Category Archives: technology use

Hooked on Social Media, the Brain, and School Lessons

…the typical social media user spends 10 to 20 minutes on an app after opening it. With 56% of respondents claiming they log onto Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and other networks more than 10 times per day, that means half of America could be spending more than three hours of their day on the networks.

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And not only teens or millenials. Also the much older Baby Boomer generation. Sounds addictive yet researchers have not helped us answer the question: why?800-2.png

On the one hand, neuroscientists and journalists have argued that unrestrained access to information and communication have rewired the brain. The brain is plastic altering itself  in response to the environment and creating new neural pathways that ancestors lacked. So multi-tasking has become the norm and, better yet, we are more productive and connected to people as never before.

On the other hand, there are those neuroscientists who concur that the brain is plastic but it has hardly been rewired. Instead, complete access to information and people–friends, like-minded enthusiasts, and strangers–unleashes brain chemicals that give us pleasure. Or as one psychologist put it:

What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that … can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences. These are experiences our brains did not evolve to prefer, but [they are] like drugs of abuse….

To these researchers and journalist, the Internet and social media are addictive.

So these are competing views emerging from current brain research. Most studies producing these results, however, come from experiments on selected humans and animals. They are hardly definitive and offer parents and educators little about the impact on children and youth from watching multiple screens hours on end.

And nothing is mentioned about the  issue that both neuroscientists and philosophers persistently stumble over. Is the brain the same as the mind? Is consciousness–our sense of self–the product of neural impulses or is it a combination of memories, perceptions, and beliefs apart from brain activity picked up in MRIs? On one side are those who equate the brain with the mind (David Dennett) and on the other side are those who call such equivalency, “neurotrash.”

Yet even with the unknowns about the brain, its plasticity, and the mind, much less about what effects the Internet has upon young children, youth, and adults–“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” asked one writer–many school reformers have run with brain research with nary a look backward.

Consider those school reformers including technology enthusiasts who hate current school structures with such as passion that they call for bricks-and-mortar schools to go the way of  gas-lit street lights and be replaced by online instruction or other forms of schooling that embrace high-tech fully. Cathy Davidson, Duke University professor, to cite one example, makes such a case.

[T]he roots of our twenty-first-century educational philosophy go back to the machine age and its model of linear, specialized, assembly-line efficiency, everyone on the same page, everyone striving for the same answer to a question that both offers uniformity and suffers from it. If the multiple-choice test is the Model T of knowledge assessment, we need to ask: What is the purpose of a Model T in an Internet age?

Others call for blended learning, a combination of face-to-face (F2F in the lingo) and online lessons.

There’s this myth in the brick and mortar schools that somehow the onset of online K-12 learning will be the death of face-to-face … interaction. However this isn’t so — or at least in the interest of the future of rigor in education, it shouldn’t be. In fact, without a heaping dose of F2F time plus real-time communication, online learning would become a desolate road for the educational system to travel.

The fact is that there is a purpose in protecting a level of F2F and real-time interaction even in an online program…. The power is in a Blended Learning equation:

Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment

Then there are those who embrace brain research with lusty (and uncritical) abandon.

Students’ digitally conditioned brains are 21st century brains, and teachers must encourage these brains to operate fully in our classrooms…. If we can help students balance the gifts technology brings with these human gifts, they will have everything they need.

So where are we? In an earlier post I quoted  cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a frequent blogger and associate editor of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education. He offered three bullet-point facts for those educators caught up in brain-based research*:

#The brain is always changing

#The connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious.

#Deriving useful information for teachers from neuroscience is slow, painstaking work.

Willingham ended his post by asking a key question:

“How can you tell the difference between bonafide research and schlock? That’s an ongoing problem and for the moment, the best advice may be that suggested by David Daniel, a researcher at James Madison University: ‘If you see the words ‘brain-based,’ run.’ “

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*The link to the Washington Post op-ed no longer works; the article has been deleted. I apologize to readers for not being able to supply link. However, Willingham has an article where he cites the myths about connections between neuroscience and schooling (see here).

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The Puzzle of Similar Teaching in Universities and Schools: The Case of Technology Use

Why does so much teaching in K-12 schools and universities look the same over time? To be accurate, however, what appears as timeless stability and similarity in teaching has obscured incremental changes. Now professors ask more questions for students in lectures,organize more small group work, and more use of new devices–from clickers to moodles–than academics had done a half-century ago. So, too, for K-12 teachers who have, again over time, made small and significant changes in their classroom teaching. There is more guided discussion, more group work, increased academic content in lower and upper grades, more adventurous teaching by larger fractions of teachers, and, yes, more and more teachers using high-tech devices for instruction.

Yet looking back on one’s experience in most university and secondary school classrooms, the teaching–even accounting for these incremental changes over the decades– sure looks like the same o,’ same o.’

Here’s the heart of the puzzle: In universities, student attendance is voluntary; in K-12 attendance is compulsory. Note also that the complexity of the subject matter, freedom of movement, course choices, student ages, and teachers’ deep knowledge of their subject are other critical markers that distinguish university classrooms from those in K-12 schools. Yet–and you knew there was a “yet” coming–with all of these essential differences many studies point out the similarities in teaching. Including the use of technology for instruction.

Technology Use in Universities

Academics use computers at home and in their offices to write, analyze data, communicate with colleagues, and compose syllabi and handouts for their courses.  Personal accounts and surveys report again and again that most academics use computers and other technologies for routine tasks in laboratories, lecture halls, and data analysis (see here and here). A 2018 survey noted that 75 percent of responding faculty adopt and adapt new technologies to their instruction. That same survey reported only 11 percent of professors opposed increased use of classroom technologies. Moreover, many professors blog, make podcasts, create web-based classes and teach online courses.

Yet using computers and other new technologies to improve instruction has had little tangible effect on undergraduate classroom teaching or learning. The lecture has remained central to undergraduate instruction.

Except now lectures are often conveyed through Powerpoint and similar software. According to a 2008 national student survey, 63 percent of professors use PowerPoint software in their undergraduate courses. At some institutions, the percentage runs higher. Except for a small fraction of faculty, abundant high-tech hardware, software, and services have hardly made a difference in how professors teach and students learn in most undergraduate classrooms.

While the exact same statement cannot be made for K-12 teaching, there are enough similarities to make even the most ardent high-tech advocate wince.

Why?

Unlocking this puzzle of same o,’ same o’ for university and school teaching requires different answers for for each institution. For universities, look at institutional goals and organizational structure. Consider that a primary goal of universities is to produce knowledge (i.e., doing research) and disseminate it (i.e., teach and publish). Structures and incentives to achieve that goal are faculty rewards in tenure and promotion for research productivity rather than effective teaching. To insure that faculty have time to do research and publish, university administrators reduce teaching obligations by creating large lecture classes in the undergraduate courses and small classes in graduate courses. Those goals, incentives, and structures shape how classes are organized and influence how professors teach.

Technology use in K-12

Rather than cite again all of the surveys (10.1.1.90.6742-1), ethnographic studies, and reports (Bebell_04) of direct observation of classrooms over the past thirty years, the evidence seems clear, at least to me, that nearly all teachers endorse the use of technology for both administrative and instructional tasks but prevailing use falls short of that endorsement. Nonetheless, an increasing fraction of teachers are integrating high-tech devices into their daily lessons. A larger group of teachers use laptops/desktops/ hand-held devices occasionally–say once a week–and now, only a fraction of teachers in most districts, both urban and suburban, refrain from even minimal use–once a month or never.

Reasons for this frequency and type of use by K-12 teachers? When I and others (David K. Cohen on Teaching PDF) look at the organizational conditions of teaching in the age-graded school, the flaws in the technological innovation and its implementation, and the lack of incentives for teachers to go the extra mile even when they endorse technology, it becomes understandable why there have been far more laggards than early adopters of technology among schoolteachers. But that is slowing changing.

Two crucial educational institutions differ in governance, organization, curriculum, and authority to compel attendance yet show similar patterns in instruction and use of technology. Changes in both institutions continue to occur. Will the patterns of instruction diverge or remain the same ‘o, same o’?

 

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Teaching with Technology in Public Schools

Since the early 1980s with the appearance of desktop computers in schools, questions about their presence in classrooms have been debated. Access to, use of, and results from new technologies have been central issues for a motley coalition of  high-tech vendors, technophile educators, and policymakers eager to satisfy parents and voters who want schools to be technologically up-to-date with other institutions. And this coalition has surely been successful in increasing teacher and student access to desktop computers, then laptops, and now tablets and smartphones.

First, a quick run through the initial goals and current ones in putting new technologies into the hands of teachers and students. Then a crisp look at access, use, and results of the cornucopia of devices in schools.

By the  mid-1980s, there were clear goals and a strong rationale for investing in buying loads of hardware and software and wiring buildings . Those goals were straightforward in both ads and explicit promises vendors and entrepreneurs made to school boards and administrators.

*students would learn more, faster, and better;

*classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized;

*graduates would be prepared to enter the high-tech workplace.

By the early 2000s, evidence that any of these goals were achieved was either scant or missing. It became increasingly clear that promised software in math and English fell far short of raising students’ test scores or lifting academic achievement. The promise of algorithms and playlists of programs tailored to each student’s academic profile had faltered then and even now remains a work in progress (see here, here, and here).

And the goal that learning to use hardware and software applications would lead to jobs in technology became another casualty of over-promising with few returns to high school graduates. That jobs were hardly automatic for those students who knew spreadsheets and BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) became obvious to students with diplomas in hand. By the 2010s, teaching coding to children and getting the subject of computer science into the high school curriculum spread across U.S. schools.

Those initial goals and rationale for flooding schools with new devices, lacking substantial evidence to support them, have now shifted to another rationale for computers in schools: Devices are essential since all standardized tests and other assessment students take will be on computers. Learning to use machines and applications in schools–including coding–will give a leg-up for graduates to get entry-level jobs in most businesses and industries.

The shift in rationales over the past three decades is another instance of techno-optimism that has plagued K-12 schooling for at least a century (think about the introduction of film, radio, and television into schools).

Beyond the shift in goals over the years, have changes in schools occurred (but not necessarily improvements) since the introduction of new technologies into schools? The answer is yes: expanded access to hardware and software; varied uses in classrooms; and ambiguous results.

Expanded Access

In 1984, there were about 125 students for each computer in U.S. public schools. In 1996, that ratio had been reduced to 10 students per computer. According to an OECD report, in 2012, the U.S. had two students per computer.

Of course, these are national averages. variation by state, in districts and schools exist. Over the past three decades, the huge “digital divide” between schools enrolling poverty- and non-poverty students has closed considerably but continues to exist. Most families have home computers with Internet access, some do not. Nearly all children have access to computers in school when they lack devices at home. Moreover,  smartphone access among students (particularly as they get older) rises to 95 percent with some differences due to race, ethnicity, and social class. For a teacher who started teaching in 1984 and retired 35 years later, she would have seen the availability of computers steadily increase to nearly one-to-one.

Varied Uses in Classrooms

Teacher and student use of electronic devices in classrooms range from the doing online worksheets to team and individual research projects. While there are differences in classroom use noted between schools enrolling low- and high-poverty children and youth, for the most part, depending on available computers (e.g. each student has one, classroom carts, Bring Your Own Device), teachers have students do many things with the devices they have in reading, math, science, social studies, and foreign language lessons. Students watch videos. They do individual worksheets on screens. They submit assignments to teachers electronically. They report on books and projects using PowerPoint slides. And on and on.

In 2016 when I observed 41 teachers in Silicon Valley schools recommended to me as aces who have integrated hardware and software into their lessons, I saw and then described what they did. In these lessons, tablets, laptops, smart phones were in the background not the foreground of teacher and student talk and activities. Devices were used routinely as paper and pencils had been in prior decades.

Ambiguous Results

Research studies continue to report findings that leave policymakers awash in doubt over the results of spending so much money on hardware and software. To say that the results of oodles of studies about outcomes of computer use in schools are mixed is to repeat a well-worn cliche about educational research (see here, here, and here).

With these fuzzy results, doubts emerge for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers about all of the monies spent for making new technologies available to teachers and students

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This condensed history of new technologies in public schools is my take on what has occurred. Others may interpret the past differently than what I presented here. Whatever interpretation readers may tilt toward, one policy question, however, remains from this swift recounting of the past decades.

Could funds that went for hardware, software, professional development of teachers and administrators, wiring of buildings and installation of Wifi, and replacement of obsolete hardware have been better spent on increasing capacity of teachers to teach effectively or reduction of class sizes, or other policy alternatives?

The question cannot be answered but doubts about technologies in schools, often hidden from public view, remain.

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Professor Quits Teaching Because of Students’ Use of Technology in Class

The combination of computer use, Internet, and smart phone, I would argue, has changed the cognitive skills required of individuals…. The student can rapidly check on his or her smartphone whether the professor is right, or indeed whether there isn’t some other authority offering an entirely different approach. With the erosion of that relationship [between professor and students] goes the environment that nurtured it: the segregated space of the classroom where, for an hour or so, all attention was focused on a single person who brought all of his or her experience to the service of the group.

Tim Parks, 2019

In the above epigraph taken from “Dying Art of Instruction in the Digital Classroom,” Novelist, literary scholar, and translator Tim Parks gives the reasons why he is leaving his professorship at the University Institute for Modern Languages in Milan, Italy.  Parks describes his experience with students using devices in his class teaching translation:

In the late 1990s, I had my first experience of students bringing laptops into the classroom. At that time, there was no question of their having wifi connections. Since these were translation lessons, students argued that their computers were useful for the fifteen or twenty minutes when I invited them to translate a short paragraph. They translated better on their computers, they said; they could make corrections more easily.

Nevertheless, I noticed at once the tendency to hide behind the screen. Who could know whether a student was really taking notes or doing something else? The tippety-tapping of keyboards while one was speaking was distracting. I insisted laptops be kept closed except for the brief period of our translation exercise.

When the University renovated classrooms with laptops at each desk, Parks requested an “old fashioned” classroom and got it until the University had no more such classrooms for Parks to use. Bad as that was for Parks’ struggle with students using laptops during translation lessons, the advent of the smart phone did him in.

I continued to fight my fight and keep the laptops mainly closed, and I was holding my own pretty well I think, until the smartphone came into the classroom….

So I have thirty students behind computer screens attached to the Internet. If I sit behind my desk at the front of the class, or even stand, I cannot see their faces. In their pockets, in their hands, or simply open in front of them, they have their smartphones, their ongoing conversations with their boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, or other friends very likely in other classrooms. There is now a near total interpenetration of every aspect of their lives through the same electronic device.

To keep some kind of purpose and momentum, I walked back and forth here and there, constantly seeking to remind them of my physical presence. But all the time the students have their instruments in front of them that compel their attention. While in the past they would frequently ask questions when there was something they didn’t understand—real interactivity, in fact—now they are mostly silent, or they ask their computers. Any chance of entering into that “passion of instruction” is gone. I decided it was time for me to go with it.

So Parks retired.

Is Parks’ experience as a professor in a Milan university who vainly tries to cope with students use of electronic devices common? I cannot answer for the European professoriate but there is data on U.S. faculty attitudes and actions when it comes to computers in classrooms..

There have been U.S. professors who have complained about student use of laptops and phones in their classrooms (see here, here, and here). Yet few leave the privileged job as Parks has done. Is he an anomaly, a singleton, or is he in one of the familiar categories that capture the range of classroom use by both professors and K-12 teachers?

For example, Everett Rogers divides users of innovation, in this instance, classroom technologies into groups. Put Parks in the laggard category.

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A recent survey of U.S. faculty attitudes toward technology use in their classrooms, however, would place Parks in a tiny minority of just over 10 percent of faculty. That same survey puts 90 percent of tenured professors describing themselves as early adopters or inclined to adopt when seeing peers using classroom technologies effectively.

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I cite Tim Parks’ experience as a professor to illustrate the many changes–I do not use the word “improvements”–that have occurred in higher education’s embrace of classroom technologies. That embrace has been duplicated and enlarged among K-12 teachers. I take up access, use, and results of putting technology in public schools in the next post.

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Why Can’t All of Education Look Like This? (Greg Toppo)

From time to time, readers say “Enough, Larry,  about the ubiquity and longevity of age-graded schools and their rules and rhythms or the ‘grammar of schooling.’ ” A few say it is too pessimistic about school reform and plays down efforts to alter the dominant age-graded organization.

Sure, I get defensive and reply that I am a realistic, no, I am a tempered optimist about what thoughtful, passionate educators create in making an age-graded school a “good” one even within a severely flawed, larger political and socioeconomic system that maintains under-funded, re-segregated schools across the nation.  

Then I may go on to point out pieces I have written about the need to have many “grammars of schooling,” not just one. I also write about those uncommon instances of districts and schools, past and present–public and private–that have not only instituted major efforts to alter the prevailing model of schooling but also sustained them over time. I write about such efforts because I  know what has occurred before in school reform.

None of this criticism of age-graded schools or efforts to incrementally improve or even overturn the abiding model is new. A century ago, a wing of the educational progressive movement produced schools that challenged the then dominant model. John and Evelyn Dewey wrote about such innovative schools in Schools of To-Morrow (1915).  There has been this back-and-forth volleying between ardent supporters of the age-graded school and its critics ever since. The following article is within that tradition.  I believe that such efforts will continue long after this blog disappears.

And from that constant creation of different ways to teach and learn within age-graded schools, I sustain my hope. A hope tempered by my experience and research, to be sure, that students in such schools will learn and grow into adults who appreciate that tax-supported public schools are not only politically vulnerable institutions shaped by the larger socioeconomic structures and culture but also a precious public good. Is that the best you can do, Larry? Yes, it is.

This article appeared in The 74 on September 17, 2019

 

In 2013, attorneys at the California Innocence Project, weighed down by a backlog of casework, turned for help to an unusual group: humanities students at High Tech High Chula Vista, a nearby charter school.

The students, all juniors, trained on a past case handled by the San Diego nonprofit, which reviews pleas from prisoners who maintain they’re innocent. Then, in teams of three or four, the students reviewed prisoners’ files and ultimately presented them to Innocence Project attorneys, with a recommendation to either champion a prisoner’s case or take a pass.

The project lives on with a new group of students each year, buoyed by a strain of progressive education philosophy that says students learn best with real work that resembles what they will likely encounter outside of school. It has been kicking around K-12 education for decades but has yet to be widely adopted. In recent years, however, the idea has quietly gained ground as more schools try project-based learning and subscribe to a philosophy known as “deeper learning.”

But does it work?

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor emeritus David Perkins calls it “playing the whole game.” He sees it as an alternative to schools’ traditional approach, which often presents students with atomized, decontextualized pieces of a subject. He conceived of the idea after thinking about the most meaningful experiences he had in high school, which were mostly “outside of the conventional curriculum”: drama, music, science fairs and the like. These and other large scale endeavors, he said, “seemed more meaningful and I reached out for opportunities.”

Laid out most fully in his 2010 book Making Learning Whole, the idea goes something like this: Let students do something big and useful, from start to finish — perhaps a simplified version, but keep it intact. Give them extra help and lower stakes and they’ll work harder, learn more and come up with creative applications and solutions that adults couldn’t imagine.

Though it has yet to be widely adopted outside of project-based schools, “playing the whole game” has quietly thrived for generations in another context: afterschool activities, from team sports to debate club, drama productions and marching band.

“We know intuitively that when we get really serious about a domain of education, it looks more like this,” said Jal Mehta, also a professor at Harvard’s education school.

When students go out for the baseball team, they get an attenuated version of baseball, but they go out each time and play the entire game. “It’s not ‘baseball appreciation,’” Mehta said. Likewise with just about anything that takes place after school.

Afterschool activities also offer a system that supports teachers. Imagine, for instance, a classroom art teacher who wants to mount an exhibition of student artwork. She’d need to figure out how to give students longer blocks of time to complete the pieces; find an exhibition space, and arrange it for exhibition night. Finally, she’d need to get people to attend.

“Now imagine you’re that same teacher and you’re directing a play after school,” Mehta said. “Basically, you need the same things.” But in most schools, these pieces are already in place: long rehearsal blocks, a dedicated performance space, and the expectation that students will annually mount a version of a big Broadway musical and the community will show up to see it. All of that support, he said, is already built in.

“The question we should ask ourselves is: If that’s the kind of method we use when we really want someone to learn something, why don’t we use those methods the rest of the time, for the rest of the students?” Mehta said.

Chris Lehmann, principal and co-founder of Science Leadership Academy, a small public high school at the edge of Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood, said afterschool experiences have another plus: They have student choice “baked-in.”

“You’re getting the kids somewhere they want to be,” he said, “so you already have an advantage there.” These experiences are also usually built around a performance of some sort, with a natural structure, deadline and audience.

Mehta said the best examples he has seen during the school day are in science classes. In one school, instead of “imbibing scientific knowledge that was discovered long ago by famous scientists,” sophomores learned about the scientific method and designed rudimentary experiments — he remembers one that asked whether studying while listening to music through earbuds produced better or worse results.

“That’s not an earth-shattering question, but it’s a real question,” he said. In the process, students learned how to develop a hypothesis, gather data, review the literature and write up their results. By 11th or 12th grade, they were doing more advanced work, including partnering with nearby labs, he said. But students credited the sophomore-year course for getting them excited about — and familiar with — experimentation. “It was the place where they really learned how to do science,” he said.

Sarah Fine, who directs High Tech High’s graduate teaching apprenticeship and who last spring co-authored a book about deeper learning with Mehta, said the larger goal of “playing the whole game” is a kind of authenticity that often eludes students, especially in high school. “Ultimately, school is a contrived situation. There’s no way around that,” she said.

Fine recalled a student once saying to her, “‘Ms. Fine – school is just fake.’ He’s right – school is fake. We are designing experiences for the sake of kids’ learning.”

Yet the goal of the Innocence Project work isn’t necessarily to make students into lawyers. It’s to give them the sense that there’s “some professional domain that has rules and rhythms to it,” as well as a base of knowledge, she said. “It just has to feel real enough to kids — it has to be resonant enough with the real world that it compels them to feel like it’s worth engaging with.”

The students who reviewed prisoners’ cases “talked about feeling like they sort of had people’s lives in their hands,” Fine said. “And that is not a feeling they’d ever had in school before, that something they were doing had real consequences for people beyond themselves.”

Rebecca Jimenez, 18, who graduated last fall from High Tech High Chula Vista, said the Innocence Project gave her sense of working on “an important cause.”

The more research she did on each prisoner’s plea, the more engrossed she became. “I wanted to keep reading and understand the person’s story,” she said. Eventually, she and her classmates would research a case that resulted in a judge throwing out a 20-year-old murder conviction and handing down new charges against the suspect’s nephew.

Novices vs. experts

One important aspect of “playing the whole game,” Mehta said, is interacting with professionals in the real world. “If you do an architecture project and you have real architects examining your work, that’s project-based learning. But it’s really powerful project-based learning because you’re not only showing students something about architecture. It gives them a conception: ‘I could be an architect.”

But Tom Loveless, a California-based education researcher and former director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, advises caution. “Generally speaking, I think we should be skeptical of the whole idea,” he said.

For one thing, playing the whole game confuses novices with experts. “A novice can’t ‘play the whole game’ because a novice doesn’t know the whole game. In order to learn most games, you have to learn the bits and pieces that go into knowing the whole game. And with project-based learning in general, the idea is that you’re giving kids projects to do in order to learn about a particular topic.”

That’s a mistake, Loveless said, since students typically require “a tremendous amount of background knowledge” before they can execute a respectable project on, say, World War I. Without deep background knowledge, he said, “you have a lot of novice learners kind of sharing their ignorance and having a shared experience out of their ignorance — and there’s no guarantee … that they’re necessarily going to gain knowledge, because you’ve left all that in the hands of the students themselves.”

Harvard’s Mehta said “playing the whole game” actually demands more of teachers, implicitly asking them to be not just familiar with a subject but to remain, in a sense, practitioners. Just as we’d expect a good drama director to direct community theater on weekends, so do these schools expect the same of subject-matter teachers: English teachers who publish poetry or novels, or art teachers who sell their paintings, and so on.

Loveless said he hasn’t seen good evidence that students will necessarily enjoy school more if it’s inquiry-based. “It could be that exactly the opposite is true. It could be that actually what kids like is a lot of structure to the presentation of learning. They like the teacher taking responsibility for that.”

A bigger problem, he said, may be that because project-based learning tends to minimize the importance of prior knowledge, “playing the whole game” might work better in wealthy areas or in private schools, where students arrive with a measure of background knowledge about, for instance, World War I or how defense attorneys work. Elsewhere, it’s a riskier strategy.

SLA’s Lehmann would disagree. His school boasts that it draws students from every ZIP Code in Philadelphia, and he can easily bring to mind the challenges that his students — past and present — bring the day they set foot on campus as freshmen.

A 2016 metareview was cautiously optimistic about project-based learning, saying the evidence for its effectiveness is “promising but not proven.”

Ron Berger of EL Education, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group for project-based learning, pointed to a 2016 study by the American Institutes for Research that found students in high schools that subscribed to “deeper learning” were slightly more likely to attend college — about 53 percent vs. 50 percent in other high schools. AIR also found that 22 percent of students at “deeper learning” schools enrolled in four-year colleges compared to 18 percent for their peers elsewhere.

But the schools had little to show in terms of college retention — in both “deeper learning” schools and others, only 62 percent of alumni remained enrolled in college for at least three consecutive terms; about half enrolled for at least four consecutive terms.

Berger said the modest college-going results shouldn’t be the final word on these schools’ success. For one thing, he said, many of them are works in progress: his non-profit, originally a partnership between Harvard’s education school and Outward Bound USA, has spent years pushing project-based schools to improve the quality of their projects, requiring field research, participation of outside experts and “an authentic audience,” among other factors. That’s not always a given, he said.

Where these conditions persist, Berger said, “the schools feel different,” with students able to articulate what they’re learning and why they’re there.

“It’s visceral,” he said. “When you walk into a building and kids are more polite, more mature, engage with you right away and want to tell you about their learning, [they] have a sense of social responsibility – it’s hard to collect quantitative data on this.”

‘Why do I need to know this?’

Lehmann, the Philadelphia principal, embodies this attitude perhaps as well as any secondary educator in America. In conversation with his students, he reminds them endlessly about how much they’ve grown and matured since he met them as freshmen. He has become well-known among educators for his head-on challenge to the notion that the job of high school is to get students ready for what comes next.

“School shouldn’t be preparation for real life — school should be real life,” he said. “We should ask kids to do real things that matter.”

Most significantly, Lehmann asks teachers to rethink the idea that high school is a “moratorium” for young people, a kind of holding pen where they wait out adolescence.

“‘Why do I need to know this?’ should be a real question,” he said. “And the answers we should search out for kids should not be ‘someday’ answers: ‘If you want to major in this you might seek out this information,’ but rather, ‘Why do I need this information now to be a better human being? To affect change in the world?’”

For Jimenez, the High Tech High graduate, playing the whole game changed everything. Early in her high school career, she thought she might major in business. “It sounded really cool and had money attached to the name,” she joked.

But Jimenez liked the work at the Innocence Project so much she spent the entire month of May 2018 interning there — High Tech High juniors undertake month-long internships each spring. “During school, if I want to do something, I might as well be doing something that might actually make a change,” she said.

Now a freshman at the University of California, Riverside, Jimenez is studying political science and plans to attend law school. A first-generation college-goer, she wants to work someday for the Innocence Project.

“It would be great to be back in that environment,” she said.

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Techno-Optimists Meet School: School Wins (Part 2)

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Protests then and now—even fictitious student Bart Simpson–have not stopped technological innovations. That is the power of techno-optimism. Change is good. Change means progress. Changes makes life better. Sure, even if new technologies disrupt industries, people lose jobs, and corporate mergers drive out small businesses, life will be better than what existed before. Techno-optimism reigns in America.

The belief that new technologies can improve individual and collective life–personal health, workplace productivity, home conveniences, school productivity, community engagement– has existed in Europe and the U.S. for centuries (see here and here). It is (and has been) pervasive irrespective of race, ethnicity, social class, and religious belief.

The dream that the Internet would advance democracy, for example, fueled the first generation of global users. Yet after a few years, it became obvious that the Internet, like most technologies, can be used for good or ill; it can expand popular participation in democracies or tighten the grip of dictatorships to control their citizens. Or the Internet turns commercial and invasive in vacuuming up personal data and sold to the highest bidder. Add in social media platforms that  surely connect people to one another while simultaneously becoming a vehicle for bullying, hate-mongering, and interfering with national elections in other countries.

Soiled dreams aside, techno-optimism remains the default belief for most Americans.

And optimism (stripped of its adjective) characterizes educators as well. After all, the men and women who become teachers, principals, and superintendents believe in their heart of hearts that children can change for the better, learning is good, and that all children and youth can profit from “good” schools. Few pessimists about the human condition enter the profession and if they do, they seldom last more than a year or two.

Techno-optimism among practitioners, however, becomes tempered over time. Reforms come and go. Hype is easily recognized and dismissed. Some changes do occur but often fall well below reformers’ expectations. Most important, however, in creating this tempered optimism is the taken-for-granted age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” in which teachers work daily.  Within that organization, school working conditions (e.g., heavy teaching loads, class sizes, limited planning time, insufficient supplies, multiple preparations), the broad range of student abilities and performance stemming from district re-segregation and erratic–if not inadequate support from administrators produce further disappointments stripping away unvarnished optimism particularly when it comes to new technologies.

Younger teachers too often burnout and exit the job. For those teachers who have mastered the craft and retain beliefs in the importance of the work they do, these veterans have learned to parse the hype and select particular new technologies to fit the contours of their classrooms. These teachers retain their optimism about the importance of helping children grow and learn while sharing their expertise with students. They adjust their repertoire of approaches to use devices and software in lessons bending them to the demands inherent to the organization of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

All of the talk of “disrupting” schooling and higher education through MOOCs, online lessons, super-software, “personalized learning” and cyber schools, in the end, has been talk. “Personalized learning,” on line lessons, and MOOCs exist but they remain on the periphery of tax-supported and private schooling in the U.S.

Why is that? And how does it occur?

Organizations have plans for their inhabitants. The ubiquitous and enduring age-graded school  for children and youth, who are compelled to attend between early childhood to 17 or 18, shapes what happens daily in classrooms, corridors, lunchrooms, and nearby playgrounds. Teacher duties, student responsibilities, and administrative actions flow from the organizational structures (e.g., daily schedule of classes, separate classrooms, sliced up curriculum by subject and grade, periodic tests, report cards). This “grammar of schooling” embedded in the age-graded school influences what students do, what teachers teach, and what occurs between 8AM-3PM in U.S. schools. Apart from military and crime-fighting agencies, most Americans underestimate the power of community-based organizations such as schools to shape (but not determine) individual adult and child behavior. And that is a mistake. School organizations do steer (but not control) behavior of those within its confines.

Part of that steering, that guiding of behavior, becomes evident when it comes to new technologies clothed in promises of transforming teaching and learning from people who have spent nary a day in a classroom.

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Most experienced teachers have become allergic to such promises. After all, teachers have been students for 16-20-plus years and know first-hand what happens in classrooms and schools. When faced with reforms that expect major changes in classroom practices, they adapt such policies to fit the students they face daily, their content and skills expertise, and what they believe they should teach and students should learn. They do this, of course, piece-by-piece.

Consider the desktop computer. In the early 1980s, the innovative technology began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk. In a few years, school located desktop computers in libraries then set up separate computer labs. As years passed, prices dropped, schools bought lightweight laptops for each student. Now in 2019, classroom carts with 25-30 tablet computers are stacked and ready for student use in most classrooms. Yet dominant ways of teachers organizing classes, arranging activities, and teaching lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. Surely the language has changed when schools announce that they have “personalized learning” by providing access to devices and teachers agree as lessons unfold with familiar activities.

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You want 180 degree changes in what happens in classrooms, it won’t happen. You want 10 degrees or 20 degrees of change, with teacher understanding, capacity, and willingness, such changes will occur.In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them gradually to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling. Teachers and administrators domesticate  school reforms including new technologies.

None of this is meant as a criticism of teachers or principals. It is simply evidence of how and why organizations have major influence on its inhabitants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Techno-Optimism Meets Schools: Schools Win (Part 1)

From Thomas Edison’s words on film revolutionizing teaching and learning in the early 1900s to the acclaim accompanying desktop computers overhauling K-12 schools in the early 1980s to MOOCs in the 2010s transforming higher education to BrainCo–software that tracks and uses students’ brainwaves in 2019–enthusiasm for the latest technological innovation is boundless.  Every ill has a cure, every problem has a solution, and every school needs the latest software to boost students’ math test scores (Dreambox) or make English-speaking students fluent in French (Duolingo).

Anyone over the age of 40 recognizes this repetitive hype and dashed expectations when it comes to the promise of new technologies in schools. What is often missed in this familiarity with exaggerated claims for new technologies (i.e., access and use of new hardware, software, and now social media) is that schools do, indeed, end up extensively using the new stuff. They domesticate the technology to fit what already exists.

In other words, techno-optimists win in getting much of their hardware and software into schools and classrooms but lose badly in seeing that what occurs as a result falls far short of their dreams of faster, more, better, and personalized teaching and learning. And schools win by having access to new technologies while tailoring their use to fit the “grammar of schooling.”

Nearly three decades ago, I wrote a few pieces on this techno-optimism (see here and here) when it comes to public schools and posed three scenarios then. In the intervening decades, each of these scenarios have real-life evidence that they occurred. Yet one in particular–here’s the spoiler–exists now.

Here are the three scenarios I sketched out in 1992.

The techno-optimist’s dream: electronic schools of the future now. These are schools with sufficient numbers of machines, software, assorted accessories, and wiring to accommodate varied groupings of students in classrooms, seminar rooms, and individual work spaces. The dream is to make teaching and learning far more productive through project-based learning or competency-based instruction than it now is. Machines and software are central to this dream. They are seen as liberating tools for both teachers and students to grow, communicate, and learn from one another. Teachers are helpers, guides, and coaches to students being tutored and interacting both with teachers and machines.

The strategy for achieving the vision is to create total settings that have a critical mass of machines, software, and like-minded people who are serious users of the technologies. Examples of such schools range from cyber-schools to regular elementary and secondary schools fully stocked with devices, software, experienced teachers, and highly-motivated students.

The cautious optimist’s scenario: slow growth of hybrid schools and classrooms. In this scenario, putting computers into classrooms will yield a steady but very slow movement towards fundamental changes in teaching and schooling. Advocates of this scenario see it occurring inexorably, much like a turtle crawling towards its pond. It is slow because schools, as organizations, take time to learn how to use computers to guide student learning. It is inexorable because believers in this scenario are convinced that the future school will mirror a workplace dominated by computers and telecommunications.

The evidence for this scenario is a small but growing body of research. For example, introducing a half-dozen computers into a classroom or creating microcomputer labs, over time, alters how teachers teach (that is, they move from whole-class instruction to small groups and individualized options) and how students learn (they come to rely upon one another and themselves to understand ideas and practice skills). Thus, the classroom organization might shift, albeit slowly, from one that is wholly teacher-directed to one in which students working with peers at machines begin to take responsibility for their learning.

In schools where computer-using teachers and hardware have reached a critical threshold, different organizational decisions get made. Teachers from different departments or grades move towards changing the regular time schedule. Schoolwide decisions on using technologies become a routine matter as do decisions on nontechnological matters. Hybrids of the old and the new, of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, proliferate.

The preservationist’s scenario: maintaining while improving schools. In this scenario, policymakers and administrators put computers and telecommunication technologies into schools, but they end up largely reinforcing existing ways of teaching, learning, grouping for instruction, and curriculum. While some teachers and schools use these technologies imaginatively and end up being profiled by the media, most uses are fitted to what already occurs. New technologies become ways of tinkering towards improvement. The vision embedded in the preservationist’s story is one of schools maintaining what they have historically done; providing custodial care, sorting out those who achieve academically from those who do not, and giving taxpayers as efficient a schooling as can be bought with the funds available.

There is much evidence for this scenario. Some examples: mandating a new graduation requirement on computer literacy or students, adding courses to the curriculum on computer science, creating a computer lab for all the school’s machines, scheduling teachers once a week to bring their classes to the room where an aide helps students use software connected to their daily lessons, placing one computer in each classroom, and buying software that is part of a textbook adoption.

In this scenario, computers are seen as occasional helpers for the main business of teaching students. Adapting these tools to help teachers and students do what they are supposed to do in schools ends up with new technologies reinforcing what schools have done all century.

Writing in 1992, I asked: Which of these scenarios is likely to occur?

The least likely is the electronic school of the future. While such schools will be built, they will remain exceptions and, in time, will probably disappear as the next generation of technology, invariably cheaper and improved, comes of age. Thus, although such schools exist now, few will spread to most other districts. Recent experiences of schools adopting instructional television, language laboratories, and programmed learning in the 1960’s and 1970’s have taught policymakers to be cautious. In districts that built new schools, purchased and installed the hardware and software for those technologies, administrators found in less than a decade that the machinery was either unused by teachers, became obsolete, or could not be repaired after breakdowns. The constant improvement of advanced technologies makes it risky for districts to make large capital investments in new hardware beyond a model program or demonstration school.

The cautious optimist’s and preservationist’s scenarios are basically the same story of computer use in schools interpreted differently. Each stresses different facts and derives different meanings from those facts. Preservationists argue that schools will remain largely as they are because of millennia-old cultural beliefs held by most adults about teaching, learning, and knowledge that form the core of modern American schooling: Teaching is telling, learning is listening, and knowledge is what is in books. Most taxpayers expect their schools to reflect those centuries-old beliefs. Such strongly held beliefs seldom disappear when Apple [products] … show up in school.

Preservationists also point out that the popular age-graded school persists through reform after reform. Age-graded schools, the dominant form of school organization for over a century and a half, have self-contained classrooms that separate teachers from one another, a curriculum distributed grade by grade to students, and a time schedule that brings students and teachers together for brief moments to work. These structures profoundly influence how teachers teach, how students learn, and the relationships between the adults and children in each classroom. They are especially difficult to change. For these reasons, preservationists argue, schools tailor technological innovations to fit the contours of prevailing cultural beliefs and the age-graded school.

Cautious optimists, however, take the same facts and give them a sunny-day spin. The optimists’ version of the story displays much patience in making schools technologically modern. Conceding the many instances of technologies being used to reinforce existing practices, optimists shift their attention to the slow growth of technological hybrids, those creative mixes of the old and the new in schools and classrooms. These hybrids of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, the optimists say, are the leading edge of a movement that will bring schools more in sync with the larger society. Thus, the current reasons for the fumbling incorporation of high-tech machines into schools–not enough money to buy machines, teacher resistance, inadequate preparation of teachers, and little administrative support–will gradually evaporate as hybrids slowly spread and take hold. It is a scenario anchored in a long-term view of decades rather than months or years. While I find the preservationist’s story convincing, I lean more to the optimist’s version.

In Part 2 takes up techno-optimists’ promises and how school do tame new technologies–in other words, reform the reform–as the latter two scenarios suggest.

 

 

 

 

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