Category Archives: technology use

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.

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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.

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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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Some Technology Leaders Worry about Children and Digital Devices: They Should

We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.

Bill Gates interview, 2017

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, Interview with Charlie Rose, 2009*

 

They haven’t used [the iPad]. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.

Steve Jobs, Apple, 2010 in reply to reporter about  his children using newly-released iPads

 

I do not know whether these high-tech leaders feel that way today (Jobs died in 2011) but there are other Silicon Valley dads and moms who work for Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and start-ups who wrestle with dilemma of valuing highly technology access and use but see the negatives of overuse of devices by their children. Listen to a manager for a Silicon Valley firm who limits his 12- and 10-year old daughters’ device time to 30 minutes a day yet he uses devices for hours:

“I’d give myself a B-minus or C-plus — and that’s up from a solid F at one point….The kids have called me out on it, for which I was grateful.”

The sting of parents considering themselves hypocritical in setting limits for their sons and daughters in using tablets, cell phones, and laptops at home while they are on the devices for long stretches of day and night-time (average daily use of mobile devices for adults was five hours while awake) is an ever-present issue in Silicon Valley and across the country. It pinches San Francisco Bay area parents  with devices even more so.

Sharael Kolberg says she was one of those parents. A Silicon Valley writer (her husband worked in marketing) describes an experiment they did with their daughter in A Year Unplugged: A Family’s Life Without Technology. She recalls: “We went back to the ‘80s, basically. I got out my record player and typewriter, we used the phone book and paper maps. It enhanced our relationships with our friends and family. Technology takes that away from us.”

Few parents and their children are going to go cold-turkey for a year regardless of what Kolberg writes and medical associations recommend. But many parents will try to reduce use of their devices and the ones they buy for their children because it cuts down on family face-to-face communication particularly when both (or single) parents use devices daily (and nightly) for their work (see here).

And other parents will avoid conflicts with their kids in trying to limit use.

But conflict is inevitable since the spread of devices has also swallowed schools. Although largely poor and minority schools have fewer devices than their suburban cousins, overall, nearly half of public schools now distribute one-to-one devices to students beginning in primary grades through high school. Screen time for children and youth has leaped ahead dramatically (see here and here).

Can parents do anything about schools doubling the screen time for their sons and daughters?

Schools can restrict use. There are a few schools that see the overall picture of home and classroom screen use and restrict use of devices. Google executive Alan Eagle whose children attend a Waldorf school spoke to a reporter:

[H]e says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

High tuition private schools with a clear ideology about teaching and learning and the place high-tech devices should and should not play in both have that latitude to reduce use of computers in elementary and middle school grades. That Waldorf school caters to affluent offspring of Silicon Valley parents, many of whom work at nearby companies.

Except for school policies banning cell phone use in classrooms–a policy that administrators and teachers are often ambivalent about and enforce erratically–few public schools have the luxury of restricting use of digital devices in lessons. In a society that loves technology and sees it as the solution to problems both private and public, school officials who raise questions risk strong backlash from parents, vendors, and students. Unless, of course, they are pressured by parents concerned about use of public funds for technology and increased screen time for children and youth.

Parents can raise questions with district and school administrators about use of digital tools for classroom lessons. There are straightforward questions such as why is the school adopting devices for all students (see here)? Then there are the questions that often don’t get asked: Is use of computers effective in increasing academic achievement? After the novelty effect of new tablets and laptops wear off, as it inevitably does, are devices used in daily lessons and in what ways? Can ever-rising expenditures for school technologies be re-directed to research-based options such as hiring trained and experienced teachers?

Such parent/school cooperation around screen time is rare although a few parents and school officials do raise such questions (see here, here, and here).

Those top leaders who founded and run high-tech organizations talk about how they reduced use of technology for their own children have yet to make the connection of total screen time now that schools have thoroughly embraced digital devices as must-have tools for daily lessons. Combined time watching screens at school and home for the young mirrors the work world where employees are always on call and boundaries between private and work lives are disappearing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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*Interview with Charlie Rose, March 6, 2009–quote begins at 42.00

 

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Distractions That Interrupt Learning (Tony Riehl)

Part of the core of teaching a lesson beyond sequencing whole group, small group, and independent activities, figuring out use of instructional materials, and timing each segment of the lesson is to reduce distractions. With hand-held devices ubiquitous among students, distractions multiply. What do teachers do to manage digital distractions?

Veteran math teacher Tony Riehl wrote a post on this subject. It appeared May 22, 2017 . He has taught high school math courses in Montana for 35 years. I added blogger Dan Meyer’s comments on Riehl’s post.

I learned early on with cell phones, that when you ask a student to hand you their phone, it very often becomes confrontational. A cell phone is a very personal item for some people.

To avoid the confrontation I created a “distraction box” and lumped cell phones in with the many other distraction that students bring to class. These items have changed over time, but include “fast food” toys, bouncy balls, Rubics cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot item now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.

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A distraction could be a distraction to the individual student, the other students or even a distraction to me. On the first day of the year I explain to my students that if I make eye contact with them and point to the distraction box, they have a choice to make. If they smile and put the item in the box, they can take the item out of the box on the way out of the room. If they throw a fit and put the distraction in the box, they can have it back at the end of the day. If they refuse to put the distraction in the box, they go to the office with the distraction.

On the first day of the year we even practice smiling while we put an item in the box. The interaction is always kept very light and the students really are cooperative. It has been a few years since an interaction actually became confrontational, because I am not asking them to put the item in my hand. I even have students sometimes put their cell phone in the box on the way in the door because they know they are going to have trouble staying focused.

This distraction box concept really has changed the atmosphere of my room. Students understand what a distraction is and why we need to limit distractions. We even joke sometimes because the box isn’t big enough to put “Billie” in the box.

 

This Is My Favorite Cell Phone Policy

By Dan Meyer • May 24, 2017 • 26 Comments

Schools around the world are struggling to integrate modern technology like cell phones into existing instructional routines. Their stances towards that technology range from total proscription – no cell phones allowed from first bell to last – to unlimited usage. Both of those policies seem misguided to me for the same reason: they don’t offer students help, coaching, or feedback in the complex skills of focus and self-regulation.

Enter Tony Riehl’s cell phone policy, which I love for many reasons, not least of which because it isn’t exclusively a cell phone policy. It’s a distractions policy.

What Tony’s “distraction box” does very well:

  • It makes the positive statement that “we’re in class to work with as few distractions as possible.” It isn’t a negative statement about any particular distraction. Great mission statement.
  • Specifically, it doesn’t single out cell phones. The reality is that cell phones are only one kind of technology students will bring to school, and digital technology is only one distractor out of many. Tony notes that “these items have changed over time, but include fast food toys, bouncy balls, Rubik’s cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot items now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.”
  • It acknowledges differences between students. What distracts you might not distract me. My cell phone distracts my learning so it goes in the box. Your cell phone helps you learn so it stays on your desk.
  • It builds rather than erodes the relationship between teachers and students. Cell phone policies often encourage teachers to become detectives and students to learn to evade them. None of this does any good for the working relationship between teachers and students. Meanwhile, Tony describes a policy that has “changed the atmosphere of my room,” a policy in which students and teachers are mutually respected and mutually invested.

This is a different approach. The cell phones are in jail. But I admire the incentive for parking your phone.

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Atlanta Educators Reflect on Lessons From Personalized Learning Initiative (Jenny Abamu)

This story appeared in EdSurge August 11, 2017.

“Jenny Abamu is an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covers technology’s role in both higher education and K-12 spaces. She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Masters degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.”

Five years into a massive transition to a personalized learning model, educators at Fulton County School District in Georgia say they’ve learned a lot about what personalized learning is—including that it’s not about technology.

Back in 2012, ambitious district officials in Fulton County revealed a five-year plan. Through a special-purpose local option sales tax, the district hoped to raise over $200 million to add 65,000 devices in schools by 2017. There was a catch, however: school leaders had to commit to implementing personalized learning models as a prerequisite to receiving laptops and iPads. District leaders even went so far as to dub the hardware “personalized learning devices.”

“At first we thought this was just going to be a hoop we have to jump through in order to get these devices,” admits Daniel Hodge, a personalized learning coach at Barnwell Elementary School in Fulton County, echoing the concerns and confusion shared by other Fulton County educators in an interview with EdSurge. Hodge says his work was originally focused on the tech. It was even in his job title—instructional technology support. “But as we started to do things, we realized it was so much more,” he says.

Working with the consulting organization, Education Elements, the district identified seven tenets of personalized learning: varied strategies, direct just-in-time instruction, choice and voice, mastery-based assessment, choice for demonstrating learning, flexible pacing, and co-plan learning.

District leaders then divided schools into five groups and set them up with coaches. Before teachers could receive the devices, they needed to work with the coaches to adopt at least three of the seven principles into their school model. These principles would guide the school’s professional development and curriculum.

Many teachers hoped that transitioning to this new model would cause students would take ownership of their learning since students had more choices about the pace of a lesson and the content they chose to learn.

But the students in Hodge’s school seemed less engaged. “They were supposed to have more ownership,” Hodge says, but instead, learning looked more passive. Testing scores dipped. “We were wondering why students were just not getting it. They were supposed to have ownership of their learning,” says Hodge. “We were like, wait a second, students chose this, and they’re giving teachers less quality than when teachers were leading them,” he says.

Educators were also confused about what personalized learning was supposed to be.

“A lot of teachers thought [personalized learning] was going to mean taking the teacher away from the front of the classroom and de-emphasizing direct instruction,” Hodge says. They expected inquiry-based learning over direct instruction; adaptive software instead of say, worksheets. “We were expecting those things to bear a lot of the weight” of instruction, he adds.

Chanel Johnson, a STEM program specialist in Fulton County, echoes Hodge’s concerns, noting that many of the teachers saw personalized learning as a type of technology that would replace the work of teachers in the classroom.

“We talked about personalized learning, and then we talked about devices, so teachers had the impression that personalized learning meant technology,” says Johnson. “It should have been communicated better that personalized learning is a pedagogy, a way of instructing children—and not a way to use technology better.”

Hodge’s “ah ha!” moment came when he realized the most important “tool” of personalized learning was, in fact, a much older education concept: the “gradual release of responsibility” model, something articulated in the early 1980s and based on theories that go back to Jean Piaget. “It doesn’t matter if you’re standing up in front of the class and giving kids packet of worksheets,” or if you use adaptive software, he says. Instead, the key to personalized learning “is the idea of the teacher transferring ownership of learning to students so they can become self-directed learners.”

The district paid for Hodge to take a six-month course on personalized learning, but he stresses that there are no experts. “When someone says they’re an expert in ‘personalized learning,’ you have to look at their background. People use [PL] as a noun—that’s super detrimental. It’s not a package or end game—it’s a process, a verb. It’s something that’s done. You personalize learning.”

To combat these misconceptions both Hodge and Johnson are working to reconstruct their message by separating technology from the pedagogy with teachers, a difficult task with the two ideas tied together at the district level. However, Hodge says he will remain on his “soap box” until teachers in his schools understand that they must gradually transition students into self-directed learning, whether or not they’re using technology.

“In order to effectively personalize students’ learning the teacher at some point must transfer ownership of learning to students,” says Hodge.

Hodge says he is willing to open up his school so people can come in and learn from their mistakes. Hosting what he describes as “Learning Walks,” Hodge invites parents, teachers, administrators into his teachers’ classrooms so they can offer feedback and support—hoping his transparency can encourage others to share their successes and failures.

“I think a lot of people are scared of letting people know that it didn’t work for them. That is our biggest weakness in all of this,” says Hodge. “Personalized learning has great sound bites and images, but when they try it, and it doesn’t work, they get very insecure about it. What I have learned and what is going to strengthen our work moving forward, has come from iteration and talking about what’s not working.”

Two years into the journey, Hodge feels upbeat about the directions he sees. “School’s just starting. I feel like this year, we’re in a really solid place. Our understanding is better. And it’s a better time to roll it out on larger scale because we know what we’re talking about.”

 

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Apple Classroom of Tomorrow: A Glimpse into the Past

Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) began in 1985 with three classrooms in which every student had access to a desktop computer at school and at home. This 1:1 ratio in a classroom at this time when most schools had 125 students per computer was not only innovative but rare.  As the head of the Apple-sponsored research said: “we set out to investigate how routine use of technology by teachers and students would affect teaching and learning.”

While much has been written about the pluses and minuses of ACOT after it shut down a decade later (see here, here, and here), a glimpse inside one of those classrooms in its first year is like seeing a fossil preserved in amber.

Researcher Jane David described her visit in May 1986 to a fifth grade classroom in Blue Earth school (then a K-12 school housing all students in the rural Minnesota district). One of three initial classrooms chosen to participate in the experiment, David’s description of  her two day visit to the classroom raises questions that in 2017 are just as relevant about routine use of devices in the nation’s classroom. Here is, in part, what she had to say.*

The ACOT classroom is one of three fifth-grade classes in Blue Earth’s only school, a K-12 school with roughly 1000 students and 250 computers.** The number of computers reflects the fact that Blue Earth has been in the forefront of computer use in schools even prior to ACOT….

The ACOT fifth grade class consists of advanced students who averaged in the 99th percentile on previous standardized tests and began the year with keyboarding skills ranging from 30-80 words per minute. These students were introduced to keyboarding in the third grade and participated in the Project Beacon classroom in the fourth grade [part of large, three-year state grant called the Beacon project]. Moreover, ACOT is enhanced by school leadership and hence a climate that encourages innovative uses of computers. From the classroom to the library, cafeteria, nurse’s office andcentral office, computers are am integral part of the daily routine.

The ACOT [fifth grade] teacher began teaching in 1980 with no computer background. Seeing computers at the school, he purchased an Apple and taught himself Appleworks. With $100 from Apple, he took a course in Logo.

In the ACOT classroom, the computers are arranged in five rows going away from the teacher’s desk; four of the five rows are adjacent (with monitors back-to-back). All computers are on three-shelf work stations, with storage beneath and monitors on top. A printer is located at the end of the double rows and a large monitor above a chalkboard in the front of the room and a second large monitor on one side wall.

The computers in the ACOT classroom are used roughly 50% of the time. Word processing is the main use, with applications ranging from daily journal writing to dictation in which students enter answers to oral questions and then reorganize the information into a story or poem. Students have also created a class newspaper using Newsroom and have personal dictionaries (databases which sit on the desktop)consisting of the words they have difficulty spelling (which they quiz each other on). The most advanced students use a math CAI program with a spiral of math skills….

David also looked at a classroom in Eugene (OR) and described that as well in her report to Apple. After summarizing the information she gathered from the two visits to these classrooms, she offered research questions that she felt needed to be answered when a full study of the half-dozen or more ACOT classrooms were done. The research questions covered the influence of computers on how teachers taught, how students reacted to computers, and how organizational and physical arrangements affect the use of computers.

These questions, I believe, are just as relevant for researchers to investigate as for practitioners to consider now as they were then. For example,

#Do computers change the way teachers teach?

#How are computers used instructionally?

#Do computers simplify or complicate teaching?

David also was sensitive to the organizational constraints teachers faced in using 1:1 devices within the confines of the age-graded school within a district and state that had its own requirements. For example, she says:

A number of ingrained characteristics of the existing system seem to run counter to a vision of students using computers as vehicles for exploration, independent learning, and individual pursuits.

-teacher-centered classrooms;

-curricular objectives required by the district or school;

-individual and school evaluations based on traditional standardized tests not sensitive to new kinds of learning;

-the need to ‘stay with’ the other classes in the school at the same grade level (pressure from teachers and parents);

-the need to prepare students in the way that the next grade’s teachers expect (and ultimately graduation requirements.

All of the above questions–there are more in her report–and the imperatives of the Blue Earth age-graded elementary school nested in a district and state in 1986 are, in my opinion, not only a glimpse into the past but also a pointed reminder that efforts to integrate computers into daily lessons must reckon with these questions and imperatives in 2017.

 

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*Jane David is a long-time friend, co-author, and colleague. She provided me with a copy of her 1986 report to Apple from which I excerpted these sections.

**Blue Earth is now a district with three schools: an elementary, middle, and high school.

 

 

 

 

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Seymour Papert on How Computers Fundamentally Change the Way Kids Learn

Seymour Papert died at the age of 88 in 2016 (see obituary in New York Times). Many of his lectures, newspaper op-eds, books, and videoed talks are archived. The following description of  Papert was written to introduce the interview he gave to Dan Schwartz in 1999.

[Seymour] Papert is the co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence and Media Labs, professor of Media Technology at MIT, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the impact of computers on learning. He is the current elder statesman in a lineage of educational reformers that include John Dewey and Jean Piaget. His constructionist theories are manifested in Logo, a programming language he developed for children. His 1980 book Mindstorms sent shockwaves throughout the education and psychology communities, both of which accused him of pushing an educational pill that would induce psychosis in our children.

Almost twenty years later no one is exactly clamoring for surgeon general warning labels on PCs. Indeed, anyone who has witnessed a toddler using a computer has probably experienced a sense of awe at that child’s facility with what for adults can be an infinitely frustrating gadget. It’s one thing for a child to play a computer game; it’s another thing altogether for a child to build his or her own game. And this, according to Papert, is where the computer’s true power as an educational medium lies — in the ability to facilitate and extend children’s awesome natural ability and drive to construct, hypothesize, explore, experiment, evaluate, draw conclusions — in short to learn — all by themselves. It is this very drive, Papert contends, that is squelched by our current educational system.

Papert knows the bureaucracy he is crusading against is firmly entrenched. But he takes comfort in a secret weapon unavailable to a long line of education reformers up until now. He calls it “kid power.” Papert’s is a trickle-up vision of change demanded by a generation that learned to use a mouse about the same time it learned to use a spoon. And for the parents of this digitally-weaned generation, Papert offers some ideas about how to bridge a gap that, for many, starts not during adolescence, but in preschool.

 This interview was posted on ZineZone.com in 1999. Archived at: http://www.papert.org/articles/GhostInTheMachine.html

ZZ: Let’s begin with an overview of your ideas about child as a learner.

SP: Children, of course, come into the world as very powerful, highly competent learners, and the learning they do in the first few years of life is actually awesome. A child exploring the immediate world does that pretty thoroughly in an experiential, self-directed way. But when you see something in your immediate world that really represents something very far away — a picture of an elephant, for example — you wonder how elephants eat. You can’t answer that by direct exploration. So you have to gradually shift over from experiential learning to verbal learning — from independent learning to dependence on other people, culminating in school, where you’re totally dependent, and somebody is deciding what you learn.

So that shift is an unfortunate reflection of the technological level that society has been at up to now. And I see the major role of technology in the learning of young children as making that shift less abrupt, because it is a very traumatic shift. It’s not a good way of preserving the kid’s natural strengths as a learner.

With new technologies the kid is able to explore much more knowledge by direct exploration, whether it’s information or exploration by getting into his sources, or finding other people to talk about it. I think we’re just beginning to see, and we’ll see a lot more non-textual information available through something like the Web or whatever it develops into. So there will be much more opportunity to learn before running into this barrier of the limitations of the immediate.

ZZ: So context is key?

SP: It’s purpose. I think context is a concept that’s been overused here, and it’s misleading because people try to give context by relating it to other things and preaching to kids about how this is relevant to X and Y and Z. Or even providing a story of somebody who invented it, and that provides a–that’s not the same thing as being in a situation where you are struggling to solve a real problem that comes from your own activity that you really care about, and you struggle around and find this mathematical method by remembering it, or asking somebody or reinventing it or gets bits and pieces of it from other people and putting them together….

ZZ: Does technology by its very nature lead to this kind of experiential learning? Is it the tail that wags the educational dog?

SP: In fact what’s happening now is almost the opposite. I like to distinguish between that first phase of exploratory learning (home-style learning or Piagetian learning), and school-style learning. What we’ve seen with most so-called educational software is pushing school-style learning backward to earlier ages in the home, which is almost the reverse of the way that I think the technology could be used. And I think it’s a very dangerous trend that people will buy this software because it looks schoolish, and they think that makes it good, but maybe it makes it bad. I mean even apart from what you think about school as such. Pushing school back into the region of a powerful spontaneous learning is not something we should be doing lightly.

ZZ: I have a friend who has two kids. He is well-educated and keeps up with current events. He told me he’s worried that there is something about raising kids in the digital age that he should know, but that he doesn’t. What doesn’t he know that he needs to know?

SP: Well, of course, there are a lot of things that people don’t know and none of us know about the digital world. We don’t know what it’s going to turn into. There are things that people know are wrong, and maybe that’s something that one could focus on.

So I think one thing that people know is wrong is the emphasis that has been accentuated by the success of the Internet as a way of getting information. And then you begin to wonder, “What do we do with it? Why do we want all that information? How do we distinguish good information from bad information, and how do we protect people from evil information?”

In education also we’ve got the same thing. There’s education as putting out information; teacher lecturing, reading the book. There’s learning by doing, which is the constructional side versus the informational side. And, unfortunately, in our schools the informational side is the one that gets the emphasis, and so there’s this line-up between one-sided emphasis in the thinking about school, and the one-sided emphasis in thinking about the technology. Both of them emphasizing the informational side, and they reinforce one another. So in many ways, through this, the wrong image we have of what digital technology is about reinforces instead of undermining some of the weaknesses and narrowness of traditional education.

ZZ: In your book The Connected Family, you suggest that to further their understanding of these issues, parents need to learn more about learning than they do about computers.

SP: I use that term “connected family” as the name of a book, playing on two meanings of connected, of course. Talking about the fact that we connect through the Internet, but also about whether we connect or don’t connect inside the family. And there’s a widespread fear, often justified, about the possibility that computers inside the home are going to disconnect the family, that it creates a deeper generational gap than there was before. People get involved in their own isolated kinds of activities and already the television was a conversation killer in the home. This can be more so.

So what I’m interested in is, how can we think about the computer presence in ways that will strengthen rather than weaken the other kind of connection inside the family? I think if parents are going to connect with children, or if people in the family are going to connect together around the computer in intellectually interesting and bonding kinds of activities, what they need is not more knowledge about computers only, although they might need that too. But that’s the easy part. The more interesting and important part — and harder part — to get is more knowledge about learning, about shared intellectual activities. I think that parents are very inhibited by the fact that they are being solicited by vendors of software which promise to prepare the kid for school or result in better grades and all the rest of that, but which allow very little opportunity for parent and kid to do anything together.

How can they be joint projects between members of the family? How can parents participate in the learning experiences of the kids? And even if they don’t want to go through the actual learning experience of that complex game or simulation, whatever it might be, how can they converse about it, and be sympathetic and understanding, and learn from the kids about the kids’ learning experience? I think there are very strong possibilities of that, and that many parents do it, but many more parents are not aware of that possibility, or are too nervous about the technology, or too angry at it, because they don’t like what’s happening. So I was trying in that book to take a baby step towards encouraging people to think about the technology in a way that would strengthen what I call the “learning culture of the family.”

ZZ: How do you envision technology impacting teaching and learning in the classroom?

SP: I don’t think I want to predict. I think people haven’t done very well by predicting exactly what will happen. But I think we can predict that some things will go away. Age segregation will go away. This fragmentation of the day into periods devoted to different subjects will go away. Curriculum-driven structure of learning, by which I mean you learn something because it is the day in which you are supposed to learn that. As opposed to project- or application-driven learning; you learn it when you’ve got a need for it.

Now these are all transformations of existing school. “What grade are you in?” is a natural question you ask a kid, or “What subject are you doing in third period?” These are not intrinsic to the nature of creating a good learning environment. They are caused by a previous level of knowledge technology, where the only way we could give out knowledge was by a production-line method. And all this is a production-line model, an assembly-line model of school. So I’m sure that that will go away. What will come in its place has to be a social invention.

ZZ: Of course, educational reform initiatives come and go, and yet many schools don’t look a whole lot different then they did decades ago. Do you see technology as a Trojan Horse for systematic and lasting change?

SP: I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only going to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.

Unfortunately, the easier way to get the technology to the school, if you’re a vendor, for example, is to open it up and say, “Look, there’s no army inside here. It’s fine. It suits your purpose. It’s not going to be subversive, and so it’s a Trojan horse without any soldiers, and that’s not a very effective way of doing it.”

Of course, the presence of computers in the home changes the whole political context. One way that I think is very important is that it turns kids into a political force. I’ve been using the phrase “kid power” for a very optimistic trend in what’s happening in education. We’re beginning to see a significant number of kids who grew up with computers in their homes in the classrooms now.

In fact, the generation of kids where a large proportion had computers in their homes from birth is just hitting the schools now. I think that that wave is going to have a dramatic effect on the schools. It just takes a sprinkling of kids in every class who know there is a better way of learning, have experienced it, and so can make a bigger demand in the classroom. Moreover, apart from the demand, they’ve got an offer also, because they can offer their own expertise. They can help. And so the kids are becoming a political force. They are also becoming an educational force, because they are in quite a lot of projects around the country, kids are explicitly being mobilized. Those kids who really know about computers, and love them, are being mobilized by the system to teach teachers and parents and implement changes in the school.

So that’s a huge change in the player forces, and maybe the thing that makes it most optimistic. I think that in The Connected Family I used this analogy — I thought of John Dewev. Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.

ZZ: You also write in The Connected Family that great change is never free and seldom comes without risk. What’s at risk for children and families in the digital age?

SP: I think the biggest risk is what the term “connected family” is trying to counteract. There is a problem, because parents are likely to see that there is less control. That they’ve got less influence on the way their kids develop, and what the kids know, and what they learn. What they do. Many parents really don’t understand what the kids are doing, or what language the kids are using.

So there’s no doubt it has this disruptive effect–and I think that’s bad. In some ways breaking the kids free from the grip of the previous generation, the previous culture, is good, and I think the kid power that will change schooling is a tremendously good thing.

On the other hand, the preservation of an orderly progress of society depends on an a balance between forces for change and forces for stability. I think we do have a need and responsibility for conveying to kids a heritage from the past, and giving them guidance that comes from our greater experiences. It’s a delicate matter, this balance between growing independence of the kids, that has its good side, and its dangerous side.

ZZ: Has there been any risk for you in advocating something that is inherently risky?

SP: Well, I came into this business of what computers might mean for kids in the 1960s, and two significant things about the 1960s were that computers were very expensive, rare, big things, and the chance of a lot of these getting into the hands of a lot of kids seemed to a lot of people pretty remote. The 1960s was also a time of egalitarian anti-elitism — so I very acutely felt attacks for being “elitist.” I got reviews of a proposal to a federal agency, which was a scathing attack on this elitist proposal that will bring better learning to the children of a handful of millionaire families. It couldn’t possibly have any effect on the majority of people, except to increase the gap. That was hard. And it was very very hard, practically impossible to persuade most people in those days.

Now was there risk? I was pretty sure already that it was going to change. You could see it looming ahead. You could see that computers one day would be mass-produced things, and would be inexpensive enough for every kid to have one. But it was way off, and most people weren’t aware of that. So that was a risk, and I got into trouble in getting funding.

ZZ: You’ve been working with children, education and technology for over thirty years. What keeps you going? What drives you?

SP: I think what drives me –the deepest question about education is, what drives learning? What drives kids? What drives everybody? And when I look at young kids who haven’t yet been to school, they are all driven. They are passionate about what they want to do. They get into it, and they really want to do it. I think that in a lot of people that’s strangled as we go through this very traumatic, dangerous experience of school. Those who get through it can open out and find a new opportunity to be creative and free and self-directed like we had before school.

So I think the question isn’t what drives me, but how is it that you and I and all the people in the world who remain creative and passionate about what they’re doing survived the system, that in so many other cases — in the majority of cases — strangles that enormous energy?

ZZ: Looking back, did you get anything wrong that you would have done differently?

SP: There are two kinds of looking back about what I would have done differently. There’s the looking back where you say, “Given what was known at that time, was that the wrong decision to make?” And that’s a sensible kind of question, it’s re-examining how you made decisions; versus looking back: “If I’d known more. If I’d known what I know now. If I’d know what I didn’t know, would I have done…” Of course, there’s an infinite amount of that, and that’s not interesting. That’s fantasy.

Just on this education/computers thing, I think that a key balance where I got it right, but I think that when it really got out to the schools, in the 80s, I could have recognized earlier and didn’t; that there was going to be a dynamic of schools adopting and neutralizing this new thing. I think that in the 80s, if we had kept more focused on a goal of “one day,” we could have been more effective and brought it somewhat nearer. But only somewhat. I think that if we say, “Where are we now? Where are we going to be?” As much as I analyze what could have been done and what we could have done in the past, I think that what happened in the last 20 years maybe could have happened in 10 years instead of 20 years. And maybe what’s going to happen in the next five years could have happened five years earlier, but it’s not huge changes.

I think one of the themes of Mindstorms is bugs that we learn by getting it wrong, and you never get it right, and the important thing is to be able to look in a kind of constructive way at what you got wrong, and that’s a cause to do it. It’s not always easy, and sometimes I have to fight back a little bit against bad thoughts. Well, what can I learn from how I decided to do what I did? I guess that is what human life is about, and what learning ought to be about.

 

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Managing Crowds: ClassDojo (Part 2)

ClassDojo is a recently-developed software platform (2011) that, according to the founders of the company, is used in 90 percent of schools in the U.S (see here). In the past five years, however, ClassDojo has become much more than a free digital tool to motivate students and manage classroom behavior. It is a platform that allows teachers to communicate with parents by posting photos and letting parents comment on what they see; students can also post photos and videos about what they are doing in school. With parent and student communication integrated with the classroom behavior tool, a social media platform is emerging.

The company has expanded beyond the initial behavioral management software and moved into the business of producing videos on “mind set” and empathy starring “Mojo the friendly monster” to construct a communication network where students, parents and teachers are knitted together closely.

And the future? With its network of parents, teachers, and students, ClassDojo will grow into an enterprise marketing far more than a motivational and behavioral tool to manage classroom crowds.

As one ClassDojo board member said: “This company has a greater market share than Coke in the U.S.” The future, according to one of the founders of ClassDojo, is coming into view when he asked:

Your entertainment bundle is Netflix. Your music bundle is Spotify. What is your education bundle?

That may be the future that the company seeks in spurring a revenue flow—ClasDojo is free to teachers and the company is just beginning to earn revenue from its videos. But it is the original software program promising to help teachers manage student behavior so that they can smoothly, without distraction or student misbehavior, carry off a lesson in reading or math within the allotted time. And that is the focus for this post.

Managing a crowd of students with ClassDojo

Across the country, teachers have glommed onto the digital platform as a way of managing 20 to 30 students daily. Whatever admirers and critics say, ClassDojo is a management tool aimed at engaging students and keeping their academic and emotional behavior on track during class time. It is the most recent of tools (think of teachers using dunce caps, corporal punishment for inattention and bad behavior, public shaming, dispensing praise and handing out M & Ms for good behavior) that teachers have historically used to motivate and control the behavior of their charges during periods of instruction.

While there is much variation in how teachers use ClassDojo,  one reporter described  typical ways the software is used in two New York state classrooms right next to one another.

Greg Fletcher, an amiable third-grade teacher at Hunter Elementary School, in Hunter, N.Y., uses a variety of old-school techniques to get his young students to settle down to their studies in the morning.

But when those fail, he turns to ClassDojo, a popular — and, in some quarters, controversial — behavior tracking app that I wrote about in an article on Monday.

“Let’s all sit like third graders,” Mr. Fletcher said one morning last month when I visited his class. Among the 13 third graders, all but a couple of boys sat.

“Let’s all get Mona Lisa quiet,” Mr. Fletcher tried again.

Mr. Fletcher was standing in front of an interactive white board on which he had projected ClassDojo. The program allows teachers to create a virtual classroom, with the real name and a cartoon monster avatar for each student, and then select behaviors — like “following directions” or being “off task” — for which they can award points to students or deduct them.

Teachers use the system to keep a running tally of each student’s score and to communicate with parents about their child’s progress. They can adapt it to their own teaching styles — and the temperaments of their students.

Mr. Fletcher, for instance, publicly displays ClassDojo’s scoreboard in his classroom. That means not only do his students know the moment he awards or deducts a point, they can simultaneously see the scores of everyone in the class.

That morning, one student in a Star Wars T-shirt was having trouble settling down.

“If I see the back of your head,” Mr. Fletcher said firmly, “it’s going to cost you a point.”

The boy immediately sat.

“I always let them see what is happening,” Mr. Fletcher explained, “when it’s a positive or when it needs work.”

the reporter then went to the classroom next door.

….Sharon Sofranko, whose shares responsibility with Mr. Fletcher for teaching third grade, was also using ClassDojo — but in private mode. At the start of the school year, she said, she had publicly displayed the scoreboard in her classroom, but it distracted her third-graders.

“Some kids were upset,” she said. “Some kids would find that they had 20 points less than someone else.”

Now she walks around the classroom with the app open on her phone, privately awarding and subtracting points without her students being able to see their own scores or those of their classmates.

If she wants a particular student to pay more attention to, say, raising his or her hand before speaking, she takes that student aside for a private chat.

“I actually do think it’s fairly effective,” Ms. Sofranko said.

Here is what ClassDojo staff said after the above article, including criticism of the reward and penalty system embedded in the software, appeared:

Teachers use ClassDojo to give students positive feedback on skills like leadership, persistence, teamwork and curiosity, and then communicate that feedback with parents. Over 90% of the feedback teachers give to students on ClassDojo is positive. Teachers use ClassDojo to communicate success with parents, and to give students a chance to excel outside an increasingly narrow framework of academic assessment.

There has been much praise and criticism of this technological tool. Praise comes from teachers who use the software (see here and here) and parents (see here and here). Criticism comes from those concerned about student information being sold to marketeers or privacy being abridged (see here), teachers who despise the  system of rewards and penalties (see here), and academic pundits who have seldom entered classrooms to see ClassDojo being used (see here).

Much of the praise and criticism of the platform centers on the issue of teachers using extrinsic rewards (e.g., points) and penalties (e.g., deduction of points) to reinforce positive behavior rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation of students to learn. While I have read copiously (and understand as a former high school teacher) the contemporary back-and-forth argument about the values of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards,  the debate skirts the deeper and central issue that explains why so many teachers across the country, without asking anyone’s permission, download the application.

What has unlocked so many classrooms to ClassDojo is that it can be a helpful modern tool to manage a crowd of children compelled to be in 900 square feet rooms for about six hours a day to learn what teachers have to teach while at the same time keeping parents informed of how their sons and daughters are doing in class. Too often some basic facts about tax-supported public schooling in the U.S. are overlooked.

Fact 1: K-12 students have to attend school.

Fact 2: Students move from grade-to-grade based upon teacher judgment, marks on tests, and report card grades.

Fact 3: Teachers depend upon students to obey directions. Without students’ motivation and cooperation with teachers, little learning occurs.

Fact 4: Over the last century, teachers have used mixes of rewards and penalties to gain student compliance and cooperation.

Classroom management, then, is an imperative deriving from compulsory attendance, the structure of the age-graded school, what the community expects students to learn, and teacher judgments about student performance.

Teachers need every tool they can grab to help them corral student energy and fight apathy, increase kindness and decrease mischievousness, encourage passion and discourage inertia. ClassDojo is the most recent incarnation of a tool that teachers believe will help them manage the crowd they see daily. In 2017 teaching and learning in an age-graded school remains a complex phenomenon that few experts acknowledge or too few teachers publicly comment on.

 

 

 

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