Category Archives: how teachers teach

From Superhero Teacher to Bad Teacher: Hollywood Films Then and Now

Two weeks ago, I was one of the examiners of a doctoral student’s dissertation. After becoming emeritus professor, I have avoided such tasks but this student’s work captured my attention because it helped unravel a puzzle that had bugged me for the decades in which I had seen Hollywood films about teaching and schools. Like Derisa Grant, the doctoral student whose dissertation I read–she passed the oral examination–I had noticed that Hollywood’s portrayal of teachers had changed over the years. Think Dead Poets Society (1989). Think Stand and Deliver (1988). Now think Half Nelson (2006) and Bad Teacher (2011). By actually counting the Hollywood films made in the 1980s and 1990s and those in the past decade and how they depicted teachers as positive or negative characters, Grant made the point that there was a change in film portrayals of teachers.

From private school teacher John Keating (fictional) to high school math teacher Jaime Escalante (actual person),  superhero film-teachers in earlier decades bent the minds of their students making a profound difference in their students’ lives. Neither Harlem middle school English teacher, Dan Dunne (fictional) nor Elizabeth Halsey (fictional) middle school teacher near Chicago, however, were movie superheroes; they were deeply flawed characters who entered teaching with mixed motives and whose behaviors were closer to immoral than any superhero teacher’s motives and behavior. Why the shift in Hollywood portrayals of teachers?

To be clear, in the two decades mentioned above, Hollywood still pumped out superhero teacher films like Music of the Heart (1999) with Meryl Streep and Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) starring Richard Dreyfus and Erin Gruwell (actual teacher) in Freedom Writers (2007) played by Hilary Swank, there was nonetheless an increase in negative portrayals of teachers. And it is that shift which is puzzling.

Seldom are made-in-Hollywood films about teachers accurate about what happens in schools and teachers; they are not supposed to capture how teachers actually teach or students behave. These films are expected to make money. But they do something else that is less obvious: they express larger social anxieties that Americans feel about education.

Box office revenues matter. They influence the choices studio and independent film-makers make in selecting the stories they want to tell on screen. What did some of the above films earn after being released? The highest money maker* of superhero teachers was Dead Poets Society (1989) with over $180 million (all receipts are in 2015 dollars); second highest was Kindergarten Cop (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger; it grossed $163 million. Bad Teacher (2011) made over $104 million with Freedom Writers (2007) coming in at $41 million. What about Half Nelson (2006)? It earned just over $3 million. The downward trajectory in revenues of Hollywood films about teachers is obvious. That downward slide, however, reflected major changes in the film industry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, fewer Americans went to movies. Home viewing of films proliferated and new technologies with screens of their own cut into Hollywood revenues. To counter that loss of audience, industry film-makers turned to comic book superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men–all of these films grossing $230 to $460 million–doubling to tripling the highest box office hits among teacher films. Out of comic book superheroes, the industry had constructed a money-making machine.

So with films featuring comic book heroes drawing in hundreds of millions of dollars shouldn’t there be more superhero teachers in films in the 2000s? While there were some, negative depictions of teachers increased considerably. Grant argues that the move from superheros to damaged teachers coincided with two changes, one in the film industry’s turn to comic book figures (see above)  and  the unrelenting and decades-long criticism-cum-reforms of U.S. schools.

Harsh and public criticism about failing schools, accompanied by growing centralization of decision-making on schools in state capitols and federal actions, raised serious questions about whether schools are, indeed, social escalators for motivated children and youth to succeed. If U.S. schools are failing and federal intervention is needed, how great can teachers be. A growing social anxiety about teacher and school effectiveness coincided with changes in the film industry. It is in this unplanned intersection of factors that one can come to understand–but not explain–how portrayals of teachers slowly changed. Hollywood films about teachers, then, express the hopes, aspirations, and  yes, the anxieties that screenwriters and audiences feel.

For example, over the past half-century, film-makers and audiences together worried over rebellious teenagers (Blackboard Jungle, 1955) poverty and urban schools (Cooley High, 1975), and uncaring teachers (Bad Teacher, 2011). As Grant put it: “a film provides an arena in which solutions to these cultural anxieties may be considered and reconsidered.”

Because so many factors are involved in figuring out why something happened such as increased numbers of films about damaged, imperfect teachers, the best that any scholar can do is to point out a relationship, a coincidence of factors coming together. It would be foolish to say that one thing or the other caused these negative depictions. What Grant ends up doing is constructing an interpretation of a change she detected in how Hollywood depicted teachers. It is not a cause-effect relationship, it is, well, just a correlation. And I thank her for getting me to think once again about this puzzling change in how teachers have been portrayed in films.

 

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*All statistics come from Derisa Grant’s dissertation, “From Superteacher to ‘Bad Teacher': Goals 2000, Comic Book Films,and Changing Depictions of Cinematic Educators,” June 2015.

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The Day of Three Miracles (Education Realist)

 For over thirty years, market-driven policies to improve schooling in the U.S. such as standards, testing and accountability have had at their core the belief that both academic excellence and equity–two prized values in this culture–can be achieved at the same time. From No Child Left Behind to Core Curriculum standards, these values advance this belief that both are simultaneously achievable. What Jack Schneider calls “excellence for all” approach to school reform. When value-driven policies meet school and classroom practice, when resources are limited and choices have to be made, however, dilemmas occur because values often conflict and resources are limited. Choices have to be made. Education Realist describes such tensions when academic excellence and equity collide in this story about a high school math department.

Education Realist is a math and history teacher. I have visited this teacher’s classes in math and history on two occasions, and have come to respect the method and curriculum I’ve observed. Education Realist, who wishes to remain anonymous, is also one fine writer who explores tensions and dilemmas that teachers face. Here is one.

A colleague who I’ll call Chuck is pushing the math department to set a department goal. Chuck is in the process of upgrading our algebra 1 classes, and his efforts were really improving outcomes for mid to high ability levels, although the failure rates were a tad terrifying. He has been worried for a while that the successful algebra kids would be let down by subsequent math teachers who would hold his kids to lower standards.

“If we set ourselves the goal of getting one kid from freshman algebra all the way through to pass AP Calculus, we’ll improve instruction for everyone.” (Note: while the usual school year doesn’t allow enough time, our “4×4 full-metal block” schedule makes it possible for a dedicated kid to take a double year of math if he chooses).

Chuck isn’t pushing this goal for the sake of that one kid, as he pointed out in a recent meeting. “If we are all thinking about the kid who might make it to calculus, we’ll all be focused on keeping standards high, on making sure that we are teaching the class that will prepare that kid–if he exists–to pass AP Calculus.”

I debated internally, then spoke up. “I think the best way to evaluate your proposal is by considering a second, incompatible objective. Instead of trying to prepare every kid who starts out behind as if he can get to calculus, we could try to improve the math outcomes for the maximum number of students.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could look at our historical math completion patterns for entering freshmen algebra students, and try to improve on those outcomes. Suppose that a quarter of our freshmen take algebra. Of those students, 10% make it to pre-calc or higher. 30% make it to trigonometry, 50% make it to algebra 2, and the other 10% make it to geometry or less. And we set ourselves the goal of reducing the percentages of students who get no further than geometry or even, ideally, algebra 2, while increasing the percentages of kids who make it into trigonometry and pre-calc by senior year.”

“That’s what will happen with my proposal, too.”

“No. You want us to set standards higher, to ensure that kids getting through each course are only those qualified enough to go to Calculus and pass the AP test. That’s a small group anyway, and while you’re more sanguine than I am about the efficacy of instruction on academic outcomes, I think you’ll agree that a large chunk of kids simply won’t be the right combination of interested and capable to go all the way through.”

“Yes, exactly. But we can teach our classes as if they are.”

“Which means we’ll lose a whole bunch of kids who might be convinced to try harder to pass advanced math classes that weren’t taught as if the only objective was to pass calculus. Thus those kids won’t try, and our overall failure rate will increase. This will lower math completion outcomes.”

Chuck waved this away. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing incompatible about increasing math completion and setting standards high enough to get kids from algebra to calculus. We can do both.”

I opened my mouth…and decided against further discussion. I’d made my point. Half the department probably agreed with me. So I decided not to argue. No, really. It was, like, a miracle.

Chuck asked us all to think about committing to this instruction model.

Later that day, I ran into Chuck in the copyroom, and lo, a second miracle took place.

“Hey,” he said. “I just realized you were right. We can’t have both. If we get the lowest ability kids motivated just to try, we have to have a C to offer them, and that lowers the standard for a C, which ripples on up. We can’t keep kids working for the highest quality of A if we lower the standards for failure.”

Both copiers were working. That’s three.

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I do not discuss my colleagues to trash them, and if this story in any way reflects negatively on Chuck it’s not intentional. Quite the contrary, in fact. Chuck took less than a day to grasp my point and realized his goal was impossible. We couldn’t enforce higher standards in advanced math without dooming far more kids to failure, which would never be tolerated.

Thus the two of us collapsed a typical reform cycle to six hours from the ten years our country normally takes to abandon a well-meant but impossible chimera. …

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Shadowing Students: Lessons a Veteran Teacher Learned (Part 2)

The following account was posted on Grant Wiggins’ blog October 10, 2014. It comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Learning Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid Wiggins kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different from his experiences or my own experience in sitting in high school classes in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Moreover, I, Craig Peck, and Heather Kirkpatrick shadowed 12 high school students for a study of classroom technology use in 1998-1999. Since then I have shadowed three students in 2010 for another study of high schools. My experience in shadowing (and interviewing) the students is consistent with this teacher’s account.

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year. My job is to work with teachers and admins. to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Geometry

9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: World History

1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Math

9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: English

1:25 – 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things:

  • mandatory stretch halfway through the class
  • put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play
  • in the first and final minutes of class
  • build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.

Key Takeaway #2

High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test. So, I don’t mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes. But still, hand in hand with takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students’ day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
  • set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
  • Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.

Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, “OK, once again, let me explain…”

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
  • I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
  • I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

 I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.

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GRANT WIGGINS’ COMMENTS ON THIS POST:

“Wow. The response to this post has been overwhelming – over 150,000 page hits so far – and over 800 emails to me requesting further info.

So, instead of replying by email, my response and resources I promised can now be found below:

AE Student Survey 2014-15

AE Shadow Student

Survey Letter 2014

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Learning What’s It Like To Be a Student: Ellen Glanz, 1978-1979 (Part 1)

Typical of that group of experienced teachers who work in suburban affluent, white districts, Ellen Glanz spent a year as a student in the high school in which she taught. In becoming a student she took her teacher perspective and inverted it by sitting behind a student’s desk in class after class, facing teachers, her colleagues. Her one-year experience illuminates classroom instruction in an unusual manner.

A social studies teacher for six years at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, a suburb twenty miles from Boston, Glanz proposed to her superintendent a project that would enable her to find out what it was like to be a high school student. The superintendent gave her permission to take courses like any other student, provided the teachers, Glanz’s colleagues, agreed to her being in class.

Glanz enrolled as a senior in 1978 -1979. Her schedule included advanced expository writing, calculus, Russian history, advanced French, drawing, and trampoline. Successful in being accepted as a student after the novelty wore off, she attended classes, did homework, took tests, and, as she remarked with a touch of pride, was even “kicked out of the library for talking.” She kept a journal of her experiences and thoughts.

Periodically, she met with teachers to share her observations and, by the end of the project, wrote two reports for the high school staff, parents, and students. “I was curious to discover how different other teachers’ classes were from those I attended as a child and a teenager.” What she found out was that they “were not very different.”

“Most teachers teach in much the same way they were taught in an essentially didactic, teacher-centered mode…. The teacher knows the material and presents it to students, whose role is to ‘absorb’ it.”

The system, she said, nurtures “incredible passivity.” In class after class, “one sits and listens.” In one class during my second week as a student, I noticed half way through the hour that much of the class was either doodling, fidgeting, or sleeping. Before long, I found my own mind wandering too. Yet this teacher was touted as one of the finest in the school. “I realized,” she said, “that what was boring was not what the teacher was saying but the very act of sitting and listening for the fourth hour in a row.”

When it comes to teaching methods, Glanz observed that most techniques teachers used “promote the feeling that students have little control over or responsibility for their own education.” She pointed out the agenda for the class is the teacher’s. He or she plans the tasks and determines who does what to whom, when. There is, she found, little opportunity for students to “make a real difference in the way a class goes, aside from their doing their homework or participating.” She described how her English teacher surprised the class one period by letting two students lead a discussion. After some practice, “students were far more attentive and the teacher learned when and how to intervene to lead the discussion… without taking control. ”

After completing the year, writing the reports, and returning to her five classes a day, Glanz asked about the stubborn regularities in teaching approaches that she saw. “We must realize that in all likelihood, despite the problems I’ve described, classes will remain basically as they are right now.”

Why? Because the subject matter of French, math, anatomy, history “dictates an essentially didactic class model since the subject matter is not known intuitively by students and must be transmitted from teacher to student. And the ultimate authority and control will and should remain with the teacher.”

While Glanz suggests ways of improving teacher methods, involving students in classroom activities, and reducing the tensions that she saw clearly between the two separate worlds of teachers and students, it is apparent that she believes that the way it is in a high school can be improved but probably will stay much as it is because of what is taught, who has the knowledge, and where the authority rests.

Glanz’s description of her life as a student is similar to other books where adults pose as students (see Philip Cusick, Inside High School, 1973).

Part 2 describes a teacher shadowing a student in 2013.

 

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A History Class Using BYOD (Part 2)

Sarah Denniston introduced BYOD into her courses. She was very concerned about equity and her entrepreneuerial skills in securing funding and help from district staff made it possible for her to finesse the technical and practical difficulties usually accompanying such a move. The narrow slice of what I saw was very impressive in demonstrating how BYOD aided her teaching AP European History. She is an advocate of BYOD because she has made it work for her and her students. Every student has equal access to the technology and she believes that her teaching is better and that students learn more in the electronic, nearly paperless, classroom she has created.

When we talked she emphasized how the devices made it possible for her and students to collaborate in doing assignments, writing, and projects. For example, constant use of Google Docs made student cooperation integral to what Denniston sought and aided her monitoring of their writing. As Denniston put it:

The BYOD allows me to be instantly responsive to student’s needs. If there is a problem with the lesson I have, I can instantly correct it and everyone gets the changes right away. It also allows for me to revise lessons with much greater regularity allowing for a better work flow of revision of my curriculum.

There are other pluses beyond what Denniston said. For example, every student has access to a device and can use it at both school and home. Close to one hundred percent of students, she says, have Internet access at home . No digital divide exists at this high school. With each student bringing a tablet or laptop from home, issues of theft decrease as personal responsibility increases. The cost of having BYOD is also much less than a conventional 1:1 laptop or tablet program.

Beyond Denniston’s rendering of the pluses, there are lists of pluses attributed to BYOD, according to vendors and industry advocates (see here and here).

For readers who cast a skeptical eye on BYOD, considering the negatives that accompany any application of technology to classrooms is necessary. Denniston sees a few in her years using BYOD for her history classes.

1. Technical difficulties. Even with all of the help of district tech specialists, the network fails. Denniston says that failures this year are far less than the previous year but they do occur nonetheless.

2. Distractions for students–texting, Facebook, Instagram–are numerous; monitoring students being on task by walking around classroom seeing what students have on their screens and other tricks of the trade are necessary.

3. Copying, i.e., cut-and-paste writing in class, increase unless teachers monitor time stamp of a student’s work and other ways of insuring that students work independently.

Doubters see many more negatives to BYOD than Denniston (see here and here)

Given these pluses and minuses, seeing Denniston teach the AP European History class was, for me, a proof of concept. BYOD worked for Sarah Denniston. But would it work at Glenville and Cardozo high schools in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. where I observed seven history teachers teach last year? Not now.

Both urban high schools are 99 percent minority and poor. Because of persistent low test performance, they have been restructured twice–new principals and staff. Most students have cell phones but each school prohibits their use in class. Carts of laptops are deployed to the media center and selected teachers for use at Cardozo High School while at Glenville a series of computer labs with desktops are distributed throughout the school. Many, perhaps a majority, of Glenville and Cardozo students have access to the Internet at home but not anywhere near Sarah Denniston’s school. When it comes to BYOD, the digital divide looks unbridgeable. Proof of concept does not mean BYOD can be (or should be) put into practice in all U.S. schools (see here and here).

What Doug Johnson calls an “ethical dilemma” shows up most clearly at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools. Advocates of BYOD who ignore the issue of equity in access to technology in schools turn a blind eye to the socioeconomic divide in the U.S. They press a heavy thumb on the scale of fairness when they want all schools to enlist in BYOD.

Finally, the question of whether students learn more, faster, and better with BYOD remains open. Cost-efficient as BYOD may be does not mean that it is cost-effective. Neither Sarah Denniston or other advocates of BYOD can say with any degree of confidence that students learn more by having 1:1 access to their devices. What matters, of course, are all of those crucial factors that come into play in determining whether students have learned: the teacher’s expertise and experience, her pedagogy, the socioeconomic background of students, the culture of the schooland a handful of other influences. 1:1 laptops and tablets hardly determine what and how students learn.

 

 

 

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A History Class Using Bring-Your-Own-Devices (BYOD)

A few years ago, there was much hype about BYOD. At the time, I had dismissed BYOD for a number of reasons. First, there were the technical difficulties (bandwidth issues and managing different platforms). Second, there were pedagogical constraints that accompany programs where each student has a device (e.g., distraction and off-task behavior, classroom management). Third, there was the equity issue. But BYOD’s appeal continued to spread. I wondered why.

Recently, I heard of a history teacher who implemented a BYOD in her courses. I contacted Sarah Denniston (fictitious name) and she invited me to visit her Northern California high school. Her high school has nearly 1800 students divided about half white and half minority (Asian and Latino). Nearly 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 95 percent attend college after graduation. About one-third of the students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent of test-takers qualifying for college credit. One of those Advanced Placement teachers is Denniston who teaches AP European history. A graduate (and track star) of the high school in which she now teaches, Denniston has been teaching 10 years. About her students, she says:

“I really like [high schoolers’] energy, especially the freshmen and sophomores.” At [that]level, the verbal filter is not as developed and students are willing to ask any and all questions. It’s great to see students’ intellectual level advance, I love the spastic energy of the freshmen and sophomores, that kind of goofiness.”

Denniston uses BYOD in all five of her classes–she sees well over 150 students a day.

I visited her second period AP European history class recently. There are 26 students in the class. Desks are arranged in pods of three. All of the 10th grade students have their tablets and laptops open. For those students (less than 10 percent in the school) who do not have devices, the school issued them tablets for school and home use. On the white board is an announcement: “18 days to AP test. What are you doing to review?” A list of study sessions with day and time are listed for the next two weeks. On the front wall above the whiteboards is a chart entitled “Costa’s Levels of Questions.”

Denniston is in the midst of a unit on “Conservatism, Liberalism, Nationalism, and Romanticism,” specifically the mid-19th century reign of Napoleon III in France. She has multiple activities in play during the 50 minute period. Standing at a podium with her open laptop, Denniston banters with various students on their “Oldcast”–see below. She then launches into a 25-minute illustrated lecture using slides projected on the front screen covering key events in these years (e.g., attempted assassination of Napoleon III, Crimean War, Paris Commune). For unfamiliar words she leaves the podium and adds words to a running list on front board. She spices up lecture with anecdotes (e.g., in 1870, hungry Parisians under siege from German army break into the city zoo and eat the animals). At one point says to class, “I have been kicked offline, the Internet is not working.” A moment later, she is back online and continues the lecture. Students listen and click away.

During the lecture, Denniston reminds students to complete the review worksheet that she gave them earlier on mid-19th century conservatism, liberalism, and nationalism. Students near me whose screens I can see are taking notes on their devices. Some pull down the worksheet on their screen to fill in the blank spaces as she lectures. Four students ask different questions to get facts straight. At the end of the lecture on France’s Third Republic, Denniston announces that the class will return to working on the “Oldcast.” Groans and murmurs course through the room.

The assignment is for students to pair up and use a TV “newscast” format to create a stories about mid-19th century France based on topics in their textbook, what they found on the Internet, or from Denniston’s lectures. Thus, an “Oldcast.” Two students volunteer to give their “Oldcast” in the form of an interview between a mid-19th century factory owner and a worker. The two students carry their open tablets to the front of the room and read from their screens the scripted dialogue they had written. Their “Oldcast” lasts less than five minutes. Class applauds the two students. Denniston then asks students to work in pairs and finish the worksheet or continue working on their “Oldcast.” A moment before the bell rings, as students put away devices, Denniston reminds students of homework; they exit as period ends.

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In Denniston’s AP class, BYOD worked. The school’s technical capacity to accommodate different devices–except for the brief moment the teacher went offline–was in place during the period I was there. The familiar flow of an AP class’s activities (or most history classes for that matter)–short lecture, whole group Q & A, students taking notes, filling in blanks on the worksheet, students participating in pairs to do “Oldcast”–was seamless for the 50 minute period. I did not note any students who were off-task. Denniston was using the technology to enhance her lesson.

In Part 2, I discuss the pluses of BYOD that Denniston and others see. There are decided advantages to BYOD. And disadvantages also that, for now, make it unworkable in many other schools.

 

 

 

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Lessons Learned from a Chalkboard: Slow and Steady Technology Integration (Bradley Emerling)

Bradley Emerling is Principal Research Scientist at Pearson Research and Innovation Network. This commentary appeared in Teachers College Record  on April 13, 2015.

Last winter, while observing and recording classroom lessons for a research project in Japan, I was surprised to hear a sound I had not heard for many years—the sound of chalk. Over a three-week period of observations in Saitama prefecture, I captured 17 classroom videos from various subject areas across 1st to 12th grade. Every classroom I visited was equipped with a large green chalkboard. There were few computers, few projectors or smartboards, and no other visible forms of 21st century technology in most of the classrooms. Japanese colleagues and researchers confirmed this was representative of the average K-12 classroom in Japan. In January 2015, the Tokyo Broadcasting System reported approximately 75% of Japanese classrooms still use chalkboards as the primary medium for presentation of lesson content (Sankyuu, 2015).

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My first reaction was one of astonishment. How could Japan, a society known for its creation of gadgets and highly specialized technological devices, be so far behind in their use of 21st century technology?

As I continued to record lessons, I began to note the masterful way Japanese teachers utilized this “primitive” instructional medium. I also noted how teachers and students alike maintained the chalkboard with consistent and diligent care. Each class assigned one student to serve as the kokuban kakari (person in charge of the chalkboard) who ensured it was clean and ready for use prior to the opening bell for each period. Teachers treated each centimeter of this freshly cleaned board as valuable real estate. They wrote in straight lines with clear and precise characters and paused to erase stray marks or re-write illegible content.

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Math and science teachers used meter sticks as a guide to draw perfectly symmetrical diagrams and tables. Language arts and social studies teachers used a variety of chalk colors, each with a consistent meaning and precise purpose related to grammatical terms, literary themes, or systems of government. They used magnetic timers on the board to pace activities and posted magnetic labels of student names to assign workspace for whole-class demonstrations. Most importantly, teachers carefully preserved a lesson storyline as they progressed across the board. They added elements in a strategic sequence that helped bring coherence to the lesson, and rarely erased content unless they reached a major instructional transition.

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CREATING LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES THROUGH BOARD WRITING

I also conducted post-observation interviews with teachers to ask about instructional planning and decisions. It turns out Japanese educators possess a unique technical vocabulary for describing chalkboard teaching practices, called bansho (board-writing) and bansho-keikaku (board-writing planning). Like many instructional practices in Japan, bansho has been studied and refined over a period of years through use of Japanese lesson study (jugyō kenkyū). During a typical lesson study cycle, teachers conduct research, analyze curriculum, and design a detailed “research lesson” to address a jointly selected investigative theme. One team member teaches the research lesson while colleagues observe and collect data on student learning. The team then engages in extended discussion of results and potential revisions. After two or more cycles of implementation, the process often culminates with an open house where guests are invited to observe teaching of the refined lesson plan (Ermeling & Graff-Ermeling, 2014).

Yoshida (1999) reports how lower elementary mathematics teachers used lesson study to test and refine bansho methods with conceptually rich math problems. For each research lesson, teachers carefully mapped out a chalkboard diagram, including space for whole-class review of previously assigned problems, space for posting the new problem, space dedicated for student presentation of ideas, and space for culminating remarks. More than simply displaying information or solutions, teachers used the chalkboard to summarize, organize, and link a sequence of lesson events to facilitate collective thinking. One teacher explained: “I try to organize the blackboard in such a way that my students and I can see how the lesson progressed and what was talked about during the lesson…” (p. 439). Reports are available in Japanese bookstores summarizing key findings from various bansho lesson-study projects.

Based on analysis of over 200 videos from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Stigler and Hiebert (1999) also describe underlying cultural teaching “scripts” that influence technology choices in different countries. Comparing Japanese and US 8th grade math classrooms, they observed that nearly all Japanese teachers used a chalkboard as the primary visual aid, while many American teachers (at the time of the study) used an overhead projector. More importantly, they point out this was not merely a visual aid preference, but represented a fundamental distinction in teaching approaches. American teachers often chose an overhead projector because they conceived of the visual aid as a tool for focusing students’ attention on one problem at a time and shaping tasks into manageable steps. Even when they used a chalkboard, they would often erase a problem before starting a new one to maintain student focus on immediate information.

The Japanese math teachers, as Yoshida (1999) also noted, used visual aids for a different reason—to provide a record of problems, solution approaches, and key principles discussed over the course of a lesson. In this way, the chalkboard played an important role in helping students make connections and discover new relationships between mathematical ideas (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). In addition, other Japanese studies report the green color of the chalkboard provides a calming benefit for students, enabling concentration more effectively than a white background (Sankyuu, 2015).

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For these reasons, Japanese teachers’ choice to use a chalkboard instead of an overhead projector (in the 1990s), or instead of computer-based slide presentations (in 2015), is more than simply a delayed reaction to adopt new devices. It reflects a thoughtful decision about which technology might best support particular learning opportunities for students. Similarly, research and development projects, funded by the Japanese government, are now underway, investigating the kinds of learning opportunities and instructional methods best facilitated by new digital technologies (Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications [MIC], n.d.).

COMPARING US AND JAPAN TECHNOLOGY APPROACHES

The more I observed Japanese masterful use of the chalkboard, the more I reflected on technology approaches in US classrooms. Not only do educators rarely discuss the rationale for which technologies might best support particular learning opportunities, many US schools are consumed by a haphazard race to adopt the latest innovation. While many classrooms are decked out with shiny new tablets, document projectors, smartboards, or infrared response systems, far too often these devices are under-utilized, and methods of use vary widely across teachers. There are definitely exceptions to this pattern, such as Project Red or the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, where technology is carefully implemented through ongoing research and development efforts (Digital Promise, n.d.; Project Red, n.d.). But there are many more classrooms where digital devices function as little more than expensive and colorful accessories with minimal influence on existing instructional methods. In other cases, devices sit unused, collect dust, and soon become obsolete, costing thousands of dollars in upgrades.

Despite Japan’s slower pace of technology adoption, one might argue that Japanese educators are well ahead of the US in effective technology integration. Japanese government officials and other prominent educational leaders openly acknowledge the need to begin incorporating 21st century technologies into their teaching and learning environments. Several programs are well underway with this effort such as the Future Schools Promotion Project, involving systematic research on infrastructure and effectiveness of technology integration in selected Japanese pilot schools (MIC, n.d.).

Passed down over centuries from stories of Samurai, the Japanese have a frequently cited proverb that  fittingly describes their approach to technology integration: “when you’re in a hurry, take the slow round-about way” (isogaba maware). Following this advice, the focus in Japanese education is not on how many innovations they rush to implement or how many new gadgets students get to use. Instead, educators focus on collecting evidence of effectiveness and leveraging technology resources (whether it’s a chalkboard or a smartboard) with purpose and intentionality to enhance and facilitate teaching and learning opportunities. As stated in a recent Japanese publication from the Future Schools Project, “Traditional education will be valued while those parts of it that should be extended, broadened, or deepened will evolve significantly” (MIC, n.d., p. 2).

What if educators adopted the same approach in America with devices such as smartboards, and infrared response systems, as well applications such as screencasting, Google Docs, or Evernote? Teams of teachers could treat these devices and applications as critical topics for collaborative inquiry, develop plans for using them in the classroom, articulate hypotheses for how they will create specific learning opportunities, implement, observe and collect data on the results of these lessons. Other teachers could build on these lesson cases by studying, adapting, and refining methods of use for various contexts and learning goals.

As Japanese schools adopt and incorporate emergent technologies, researchers and educators will be studying and documenting effective methods with the same diligent analysis they have demonstrated for decades with bansho. If the objective is to develop deeper understanding of how technologies are used to create learning opportunities for particular learning goals, then “slow and steady” will again prevail over “fast and furious.” The US should take note and consider a more purposeful integration strategy that emphasizes efficacy over hasty implementation.

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Digital Promise. (n.d.). League Research. Retrieved from http://www.digitalpromise.org/initiatives/research#league-research

 

Ermeling, B., & Graff-Ermeling, G. (2014). Learning to learn from teaching: A first-hand account of lesson study in Japan. International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 3(2), 170–192. Retrieved from http://independent.academia.edu/BradleyErmeling

 

Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC). (n.d.). Creating the Learning Environment of the Future. Retrieved from http://www.soumu.go.jp/main_content/000299868.pdf

 

Project Red. (n.d.). Project Red: The Research. Retrieved from http://www.projectred.org/about/research-overview.html

 

Sankyuu, T. (Presenter). (2015, January 22). Chalk industry crisis: Decision to cease production of long standing educational IT. [Radio Broadcast]. In K. Arakawa (Producer), Day Catch News Ranking. Tokyo,

Japan: Tokyo Broadcasting System Holdings, Inc.

 

Stigler, J., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

 

Yoshida, M. (1999). Lesson Study: An ethnographic investigation of school-based teacher development in Japan. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (AAT 9951855)

 

 

 

 

 

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