preparatory,” “General,” and “Basic” tracks.  For example, I would  teach College Preparatory and Basic Track classes and even in these classes, students ranged in performance and, yes, I would teach to the middle.

Like the above blogging teacher, she and I did a lot of things to mitigate the thrust of our lessons to the middle. We used small groups, set aside time to work individually with low- and high-performing students, offered extra credit for additional reading and projects, etc. ,etc. All well and good but within the confines of our limited time with the students and having a life outside of school and few additional resources, there was not much more that could be done.

What the blogging teacher and I faced was a dilemma anchored in the DNA of public schools. We prize the historic and pervasive American values of treating all students equitably, encouraging individual excellence, and building classroom communities. But all three values can not be achieved within age-graded schools where teachers teach mixed and same-ability groups of children and youth for four to six hours daily, are required to give letter grades to students, and have limited resources.

Recognizing this dilemma, then, I ask: Is teaching to the middle of class another way of saying teaching for mediocrity? No, it is not.

Mediocrity, as used in describing U.S. schooling means inferior quality of a product and performance. It is a slur slung at those who are “average” or in the middle of a distribution–the C student or the girl who finishes 15th out of 40 in the 100 meter dash. Both tried hard but came up short in earning that C or finishing in the middle of the pack in the race. And it is unfair.

Why unfair? Two reasons.

First, few policymakers, administrators, and practitioners acknowledge, much less recognize, the inherent dilemma of crafting compromises–you sacrifice to satisfy–to achieve some version of these prized values embedded in the American ethos. A prime example is the value of excellence–creating a meritocratic ranking of excellence (e.g., A-F letter grades, honor roll societies, class valedictorians)–yet parents, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners believe in their heart-of-hearts that only a few grab the high letter grades and achieve excellence as defined by the school while most others fall in the middle.

Such teacher decisions (including mine for many years) are an open secret that often goes unmentioned by current practitioners. As a result, ignoring the dilemma faced by all teachers, decision-makers see the situation as simply teachers not delivering high-quality lessons, not fulfilling what they should be doing. Teachers then are mediocre.

The second reason are social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve. Teachers see the distribution of students in classrooms as “natural” and a fact of life anchored in the socially-constructed bell-shaped curve. Most policymakers and practitioners accept the distribution of intelligence and performance as true and use it as basis for ability grouping within a class and tracking in a school. Surely, varied talents (e.g., artistic, athletic, cognitive) are distributed unequally across individuals. In a competitive society where individual performance and equal opportunity are prized everyone can not get As or win races.  The middle is shunned because “average” and “middling” have become synonyms for mediocrity in American society.

The larger issue of fairness is whether the purpose of the school is to continue reproducing the societal inequalities embedded in the grading system and through ability and tracking policies or embrace a belief that the primary purpose of the school is to reduce–not reproduce– racial, ethnic, and class inequalities through restructuring the age-graded school and its schedule, grouping policies, letter grades, and other initiatives aimed at breaking the iron cage constructed by social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve and the existing age-graded school.

But a teacher now faced with the practical issue of a class of students with varied talents, motivations, interests, and performance–whether it is a class sunk in the bottom quintile or Advanced Placement students–wants to be fair and equitable to each student. She wants excellence and a classroom community. She wants all students to achieve. But she cannot because of insufficient personal and organizational resources and the existing structural trap within which administrators require the teacher to grade students and assign groups of varied individual students to her classroom who must follow a rigid daily schedule, do homework, take tests, and receive report cards. The steel-lined beliefs held by so many educators about the “natural” distribution of talent and achievement plus the inherent dilemma facing all public school teachers working within the structures of age-graded schools, in effect, may help to explain why so many teachers teach to the middle.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Silicon Valley Takes Over Classrooms: Yes and No (Part 1)

In a series of articles (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) New York Times reporter Natasha Singer reveals how Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle have provided devices, services, and incentives to the nation’s school districts and in doing so, as one headline put it, “Took Over the Classroom.”

I found her articles richly detailed in their interviews and profiling of teachers and administrators. I learned a great deal about how these companies influenced teachers and school officials to use their products and pressed for district policies that required students to learn coding and take computer science courses and even build a public school on a business site. Using techniques refined by pharmaceutical companies in getting doctors to use their medications, these high-tech firms succeeded in placing digital products into schools and classrooms.

Singer gives plenty of examples of how school officials and teachers tip-toe around conflicts of interest. She recounts instances of entrepreneurial teachers having contracts with software companies for whom they are “ambassadors” treading a line where perceptions of conflict of interest cast long shadow over these teachers.

Journalist Singer makes a credible and persuasive case in exposing how Silicon Valley companies  get their hardware and software into the nation’s schools. My research over the past thirty years supports what she writes. For whatever reasons, the spread of digital devices in schools has nearly ended the perennial problem of students lacking access to new electronic hard- and software.

Recall that in the early 1980s when desktop computers became available–there were 125 students per computer in 1984–teacher and student access to devices were severely limited. School computer labs served an entire school giving students occasional time on machines. Just over three decades later, that ratio of students to devices is about 3:1  and in many instances across the country it is 1:1 now (see here). District officials with the help of donors and corporate giants have moved ever closer to ubiquitous access to digital tools for U.S. students. That is the “yes” part of the post’s title.

But  access is not classroom use. Singer’s well researched and written pieces blurs access and classroom use. She not only implies that companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook putting their digital products in classrooms have had a decided effect on how teachers teach their daily lessons but also explicitly says:

Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental  approaches to learning.

I disagree. And that is why I say “no” in the title of this post.

Before classroom use can be discussed, however, it is worthwhile to consider changes over time in the stated goals for students using digital devices.

Goals: Bait-and-Switch

In the early 1980s, promoters of desktop computers including the above companies gave three reasons why students should have  classroom machines. Computer use, they claimed, will:

*improve students’ academic achievement;

*lead to more, faster, and better teaching;

*prepare students for jobs in an information-based society.

Over the ensuing decades, it has become clear that the first two goals for using computer  have not panned out. In Singer’s reports, she does say “there is little rigorous evidence so far to indicate that using computers in class improves educational results.”

No evidence that I have seen establishes that students who use computers once a week or daily have higher test scores (see here, here, and here). Nor have I seen any evidence (lots of inflated claims and self-reports by teachers but not rigorous before-and-after observations of teacher lessons) that teachers teach more, faster, and better as a result of  regular use in lessons (for example of claims, see here).

So that leaves the the goal of preparing students for jobs in an ever-changing labor market.

School boards and the general public take it for granted–it seems so obvious–that using computers often in school will simply lead to higher paying jobs since every business now depends upon technology to conduct their daily work. Yet even learning to code and taking computer science courses in high school hardly guarantees any job in the field–save for examples cited below–unless one majors in the subject in college.

I have yet to see studies that show students who took keyboarding classes, used laptops regularly, and learned to code or took computer science get hiring preference over other applicants once they graduated high school. Sure, there have been high-tech companies who have worked closely with school districts to certify students for entry-level jobs  such as Cisco and Microsoft but these programs are minuscule given the number of students graduating high school. So the evidence of students using regularly such devices in school leading to jobs is painfully lacking.

What I have noticed in the past few years is a shift in goals for computer use. Although students using computers in order to get jobs still remains as a goal, no longer are academic achievement and better teaching cited as reasons for buying devices and software.

Replacing the computer-sparks-achievement goal is that digital tools “engage” students as if iPads and Chromebooks will hook students into learning and then accelerate academic achievement. While student engagement may–that is the operative word–lead to achievement in many instances, it does not. Worries over student technology use in and out of school shortening students’ attention span and encouraging distractions weakens the “engagement” argument.

What has replaced the other goals is the old standby of testing. That is, since all standardized tests will be online shortly, every student has to have access to an Internet connected device (see here and here).

Two previous goals, then, for using digital devices and software in school have disappeared, one has remained and another has been added. The lack of evidence supporting this mix of old and new goals for buying digital tools is stark.

Part 2 takes up my “no” response to reading the New York Times series of articles on Silicon Valley companies taking over U.S. classrooms and altering how teachers teach.

 

 

 

 

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

Coaching a Math Teacher (Education Realist)

This post comes from the blog Education Realist. While I usually avoid postings from anonymous authors, this full time teacher who writes under the pseudonym of Education Realist is someone I have come to know and respect as a teacher and person. I have observed this teacher in math and social studies lessons; we have also met and had lunch discussing many issues in public schools. It appeared October 22, 2017

In 2011’s Personal Best, Atul Gawande recounts his desire to “up his game”, by hiring a retired surgeon who had once trained him, Robert Osteen, to act as a coach.  I often reread the article just for the best passage in an already great piece: when  Osteen gives Gawande feedback for the first time.

Prior to his own coaching experience, Gawande explores the difference between “coaching” and “teaching” in the teaching career itself. He sits in on a lesson and coaching session with  an 8th grade math teacher. One of the coaches was a history teacher, the other a math teacher who’d given up teaching to work at the district. While Gawande implies coaching is unusual, many school districts have coaching staffs, usually made up of history teachers and middle school math teachers, just like this one.

Everything that crackles and glows when Gawande describes Osteen’s observations falls with a thud in the teaching section. The lesson on simplifying radicals sounded fairly traditional, but seemed dull in the telling. The coaching feedback was similar to what I’ve experienced–banal platitudes. Socratic questioning. “What do you think you could do to make it better?” (Translated: I personally have no idea.) Not the same assertive advice Osteen gave Gawande, but carefully scripted prompts. Critzer seemed to like the “feedback”, such as it was, but I found the whole exchange extremely antiseptic. In no way were the two coaches “operating” (heh) on the same level as Osteen’s expert.

In 2011 I was a newbie. Now I’m edging towards a full decade of teaching and have now mentored  three teachers through induction and one student teacher. I’m better prepared to think about coaching, both as provider and recipient, and the stark differences in those two passages keep coming back to me.

My ed school supervisor , a full-metal discovery proponent, gave me one of the great learning experiences of my entire life. She never tried to convert me or push particular lesson approaches.  I can still remember the excitement I felt as she pushed me to think of new methods to achieve my goals, while I realized that regardless of teaching philosophy, teaching objectives remain resolutely the same: are the kids engaged? Are they learning, or parroting back what they think I want to hear? Am I using time effectively?  Osteen’s feedback reminded me of those conversations, and as I moved into a mentor role, she became my model.

A couple weeks ago, a district curriculum meeting ended early and I went back to school just in time for fourth block to observe my newest induction mentee.  This was an unscheduled observation, but she welcomed me into her pre-algebra class for a lesson on simplifying fractions prior to multiplication. Through the lesson, the students worked on this worksheet. The concepts involved are not dissimilar from the ones in Jennie Critzer’s lesson.

Here’s my feedback, delivered immediately after the bell rang.

“Okay, I’m going to split my feedback into three categories. First up are issues involving safety and management that you should take action on immediately. Everything subsequent is my opinion and advice  based on my teaching preferences as well as what I saw of your teaching style. I will try to separate objective from method. If you agree with the objective but not the method, then we’ll brainstorm other ideas. If you disagree with the objective, fine! Argue back. OK?” She agreed.

“For immediate action, make students put their skateboards under that back table, or in a corner completely away from foot traffic. The administration will support you in this in the unlikely event a student refuses to obey you, I’d also suggest making all the students put their backpacks completely under the desk. It’s like ski week around here, you nearly tripped twice. Now for the suggestions…”

“Wait. That’s the only mandatory change? My classroom management is good?”

“Yes. Kids were attentive and on task. But I want you to move about the room more, as you’ll see, and the way your kids strew their stuff around the floor, you’ll kill yourself.”

“I was worried about management because the students often seem…slow to respond.”

“We can talk more about your concerns before our formal observation so I can watch that closely. I’d like more enthusiasm, more interest, but that’s a subjective thing we’ll get into next. They listen to you and follow your requests. They’re trying to learn. You’ve got buy-in. You’re waiting for quiet. All good.”

“Phew. I’m relieved.”

“Now, some opinions. I’d like you to work more on your delivery and pacing.  You are anchored to the front of the class during your explanation time. Move about! Walk around the room. Own it. It’s your space.”

“I am never sure how to do that.”

“Practice. When you have a few sentences nailed down, just walk to the back by the door,  stand there for a minute or so, then move to another point, all while talking. Then go back up front. Do that until it feels comfortable. Then ask a question while away from the front. Then practice introducing a new topic while away, and so on.”

“I didn’t think of practicing. I thought it would come naturally.”

“I’m as big a  movie star teacher as they get, and what I just described is how I escaped the front-left cellblock.”

“OK.”

“Next up: you’re killing the flow of the lesson.  Here’s what you did today: give a brief description of method, work an example, assign two problems, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Then assign two more, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Lather, rinse, repeat. This precludes any concentrated work periods and it’s hurting your ability to help your top students. It’s also really boring.”

“Yes, many of my students have worked all the way through the handout. But I have to help the students who don’t get it right away and that takes time, right?”

“Sure.  So give a brief lecture with your own examples that illustrate two or three key concepts–NOT the ones on the worksheet. And while that lesson is going on, my advice is to insist that all students watch you. Right now, the strong students are completely ignoring your lesson to work the handout–and from what I can tell, occasionally getting things wrong.”

“Yes, they don’t know as much as they think they do in every case. But it’s good that they’re working, right? They’re interested?”

“Not if they aren’t paying attention to you. You are the diva. Attention must be paid.”

“But if they know it all…”

“Then they can finish it quickly after your lesson–as you say, they sometimes make mistakes you covered. So do an up front lesson of 15-20 minutes or less, depending on the topic. Then release them to work on the entire page or assignment. Let them work at their own pace. You walk around the room, giving them feedback. Don’t let the stronger kids move ahead in your packet. Have another handout ready that challenges them further You might have an answer sheet ready so kids can check their own work.”

She was taking notes. “How do I get these more challenging handouts?”

“Ask other teachers. Or I’ll show you how to build some. I know you’re using  someone else’s curriculum, but you can have additional challenges ready to keep your top kids humble. Math gets much harder. They need to be pushed.”

“So then I teach upfront and give them 30-45 minutes to do all the work, giving the kids who finish more work. Maybe a brief review at the end.”

“Bingo.”

“Got it. I’m going to try this.”

“Last thing on delivery: you’ve got a Promethean. Use it. It will free you from the document camera.”

“I don’t know how. I asked the tech guy for guidance and he said you were one of the most knowledgeable people on this brand.”

“Well, let’s do that next. Now, onto the much more difficult third topic: your curriculum. I could see you often backtracking from your own, authentic instruction method to return to the worksheet which forcefeeds one method: find the Greatest Common Factor or bust.  I could tell you didn’t like this approach, because you kept on saying ‘they want you to use GCF’, meaning the folks who developed the worksheet.”

“Yes, I kept forgetting to avoid my own method and  support the worksheet’s method.”

“Why?”

“Well, I have to use that worksheet.”

“Toots, you don’t have to use a thing. You’re the teacher. They can’t require you to teach it. I don’t dislike the curriculum, but that particular worksheet is flawed. As I walked round your room, I saw kids who just cancelled the first factor they saw, and then had an incomplete simplification. So 9/27 became 3/9 because the kid turned 9 into 3×3 and 27 into 9×3.”

“Yes, that’s what I saw, too. They didn’t realize it wasn’t fully simplified, because they weren’t realizing the need to find the GCF.”

“That’s because the method isn’t as important as the end result.  Who cares if they use that method? That’s what the one student said who challenged you, right? You were trying to push her to find the GCF, and she pushed back, saying ‘what difference does it make?’ and you were stuck because you agreed with her, but felt forced into this method.”

“God, that’s so right,” she groaned.

“But you weren’t giving them any plan B, any way to see if they’d achieved the goal. How much advanced math have you taught? Algebra 2, Trig, Precalc? None? You should observe some classes to see how essential factoring is. I talked to many of your students, and none have any real idea what the lesson’s purpose was. Why do we simplify at all? What was the difference between simplifying fractions and multiplying them?  What are factors? Why do we use factors?  I suggest returning to this tomorrow and confess that the student was correct, that in the case of simplifying fractions by eliminating common factors, there are many ways to get to the end result. Acknowledge you were trying to be a good sport and use the method in the handout, but it’s not the method you use.”

She wrote all this down. “And then I need to tell them how to know that they have fully simplified.”

“Exactly. Here’s what I saw as the two failures of the worksheet and your lesson: first, you didn’t tell them how they could test their results for completeness. Then, you didn’t tell them the reason for this activity. Namely, SIMPLIFY FIRST. When using numbers, it’s just an annoying few extra steps. But when you start working with binomials, failing to factor is disastrous for novices.”

“OK, but how can I circle back on this? Just tell them that I’m going to revisit this because of what I saw yesterday?”

“Yes! I recommend a simple explanation of  relatively prime. That’s the goal, right? The method doesn’t matter if that’s the end result.  And then, here’s a fun question that will startle your top kids. Given “two fourths”, why can we simplify by changing it to 2×1 over 2×2 and ‘canceling out’ the twos, but we can’t simplify by changing it to 1+1 over 1+3 and ‘cancel out’ the ones? Why don’t we tell them to simplify across fractiosn when adding? ”

“Wow. That’s a great question.”

“Yes. Then come up with a good, complicated fraction multiplication example and show them why all these things are true. Make them experience the truth by multiplying, say, 13/42 and 14/65. They might not retain all the information. But here’s what’s important, in my view: they’ll remember that the explanation made sense at the time. They’ll have faith. Furthermore, they’ll see you as an expert, not just someone who’s going through a packet that someone else built for her.”

“Ouch. But that’s how I feel.”

“Even when you’re going through someone else’s curriculum, you have to spend time thinking about the explanation you give, the examples you use. This isn’t a terrible curriculum, I like a lot of it. But fill in gaps as needed. Maybe try a graphic organizer to reinforce key issues.  Also, try mixing it up. Build your own activities that take them through the problems in a different way. Vary it up. You’ve got a good start. The kids trust you. You can push off in new directions.”

I then gave her a brief Promethean tutorial and told her I’d like to  see a lesson with some hands on activities or “cold starts” (activities or problems with no lecture first), if she’s interested in trying.

***************************************************************************

Mid-career teachers, like those in any other profession, are going to vary in their desire and interest in improving their game. Twitter and the blogosphere are filled with teachers who write about their practice.  Perusing social media is a much better form of  development than a district coach that isn’t experienced in working with the same population and subject. Conversations with motivated colleagues interested in exploring their practice, but hared to find the time or interested participants.

But  unlike other professions, we teachers are given ample, and often paid, opportunity to be coaches, and not the weak-tea district sorts. Induction and other new teacher programs give us a chance to push others to find their best.  I find these activities also lead me to review and improve my own practice.

If you’re tasked with helping beginning teachers, then really dig in. Challenge them. Encourage them to push back, but do more than ask a few questions. They’ll thank you later. Often, they’ll thank you right away.

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A Memoir’s Humble Tale of Teaching (James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik)

I have not published a book review on my blog in the eight years I have written posts. Usually I read the book and mention it in a post.

This particular review of a novice teacher re-connecting with her students as a lawyer years after her brief stint in a Helena (ARK) alternative school is unusual in its candor about relationship with students, and its insights into the linkage between schooling and poverty. Inspiration, dedication, and humility–particularly the latter–seldom appear in such books written by former teachers.

I have not yet read Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick but am moved to do so after reading this review. Perhaps (or perhaps not) others might reach a similar conclusion.

The two authors of the review are former teachers in a Washington, D.C. charter school. James Forman Jr., who teaches at Yale Law School, is the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.; Arthur Evenchik is the coordinator of the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University.

The review appeared October 20 on Atlantic Online

 

In books and films about failing schools attended by poor students of color, a suspiciously upbeat plotline has become all too familiar. A novice teacher (usually white) parachutes in, overcomes her students’ distrust and apathy, and sets them on the path to college and worldly success. Such narratives are every kind of awful. They make the heroic teacher the center of attention, relegating the students to secondary roles. They pretend that good intentions and determination have the magical power to transform young people’s lives, even in the most adverse circumstances. And they treat schools as isolated sites of injustice, never connecting educational disadvantage to other forms of inequality.

Michelle Kuo is a writer who resists the mythmaking impulse, with its clichés and wishful thinking. In her penetrating, haunting memoir, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, she confronts all of the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?

Her credibility stems, in part, from her willingness to make her misjudgments and failings an integral part of the story she tells. At age 22, after graduating from Harvard, Kuo frustrates her immigrant parents’ ambitions for her by joining Teach For America. She takes a job at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas, a blighted Mississippi Delta town populated by the descendants of black families who stayed behind during the Great Migration. By her own admission, her first year in the classroom is a disaster. She arrives hoping to teach African American literature to her eighth-grade students, but she blinds herself to the fact that most of them read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, and so they are bored and frustrated by her lessons. She wants the students to know “their history,” by which she means the history of racist violence in the Delta. But she knows nothing of the trauma they have inherited; when she passes around a picture of a lynching, a boy named David brings her lesson to a halt by putting his head on his desk and muttering, “Nobody want to see that.” Instead of defying her school’s authoritarian culture, Kuo initially succumbs to it. Once, she recalls, “I tore up a student’s drawing, which I’d thought was a doodle, in order to jolt him into paying attention; he never forgave me, and I will regret it forever.”

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Her descriptions of individual students are unusually perceptive and moving. A boy named Tamir, asked to write a poem about himself, looks afraid “and peers at a classmate’s paper, as though this was the kind of assignment one could copy.” A girl named Kayla, who had been removed from the district’s regular high school for fighting, writes herself a letter that says, “I hope that when trouble come your way, you would just hold your head high and walk away with a smile on your face.” Patrick Browning, a student with a history of absenteeism, seems lost as he starts eighth grade, “as if he’d gotten on the school bus by accident.” He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the schoolwide award for “Most Improved” student. When rainwater leaks through the classroom ceiling and destroys much of the book collection, it is Patrick who says to the other students, “Stop crying, y’all,” and fetches a bucket and mop.

After two years in the Delta, Kuo decides to leave her job and go to law school. (“With a law degree, you can multiply your impact,” a friend assures her. And her parents are thrilled.) But what might seem the natural ending to her story proves not to be an ending at all. Kuo returns to Helena three years later when she learns that Patrick has been arrested and charged with murder. She begins to visit the county jail where he is awaiting trial, bearing books and writing assignments. Her account of the seven months she spends as his tutor and fellow reader occupies the heart of the book, and it unfolds with all the starkness and immediacy of a two-character play. Scene by scene, it asks what brought them to this place and what can come of their time together.

The night Patrick was arrested, he had gone out looking for his younger sister, but he couldn’t find her. Then she arrived on the family porch with Marcus, a man she was dating. Marcus was drunk and belligerent, and when Patrick ordered him to leave, he started talking loudly and acting aggressively. Believing that Marcus was armed, Patrick picked up a knife he had left on the porch earlier in the day. He just wanted to scare Marcus, he says, but then they fought. He can’t remember the fight itself—just the sight of Marcus limping away and then falling to the sidewalk.

Patrick doesn’t realize that he has a plausible self-defense claim. A white man fending off an intruder on his property could invoke principles such as “stand your ground” or the “castle doctrine.” But Patrick is a black man in the Delta, and the prosecutor goes for a massive overcharge: first-degree murder. There is no question of bail: for sixteen months, Patrick awaits his trial in a jail so unsanitary and poorly managed that the state of Arkansas later shuts it down. And though his public defender eventually gets the charge against him reduced, they never meet until Patrick has his day in court.

The first time Kuo comes to the jail, Patrick blurts out, “Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” in what she calls “a tone of supplication.” But she soon realizes that he feels an intolerable sense of guilt. Patrick imagines that all the mistakes he has ever made led inexorably to the act he is now locked up for. He is haunted by a litany of wrongs he has no way to redress. “The problem,” Kuo writes, “was not that he wouldn’t confess but that he had confessed too much; it wasn’t far-fetched to think he might spend the rest of his life confessing.”

And yet maybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

The bond they establish during their jailhouse sessions eases his torment, as Kuo hoped it would. Yet Patrick never ceases to hold himself responsible for Marcus’ death. After he takes a plea deal and is convicted of manslaughter, Kuo asks him, “Do you feel guilty?” and he replies, “I know I guilty.” It’s not the answer she wanted. But she comes to see that if she had undermined his sense of himself as the agent of his own actions, she would only have deepened his despair. No teacher can “break” a student’s story, his understanding of his life, and replace it with her own.

In other ways, too, the course of the relationship between Kuo and Patrick diverges from her original intention. When she discovers that his literacy skills have deteriorated, she promptly resumes her English-teacher role—marking every last error in his writing, assigning “extra homework to eliminate future mistakes.” This makes her sound overzealous, and sometimes she is. Yet Patrick, who at first dismisses the idea of homework (“Nah, it’s over with,” he tells her), makes greater progress than she had anticipated. “For me and perhaps for him,” she writes, “the task of making a sentence perfect had the effect of containment: It kept unbearable emotions at bay.”

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. He reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

For one of his final assignments, Patrick composes a letter inspired by a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Addressed to his baby daughter, it describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

* * *

Back when she was a classroom teacher, Kuo engaged in a sort of triage. “There are just certain kids for whom you bring all your hope,” she writes, and Patrick was one of them. It makes sense, then, that news of his plight would have drawn her back to the Delta. But Kuo doesn’t allow us to forget that his tragedy is not the only one. She hears, soon after her return, that her former student Tamir is living on the streets in Little Rock, a crack addict begging for money. On a school-district report listing the students who dropped out of school in Helena the year after she left, she recognizes a long series of names along with Patrick’s. And when he finally appears in court, she sees many of those names again on the crowded docket of criminal cases:

I tried to count the number of black males of my sixty-something students over two years who had at some point gone to jail, and I ran out of fingers. The docket was the coda to the STUDENT DROPOUT REPORT—the county jail was where the dropouts landed. There were no jobs in Helena. They had no skills. Most had a disability or an emotional or mental disorder. Where else had I thought they would go?

 

Nothing Kuo has done for Patrick frees him from this dynamic. After the plea bargain, he is sent to an overcrowded prison. Two and a half years later, when he is paroled for good behavior, he returns to Helena with all the liabilities that come with having a violent felony on his record.

By then, Kuo is working as a public-interest lawyer in California. “I begin to think,” she confesses, “that those seven months didn’t really happen, that I had imagined the mystical silences we shared while Patrick wrote. I must have dreamed the poems we memorized, because I cannot remember the lines anymore. On the way to work, holding the metal bar of a subway, I wonder what it was all for and consider the idea that once you stop thinking about something, it disappears.”

But this is not her final word on the subject. If Kuo distrusts the romanticism of the teacher-as-savior narrative, she also resists the kind of fatalism that would have prevented her from becoming a teacher in the first place. She does wonder sometimes what would have happened had she never left Helena. Could she have kept Patrick from dropping out of school or confronting Marcus? Not likely, she says. Besides, she is wary of talking about Patrick “as if I think I could have saved him, as if I think I’m so important in his life. It’s not like that.” But then, exhibiting the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart, she adds:

Or maybe it is, in the sense that the alternative, the rational thought, would be to say to myself, You can’t do that much, you’re not that important, there are so many forces in a person’s life, good and bad, who do you think you are? That’s what I said to make myself feel better after I left the Delta, and sometimes I still say it. But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Maybe there are prospective readers who noticed Kuo’s memoir on a bookstore shelf, leafed through its pages, and put it back, saying to themselves, “I know this story already.” But in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.

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Whatever Happened to Behavioral Objectives?

Not much. They are still around but often goes by an alias.

Introduced in the early 20th century, behavioral objectives are like  wallpaper in a favorite room that is stripped and then re-papered with wallpaper of a different hue but closely resembling the discarded debris. In short, the phrase has different names today (e.g., performance objectives,  learner outcomes, competencies-based outcomes) but remains common across the educational domain as well as in business, medicine, and other professional work. They are now a permanent fixture of organizations but not called “behavioral objectives.”

Where Did the Idea Originate?

The efficiency-driven wing of early 20th century progressives, inspired by management innovator Frederick Taylor, educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, and other university-based academics saw the rational design of lessons as important. In the 1930s and 1940s, Ralph Tyler of the University of Chicago and head evaluator of the Eight Year Study championed behavioral objectives and scientific ways of assessing student and school outcomes. The advent of teaching machines and the work of B.F. Skinner advanced the breaking down of specific knowledge and skills into constituent parts that could be taught and measured. Instructional designers began pressing K-12 educators to adopt the idea of “behavioral objectives” as early as the late-1950s. They advocated that educators must state clearly and objectively exactly what they wanted students to learn, the conditions under which the students will learn specific content and skills, and how these educators will know students have indeed learned what was intended.

Psychologists who championed instructional design, many of whom were trained as behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner, Robert Gagne‘, Benjamin Bloom, Robert Mager,and others in the 1940s and 1950s–along with Tyler–see above–produced articles and books throughout the 1960s that laid out how teachers should and could compose and specific objectives for their lessons in terms sufficiently clear to determine whether or not students had learned what was intended in the lesson (see here).

What Are Behavioral Objectives?

Sometimes called “learning” or “performance” objectives, Robert Mager laid out the three parts that every behavioral objective must contain: what the learner will do (not the teacher or instructional materials), the conditions under which the learner performs, and the criteria to judge how well the learner has performed the task.

Examples of such objectives across academic subjects are:

*The students will be able to classify the changes of state matter undergoes when given a description of the shape and volume.

*Given four works of short fiction of contrasting genres, the student will analyze and
match each work with its correct genre.
 
*Using the washingtonpost.com Web site, the student will correctly identify and print out two examples each of a news article and an editorial regarding a topical new item.
*Given twenty examples of incorrect verb tense usage, the student will identify and correct a minimum of sixteen instances.

 

Sometimes, behavioral objectives can be put into words that young children can understand such as:

cc885d4d40ee71ae1e4c9f6bff26fedb--creative-activities-educational-activities.jpg

 

What Problems Did Behavioral Objectives Intend to Solve

Because behavioral objectives drive a lesson, according to those championing “performance” or “competency learning outcome”, these objectives are too often stated as to what the teacher does rather than what the student will do and learn . Even when objectives are phrased as what students will do, they use language that is ambiguous and hard to demonstrate that learning occurred.

Examples of such lesson objectives are easy to find: “teacher will read story to kindergartners,” “I will define the lunar cycle for students,” “teacher will interpret the meaning of Paradise Lost,” “students will develop a three-dimensional form through using wire and wood.”

Or consider unit on colonialism in America that listed the following objectives:

Students will understand how learning U.S. history will help them
reach their goals.
Students will get an overview of U.S. history from colonization to the
Civil War.
Students will use maps to understand the process of colonization.
Students will learn about the geography of each group of colonies
and how geography affected their economies.
Students will review two persuasive essays about the centrality of
money in America and write responses.

 

The following “do” and “don’t” chart captures both what they are and the problem they seek to solve.

 

learning-objectives-best-practices.png

 

Do Behavioral Objectives Work?

No one knows for sure. If “work” means their ubiquity in lesson and unit plans across the country, the answer is yes. But if “work” asks about their effectiveness in improving the quality of a lesson or what students learn, such research is slim to sparse. Linking academic improvement to the quality of behavioral objectives is, well, nigh impossible (see here, here,  and here).

What Happened To Behavioral Objectives?*

Not too much. Under different labels, they are everywhere in curriculum manuals, district budgets, proposals to donors, and government agency programs.

In visiting classrooms throughout Silicon Valley in 2016, I often saw listed on a whiteboard, the agenda for the day. Usually, the first item was the lesson objective. For example, in an Advanced Placement Physics class at Los Altos High School that I observed in September 2016, the teacher had written on the whiteboard the following objective for the lesson: Students will be able to (SWBAT) create instructional videos using whiteboard animations in order to demonstrate problem solving skills and provide instructional support to peers.

For those eager to “personalize learning,” one way is to list the skill and content competencies that students will learn at different paces, usually through software, in a unit and lesson. These competencies are behavioral objectives in disguise (see here, here and here).

Educators may not call them “behavioral objectives” today but they are commonly built into daily lesson plans, student assessments and teacher evaluations.

___________________________________________

In a later post, I will describe a parallel innovation within private and public organizations called “Management by Objectives” (MBO). Authored by management guru Peter Drucker in the mid-1950s, it spread rapidly in the late-1960s in federal agencies under the Nixon administration aimed at holding agency officials accountable for outcomes they had specified. By the early 1970s, MBO has become the organizational reform du jour among private and public sector leaders. By the early 1980s, it had become passe’.

If behavioral objectives were for teachers, MBO was for CEOs, federal and state agency heads, middle managers in the private sector and principals, superintendents, and school boards in K-12 and higher education. In K-12 schools, MBO and behavioral objectives were joined at the hip in laying out a format for the introduction of accountability for assessing student, school, and district outcomes.

 

 

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Is Homework Compatible With Personalized Learning? (Autumn Hillis)

Autumn Hillis works with middle schools in the middle Tennessee region as an open educational resource curriculum specialist. She has taught at the middle school and high school level for six years with a focus in life and physical sciences. She is also currently working with Tennessee universities to train Tennessee science educators about personalized and project based learning.”

This post appeared in EdSurge, October 3, 2017

Differentiating content and instruction for each individual learner was once considered the pedagogical holy grail. Yet it could be tiresome. Offering three tiers of worksheets, four centers with varied ways to access content, or five levels of text was what defined a master teacher. But just as continual development of the iPhone eventually renders older prototypes obsolete; so too are new educational technologies pushing us past differentiation towards personalized learning.

Transitioning to a personalized learning environment doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a process. There are parts of the shift that feel impossible at first like moving into the passenger’s seat during lessons, managing new technologies and analyzing what seems like an endless amount of data. But in time these impossibilities become like second nature and new challenges arise. We start asking deeper questions and setting loftier goals for ourselves as educators.

In 2013, when I began rethinking some of the practices I once thought of as tried and true, one of the biggest shifts for me was the realization that the topics I found interesting were not necessarily the most engaging for my students. I had to set aside the pride I felt for my personal knowledge—and my love of talking—so that I could start listening to my students and discover what was meaningful for them.

By fall of 2015, I had come leaps and bounds with making my classroom student centered, and personalizing instruction during class time. But this nagging question kept bringing me down: What message does it send our students when we only personalize learning from 8AM-3PM, and then send everyone home with the same worksheet for homework?

Homework has been an area of controversy amongst practitioners for years, with strong evidence of both benefits and drawbacks. While I have never been interested in inundating students with extra practice outside of school hours, I do believe that some concepts and skills require extensive independent practice.

After combing through research presenting data for and against homework, one argument really resonated with me. Too often, parents cannot help students who are struggling through an assignment that they are not prepared for. This can lead to frustrating nights when a family could be enjoying their time together. The one thing I knew for sure was that if I was going to give homework, I needed to develop a solution to give students the independent work time they needed without creating unnecessary stress. I decided to experiment with creating assignments that would mirror the individualized experience students were receiving in my class.

Experimenting with new classroom techniques is daunting. Creating multiple resources for one concept, developing systems for managing the paperwork, and giving feedback in a timely manner are challenging enough for a small class—but with classroom sizes bulging with 33 to 36 students, these tasks are completely overwhelming. In 2015, when I began investigating how to personalize homework, I knew that I’d need to leverage technology if I wanted to make it sustainable. I taught 130 students a day, so efficiency was key.

As a first experiment, I started with an eighth grade science unit on the periodic table of the elements. Typically, I gave homework two or three nights a week, and graded the assignments for accuracy and completion. I checked each answer to make sure students weren’t just blowing off my homework. Homework responsibility accounted for 15% of each student’s grade, so while there was some accountability, we weren’t spending much time reviewing the material covered by the extra practice. I was inadvertently sending the message to my students that these assignments were busy work. So I decided to shake things up a bit.

After presenting some introductory concepts, I gave my students a short formative assessment with six questions that they could grade independently. Unknown to them, I had divided the questions up into two parts. If students missed the first three questions then they were struggling with concept A; if students missed the last three questions, then they were struggling with concept B. I recorded each student’s grade and took note of which questions they had missed. From this data, I offered them several choices of activities they could complete for homework. Some were activities that I created through Google Classroom or Google Forms, and others were from websites such as ReadWorks and BetterLesson.

In addition to the options I provided, I also invited and encouraged my students to find their own resources, with one caveat—they had to submit an “Internet Resource Quality Check” that I gave them. This quality check was designed to measure quality, rigor, and safety of alternative resources. Students were expected to submit proof of their practice for alternative resources as well as the ones I provided.

Screen_Shot_2017-1507050711.png

This sequence continued through the remainder of the unit. My students would take a formative assessment after completing each concept to see if they had mastered it and complete homework to reinforce areas of struggle. Students could also retake their assessments after completing their homework to determine their level of success in mastering challenging concepts.

Perhaps the greatest shift was that homework was no longer graded for accuracy or completion. The accountability for completing homework became the formative assessment score signaling mastery or the need for more practice. My students immediately respected the fact that they were not being asked to complete busy work.

At the conclusion of the unit, students took my summative assessment. I compared this data with scores I had collected in a unit that did not have the personalization of homework or independent practice, and the results were telling.

Screen_Shot_2017-1507009584.png

At the end of the unit, I asked my students if we should use this new homework structure moving forward, and I received an overwhelmingly affirmative response. Apparently, they were motivated by the prospect of not having to do an assignment if they demonstrated mastery on their assessments. They also reported less struggle at home because they weren’t being asked to tackle material that was outside of their current grasp.

This experiment changed my practice substantially. It helped me recognize that tailoring instruction and independent practice inside and outside of the classroom are equally important. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way about developing personalized homework.

Take It Slow

Much like personalizing classroom instruction, creating personalized homework takes time. I didn’t put pressure on myself to create all of my personalized homework assignments in one sitting. I started with two or three choices and added more over time. I collaborated with my local colleagues and those in my virtual PLC (professional learning community) to develop and add to the resource bank I already had.

Shift Your Perspective

Grading 130 homework assignments a day is unsustainable. Shifting my perspective to view homework as independent practice to support classroom instruction, rather than something that needed to be constantly graded for completion helped. Homework became an opportunity for students to practice a skill in order to master content at their personal pace. If homework wasn’t completed, and they couldn’t show mastery on the assessment, then they continued to work on that concept before moving on. Eventually, students learned that giving me their best effort regardless of the grade was beneficial to them as well.

Feedback That Counts

Giving consistent, personalized, specific feedback, especially on homework, is more powerful than giving a grade. I held bi-weekly conferences to celebrate successes and discuss areas for growth, and used the private comment feature available in Google Classroom to give specific feedback on student work. This encouraged my students to go back and review their work rather than simply look for a score, and it allowed them to communicate with me about their progress by responding.

Accept Technological Support

The teacher-to-student ratio makes managing a personalized learning environment tough enough without adding homework into the mix. The right technology can help us become more efficient with delivering choices, developing personalized content, managing work submission, providing feedback and grading student work. The best tools are those that students can use seamlessly from home—that way classroom instruction and independent practice are working in sync.

Access

My district does not support a one-to-one device-to-student ratio so I quickly learned to always have a non-tech assignment option. Some students cannot complete assignments that are only available online due to limited accessibility to devices or internet connectivity. In the best-case scenario, I include multiple non-tech options because the element of choice is key to personalization.

In 2017, I plan to continue investigating the impact of personalized homework on student growth. My new role as an open resource curriculum specialist offers me an opportunity to work with other teachers to continue finding new ways to tailor homework and make it more personal. My hope is that as device and internet access improves—and as technology continues to advance—both independent and collaborative homework will become more meaningful for students, and the ability to scale personalized feedback to students will become more manageable for teachers.

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A Few Teachers Speak Out on Technology in Their Classrooms

I am fortunate to have many readers who are classroom teachers. I have published posts over the past year about my research on teachers identified as exemplary in integrating technology into their lessons. Some of those posts triggered responses from teachers. I offer a few of those comments here.

Louise Kowitch, retired social studies teacher from Connecticut:

….The impact of technology can vary greatly depending on the subject matter (among all the other things you’ve addressed). While some pedagogical practices are universal, when “doing the work of the discipline”, content-specific practices,and by extension the impact of technology, might vary widely.

I mention this to say that as someone who lived through the IT revolution in the classroom (from mimeographs, scantrons, and filmstrips to floppy disks and CD-ROM, and finally to smart boards, Skype and Chromebooks), by the time I reached three decades as a full time classroom teacher, I was spending MORE time on my lessons and interacting with students, than less. Some tasks were indeed more efficient (for example, obtaining and sharing maps, artifacts, art, primary sources). Others, like collecting data about student performance for our superintendent, became arduous, weekend long affairs that sucked the life out of the joy of teaching.

That said, I loved how Chromebooks and Smartboards freed up my instruction to empower students to do their own research and conduct substantive debates. For example, a simulation of the post WWI debates over the Treaty of Versailles from the perspectives of different countries – something I had done before Chromebooks – became a powerful lesson for students in the art of diplomacy, the value of historical perspective, and the grind of politics, as a result of THEIR OWN RESEARCH, not my selection of primary sources. This was MORE time consuming (2 weeks of instructional time, not 8 days) and LESS EFFICIENT, but MORE STUDENT CENTERED and COLLABORATIVE.

Was it “better” instruction? Yes, if the point was for kids to experience “the art of negotiation”. No, if it meant having to drop a four day mini unit on elections in the Weimar Republic that I used to do after the WWI unit. Something is lost, and something is gained. Like you, I grapple with it’s a zero sum game.

Garth Flint,  high school teacher of computer science and technology coordinator in Montana private school:

My question has always been what effect does the increase in classroom tech have on the students? Do they do better through out the years? How do we measure “better”? We have an AP History teacher who is very traditional. Kids listen to the lecture and copy the notes on the whiteboard.
About the only tech he uses are some minor YouTube videos. His AP test results are outstanding. Would any tech improve on those results? At the middle school we have a teacher who uses a Smartboard extensively. It has changed how he does his math lectures. But he is still lecturing. Has the Smartboard improved student learning? I do not know. I have observed teachers that have gone full tech. Google Docs, 1-1, videos of lectures on line, reversed classroom, paperless. Their prep time increased. Student results seemed (just from my observation, I did not measure anything) to be the same as a non-tech classroom. It would be interesting to have two classrooms of the same subject at the same grade level, one high tech, one old-school and feed those students into the same classroom the next year. Ask that next year teacher if there is a measurable difference between the groups.

 

Laura H. Chapman, retired  art teacher from Ohio:

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

Some other questions.
Who is asking questions about the extent of access and use of technology by students and teachers and why? Who is not asking such questions, and why not?

Is there a map of “daily classroom practices” for every subject and grade/or developmental level such that changes in these practices over time can be monitored with the same teachers in the same teaching assignments?

Are there unintended consequences of widespread student access and teacher use of technologies other than “changes in daily classroom practices?” Here I am thinking about the risky business of assuming that change is not only inevitable but also positive(e.g., invigorates teaching and learning, makes everything moe “efficient”).

Who is designing the algorithms, the apps, the dashboards, the protocols for accessing edtech resources, who is marketing these and mining the data from these technologies, and why? These questions bear on the direct costs and benefits of investments and indirect costs/benefits…. Continue reading

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