Category Archives: technology use

Revisiting Predictions On Technology in Classrooms

My record on predictions is abysmal. If I get half of the forecasts I make correct, I puff out my chest. Yet humans are wired to speculate about the future, particularly when times are uncertain. Considering the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, nearly everything has become uncertain about the next year and for sure, the next five years. So like most Americans I take a deep breath and try to look around the corner before I exhale.

But I am not going to make any predictions about the effects of Covid-19 (tune in later because I am, well, hard-wired to predict). for this post, I look back on predictions I made a decade ago amid the surge of technology spilling over U.S. classrooms. Here is what I wrote in 2010 looking ahead to 2020.

I just read a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them (of course, in an ecologically correct manner). Still the number of high-tech machines and applications that hit their expiration date so quickly stunned me.

Then I read another list of high-tech predictions for 2020 that was equally entertaining about the future of schools, well, not schools as we know them in December 2010. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such lists (here and here) for years with high-tech devices having different names but a glorious future just around the corner. Last year, I posted my predictions for high-tech in schools in 2020. Here is, in part, what I said in 2009.

“Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are hand-held mobile devices (iPhone, Blackberry, e-book variations) and online learning (distance education).

HANDHELDS

Handhelds will permit the digitizing of texts loaded on to the devices. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their Blackberries, iPhones, etc.

Based on current Twitter and other future social networking traffic, shorter and shorter messaging will also become a mainstay of teacher-student communication. Some sample Twitter messages:

*In a college course on consumer sciences, the professor asked his 250 students to post questions on Twitter. On the topic of car insurance for those under 25 years of age, a student asked: ‘What happens if you get married and then get divorced at 24? Would your insurance go up?’ ”

*In the same course, during an exam, a student tweeted a fellow student and asked for the answer to a question. Teacher caught the student because although the software said “anonymous” on the handheld, the name of the student showed up on the teacher’s screen.

ONLINE COURSES

Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade. Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.

The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.

So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.” [Ah, if I could only have forecasted Covid-19 and the subsequent swooning embrace of remote learning, I would be named a seer.]

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

Of course, I could be just another one of those benighted folks who predicted that automobiles, planes, and television were mere hype and would never replace horse-drawn carriages, trains, and radio. Here is a list of those failed predictions to chuckle over as you ring in the new year.

Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2020, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students. No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.

Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy–what knowledge is most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning? These questions, in turn depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how does one live a useful and worthy life. When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their role in schools and classrooms.

As I write this in early June, we are in the midst of Covid-19 with schools and libraries closed. Current reports are that re-opening will be slow and gradual until most Americans are vaccinated. Predictions of a second wave of infections are rampant as gradual re-openings occur. Uncertainty reigns. Predictions proliferate.

The future as it looked to me in 2010 is now. Handhelds and online learning have become as common as dandelions. Yet predictions that schooling will be transformed as a result of Covid-19 abound.

Perhaps such reforms will occur. But I do not think so.

Surely, the digital inequality that became apparent at the beginning of the pandemic when schools enrolling low-income minority students were shut down will be reduced. Just as surely, there will be incrementally more online lessons in the immediate future. But some things won’t change.

The age-graded school and the regularities of teaching and learning that goes by the nickname “grammar of schooling” will continue as is.

Oops! Sorry, I have again slipped into predicting. No more for now.

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The Class Divide: Remote Learning at 2 Schools, Private and Public (Dana Goldstein)

Dana Goldstein is a New York Times journalist who writes about how education policies impact families, students and teachers across the country. She wrote “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.” This article appeared May 10, 2020

For Rachel Warach’s class, the 133rd morning of first grade, numbered on a poster board behind her, was similar to all of the previous mornings.

Her students from across Chicago spent 15 minutes working quietly on math problems and writing in their journals. They split into small reading groups, with Ms. Warach bouncing between them to offer feedback. Later, there was an Earth Day discussion of “The Lorax” and a math lesson on sorting everyday objects — rolls of tape, coins, pens — according to shape.

There was a break for lunch and recess, followed by Hebrew class. All as Oisabel sprawled on the floor, Shira snuggled against her mom, and a father whispered to his son, “Can you take that blanket off your head, please?”

This is first grade at a private school determined to make remote education during the coronavirus as similar as possible to what it looked like before the pandemic. Chicago Jewish Day School provides four hours and 15 minutes of daily live instruction, including yoga, art and music. Students even do messy baking projects over Zoom, with parents as sous chefs.

It bears little resemblance to the more typical experience that Jacob Rios is having in Philadelphia, where he attends first grade at a public school, Spruance Elementary.

Jacob did not see his teacher via video screen until late April; the district spent the first several weeks of the shutdown focused on training staff members to use remote teaching tools, distributing laptops to students and getting meals to low-income families, which make up a majority of the district’s population.

Now Jacob’s teacher, Dolores Morris, meets with her students each morning for an hour — Jacob’s only live video instruction, according to his mother. About 11 of the 26 students in the class attend daily, Ms. Morris said.

A close look at these two very different first-grade classes in two of America’s largest cities shows how the coronavirus pandemic has done nothing to level the playing field of American education, and instead has widened the gaps that have always existed.

About 10 percent of American children attend private schools, not all of which have been leaders in online education. And there are disparities in the public system, too, where some schools have done much more than others to get online instruction up and running effectively. But what the pandemic has made clear is that remote education, especially of the youngest students, requires a rare mix of enthusiastic school leadership, teacher expertise and homes equipped with everything children need to learn effectively.

At Chicago Jewish Day School, students who need extra help are being tutored in phonics via Zoom, or meeting remotely with a social worker. The school has sent home books, dry-erase boards, markers and other needed supplies. Parents have provided the rest: internet access, iPads, and quiet study nooks in well-appointed homes filled with pianos, books and tasteful wooden play kitchens.

The system has been up and running since mid-March.

Remote learning at the Chicago school is not perfect. There are spotty Wi-Fi connections, stray emojis in the chat panel and children who wander away from the screen. But there is little doubt that in a nation of over 100,000 shuttered schools, these children continue to receive a luxury good — one whose list price is $28,000 per year.In Ms. Morris’s class in Philadelphia, Jacob is one of the more fortunate students. His mother, Brenda Rios, sits by his side to help him with assignments. She is off work from her usual part-time job preparing meals at a preschool. Because so many parents of the other students are essential workers — prison guards, cleaners, nursing assistants — Ms. Morris knows they may not be available to offer hands-on support. Still, she is trying to look on the bright side. “I’m thanking God that I can at least see their faces,” she said.

That is rare in the world of coronavirus-altered learning. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank, examined the remote learning policies of 100 public school districts and charter networks nationwide. It found that just 22 of them are requiring real-time teaching — and just 10 of those systems are teaching live in all grades, including early elementary school.

The country’s three largest districts, in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, are not requiring teachers to do any live video instruction, though some individual schools are choosing to do so.

It is a different story in many private schools, both independent and parochial. Although associations said they did not have any hard data on the average number of hours that students in their networks were receiving live instruction, examples from around the country typically show a gap with public schools.

The reasons are clear: Private school students are more likely to live in homes with good internet access, computers and physical space for children to focus on academics. Parents are less likely to be working outside the home and are more available to guide young children through getting online and staying logged in — entering user names and passwords, navigating between windows and programs.And unlike their public-school counterparts, private schoolteachers are generally not unionized, giving their employers more leverage in laying out demands for remote work. Some public school unions have won strict limits on video-teaching requirements, arguing that it can be difficult for educators to teach live from home when many are also taking care of their own children, whose schools and day cares are also closed. In Philadelphia, Ms. Morris, a 42-year veteran, is in her last semester before retirement, and it looks nothing like the farewell she expected. Nevertheless, she has thrown herself into learning the technology to teach remotely. Often, she is texting and emailing with parents while simultaneously interacting with her students via Google Classroom.

A recent Monday morning was devoted to a phonics lesson on the sound “oy.” Ms. Morris used Google Classroom to display vocabulary words on slides — “enjoy,” “soil,” “annoy” — and Jacob’s mother, Ms. Rios, helped him complete an online activity identifying the various spellings of the sound.

Ms. Rios, home alone with three sons, said she appreciated Ms. Morris’s dedication to her students at a difficult time. Still, the transition online had been rocky. At first, Ms. Rios was not sure how to operate the district-provided Chromebook. Since then, much of the day’s activity has revolved around worksheets and compliance checks, which can be maddening to submit online.

For one art lesson, Jacob watched a video about Vincent van Gogh, then had to fill out an “exit ticket,” writing what he had learned about the painter. Like any first grader, Jacob needed help to craft complete sentences on the computer. Then, after submitting his answer, Ms. Rios was required to click to another screen to report that he had finished the activity.

Sometimes during live lessons, Ms. Rios can see via the video feed that another child is confused — they have not opened the right window or clicked on the right link — and does not have an adult nearby to help them follow along.“I was almost in tears today,” she said. “It’s excruciating to watch that — a child who wants to learn and isn’t able to.” Ms. Morris, too, is frustrated by the limitations of online learning, especially by the fact that she cannot always see students’ reactions while she is presenting material to them, to check that they understand. She can tell that using the system is difficult for first graders, because even some strong students are submitting blank assignments, meaning they most likely did the work, but their answers did not get recorded.

In Chicago, there are many reasons the Jewish Day School was able to handle the transition to remote learning so well. The school closed for students ahead of most others in Illinois. That allowed administrators to spend several days, before the building shut down, training staff members on how to use online tools.

The school’s curriculum is based around hands-on activities and discussion, which means young children learning from home do not need to be as adept at typing as in schools that assign more structured, written worksheets.

And crucially, families in the school are generally stable economically and available to closely supervise their children’s education.

 Given the possibility that schools will remain at least partly closed in the fall, Chicago Jewish Day School is now marketing itself as a leader in remote learning, with a slick video aimed at parents. School leaders hope to increase enrollment at a time when requests for financial aid may go up as donations decrease because of the economic downturn. Already, 57 percent of families at the school receive some assistance with tuition.

Parents in Ms. Warach’s class said they had been pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of online first grade.Among them is Caroline Musin Berkowitz, a nonprofit manager, and her husband, a legal analyst. They are both working from their apartment while taking care of their two young children. Having 6-year-old Shira engaged with school for most of the day, sitting across from her parents at the dining room table with headphones on, provides some respite. The family has no qualms about re-enrolling Shira in the fall, even though they are not getting the exact experience they thought they were paying for.

“We made a choice to go with private school over public school for so many reasons,” Ms. Musin Berkowitz said, “and the idea of a global pandemic and school moving to online was not one of them.”

Now, she added, “I can’t even describe how beneficial it’s been.”

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The Disappearing Social Safety Net: Public Schools

Sondra Cuban and I jointly wrote this post.

Sondra Cuban is a Professor at Western Washington University and an educational sociologist studying the trajectories, aspirations, and struggles of women immigrants. She is the author of Deskilling Migrant Women in the Global Care Industry (2013) and Transnational Family Communication: Immigrants and ICTs (2017).”

One of our greatest social safety nets has vanished in the blink of an eye. Before the pandemic, schools were societal safeguards in having legal custody of children and youth six to 12 hours a day, granting credentials, and providing meals, social and medical services.  Now with schools closed, the importance of schools to not only parents but all citizens has become obvious.

This is the first time in a century since the flu pandemic of 1918 that government has decommissioned public schools. They are ghosts standing in our communities, unused, with yellow tape around playground bars and slides. Uncertainty over re-opening dates breeds anxiety as superintendents fumble to communicate with teachers, parents and families during the crisis.

Turn on the television to see the absence of leadership at the very top. The U.S. Department of Education website only has flow charts posted in March for whether  schools should close. No one in authority knows when they will reopen other than in the fall, creating a quiet storm in every community about what to do with children and their wellbeing as well as the health of families.

Early responses came from state governors. Because the virus spreads rapidly in crowds, gatherings of 10 or more people were prohibited. Schools, sporting and entertainment events, and businesses closed. The economy ground to a halt. By mid-March, 45 governors had acted shutting down businesses and schools for the rest of the academic year. Yet they’ve given little guidance to school systems or details about what is to happen in the interim. Furthermore, libraries, partners in literacy to schools, are also closed. Another loss.

By late-March, it has become clear that school districts were caught with their pants down.  In a recent American Enterprise Institute survey schools in the U.S., less than half (43 percent) of the districts had a plan for shifting from face-to-face instruction to online instruction and home teaching. Two weeks later the percentage had gone to 71.  But a PDF plan is far from what actually happens. Individual school (there are 13,000-plus districts with 100,000 schools in the U.S.) principals, teachers, and staff contacted parents and students through email and phone.

Schools in these districts with plans put some version of a remote education program into place. Often, however, no clear instructions were sent telling whether all students had to go online or whether participation was voluntary. For example 35 percent of the schools doing online instruction offered materials and expected students to participate. Nearly two-thirds did not.

With the shift to distance instruction, access to computers and the Internet revealed anew the digital inequities that mirror societal inequalities. Many big cities had to distribute laptops and tablets to students—they were either delivered or picked up at local schools. New York gave out 300,000; Chicago announced 100,000 computers; San Diego. 40,000.  But distributing computers does not guarantee teaching and learning in the home because many families lack adequate broadband and WiFi access.

Moreover, computers and distance learning is, at best, a pale substitute for in-person teaching and student learning. Many private schools including those that avoided leaning on electronic devices before the pandemic (e.g., Waldorf) have continued their curriculum delivery online but this doesn’t mean that the quality of education has remained the same or that learning is happening.

Also beyond computers, big city districts fed children and families. San Diego, for example, provided nearly 400,000 meals.

The AEI survey also showed that by the first week of April, 91 percent of the school had plans for feeding students. When the survey asked for specifics beyond plans, results showed that two-thirds of the schools had meals available for daily pick up at the schools. School delivery to students’ homes or at bus stops were occurring in 30 percent of the schools. Mostly in urban districts, these meals are crucial to families when parents have been laid of from their jobs.

As the crisis unfolds and national leadership staggers from one policy to another (forget the U.S. Department of Education providing any direction), governors of large states have filled the vacuum but so much remains to be done before the health of Americans can be securely protected and the economic engine revved up again. And what of schools?

One clear lesson about tax-supported schools that has emerged so far from the response to the pandemic is that public schools are an essential part of the nation’s social safety net for the poor and working and middle class Americans. Public schools, often taken for granted, have become crucial contributors to supporting Americans beyond teaching and learning.  

Even with social security, Medicare and the American Affordable Care Act of 2010, ragged holes in the safety net continue to let middle-age and younger working and middle-class Americans slip through. Now public schools, often unnoticed, have become crucial contributors to supporting Americans beyond textbooks, tests, and homework.

If there is one group of Americans who have seen this previously taken-for-granted role for public schools most clearly it is the children’s caregivers, especially working and single Moms. Working mothers do their jobs remotely while being required to organize daily schedules for children to use online lessons or packets sent by the teachers, or they create their own curriculum from the Internet. Ironically, many parents have previously tried to reduce screen time for their young children and now schools require even more screen time to complete lessons. 

Juggling their paid work assignments–for those not furloughed by their employers–while monitoring school tasks children are expected to complete easily slides into a three ring circus during the day. “Some days,” one single Mom said, “I feel like I’m melting.” Other parents have to leave children home alone in order to go to work and they worry about them all day.

In districts where schools expect parents, untrained to teach and not compensated by the government, to supervise lessons or figure out how to sustain their child’s attention while the dog yaps for his walk, well, those working parents have come to really appreciate–no, downright admire–what teachers do daily.  During this pandemic-caused lockdown, the crucial role of public schools as another part of the national social safety net has becomes all too apparent.

In the economic recession that surely will follow in the months after Covid-19 eases (and we hope disappears), district budgets will be further trimmed even as relieved parents bring their sons and daughters to re-opened schools.  Tax-supported public schools have shown how woven they are into the social safety net that is supposed to allow all Americans to not only survive natural and viral disasters but also protect them sufficiently to thrive in the aftermath of such calamities. 

We hope that heightened respect, even admiration, for tax-supported public schools, will result from what this 2020 pandemic has wrought.  And that added respect for school in this society will morph into political and financial support for a community institution that has too often been a public punching bag.

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Schools Re-Opening in Other Countries

As most of the 13,000 districts in the U.S. plan for re-opening schools, a few photos of re-opened ones in other countries may give readers a sense of what’s in store for American parents preparing to send their sons and daughters to school.

Schools re-open in different parts of China.

TOPSHOT – Students sit in a classroom as grade three students in middle school and high school return after the term opening was delayed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Huaian in China’s eastern Jiangsu province on March 30, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

*Thanks to Laura Chapman for sending me this photo of Chinese first-graders with hats that keep classmates at a distance

In Vietnam:

In Israel:

Israeli students at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the Coronavirus. 1st-3rd graders returned to school this morning, with keeping social distance inside of hte classrooms, wearing face masks (exempted for 1st graders) and showing off doctor’s notes at the entrance to assure they are healthy. May 3, 2020. Photo by Gershon Elinon/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** למידה מרחוק חינוך חופש תלמידים לומדים מושב אפרת מסכות חזרה ללימודים

Israeli students wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the Coronavirus. 1st-3rd graders returned to school this morning, with keeping social distance inside of hte classrooms, wearing face masks (exempted for 1st graders) and showing off doctor’s notes at the entrance to assure they are healthy on May 3, 2020 in Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** למידה מרחוק חינוך חופש תלמידים לומדים מושב אפרת מסכות חזרה ללימודים

In Denmark:

My guess is that re-opened U.S. schools will vary greatly in arranging classroom space (as these photos illustrate) but there will be constants of mask-wearing and attempts to physically distance students in classrooms– good luck on hallways and cafeterias–until vaccines are available.

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Why Are Lecturing and Questioning Still Around?

The lecture is 800 years old (Lecture).

Teachers questioning students is millenia-old.

Yet these staple instructional practices while criticized–often severely by pedagogical reformers are alive and well in charter schools, regular public schools, and higher education. And they exist amid a revolution in teachers and students using high-tech devices in and out of the classroom.

Are these ways of teaching simply instances of traditional practices that stick like flypaper because they have  been around for a long time–inertia–or have these practices changed with the times because they are useful ways of communicating knowledge and learning?

LECTURE

Lecturing has been panned by pedagogical reformers for decades.  Over and over again, critics have said that lectures are inappropriate because students forget the facts and learn better when they interact with teachers. Furthermore, with so many high-tech ways of presenting information, prepared talks are obsolete. Yet lecturing remains the primary way professors teach undergraduate courses, high school teachers present information, gurus, and officials across business and government communicate with followers (e.g., TED talks, podcasts, U.S. Presidents speaking from the Oval Office).

If lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around? Surely, it is more than inertia or hewing to a sacrosanct tradition of  transmitting knowledge. With new technologies and media (e.g., the printing press, television, computers) no longer is the familiar (and medieval) dictation of text to students necessary. Yet the lecture persists.

As Norm Friesen argues (see The Lecture ) , the persistence of the lecture as a teaching tool for 800 years is due “to its flexibility and adaptability in response to changes in media and technology ….” Lecturing is performing, a way of conveying knowledge in a fresh way, a way of bridging oral tradition and visual culture that teachers, professors, and so many others have continually adapted to new media. The expansion of online learning in higher education and during the 2020 pandemic have not lessened lecturing. Savvy lecturers now use PowerPoint, YouTube, and elaborate technical aids such as Elluminate Live, Prezi, and Zoom to turn talks into live performances. But not all professors and teachers are tech-savvy; lecturers span the spectrum running from thought-provoking talks to eye-glazing tedium. So continuity and change have marked the path the lecture has taken over the centuries.

TEACHER QUESTIONING

Socrates, according to Plato, was one sharp questioner. The persistence of teachers questioning students, seldom in the Socratic tradition, is familiar to both kindergartners and graduate students.

In U.S. classrooms, patterns of teachers questioning students based on what is in the text began with the creation of mid-19th century age-graded schools and self-contained classrooms; teachers were expected to complete chunks of the curriculum by a certain time. Students reciting text easily morphed into teachers asking students specific question after question–what became known as the grammar of instruction.

*A researcher (p.153) cited an 1860 book on teaching methods: “Young teachers are very apt to confound rapid questioning and answers with sure and effective teaching”

*A classroom observer in 1893 described a teacher questioning her students’ knowledge of the text: “In several instances, when a pupil stopped for a moment’s reflection, the teacher remarked abruptly, ‘Don’t stop to think, but tell me what you know.’ ” Persistence of Recitation, p. 149)

*Between 1907-1911, a researcher using a stopwatch and stenographer observed 100 high school English, history, math, science, and foreign language lessons of teachers who principals had identified as superior. She found that teachers asked two to three questions per minute (pp. 41-42).

Many other studies document the historical use of questioning as the basis of classroom lessons.

What is not recorded in many of these studies is the teacher’s ever-present follow-up to a student’s answer: “correct,” “very good,” “incorrect,” “well done.” When a student’s answer is not what the teacher expected or wanted, the teacher will prompt the student with another question or give a clue to the right answer. In effect, teachers judge the quality of the answer and then move on to the next question. Using sociolinguistic theory researchers have analyzed these persistent forms of questioning as a cycle of Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE).

IRE is pervasive in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school seminars. Not the only form of questioning, but it is inextricably tied to the transmittal of information–a task that remains central to teaching, past and present.

Then there is the “Essential Question” that many school teachers and professors use to frame a unit they teach in order to get their students to figure out answers. Examples:

*Is there ever a “just” war?

*How can I sound more like a native speaker?

*What do good problem solvers do, especially when they get stuck?

*What is the relationship between fiction and truth?

Such questions are the basis of units that look very different from content-driven units in a textbook.

And that is why lecturing and questioning have persisted as pedagogical tools. They are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques. With all of the concern for student-centered inquiry and using tougher questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy, one enduring function of schooling is to transfer academic knowledge and skills (both technical and social) to the next generation. Deeply embedded social beliefs that transmitting knowledge is a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. So lecturing and questioning will be around for many more centuries.

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When Teaching and Parenting Collide: As Schools Shift Online, Many Educators Manage Two Roles (Matt Barnum)

Matt Barnum is a journalist. This article appeared on Chalkbeat, March 31,2020

School buildings are closed, but it’s still been a busy couple of weeks for Noriko Nakada, a Los Angeles middle school teacher.

She’s been attending virtual faculty meetings, receiving district training for remote instruction, and grading student essays online. On Monday, she held a class via Zoom for about 45 minutes, in which she checked in on her students’ mental health and introduced National Poetry Month. About 100 of her 170 students logged in.

Nearby through it all are her own two children, who are out of school as well. Figuring out how to teach online while making sure they’re occupied has been its own challenge.

“At first we tried to make it clear if mom or dad have headphones and are staring at the computer, it means you can’t bug them,” Nakada said. “The 8-year-old can get that, but the 5-year-old has a hard time.”

“Everyone is doing their best, and none of it’s going to be pretty,” she said.

As many schools across the country transition to remote instruction — in the wake of widespread building closures caused by the new coronavirus — Nakada’s experience is the new normal.

A sizable share of America’s teachers have young children. Most teachers are women, who often bear disproportionate caregiving responsibilities for children and other family members. And although many of the country’s large districts say they’re attempting to be flexible with teachers as they move to remote instruction, few if any have policies that explicitly accommodate those juggling work and full-time caregiving.

That’s making for some complicated daily decisions about whose kids are getting attention at a given moment. It’s a challenge that schools will have to continue helping teachers navigate in order to make remote instruction work, especially as it extends for weeks and months.

“The history of teaching, since we’ve feminized the profession, there’s been this emphasis on teachers [as] ultimately altruistic — they love children,” said Judith Kafka, a professor of education policy at Baruch College. “For the vast majority of teachers, that’s true about them. But they’re not usually asked to sacrifice attention to their own children in the process.”

“If you are home alone with your kids, and you’re also trying to meet your students’ needs, something’s got to give,” she said.

About half — 48% — of all public school teachers have children living at home, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero. This includes young children, who need constant supervision, as well as teenagers, who might not.

Among those teachers is Brian Grimes who is now setting up his kids — ages 7, 9, and 13 — to work at the dining room table every morning instead of sending them off to school.

“It’s like the summer, but there’s no fun,” said Grimes, who lives in New Jersey.

Once they’re settled, he starts his own job as a high school history teacher — videotaping lessons, grading assignments, talking to students and their families — a few feet away.

It’s been a dizzying transition. “I put my shirt and tie on and I go to work, it’s ‘teacher Brian,’ and then when I come home, it’s ‘parent Brian,’” he said. “Now everything is merged together.”

Many children, after all, haven’t yet adjusted to the sudden shift. “It’s very difficult,” said Alexis Mann, a Minneapolis teacher. “They don’t understand when mom’s home, that I’m actually working.”

In one respect, though, the fact that teachers are still facing these challenges reflects good news. As millions of workers face layoffs, teachers still have jobs and a steady paycheck.

But the change presents unique challenges for teachers, and few districts appear to have offered specific accommodations for teachers who are also caregivers. “We haven’t seen a lot of policy or explicit guidance on that,” said Sean Gill, a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been compiling large districts’ coronavirus response policies. (Many districts are still developing, or have not fully instituted, a remote instruction plan.)

Gill said that most districts don’t seem to be requiring teachers to conduct live instruction at specific times. Miami-Dade County schools, for instance, says it expects teachers to be available for at least three hours every day to students, but gives teachers the freedom to decide on those hours themselves.

Philadelphia’s guidance to educators says that “daily work schedules should remain largely unchanged” but that “reasonable flexibility shall also be used to accommodate employees’ individual needs.”

Gill suggested that teachers collaborate to ease each other’s burdens — for instance, a teacher available during the day could focus on connecting with students, while another teacher videotapes lessons at night that students could watch on their own.

Grimes said his school district has told teachers to monitor their emails during the day and to grade student work promptly, but generally been flexible. “They understand that we’re dealing with a lot on our own,” he said.

Nakada said her school district, LAUSD, hasn’t communicated explicit policies for caregivers. A spokesperson for the district said that teachers are expected to work during the day and hold office hours at least three times a week at flexible times.

That sort of flexibility is essential, teachers say. Mercedes Liriano, who teaches fifth grade in the Bronx, says her principal expects teachers to attend two staff meetings a week but otherwise has been accommodating.

“He knows that we have family, he knows that we have other requirements that demand our time,” she said.

A spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Education reiterated this. “We understand that teachers and staff may be caring for others,” said Danielle Filson. “There are no expectations for specific time periods for teachers to be logged in and schools are not expected to replicate a regular school day schedule in a virtual environment.”

But there are challenges. Liriano has two computers at home, meaning she and her two children are one device short at all times. And then she is also trying to help her son, who sometimes struggles in school, get through his lessons.

“I’m having to navigate helping my parents and my students, who are constantly calling, while I’m trying to help my son at the same time,” she said. “But I can’t be on my computer while he’s trying to do his work.”

In any case, trying to get work done while children are at home is complicated — the new reality for millions of parents, teachers among them. For some, the fear and uncertainty associated with the global pandemic that precipitated all the disruption has made it even tougher.

“There’s so much time and mental space that’s being occupied by the coronavirus,” Alex Driver, a New York City teacher who is also the parent of twin six-year-olds. “So much head space is being taken up by that, and then we also have the back and forth of parenting and teaching. And then what’s left?”

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Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools

2020 is the 11th year I have been writing posts for this blog. In those 11 years, I have also written a few books. Every time I have had a new book come out, publishers and friends urge me to advertise the book on my blog.

I am torn, however. One part of me thinks that it is too pushy, too braggish, to tout my book in the blog. It is not that I am inherently a modest man but the thought of blowing my trumpet about what I do or did, well, makes me wince in embarrassment.

Yet another part of me says: “Hey, at a time when screens and the air are filled with constant grabbing for attention,” (eyeballs, as flacks put it), “I need to do the same.” After all, I am not on Facebook and only tweet titles of my posts when I publish them. Social media is largely foreign to me although readers of the blog, tweet about posts I have published–so I do benefit from that. Consider further that over a million self-published books come out a year (2017). Book readers have to be especially selective.

Moreover, with this abundance of reading material at a time when sustained attention to read a 200-page book competes with reading one’s Facebook pages and twitter feed, getting reviewed in a national newspaper, magazine, or media publication is rare–the New York Times reviews less than three percent of new books it receives. Yes, you can cadge reviews for your book on Amazon, but the cachet is limited. So why not blow my trumpet–that other part of me says.

This back-and-forth interior conversation is what occurred when I received a note from Harvard Education Press that my new book, Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools will be available next month. I decided that I will post a few paragraphs taken from the “acknowledgements” page to describe why I wrote a book about success and failure in American schools.

Every book has its creation story. For this one, there is nothing exotic or path breaking. In my career as a teacher, administrator, and professor since 1955 (I retired in 2001 but continued to teach and write) I have spent my professional time in researching and writing on questions about educational policy and practice that tugged at me for answers.  For that I am most grateful. But now as the sun is setting on my career I wanted to pull disparate threads together from my earlier writings that touched larger issues in the journey that educational policy takes toward the classroom.

In Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools, I wanted to answer a question that has bothered me for a long time.  Given my knowledge of the history of efforts to alter what occurs in schools and classrooms, why has the constant refrain of school reform failing again and again and schools never changing sounded off kilter? A few years ago, I had a chance to explore the question of the supposed failure of school reform and lack of change in U.S. schools when Jay Greene and Michael McShane asked me to do a chapter in their edited collection called Failure Up Close: What Happens, Why It Happens, and What We Can Learn from It.

Writing that chapter got me thinking about the dominance of current policy definitions of “success” and “failure” in public schools. So I began asking myself a bunch of questions: Had those policy definitions been around for just the past few years? Decades? Centuries? Had these notions of “success” and “failure” changed over time? Where did they come from? How and why did tax-supported public schools adopt these definitions of “success” and “failure?” What do these definitions look like when applied to actual schools and classrooms? And, finally, can contemporary definitions of “success” be stretched to encompass other goals for teachers and students in public schools?

Like much of my previous writings, these questions started on the busy four-lane highway of reform-driven policymaking and then hopped on two-way roads and eventually one-way streets of educational practice to see what happened to those adopted policies when they finally appeared in schools and classrooms. Some reforms stuck, some morphed in familiar ways of running schools and teaching. And some disappeared. The above questions bugged me enough to travel anew this familiar path of policy-to-practice.

Those questions spurred me to send Harvard Education Press yet another proposal to write the book you have in hand. I have answered these and related questions in this book partially scratching the itch that got me this far. I say “partially” because I am uncertain whether what I have written here misses questions about stability and change in U.S. schools that I should have asked or errs in what I have concluded.  As I said above, the creation story for this book is neither exotic nor path breaking. It is what it is.

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Whatever Happened to Interactive Whiteboards?

You cannot eat one potato chip. You have to have more. Technological innovations hyped to transform teaching and learning are like potato chips. No district, no school just buys one. Laptops, tablets, and Interactive whiteboards (IWB) are typical examples. Consider the history of this high-tech classroom device.

Beginning in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, schools purchased interactive whiteboards by the truckload. British educators jumped on board this technological innovation with great enthusiasm especially after the government underwrote the buying of the technological innovation. In a glowing, enthusiastic article (2010), a writer described the results of the government largesse.

At St. Matthew Academy, a school for 3- to 16-year-olds serving a group of depressed London neighborhoods and similar to “turnaround schools” in American cities, IWBs have become fixtures in every classroom, with an eye to keeping students engaged. Assistant Principal David Cregan says that the boards are used for everything from mapping concepts—where students fill in an onscreen matrix with their ideas—to reviewing past lessons, where students unscramble letters to discover key words or ideas to launch a classroom discussion.

In the U.S. IWBs enjoyed a surge of enthusiasm beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s.While there are different kinds of IWBs with accompanying software and pens to use, many districts outfitted entire schools with IWBs costing somewhere between $3K-5K for one in each classroom. In Silicon Valley, where I visited many classrooms, I saw some teachers use these devices imaginatively with much student participation and others to basically illustrate a lecture with video clips and Internet links.

Overall, then, IWBs beginning in England and arriving in the U.S. two decades ago have come and stayed. They are still around. While sales of IWBs expand in other nations, particularly in Asia, sales have annually decreased in the U.S. Declining sales track the hype cycle so familiar to American educators in love with new technologies.

What Problems Do Interactive Whiteboards Intend To Solve?

Apart from the glitter of a new technology aimed at teaching and learning, district and school administrators saw IWBs as solving the ever-constant problems of student motivation, engagement, and academic achievement.

IWBs gave teacher total access to information on the Internet and new tools to expand their repertoire of lecture, whole group discussion, small group teaching, and students’ independent work, thereby enhancing existing teaching approaches. The theory was that IWBs, then, by engaging students would remedy partially or wholly those ever-constant problems faced in classrooms.

What Does Use of Interactive Whiteboards Look Like in Practice?*

A Philadelphia high school English teacher describes her use of the IWB:

I have been using an interactive whiteboard for several years, and honestly, I like having the board available. The software that comes with the board offers me a nice way to organize and save the work we do each day. If we mark up a document during a lesson, I can save it and refer back to it the next day. Often, I use the board to share information for mini-lectures, to demonstrate activities, or to show video clips or images to enhance my lessons.

Does that mean that none of my teaching is student-centered? No way. I am often at the board for a total of five or ten minutes and then my students are working together in small groups, or we are engaged in class discussions about the literature we are reading. I sometimes return to the board to troubleshoot when a majority of my students are stuck, and that makes life easier for all of us.

Over the course of the past few years, my students have used the interactive whiteboard to showcase their learning through presentations. And when we are editing and writing as a class, we can share documents in real time. In other words, the students get to direct the learning.

The interactive whiteboard is a tool that lends itself to direct instruction, but it does not dictate that all the instruction needs to be teacher-directed.

From an article on a 4th grade classroom using an IWB.

Teaching artist Lisa Rentz worked with a classroom teacher on the group story-writing experience. Students read the book Circle Unbroken and then used it as inspiration for an original group story. “[The teacher] and I used the Smartboard to take notes, viewable by all, of the students’ ideas, words and decisions, as we went through the story-writing process– brainstorming, developing characters, commencing the plot, dialogue and word choice,” said Rentz.

Because the notes were on the interactive whiteboard, they were able to save them, print them and use them for outlines and handouts. “The Smartboard pages were printed out every day as the story grew.  Each night I typed up everything for handouts the next day, and then resumed with the board until the conclusion of the story, which the students wrote individually,” said Rentz.

Do Interactive Whiteboards Work?

Sold as a way of increasing student motivation, engagement, collaboration, and academic achievement while altering how teachers teach to the whole class and small groups, research results, as one has come to expect in education, are decidedly mixed. Early enthusiasm that such devices–like laptops and desktop computers–increase students’ test scores shrunk as studies showed, at best, mixed results–including meta-analyses of the research. See here, here, here, here, and here.

Similarly, on results for increased student engagement and more collaboration, studies initially showed some gains but, again, the results are, at best, ambivalent. See here.

Why Do We Now Hear So Little Today about Interactive Whiteboards?

One answer is simply the hype cycle and what happens to many technological innovations.

Where to put IWBs in the cycle might be in the “Trough of Disillusionment,” “Slope of Enlightenment,” or “Plateau of Productivity” I cannot say since the evidence is sparse. Readers will have to decide, given their knowledge and experience with this once highly touted innovation.

Another reason often given by observers is that implementation of the device was hampered greatly by complicated software accompanying IWBs and the lack of one-to-one staff development for the innovation.

I would suggest another possible reason. It lacks much evidence, however, other than what I have observed, heard from teachers, and know about the history of classroom teaching. IWBs inherently reinforce teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lecture, demonstrations, frontal teaching) at a time when the rhetoric among educators and school practitioners is student-centered instruction (e.g., much student participation, collaboration, and student choice). The clash between rhetoric and practice often goes unspoken and seldom noticed. After all, teachers adapt innovations to their lessons once the tinsel wears thin on an innovation and for those teachers who swear by their IWB, it is another tool in their kit of ways of getting students to learn.

And then there is occasional teacher reaction that may or may not mirror what many teachers felt and thought about IWBs purchased by administrators for use in their classrooms. Here is Bill Ferriter, a North Carolina public school sixth grade teacher’s response to IWBs.

I’ll admit that there aren’t many topics I’m more passionate about than interactive whiteboards in the classroom.

Seen as the first step towards “21st century teaching and learning,” schools and districts run out and spend thousands of dollars on these gizmos, hanging them on walls and showing them off like proud hens that just laid the golden instructional egg.

I gave mine away last summer. After about a year’s worth of experimenting, I determined that it was basically useless.

My hunch is that IWBs, like sister technological devices over the past century, enjoyed its moment in the pedagogical sun and faded into a quiet niche within teachers’ repertoires as much as the slate blackboard was in the mid-19th century and the whiteboard in late-20th century classrooms.

___________________________

*I looked at various YouTube presentations by teachers and consultants on using IWBs in lessons. Nearly all that I watched were sponsored by companies that sold the product. For readers who want such examples, see here and here. A few came from non-company sources. See here

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Feedback for Teacher Learning (David Brazer)

David Brazer is a practitioner/scholar. Teacher and high school principal, Brazer has also been a professor at George Mason and Stanford Universities. He is now Director of Professional Learning at TeachFX.

A few years ago, I met with Jamie Poskin the founder of TeachFX and former graduate student of Brazer’s at Stanford. After showing me graphic displays of teacher talk, he asked what I thought of the tool for teacher learning. I was impressed with its possibilities but at the time pointed out a series of shortcomings, especially around analyzing the kinds of talk both teachers and students engage in.

In this guest post, Brazer describes how he got involved and where the device is now. Like Brazer, I find this tool most useful for those teachers who seek self-improvement through analyzing how they teach. *

Teachers talk a lot. Hattie (2012) claims they talk 70 – 80% of class time across grade levels. In contrast, students talk very little, even when they’re talking in groups. But secondary teachers frequently tell me that students love to talk, just not about class content. The result is often an emphasis on classroom control that keeps students quiet, causing many to disengage. Students’ love of talking presents an opportunity to engage them in learning instead of controlling their behavior. What if teachers could harness students’ talk energy and see how that influences their engagement? Would teachers modify their teaching and talk less? The bet from a new reflective instructional tool called TeachFX is that they would.

            Writing a post for the ultimate tech skeptic’s blog about a tech tool for teachers feels like walking into the lion’s den. Larry has shown that efforts to change what teachers do often fail and that technology thus far has been more effective making teachers efficient than changing how they teach. A tech skeptic myself, my work with TeachFX is changing my mind. We see that frequent, objective feedback teachers can analyze quickly shows promise for altering teacher talk/student talk ratios and student engagement. Why? Because TeachFX feedback provides a rare opportunity to facilitate teacher learning.

            Research that colleagues and I published seven years ago focused on teacher learning in collaborative teams. We found that teachers rarely implemented new instructional practices proposed by colleagues. On the occasions they did, teachers had little or no evidence of these practices’ effects. Lack of classroom evidence inhibited what teachers learned from minor changes.

            Fast forward to the 2016-2017 academic year. Jamie Poskin was my intern in Stanford University’s joint degree in business and education. During his internship at a venture capital fund we frequently spoke about Jamie’s idea for a tool that would use a smart phone to audio record a teacher’s class, then separate teacher talk from student talk in a graphic display on the phone or laptop. I was intrigued, and skeptical. Then Jamie said, “Want to try the prototype in your class? What do you predict will be your percentage of student talk?” Committed to lively and informative discourse in my graduate classrooms, I wanted something like 80%, but I aimed low—40% seemed an achievable target.

            Paying this much attention to student talk might seem excessive to some, but student talk is evidence of deeper engagement and learning. Despite clear demonstration that students who are engaged more learn more (Lotan, 2014), fostering student talk remains a challenging approach for large numbers of K – 12 teachers. Consider some stark numbers: If 75% of class time is taken up with teacher talk, the other 25% consists of activities that compete with individual student talk, such as worksheets, quizzes, thinking time, transitions, and group work. Thirty students will share substantially less than 15 minutes to speak in a 90-minute class period. Given that student on-target talk is one of the surest ways to know they are engaged, students would benefit from less teacher talk and more opportunities to speak.

            TeachFX delivers vivid, objective evidence for how much teachers and their students are talking, providing impetus for teacher learning about the effects of their instruction. Recording classes regularly allows teachers to track changes in practices and their effects on student talk and engagement.

            Does the tool have the desired effects? Knowing I would see a report of my teaching, I was immediately focused on student talk in my classroom. When my recording was analyzed, Jamie returned to my office and asked, “Do you think you met your 40% student talk goal?” I hesitantly said I thought so and was much relieved when I learned that I had actually achieved 45 % student talk. Here is a snapshot of the class report I received on my laptop with explanations in call-outs:

The features of our classroom discourse were obvious and fascinated me.

            The evidence was vivid for me, but how would this work with K – 12 teachers? Would they use it? Would it change what they do in classrooms? I joined TeachFX full time last summer as Director of Professional Learning in a quest to find out. We are observing some promising trends as teachers make recordings and analyze class reports.

Although individual student talk tends to hover around 5% of class time nationally, TeachFX users typically see 15 – 20% individual student talk on their first class report. Teachers tell us their attention to student talk is heightened when they use the tool and they modify their instructional choices to encourage more student talk and engagement. Below is data from a single school with several teachers using the tool September – November. Collectively, these teachers demonstrated remarkable growth in their average amount of individual student talk over six recordings.

To date, most growth in student talk has been more modest. The district below, for example, piloted TeachFX last fall with about 20 science teachers and coaches, showing the following pattern:

Trends in these examples are encouraging, but not universal among TeachFX users. As an early start-up, we are learning the following:

  1. Turning teachers’ attention to student engagement competes with numerous other initiatives and imperatives. Maintaining their attention on student engagement is a complicated effort.
  2. Attention should be focused on transforming what teachers know about student engagement into how teachers might foster content-focused student talk in classrooms, then tracking progress
  3. Administration-level champions of student engagement powerfully focus teacher learning on generating meaningful student discourse.

Teachers are beginning to moderate their own talking to allow for more student talk and deeper engagement moment-by-moment in classrooms. TeachFX does not presume to change education overnight, but we do seem to be making progress toward helping teachers re-shape student discourse to engage their students in deeper learning.


*For full disclosure, readers need to know that I have not invested in this company (nor have plans to). Neither have I ever received any money or in-kind contributions from TeachFX, its founder, or employees.

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Lessons Learned from Technology-Powered School Reform

On June 13, 2018. I was a member of a panel held at Mission High School during San Francisco Design Week. Software developers, and others who see themselves as designers of ed-tech products that will improve schools attended this panel discussion. The moderator asked each of us to state in 7-8 minutes “what hard lessons have you learned about education that you’d like to share with the ed-tech design community?” My fellow panelists were two math teachers–one from Mission High School and the other a former teacher at Oakland High School, three product designers (one for the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative, another for Desmos, and the lead designer for Khan Academy) who have been working in the ed-tech industry for years. In attendance were nearly 60 young (in their 20s and 30s) product designers, teachers, and ed-tech advocates .

Elizabeth Lin, a designer for Khan Academy, organized and moderated the panel. She began with a Kahoot quiz on Pokemon and Harry Potter. Audience members had the Kahoot app on their devices and entered the pin number to register for the quiz. For the record, I knew none of the answers having never played Pokemon or, as yet, cracked a Harry Potter book. 

When my turn came to speak, I looked around the room and saw that I was the oldest person in the room. Here is what I said.

Many designers and school reformers believe that in old age, pessimism and cynicism go together. Not true.

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform including the use of new technologies in classrooms over the past half-century, I surely am an oldster. But I am neither a pessimist, nay-sayer, or cynic about improving public schools and teachers making changes. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both my tempered idealism and cautious optimism have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform especially when it comes to technology. So here I offer a few lessons drawn from these experiences over the decades.

LESSON 1

Teachers are central to all learning.

I have learned that no piece of software, portfolio of apps, or learning management system can replace teachers simply because teaching is a helping profession like medicine and psychotherapy. Helping professions are completely dependent upon interactions with patients, clients, and students for success. No improvement in physical or mental health or learning can occur without the active participation of the patient and client—and of course, the student.

Now, all of these helping professions have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe, as I do, that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student then relationships cannot be replaced by even the most well designed software, efficient device, or virtual reality. There is something else that software designers often ignore or forget. That is that teachers make policy every time they enter their classroom and teach.

Once she closes her classroom door, the teacher decides what the lesson is going to be, what parts of top-down policies she will put into practice in the next hour, and which parts of a new software program she will use, if at all.

Designers are supposed to have empathy for users, that is, understand emotionally what it is like to teach a crowd of students five or more hours a day and know that teacher decisions determine what content and skills enter the classroom that day. Astute ed-tech designers understand that, for learning to occur, teachers must gain student trust and respect. Thus, teachers are not technicians who mechanically follow software directions. Teaching and learning occur because of the teacher’s expertise, smart use of high-tech tools, and the creation of a classroom culture for learning that students come to trust, respect and admire.

Of course, there are a lot of things about teaching that can be automated. Administrative stuff—like attendance and grade books—can be replaced with apps. Reading and math skills and subject area content can be learned online but thinking, problem solving, and decision-making where it involves other people, collaboration, and interactions with teachers, software programs cannot replace teachers. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.

LESSON 2

Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Because access to new technologies has spread across the nation’s school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. While surely the use of devices and software has gained entry into classrooms, anyone who regularly visits classrooms sees the huge variation among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, most teachers have incorporated digital tools into daily practice but even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons.

They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as easily as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating playlists for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of a lesson. Teachers set lesson goals, designed varied activities, elicited student participation, varied their grouping of students, and assessed student understanding. None of that differed from earlier generations of experienced teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Again, both stability and change marked teaching with digital tools.

LESSON 3

Designers and entrepreneurs overestimate their product’s power to make change and underestimate the power of organizations to keep things as they are.

Consider the age-graded school. The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) solved the 20th century problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to move

masses of children through public schools.  Today, it is the dominant form of school organization.

Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma around age 18.

The age-graded school was an organizational innovation designed to replace the one-room schoolhouse in the mid-19th century—yes, I said 19th century or almost 200 years ago. That design shaped (and continues to shape) how teachers teach and students learn.

As an organization, the age-graded school distributes children and youth by age to school “grades. It sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted to the next grade.

Now, the age-graded school dominates how public (and private) schools are organized. Even charter schools unbeholden to district rules for how to organize, have teachers teach, and students learn are age-graded as is the brand new public high school on the Oracle campus called Design Tech High School.

LESSON 4

Ed Tech designers are trapped in a trilemma of their own making.

Three highly prized values clash. One is the desire for profit—building a product that schools buy and use. Another is to help teachers, students, and schools become more efficient and effective. And the third value is that technology solves educational problems.

Many venture capitalists, founders of start-ups, and cheerleaders for high tech innovations cherish these conflicting values.

I’m not critical of these values. But when it comes to schools, product designers with these values in their search for profit and improvement underestimate both the complexity of daily teaching and the influence of age-graded schools on teaching and learning. Those who see devices and software transforming today’s schooling seldom understand schools as organizations.

I don’t believe that there are technical solutions to teaching, to running a school, or governing a district. Education is far too complex. These are the “hard” lessons I have learned.

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