Category Archives: technology use

A Continuum on Personalized Learning: First Draft

After visiting over three dozen teachers in 11 schools in Silicon Valley and hearing an earful about “personalized learning,” I drafted a continuum where I could locate all of the different versions of “personalized learning” I observed and have read about.

If readers have comments about what’s missing, what needs to be added or how I organized the continuum conceptually, I would surely appreciate hearing from you.

In 2016, when I visited Silicon Valley classrooms, schools and districts, many school administrators and teachers told me that they were personalizing learning. From the Summit network of charter schools to individual teachers at Los Altos and Mountain View High School where Bring Your Own Devices reigned to two Milpitas elementary schools that had upper-grade Learning Labs and rotated students through different stations in all grades, I heard the phrase often.

But I was puzzled by what I saw and heard. When asked what a teacher, principal or district administrator meant by “personalized learning I heard different definitions of the policy. Not a surprise since the history of school reform is dotted with the debris of earlier instructional reforms that varied greatly in definitions (e.g., New Math, Socratic seminars, mastery learning, individualized instruction). No one definition of personalized learning monopolizes the reform terrain. [i]

When I went into classrooms to see what “personalized learning” meant in action, I observed much variation in the lessons and units that bore the label. None of this should be surprising since “technology integration” and other reform-minded policies draw from the hyped-up world of new technologies where vendors, promoters, critics, and skeptics compete openly  for the minds (and wallets) of those who make decisions about what gets into classrooms.

Not only have definitions of “personalized learning” among policymakers and entrepreneurs varied,  but also diverse incarnations have taken form as the policy   percolated downward from school board decisions, superintendent directions to principals, and principals’ asking teachers to put into practice a new board policy. Teacher adaptations of policy is as natural as a yawn and just as prevalent. Variation in district schools and classrooms is the norm, not the exception.

Translated into practice in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the concept of “personalized instruction” is like a chameleon; it appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, the AltSchool, and the Agora Cyber School blazon their personalized learning  (or competency-based learning) placard for all to see yet it differs in each location.[ii]

The Personalized Learning Continuum

To make sense of what I observed in Silicon Valley schools and what I know historically about instructionally-guided reforms over the past century, I have constructed a continuum of classrooms, programs, and schools that encompass distinct ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons seeking short- and long-term goals for schooling the young.

Let me be clear, I place no value for either end (or the middle) of the personalized learning continuum. I have stripped away value-loaded words in my writing that suggest some kinds of personalized learning are better than others. Moreover, the continuum does not suggest the effectiveness of “personalized learning” or achievement of specific student outcomes.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons within the traditional age-graded school. These classrooms and programs, switching back and forth between phrases on “competency-based education” and “personalization,” use new technologies online and in class daily that convey specific content and skills, aligned to Common Core standards, to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market and become adults who help their communities.

The format of these lessons including the instructional moves the teacher makes in seguing from one activity to another, handling student behavior, time management, and student participation in activities to reach the lesson’s objectives typically call for a mix of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently. At this end of the continuum, these lessons contain a mix of whole group, small group, and independent activities but with a decided tilt to teacher direction and whole-group work.

For examples, consider the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire,  USC Hybrid High School CA), and Lindsay Unified School District (CA). While these examples inhabit the teacher-centered end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from  Virtual Learning Academy Charter. [iii]

Yet I cluster these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using online and offline lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Specific behavioral outcomes guide what is expected of each and every student. The knowledge and skills are packaged by software designers and teachers and delivered to students daily and weekly. Students use applications that permit them to self-assess their mastery of the specific knowledge and skills embedded in discrete lessons. Some students move well ahead of their peers, others maintain steady progress, and some need help from teachers.

Even though these schools and programs often use the language of student-centeredness (e.g., students decide what to learn, students participate in their own learning), and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, the teacher-crafted playlists and online lessons keyed to particular concepts and skills determine what is to be learned. Finally, these programs and schools, operating within traditional K-12 age-graded schools, are descendants of the efficiency-minded wing of the Progressive reforms a century earlier.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered classrooms, programs, and schools often departing from the traditional age-graded school model in using multi-age groupings, asking big questions that combine reading, math, science, and social studies while integrating new technologies regularly in lessons. These places seek to cultivate student agency and want children and youth to reach beyond academic and intellectual development. They want to shape how individual students grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

Moreover, these programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions including community-based activities. The overall goals of schooling at this end of the continuum are similar to ones at the teacher-directed end: help children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults. Like the other end of the spectrum, these approaches draw from the pedagogical wing of the Progressives a century ago.[iv]

For example, there are over 60 Big Picture Learning schools across the nation where students create their own “personalized learning plans” and work weekly as interns on projects that capture their passions. Or High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), The Open Classroom at Lagunitas Elementary in San Geronimo (CA), the Continuous Progress Program at Highlands Elementary in Edina (MN)–all have multi-age groupings, project-based instruction, and focus on the “whole child.” And there are private schools such as San Francisco-based AltSchool, a covey of micro-schools located in big cities and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well. [v]

Lesson formats in schools at this end of the continuum commonly call for a blend of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently–with alignment to Common Core standards. At this end of the continuum, these lessons bend noticeably toward small group and individual activities with occasional whole group instruction.

Many of these schools claim that they “personalize learning” in their daily work to create graduates who are independent thinkers, can work in any environment, and help to make their communities better places to live. There are many such schools scattered across the nation (but I found no public school in Silicon Valley that would fit here). Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum, much variation exists among these schools harbored at this end of the continuum.[vi]

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrid programs and schools mixing teacher-directed and student-directed lessons. In this diverse middle are teachers, schools and programs that provide blends of whole group, small group, and independent activities in lessons. Some teachers and schools, in their quest to personalize learning tilt toward the teacher-directed end while others lean toward the student-centered pole. But they occupy slots in the middle of the continuum.

These classrooms, schools, and programs combine online and offline lessons for individual students and teacher-directed whole group discussions, and small group work such as ones taught by Mountain View High School English teacher, Kristen Krauss, Aragon High School Spanish teacher, Nicole Elenz-Martin, and second-grade teacher Jennifer Auten at Montclaire Elementary School in Cupertino (CA) into blends of teacher- and student-centered lessons.

The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 charter school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting toward the teacher-directed end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on.

I would also include the nine teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed  who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While the two Summit schools in which I observed teachers had explicitly committed itself to “project-based learning,” the projects were largely chosen by the teachers who collaborated with one another in making these decisions for all Summit schools; the projects were aligned to the Common Core state standards.

While choices were given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects were in teachers’ hands. That is why I placed these teachers, programs, and schools in the center of the continuum, rather than the student-centered end.

Such schools and teachers mix competency-based, individual lessons for children with lessons that are teacher-directed and pursuing project-based activities. The format of lessons continue the inevitable mix of whole, group, small group, and independent learning with inclinations to more of one than the other, depending on lesson objectives and teacher expertise. In no instance, however, does whole-group activities dominate lesson after lesson.

Like those at the teacher- and student-centered ends, these programs lodged in the middle of the spectrum contain obvious differences among them. In hugging the middle, however, these programs also embody distinct traces of both the efficiency- and pedagogical wings of the century old Progressive reformers.

The popular policy innovation of “personalized learning” has a history of Progressive reformers a century ago embedded in it. Implementation today, as before, depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that rigorous–however it is defined–lessons will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of the policy. And putting “personalized learning” into classroom practice means that there will continue to be hand-to-hand wrestling with issues of testing and accountability.

Yet, and this is a basic point, wherever  these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.


[i] In the glossary of educational terms, the entry describes a full array of meanings for the phrase. One of the longer entries in the glossary, personalized learning includes programs, instructional applications, and academic strategies. See:

[ii] Each of the programs named claim that they have personalized learning. See their websites for descriptions of what each does. Rocketship can be found at:

Alt/School can be found at:

Agora Cyber School can be found at:

[iii] The New Hampshire Virtual Learning Academy Charter website describes its format and content at: .

An article on the virtual school’s creation and operation is: Julia Fisher, “New Hampshire’s Journey toward Competency-Based Education,” Education Next, February 1, 2015; USC Hybrid High School’s website is at:

Also see Mike Syzmanski, “USC Hybrid High School Graduates Its First Class, with All 84 Heading to College,” LA School Report, June 13, 2016.

For Lindsay Unified School District, see Christina Qattrocchi, “How Lindsay Unified Redesigned Itself from the Ground Up,” EdSurge, June 17, 2014.

[iv] See Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) in chapters on New York City and Denver for student-centered reforms in the 1920s and 1930s.

[v] Descriptions of Big Picture Learning schools can be found at: Katrina Schwartz, “Can Truly Student-Centered Education Be Available To All?” KQED News, December 8, 2015 at:

Stephen Ceasar, “For Students at L.A.’s Big Picture Charter School, Downtown Is Their Classroom,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2014; for a YouTube description that includes interview with one of the co-founders of Big Picture Learning, see:

For Mission Hill School, see:

Open Classroom at Lagunitas can be found aat:

Edina’s Continuous Progress elementary school option is at:

Private micro-schools called AltSchool can be found at:

The Khan Lab School, a private school, is at:

[vi] Mission Hill School’s website is:

Lagunitas Open Classroom’s history and offerings are at:

Continuous Progress School in Edina (MN) has a description of its program at:

On the AltSchool, see Rebecca Mead, “Learn Different,” New Yorker, March 7, 2016; for the Khan Lab School, see Jason Tanz, “The Tech Elite’s Quest to Reinvent School in Its Own Image,” Wired, October 26, 2015 at:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Personalized Learning in Milpitas (CA): District Reforms

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Matsuoka on left; Song, right]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Beyond the Classroom and School: District Technology Integration

Over the years, I have written about differences between complicated and complex (see here). I pointed out the differences in those top-down, command-and-control organizations that launch rockets into space and keep cities safe and those open, loosely-coupled organizations that provide health care, administer criminal justice, and offer public schooling that are vulnerable to their political and social environments,  heavily dependent upon relationships, and individual discretion.

For the past year, I have described best cases of classrooms that I have visited where technology integration was in the background, not the foreground (see here, here, and here). I have also posted descriptions of schools identified as exemplary in integrating technology across all of their classrooms such as the Summit network of charter schools.

But I have not yet profiled districts that have integrated technology on a systematic basis. In Silicon Valley, including most of the Bay area, there are 77 school districts. All have technology plans for their schools. These districts buy lots of hard- and software, wire and WiFi schools, provide classroom carts of laptops and tablets, offer teacher workshops and then cross their fingers that teachers will step up and use what the district has provided for daily lessons.Voluntary participation is the rule which means that great variation exists not only in every single school but across these districts heralded as embracing high-tech.

Only a few districts, however, have gone beyond a plan, buying devices, and crossing their fingers that teachers will use all of the available hardware and software. Only a few districts adopted policies that nudged all teachers in every school to use new technologies, blended learning, and personalized lessons.  Only a few districts have built a systematic infrastructure of broadband and WiFi, incorporated newly-developed software, sponsored professional development, and provided technical assistance to support (and push) teachers to integrate technology into their daily lessons. In Silicon Valley I found two such districts: Mountain View-Los Altos and Milpitas.

In the Mountain View-Los Altos district I profiled two of its schools and described 10 classroom lessons I observed in these schools (see, for example, here and here) . In Milpitas, a dozen miles away, two principals invited me to observe their primary and upper-elementary classrooms and interview teachers. I did observe classes and interview teachers at each school as well as interviewing a district administrator.

Knowing that each level of schooling–classroom, school, and district–contains its unique complexities and knowing that districts are not command-and-control organizations, using a tri-focal lens one can come to appreciate, if not understand, that changing what classroom teachers do, altering how schools operate daily, and improving  district performance  is no easy walk in the park.

Each of these three systems are nested in one another. Each level affects the other as teachers go about doing what is expected in classrooms, school staff wrestle with instruction and curriculum, and both individual teachers and school staffs connect to the district school board, superintendent, and administrators from which policies and resources flow downward. These three levels of schooling are Siamese triplets that are separate and interactive but cannot be severed.

There are so many moving parts in these loosely-coupled system called a district.  So much interaction and overlap in these nested communities nonetheless depend on continuity in student/teacher relationships, principal/staff cooperation, and school board/district administrators working closely together. Sure, there are top-down directives that flow into schools and bottom-up actions that trickle upward in the organization.

Furthermore, there are constant search for resources and support from groups inside and outside the system. Include, then, among the moving parts, the ever-changing political interests that have their own ideas of what is a “good” teacher, what is a “good” school, and a “good” district. Enacting public schooling is political drama with conflict, tears, hurrahs, and disappointment. And that is what makes school reform a complex endeavor. District work is not for the faint-of-heart or those who fail to grasp that complexity across and between three organizational levels.

The fact is that classrooms, schools, and districts are open systems with permeable boundaries that can be easily crossed by outside groups such as single issue advocates, state officials, national lobbies, etc. It is one fact that policymakers, researchers, and parents have to not only grasp but also know it in their actions.  If  educational decision-makers cannot give up their vision of command-and-control organizations and wrap their minds around open, loosely-coupled places established to help students (not customers), these top decision-makers will continue to stumble their way through school reform.

Consider, for example, all the factors and constraints teachers face putting a planned lesson into practice.  In a 50- or 60-minute lesson, teachers make hundreds of decisions, some planned, many unplanned, anchored in the content and skills to be learned, the technologies used, relationships among students and between the teacher and students, and the norms and rituals  within the class (e.g., teacher counting from 10 to 0 to get quiet, rhythmic clapping of teacher and students to get attention, students listening to one another and taking turns).

The deep knowledge teachers have of subject matter, cognitive and social skills, details about their students all come to the surface in the questions teachers ask, how they determine who will be with whom in small group activities, and when–clock watching is an occupational tic with most teachers–to segue from one part of the lesson to another. The inexorable unpredictability of student response to a lesson often calls for instant decision-making, for example, when a student unexpectedly rants or cries; when snow starts falling outside the windows and students get restless. Or an assistant principal enters the room to observe the lesson. Or an incident of bullying during recess that spills into the class, and on and on. Teacher’s tacit knowledge of all of the above forms the bedrock of the relationship with students which is the core of their learning both in and out of classrooms.


As one teacher told me “just managing the complexity of teaching a lesson can be overwhelming.” Looking at all of the above factors that come into play when a teacher improvises or goes ahead with a planned decision is often what staggers newcomer to teaching and researcher.

So too the complexity deepens when one moves from the classroom as the unit of analysis to the school. Grasping the sheer number of factors that influence a school’s  organization, culture and relationships among adults and with students is tough enough. Schools with 10 to 100 classrooms, credentialed and non-credentialed staff, diversity of students, parental involvement, and dozens of other factors come into play. Then consider that one school is multiplied by 1o to 50 to 100 to form a district and how the complexity of each level multiplies when one considers the cross-cutting factors that come into play when the district is the unit of analysis. Each level embedded in the other has a structure, culture, and entwined relationships. Look at the figure below that tries to capture just a fraction of myriad moving parts.


All of this discussion of complexity brings me to the Milpitas Unified School District a system of just over 10,000 students (45 % Asian, 21% Filipino, 21 % Hispanic, 7% white, 3% black) distributed among 14 schools from pre-K to senior high school. Thirty three percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunches.  Nearly 800 staff strive to reach the goals that the school board and superintendent seek to achieve (see here, here, and here).

Thus, Milpitas is a system of embedded organizations (e.g., classrooms, schools, and district office) interacting daily with one another often in loosely coupled arrangements. Then consider how the city of Milpitas (over 100,000 residents), Santa Clara County in which the city is located, the state of California, and the federal government also interact in small and large ways with the district. Yes, this is complexity with a capital C.

In the next post, I will describe how one superintendent, Cary Matusoka, spent five years  (2011-2016) trying to move an entire district to redesign the way its teachers taught and students learned through integrating new technologies.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

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


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

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

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

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

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

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

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

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

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

Personalized Learning Today

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

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

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

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

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


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


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use, Uncategorized

The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

Good Morning,

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

Few things:

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

Field trip Wednesday–Altschool shirts + pencil + paper

–Ceramics class 11/17, 11/18/,11/22

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

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

SOMA space.jpgSOMA plaque.jpg


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


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

SOMA Earle.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be so sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use