Category Archives: technology use

Tech Innovations and School Reform: Blood Cousins

When asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms, I answer that I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms when I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school systems.

I then say that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I examined how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I investigated policymakers’ constant changes in curriculum since the 1880s. I analyzed the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. And I parsed the Utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. I then conclude my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating a  school such as High Tech High is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using iCell App, Khan Academy videos, Google Classroom, Kahoot, and other software programs are implementing curricular reforms and shaping instruction. Technological innovations, then, are blood cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar genes.

For example, all reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray a economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient. Read the stuff.

If patterns emerge from analyzing reform rhetoric so can patterns be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted and funded program. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of federal laws such as No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act and a brand-new whole language software program for district schools).

Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design wends its way into the school and eventually into the classroom (e.g., e.g., Success for All, Maine’s 1:1 laptop initiative, ClassDojo)

If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–in school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on the basis of political, ideological, and evidentiary grounds.
You get the picture. In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns, determine consequences for the adoption of the innovation, track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to the historic patterns in school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.

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Technology Use in Two High Schools: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles (CA) and MetWest in Oakland (CA)

Readers who follow this blog know that I have been working on a book about “success” and “failure” in schools. As part of that book, I visited two California high schools, Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District and MetWest in Oakland Unifed School District. Both are small high schools. SJHA has just over 500 students and MetWest has 160. Both schools enroll predominately Latino and poor youth, most of whom are the first in their families planning to attend college. Both small high schools are neither charters or magnets. They are regular public high schools in their districts. More detailed descriptions of the unique character of each school can be seen here and here.

I observed classroom lessons, interviewed teachers and administrators and read documents and media accounts for each school. From these on-site visits I described classrooms and use of technology in each school.  These are my reflections on what I observed about access and use of mobile and desktop devices at both schools.

 

Technological devices played a minor role in classroom lessons. Tablets, laptops, and desktop computers were easily accessible throughout each school. Chromebooks sat on carts in most classrooms. Students were used to using devices when teachers directed them to work on assignments or do readings that were already loaded onto the machines.

Except for cell phones. At MetWest, I saw teachers collect all cell phones in a large basket or container at the beginning of every lesson; students retrieved their devices at the end of the period. Outside of class, students used mobile phones when they were in the school’s large atrium, before and after class and during brunch and lunch breaks.

At SJHA, district cell phone policy is explicit in banning these devices but gave individual schools latitude in enforcing the ban. SJHA’s website laid out those restrictions on classroom use and consequences except when teachers ask students to use them for a specific lesson.*

In one English class, according to a newspaper report in 2015, teacher Priscilla Farinas told her 31 students:

“This is the one and only time I will have you take out your cellphones,” she said, instructing the students to share their definitions of “privilege” via text message as part of a lesson on “The Great Gatsby.”

Students immediately grabbed their mobile devices. Their texts populated a screen in the front of the classroom. Every student appeared focused on their schoolwork…. “We’re trying to keep you engaged,” Farinas said. “This is part of a larger lesson: ‘There’s a time and a place to use the cellphone.’ **

That was in 2015. In February 2019, only one SJHA teacher I observed used a cell phone during a class period. She used a phone app to generate student names randomly for questions she would ask about the scene in Hamlet they were studying. Apart from this teacher, no SJHA teacher I observed asked students to use their cell phones during lessons..

As I reflect on teachers’ and students’ use of these devices in both schools they were seldom in the foreground, they were in the background of lessons. Sure they were present but used when they were integral to a lesson much as paper, pencil, and erasers would have (and were) used. Except for cell phones, then, electronic devices were pervasive in both schools but played a minor role in classrooms I observed.

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*District policy for SJHA banned the use of cellphones but gave schools latitude in enforcing ban. AT SJHA the policy was:

We understand that cell phones are important for personal communication and, at times, aid in student organization and learning. However, they can also be a major distraction to your education. Should you choose to bring your devices to school, you are to use them responsibly and appropriately according to the following guidelines.

  • Electronic devices can be used before school, after school & during lunch/passing periods
  • Electronic devices must be silenced and out of sight during class
  • Devices may be used in class for instructional purposes when explicitly permitted by the teacher
  • Students leaving the classroom for any reason, must leave their device with the teacher while they are gone

Students are subject to the following consequences when they violate the Electronics/Cell Phone Policy:

  • 1st Violation: Device taken away for the remainder of the day. Student may pick up in the Main Office after school
  • 2nd Violation: Device taken away for remainder of the day. Parent/guardian notified and required to pick up device between 7:30am-3:00pm
  • 3rd Violation: Device taken away for remainder of the day & will receive 3 BEHAVIOR stamps. Parent/guardian notified and required to pick up device between 7:30am-3:00pm
  • Additional Violations: The device will be taken away. Student & parent/guardian must attend meeting with counselor and administrator to receive the device.

 

**Daniela Gerson, “Cellphones Make a Comeback in the Classroom, with Teachers’ Support,” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2015.

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ClassDojo App Takes Mindfulness To Scale in Public Education (Ben Williamson)

Ben Williamson: “I am a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute [at the University of Edinburgh], examining the intersections of digital technologies, science, and data with education policy and governance. My current research focuses on two key themes. One is the expansion of educational data infrastructures to enable information to be collected from schools and universities, then analysed and circulated to various audiences. The second is the emergence of ‘intimate data’ relating to students’ psychological states, neural activity, and genetic profiles, and the implications for increasingly scientific ways of approaching educational policy and practice.” 

This appeared on the blog: Code Acts in Education May 10, 2017

A globally popular educational app used by millions of teachers and schoolchildren worldwide has begun to deliver mindfulness meditation training into classrooms. Based on a mobile app that teachers can carry in their pockets, ClassDojo is embedding positive psychology concepts in schools worldwide. In the process, it may be prototypical of new ways of enacting education policy through pocketable devices and social media platforms, while activating in children the psychological qualities that policymakers are seeking to measure.

The Beast

ClassDojo, launched just 6 years ago, is already used by over 3 million teachers and 35 million children in 180 countries—with penetration into the US K-8 sector at a staggering 90%. Originally designed as a behaviour monitoring app to allow teachers to reward ‘positive behaviour’ using a points system, more recently ClassDojo has extended into an educational content delivery platform to promote the latest ‘big ideas’ from positive psychology in the classroom.

Starting in early 2016 with a series of video animations on ‘growth mindsets,’ the ClassDojo company has since developed classroom content about ‘perseverance,’ ‘empathy’ and, in May 2017, ‘mindfulness.’ All its big ideas videos feature the cute Mojo character, a little green alien schoolchild, learning about these psychological ideas from his friend Katie while experiencing challenges, personal worries, setbacks and doubts about his learning abilities. In the mindfulness series, Mojo has to confront what Katie calls ‘The Beast’—‘your most powerful emotions, anger, fear and anxiety’—which, she tells Mojo, ‘can get out of control.’

The big ideas videos have been wildly popular with schools. ClassDojo has claimed that the growth mindset series alone has been viewed over 15 million times. The announcement of new big ideas series is accompanied by online content which is shared to its vast worldwide community of teachers via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. To promote its new mindfulness series, ClassDojo has announced a ‘month of mindfulness’ across its social media accounts and communities.

ClassDojo’s expansion hasn’t just included video content delivery. It is also now used as a communication platform between schools and parents, to compile student portfolios, and to allow students to share their ‘stories.’ Its stated aim is to ‘connect teachers with students and parents to build amazing classroom communities’ and ‘happier classrooms.’ As a result ClassDojo is now one of the hottest educational technology companies in the world. It has raked in huge venture capital investment from Silicon Valley VC firms (about $31million in total, including $21m in 2016 alone), and is the regular subject of coverage in the educational, technology and business media.

It would not be overstating things much to suggest that ClassDojo has in fact become the default educational social media platform for a very large number of schools, functioning ‘like a social-media community where … the app creates a shared classroom experience between parents, teachers, and students. Teachers upload photos, videos, and classwork to their private classroom groups, which parents can view and “like.” They can also privately message teachers and monitor how their children are doing in their classrooms through the behavior-tracking aspect of the app.’

Many of ClassDojo’s features would be familiar to users of commercial social media such as Facebook, Snapchat and Slack. ‘If you’re an adult in the United States, you’ve got LinkedIn for work, Facebook for friends and family. This ends up being the third set of relationships, around your kids,’ one of ClassDojo’s major investors has claimed. As well as being geographically based in Silicon Valley, ClassDojo is strongly influenced by a Silicon Valley mindset of technical optimism in social media for relationships, sharing, and community-building. Like many recent education startups in Silicon Valley, ClassDojo’s founders are seeking to do good while turning a profit—specifically in their case by building a globally successful and scalable business brand on the back of building happier classroom communities through social media apps and platforms.

While social media organizations like Facebook and Twitter are now dealing with adverse issues such as fake news, political disinformation and computational propaganda on their platforms, however, ClassDojo has defined itself as a platform for diffusing positive psychology into schools. It’s aiming to achieve its ambitions directly through the mobile apps carried by millions of teachers in their pockets.

Emotions that count

The success of ClassDojo is due at least in part to the recent growth of interest in ‘social-emotional learning.’ A term that encompasses a range of concepts and ideas about the ‘non-cognitive’ aspects of learning—such as personal qualities of character, resilience, ‘grit,’ perseverance, mindfulness, and growth mindset—social-emotional learning has lately become the focus of attention among educational policymakers, international influencers and technology companies.

The OECD and the World Economic Forum have both begun promoting social-emotional learning and are seeking ways to foster it through technology and quantify it through measurement instruments. A US Department of Education report published in 2013 promoted a strong shift in policy priorities towards such qualities, and listed a then-young ClassDojo as a key resource. New accountability mechanisms have even been devised to judge schools’ performance in developing students’ non-academic personal qualities. The US Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has now made it mandatory for states to assess at least one non-cognitive aspect of learning as part of updated performance measurement and accountability programs.

Notably, too, ClassDojo’s big ideas resources have been produced through partnerships with powerful US university departments. The original growth mindset series was devised with the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) at Stanford University, as was its follow-up perseverance series. The empathy series late in 2016 was co-produced with the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, while the mindfulness series released in May 2017 is the result of collaboration with the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University.

A concern for social-emotional learning is not just confined to dedicated educational organizations. The ed-tech researcher Audrey Watters has described social-emotional learning as a ‘trend to watch’ in 2017, and detailed some of the technology companies and investors involved in promoting it. ‘Ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors are getting in on the action, as have researchers like Angela Duckworth who’s created software to measure and track how well students perform on these “social emotional” measurements,’ she has argued. Meanwhile, ‘startups like ClassDojo,’ Watters adds, ‘promise to help teachers monitor these sorts of behaviors.’ She concludes by asking, ‘Can social emotional learning be taught? Can it be tested? Can it be profited from?’

Pocket policy platforms

ClassDojo needs to be understood as the product of a complex network of actors and activities including business interests, policy priorities, and expert psychological knowledges concerned with social-emotional learning (as I argued in earlier research published recently). With education policy increasingly influenced by the social-emotional learning agenda, ClassDojo and its academic partners and venture capital investors are increasingly part of distributed ‘policy networks.’ Although much education policy is still performed by government authorities, it is increasingly influenced by diverse sources, channels and sites of policy advice and ‘best practice’ models–of which ClassDojo is a good example

In this sense, ClassDojo is acting as an indirect best practice policy model and a diffuser of the social-emotional learning agenda into the practices of schools. In reality, it may even be prefiguring official policy. With venture capital funding from its investors driving its development and growth, ClassDojo has already distributed the vocabulary of social-emotional learning worldwide, and influenced the uptake of practices related to growth mindsets, perseverance and mindfulness among millions of teachers. It has done so through producing highly attractive content and then distributing it through its vast social media networks and communities on the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms too.

‘If we can shift what happens inside and around classrooms then you can change education at a huge scale,’ ClassDojo’s CEO Sam Chaudhury has publicly stated. ‘We are looking for broad concepts really applicable to every classroom,’ its product designer has added. ‘We look for an idea that can be powerful and high-impact and is working in pockets, and work to bring it to scale more quickly … incorporated into the habits of classrooms.’

Although ‘working in pockets’ here clearly refers to potentially high-impact but small-scale startup activities, it is notable too that as a mobile app ClassDojo is already working in the pockets and palms of teachers. ClassDojo, in other words, represents a new way of doing large-scale policy through classroom apps that are already working in teachers’ pockets and hands rather than through political deliberation and direct interference. This would be an impossible task to coordinate at global scale through traditional government organs of education—although the interests of the global policy influencers OECD and WEF suggest ClassDojo could be prototypical of attempts to roll-out social-emotional learning into the habits of teachers through pocket-based policy platforms. Its method of enacting policy-by-app is being achieved by mobilizing practical classroom applications that can be carried in teachers’ pockets and enacted through their fingertips, generously funded by Silicon Valley venture capital, without the encumbrances of bureaucratic policymaking processes.

Psycho-policy

Beyond being a pocket-policy technology that prefigures official policy priorities, ClassDojo also represents another policy innovation—that of using an app to translate psychological expertise into practical techniques for teachers, and of acting as a technical relay between disciplinary knowledge and practitioner uptake.

The kind of policy that ClassDojo anticipates is already developing in other sectors. Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn have identified the emergence of ‘psycho-policy’ as a new approach to policymaking in the area of ‘well-being.’ Techniques of psycho-policy, they argue, are characterized by being heavily influenced by psychological concepts and methods, and by the ‘coercive use of psychology’ to achieve desired governmental objectives. As such, psycho-policy initiatives emphasize the ‘surveillance of psychological characteristics’ and techniques of ‘psycho-compulsion,’ which Friedli and Stearn define as ‘interventions intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, notably through the imposition of positive affect.’

Psycho-policy, then, is the use of psychology to impose well-being and activate positive feeling in individuals, and thereby to enrich social well-being at large. In this context, as the sociologist William Davies has argued, the use of mobile ‘real-time mood-monitoring’ apps is increasingly of interest to companies and governments as technologies for measuring human emotions, and then of intervening to make ‘that emotion preferable in some way.’ As a pocket policy diffuser of such positive psychological concepts as mindfulness and growth mindset into schools, the ClassDojo app and platform can therefore be seen as part of a loosely-coordinated, multi-sector psycho-policy network that is driven by aspirations to modify children’s emotions to become more preferable through imposing positive feelings in the classroom.

Viewing ClassDojo as a pocket precursor of potential educational psycho-policies and practices of social-emotional learning in schools raises some significant issues. Mindfulness itself, the subject of ClassDojo’s latest campaign, certainly has growing popular support in education. Its emphasis on focusing meditatively on the immediate present rather than the powerful emotional ‘Beast’ of ‘anger, fear and anxiety,’ however, does need to be approached with critical social scientific caution.

‘Much of the interest in “character,” “resilience” and mindfulness at school stems from the troubling evidence that depression and anxiety have risen rapidly amongst young people over the past decade,’ William Davies argues. ‘It seems obvious that teachers and health policy-makers would look around for therapies and training that might offset some of this damage,’ he continues. ‘In the age of social media, ubiquitous advertising and a turbulent global economy, children cannot be protected from the sources of depression and anxiety. The only solution is to help them build more durable psychological defences.’

According to this analysis, school-based mindfulness initiatives are based on the assumption that young people are stressed, fragile and vulnerable, and can benefit from meditative practices that focus their energies on present tasks rather than longer-term anxieties caused by uncontrollable external social processes. James Reveley has further argued that school-based mindfulness represents a ‘human enhancement strategy’ to insulate children from pathologies that stem from ‘digital capitalism.’ Mindfulness in schools, he adds, is ‘an exercise in pathology-proofing them in their capacity as the next generation of unpaid digital labourers.’ It trains young people to become responsible for augmenting their own emotional wellbeing and in doing so to secure the well-being of digital capitalism itself.

According to Davies, however, much of the stress experienced by children is actually caused more mundanely by the kinds of testing and performance measurement pressures forced on schools by current policy priorities. ‘The irony of turning schools into therapeutic institutions when they generate so much stress and anxiety seems lost on policy-makers who express concern about children’s mental health,’ he argues.

It is probably a step too far to suggest that ClassDojo may be the ideal educational technology for digital capitalism. However, it is clear that ClassDojo is acting as a psycho-policy platform and a channel for mindfulness and growth mindsets practices that is aimed at pathology-proofing children against anxious times through the imposition of positive feelings in the classroom. While taming ‘the Beast’ of his uncontrollable emotions of ‘anger, fear and anxiety’ through mindfulness meditation, ClassDojo’s Mojo mascot is both learning the lessons of positive psychology and acting as a relay of those lessons into the lives of millions of schoolchildren. Its model of pocket-based psycho-policy bypasses the kind of slow-paced bureaucracy so loathed in the fast-paced accelerationist culture of Silicon Valley, and imposes its preferred psychological techniques directly on the classroom at global scale.

Detoxing education policy

To its credit, the ClassDojo organization is seeking to expand the focus of schools to the non-cognitive aspects of learning rather than concentrate narrowly on teaching to the tests demanded by existing policy. Paradoxically, however, it is advancing the kinds of social and emotional qualities in children for which schools may in the near future be held accountable, and that may be measured, tested and quantified. Its accelerated Silicon Valley business model depends on increasing the scale and penetration of the app into schools, and by doing so is actively enabling schools to future-proof themselves in the event they are held responsible for children’s measurable social-emotional learning and development.

ClassDojo has also hit on the contemporary perception of child fragility and vulnerability among educational practitioners and policymakers as a market opportunity, one its investors have generously funded with millions of dollars in the hope of profitable future returns. It is designed to activate, reward and condition particular preferred emotions that have been defined by the experts of mindfulness, character and growth mindset, and that are increasingly coming to define educational policy discourse. The psycho-policy ideas ClassDojo has embedded in teachers’ pockets and habits across public education, through Silicon Valley venture capital support, are already prefiguring the imperatives of policymakers who are anxious about resolving the toxic effect of children’s negative emotions on school performance.

ClassDojo is simultaneously intoxicating teachers worldwide while seeking to detoxify the worst effects of education policy on children. In the process it—and the accelerated Silicon Valley mindset it represents—may be redefining what counts as a valuable measure of a good student or teacher in a ‘happier classroom community,’ and building a business plan to profit from their feelings.

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Making Schools Business-Like: The Case of Summit Charters (Part 3)

Many educators use business-speak. Students are customers. Principals and superintendents are CEOs. School board members ask staff what the return on investment is. Another common phrase educators use borrowed from the corporate community, especially when seeking dollars from donors, is “scaling up.”

Going to scale is what occurs when an innovation “works” (in quote marks for the word has different meanings to different people) and donors or high-ups want to spread the “success” (ditto for this word also) to other schools in the district, state, and nation.

The history of diffusion of innovation–that is the phrase that academics have used–is a checkered one. Some innovations have, indeed, spread (think of the mid-19th century age-graded school and early 20th century kindergartens, and small high schools later in the century) but when an innovation is complex with many moving parts, permeable to outside forces, and dependent on relationships with teachers, students and parents for the program to work, then scaling up is damn hard to do. Variation in putting the innovation into practice occurs frequently making it difficult to impossible to assess whether the new model or innovation caused changes in student and teacher outcomes. Recall what has happened to the innovative New Math in the 1960s or the Common Core standards in the past decade.

And that is the story captured by recent articles on what has happened to the Summit Learning Program for “personalized learning” (ditto again) that Summit charter schools have given away free to many schools and districts. Donors gave a pile of money to Summit schools to prepare the high-tech tool and transfer the model elsewhere in the nation. Keep in mind that these pieces come from an intricate, organic, and complex operation deeply dependent upon teachers, a complicated weekly schedule, mentoring, a software tool that becomes a dashboard for each student’s work, and frequent enrichment activities. Also that parents choose to send their sons and daughters to the schools (see David Patterson’s comment below). Teachers’ expertise and relationships with students are at the core of the 11 Summit Charter Schools. The Summit Learning Program–the components and tools given away to schools and districts–is the skeleton of the program bundle. Unbundling a complex operation into its constituent parts of an interconnected whole  and claiming that it can individualize learning and make students “successful” (ditto again) is as close to magical thinking as any prior effort to “scaling up” innovations, what business-driven entrepreneurs strive for.

The Summit Learning Program

The program promises personalized learning:

Summit Learning gives every student:

  • Support from a caring mentor
  • Life skills that they can apply to real-world situations
  • An ability to use self-direction to develop self-confidence, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and prepare themselves for life after graduation

What is the program?

Summit Learning seeks to replicate each aspect of the Summit high schools in California and Washington. Or as the website says:

Creating a Summit Learning environment requires a fundamental change to the way teachers and students approach learning, so enthusiasm and a growth mindset are critical. Everything from grading policies and assessments to bell schedules and how teachers and students spend their time will need to be thoughtfully designed to create the conditions for successful implementation.

Subject matter embedded in the projects within which students work span four academic subjects. Directions and help to introduce teacher mentoring of individual students, altering the calendar and schedule, and providing student self-direction are part of the package given to schools.

Student self-direction comes from a software platform (using Clever software) that provides teachers and students with nearly 200 projects connected to the world outside the classroom (see here), a dashboard that shows each student’s goals, and their individual progress in completing current projects. The platform dashboard is accessible to parents also (see overview video).

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To achieve the Summit model’s transfer of content knowledge, skills, and personalizing of learning to schools enlisting in the program, each school/district has to make an explicit commitment to Summit Learning, make the requisite changes in how the school (or pilot) is organized and, move expeditiously to putting the program into practice. Summit Learning trains teacher teams a few times a year and provides coaches to help teams implement the new program, schedule, and use of software (see here).

The rollout of the program has been documented extensively (see here and here).

As of 2018, according to the Summit Learning website, it is in 330 schools  working with nearly 2500 teachers and serving 54,000 students. Promotional videos show its entry and use in, for example, the Pasadena (TX) district serving 56,000 students (see here).

Media accounts, of course, also describe those schools and districts where parents and students object, walkout, or dump the program (see here, here, and here). Keep in mind that program implementation of innovations adopted in schools within a district and  across other districts historically has encountered stumbles and disasters. No news there. In this instance, thus far, donors’ deep pockets continue to fund Summit Learning to “scale up” and spread the Summit model across the U.S.

So what is Summit Learning’s effort to replicate its apparent success in high schools and “scale up” a case of?

Is it the business model of franchising McDonalds or 7/11s across the country? No, it is not. Franchisees have to invest their money into franchise and must follow the requirements of the franchiser or risk losing the investment.

Summit Learning is free to schools and districts. Schools and districts have to agree to follow terms but there are no penalties for adapting program components.

Is it the careful, tightly controlled expansion of “Success for All,” an elementary school program located in low-income and minority neighborhoods to insure fidelity to the model (see here)?. No, it is not.

Success for All requires fidelity to the model dropping sites that omit components, adapt elements, and, in general, do not follow the implementation plan.  Success for All has a blueprint that expects schools entering the program to follow.

So what is Summit Learning’s effort to “scale up” a case of?

As I read the background and history of Summit Learning and its launch, the outreach program to replicate Summit High Schools in many other U.S. schools is a case of seeing the problem of personalizing learning in schooling, especially for low-income minority youth as a technical problem that can be fixed inexpensively by adopting a working model that seemingly “succeeded” in 11 high schools in two states.

The cost of replicating the entire model of Summit schooling with its many inter-connected components to many schools is extremely high (the Summit network has not released actual and total per-pupil costs of running the program). Summit Learning then–donors and boosters believe–is an inexpensive way of solving the problem of high schools individualizing teaching and learning and reaping the benefits of increased academic achievement, graduation rates, and college admissions as has occurred in the original model in the San Francisco Bay area. Summit Learning is a low-cost, efficient ways of transforming teaching and learning.  It reeks of the Silicon Valley magical thinking that any social, political, economic problem can be solved technologically.

But I could be wrong. The growing resistance to Summit Learning documented in media articles could just as well be a case of schools and districts coming face-to-face with the historic and persistent grammar of schooling that has pervaded U.S. public schools for nearly two centuries. The next series of posts examines the possibility that resistance to Summit Learning involves the grammar of schooling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Making Schools Business-Like: Google in Classrooms (Part 2)

Listen to Joanna Petrone, Longfellow Middle School English teacher in Berkeley (CA), describe her use of Google.

On a typical day, students start class with a warm-up activity posted on Google Classroom. After we go over their answers and I teach a lesson, I might direct my students to open Google Docs and start writing. “Remember to check Google Calendar and start studying for your next quiz! Oh, and don’t forget to turn in your writing on Google Classroom before Thursday!” I holler into the void as they pack up their bags. I’ve learned from experience that I need to specify “Google Classroom” every time I give this direction; if I don’t, if I just say “Classroom,” some students will submit their work on Classroom, some will stick it in their lowercase-c classroom notebooks, and at least one person will wander around the actual classroom while I am in the middle of an explanation, assignment in hand, wondering aloud where he was supposed to turn it in…

Petrone then goes on to say:

From one vantage point, classrooms like mine look like education technology success stories, with students’ academic learning seamlessly interwoven with the workflow habits and productivity apps of all tomorrow’s office workers. Using Google products, students can work collaboratively on files, use the internet for research, and acquire competency with the basics of personal computing. Districts often save substantial amounts of money by using Google’s services in place of their own email servers and can provide more classroom access to computers using Chromebooks than they could using pricier alternatives. In a country where public education is cruelly underfunded, there’s no mystery as to why teachers and districts are drawn to Google’s cheap, often free, education technology and curriculum, but there needs to be an honest reckoning of its real price tag and robust public discussion about whether that is a cost worth paying.

Yes, Microsoft and Apple have classroom apps that teachers use but since Google Classroom became available free of charge in 2014, it has eaten competitors in huge gulps. One journalist wrote: “The top five digital tools accessed most often in school districts in 2017-18 were all Google products—including YouTube, according to research by Lea(r)n Inc. on more than 2,000 ed-tech tools used in K-12 schools.”

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So Google’s Suite of free tools (Classroom, Gmail, Drive, Google Calendar, Vault, Google Docs, Sheets, Forms, Slides, Sites, Hangouts) are in selective use across U.S. classrooms. Teachers pick and choose among the tools but their use is pervasive.*

Journalists, practitioners, researchers, and entrepreneurs claim that Google is transforming teaching and learning (see here, here, and here). But is accurate?

No, it is not.

Observers confuse increases in teacher efficiency–saving precious classroom time is what Google tools do–for substantially altering teacher planning, organizing, implementing, and assessing daily lessons, that is, the daily professional work they do. Yes, Google tools have increased teacher efficiency in managing classrooms, but much less so in the actual format and content of lessons or connections between teachers and students. Let me explain.

In studying 41 Silicon Valley teachers in 2016 who had thoroughly integrated devices and software into their lessons, these teachers did see changes in their teaching. For the most part they identified important incremental (not fundamental) changes due to technology use in lessons. These changes occurred over time, adding to their productivity as teachers in completing classroom administrative tasks, providing a broad array of sources previously unavailable to their students, and being able to respond and help students in real time.

Technology-induced changes were incremental and useful to teachers but seldom altered the goals, fundamental classroom structures embedded in the age-graded school, teacher-student relationships, basic format of lessons, or the craft of teaching that has evolved in public schools for well over a century. All of these underlying features of teaching persisted amid the classroom changes these Silicon Valley teachers recognized in their lessons.

Hillsdale High School English teacher Sarah Press expressed it clearly:

In some ways, my teaching hasn’t changed much at all. My goals are the same—to give my students opportunities to do something with the ideas I suggest to them in class, to engage with each other around those ideas and to offer lots of ways to be smart. I still have a heavy focus on literacy—sustained engagement with text and inquiry around meaning making. I continue to try to find authentic ways for students to show what they’ve learned and what they think, not just regurgitate what they’ve heard.

I also struggle with many of the same issues I always have: what to do with the huge range of skill sets in my room, how to differentiate activities and assessments to meet the needs of all learners, how to give feedback in meaningful and timely ways, how to engage all learners despite varying interests and abilities, how to create a positive socioemotional atmosphere in my classroom so students feel comfortable taking and learning from risks.

So I think it’s important to remember that technology is just one of many tools I have available to me to try to meet those goals. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful tool, and I do see some potent ways in which technology helps me get closer to being the teacher I hope to, someday, become.

A huge one is the amount of choice I am able to offer students, about what they learn and how they learn it . . . Another is the increased sense of collaboration in my room. While I have always striven to have students use each other as resources, to value each other’s expertise . . . I have not always been successful. Because technology allows students to simultaneously have access to a group project in a shared digital space that is co-editable . . . everyone can see a developing project and no can “mess it up.” It’s also easier to track exactly what each student has contributed . . .

It’s a not insignificant note here that risk-taking becomes easier to encourage when erasing or changing work is as easy as “Control + Z” or “Delete . . . ”

Finally, technology is powerful because it makes it so much easier and faster to collect, distribute, and respond to data. I find myself experimenting more and more with forms of assessment when I can instantaneously collect responses from every student in my class . . . All this helps me adjust, clarify, and re-teach in much tighter, shorter cycles than before

Press did not mention Google products by name, so I wrote her a few days ago and here is her response (she gave me permission to use her words):

I did – and do – use Google tools regularly in my class. Our district is a GAFE (Google Apps for Education) district, so most of our systems integrate with Google. All students are given Google accounts as they enter HHS, and we regularly use all of the tools that go with those accounts. I use Google Classroom as an excellent way to distribute documents, although the bulk of our digital work submission and grading is now handled through Canvas, a new system for our district this year.

So, do Google tools “transform” teaching? Time saved by using Google tools is one thing and it is important to teachers. But lesson goals, activities, content, and format continue and that is wholly another thing. Such distinctions I make are important nuances that often go unnoticed by non-teachers who from their prior experience in schools do not see the complexity of the teaching act.

How technological changes can increase teacher efficiency yet not alter substantially the familiar and continuous flow in daily lessons of goal-setting, organizing activities, elaborating concepts and content, and assessing students’ understanding is another way of simply saying that both change and stability are hallmarks of classroom lessons.

True then and true now even with the ubiquity of Google tools in the nation’s classrooms.

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*Why does Google give away these apps free? Ads are forbidden on these tools so no revenue accrues from this source.  Yes, information on students is collected and the company states that this information is owned by the school and is not sold to third parties. It took awhile for Google to comply with the federal Family Educational Value and Privacy Act, but they have (See here and here).

So what’s the advantage for Google. Short answer is that students and teachers are future customers for Google products that do charge fees and can be purchased (e.g., Chromebooks, android phones, etc.), and life-long viewers of company products where ads do show up. It is a marketing strategy that Apple used in 1984 when they gave away one Apple IIe computer (then costing nearly $2500) to every school in California (yes, also the California legislature gave a tax deduction for such a gift). Build trust in a product and you have a customer for life. As one analyst said about Google:

It’s pretty clear what motive Google has,” Williams at Gartner Research said. “This is not a product they’re selling; this is not a commercial product. It’s getting lots of people very used to working in a Google environment.

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Whatever Happened to Media Literacy in Schools?

Far more policy talk than classroom action is the short answer. The long answer is below in the questions I ask.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Having students become media literate across school subjects has been talked about since the early 1960s in Europe and the U.S. but has hardly made a dent in lessons that most teachers teach. In Britain, Canada, and other nations there has been far more policy talk and even some action (media literacy Europe/Canada ). For example, in the United Kingdom, the 2003 Communications Act required the government to promote media literacy in British schools. David Buckingham and colleagues tells the story of what happened since then (see here and here).

Much less has happened in the U.S. with its decentralized system of public schools in 50 states, over 13,000 districts, and nearly 100,000 schools. A timeline for media literacy, broadly defined, begins in the 1960s.

The earliest U.S. classroom materials that I have found were created in 1972 as a Media Now kit of lessons and activities that teachers could use in their classrooms. Based on the work of media analyst Marshall McLuhan and psychologists Jerome Bruner’s Process of Education and Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives , Ron Curtis and others developed a self-directed learning kit containing 50 individual packages divided into seven modules for teachers to use. The source I used claimed that it was used in over 600 schools.

There has been much state activity in promoting media literacy in schools  since (see above timeline) but no mandated courses as far as I can determine. For example, although California curriculum standards call for media literacy skills in English/ language arts and history/social science in K-12 grades, current high-stakes state tests contain no items that examine media literacy.

Media Literacy Now, an advocacy organization, keeps tabs on state legislation that include funding, promotion, and action involving media literacy. The National Association for Media Literacy Education has made connections to Common Core standards adopted by most states.

With state and federal officials enacting laws promoting media literacy and  organizations lobbying for more of it in schools and classrooms, individual teachers in scattered schools across the country have heeded the message and introduced lessons into their classrooms. But not much more than that. Pressing teachers and students to score well on tests, graduate high school, and go to college, media literacy lessons are close to the bottom of most teachers’ “to do” lists.

What Problems Did Media Literacy Intend To Solve?

The major problem is the current inability of children and youth to parse Internet and media ads, to evaluate sources of information harvested from the Internet, and reason critically about what they see, hear, and digest from mainstream and social media.

Sam Wineburg and colleagues surveyed in 2016 nearly 8,000 students from middle school through college on their skills in judging Internet information. The survey made a splash in media outlets. He says:

Our most reported finding was that 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between an ad and a news story. But putting it that way isn’t really fair to kids: While dozens of outlets reported this nugget, none mentioned an industry study that showed 59 percent of adults couldn’t tell the difference, either.

Wineburg’s solution?

The answer is not to affix another barnacle to the curriculum’s hull. We need to rebuild the entire ship. What should history teaching look like when kids can go online and find “evidence” for the canard that “thousands” of black men put on grey uniforms to take up arms for the Confederacy? What should science teaching look like when anti-vaxxer sites maintain a “proven” link between autism and measles shots (despite a retraction by the journal publishing the claim and the fact that “no respectable body of opinion” supports the linkage)? What should language arts class look like when ad hominem arguments, name calling and “alternative facts” overwhelm civil discourse?

What Does Media Literacy Look Like in a Classroom?

I offer two examples of lessons using new technologies, one in a Canadian elementary school on analyzing candy ads after students had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a Providence (RI) high school social studies lesson on World War II.

Watch on YouTube the Canadian elementary school teacher, using an interactive white board, teach a lesson on candy ads.

For the high school lesson, journalist Dana Goldstein describes a lesson where the teacher had students use laptops to analyze sources–her example of students working on media literacy skills.

I sat in on Jennifer Geller’s 10th grade Contemporary World History class at the Providence Career and Technical Academy. That day’s state-mandated lesson objective was to “trace patterns chronologically for events leading to World War II in Europe.” But Geller, a 12-year veteran in the district, used technology to layer a more ambitious and contemporary media literacy skills-building session on top of the dry history.

First the sophomores read the following paragraph in their Prentice Hall World History textbook:

With the [German] government paralyzed by divisions, both Nazis and Communists won more seats in the Reichstag, or lower house of the legislature. Fearing the growth of Communist political power, conservative politicians turned to Hitler. Although they despised him, they believed they could control him. Then, with conservative support, Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 through legal means under the Weimar constitution.

Geller asked the kids to go to the back of room and pick up individual laptops, which had been borrowed for the day from the school’s library. Their task for the rest of the period was to search online for additional accurate information about Hilter’s rise to power that had not been included in their textbook, and then present it to the class.

Geller engaged the kids in a conversation about how search engines work. “Does anyone know how the first link on Google becomes the first one?” she asked. “It’s not the best — it’s that the most people linked to or clicked on that site. You should not always trust the first thing you see!”

Geller encouraged the students to look at Wikipedia, but skeptically. “Anyone can write these articles,” she explained. “The fact that anyone can change them or fix them means if something is wrong, it can be fixed. You have to be careful with it, just like you have to be careful with your textbook.”

Geller continued, “Who do you think gets to write a textbook? And how often is it updated? Maybe a downside is the textbook doesn’t change much from year to year.”

After searching online, the students learned that it wasn’t just “conservative politicians” who supported Hitler. In fact, a full third of the German public had voted for the Nazi party. “That’s why you use two sources!” Geller proclaimed.

The lesson was relevant to both historical research and day-to-day fact finding online. It also gave the students something pretty disturbing to think about regarding the relatively broad support enjoyed by Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933.

In both lessons, digital technologies were used to get students engaged in tasks that built and used critical thinking skills to parse a textbook paragraph and candy ads. But the technology didn’t spur students, it was the teacher’s questions about candy ads and a textbook passage about Hitler becoming Chancellor that mattered.

Does Media Literacy Work?

Hard question to answer. Because media literacy is multidimensional (print and non-print–TV, digital, mobile phone) and because it covers efforts to increase knowledge and influence behavior among both adults and children, and, finally, because so few classroom and school studies have been done beyond teacher and student surveys, results are all over the map.

There is, for example Renee Hobbs seven year study (2007) of the English department reorganization of the 11th grade at Concord High School (New Hampshire) into “Media/Communication.” Academic outcomes from the experimental Media/Communication group exceeded those of a control group, according to Hobbs.

A meta-analysis of media literacy interventions (51 studies) to increase knowledge,change beliefs, and alter behavior did show some positive evidence of changes but marginally so.

Advocacy to spread media literacy (however defined) is prevalent and shapes responses to the above question far more than research and evaluation studies.

What Has Happened to Media Literacy?

While there is much tumult in states over the need for media literacy in schools, there is far more policy talk than policy action, and even less media literacy, however defined, put into classroom lessons than advocates desire. Since Ron Curtis’s Media Now kits developed in the early 1970s, media literacy remains far more talk about its importance in classroom lessons than what occurs when teachers close their doors. According to Wineburg, the situation–students unable to sort out fake from factual news, judging the veracity of sources on the Internet–calls for more than new courses, occasional lectures, or professional development days for teachers on the subject. As long as the curriculum standards, testing, and accountability regime remains intact as it has for decades, more policy talk about doing something to educate children and youth in parsing media and the Internet will occur than policy action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Internet Is Sowing Mass Confusion. We Must Rethink How We Teach Kids Every Subject (Sam Wineburg)

Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford University, is the author of “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).”  This op-ed appeared in USA Today, February 12, 2019

In 2016, months before the presidential election, my research team surveyed nearly 8,000 students from middle school through college on their ability to judge material from the internet. We concluded that students’ ability to navigate online information could be captured in one word: bleak. We released our findings two weeks after Donald Trump’s election and were immediately swept up in the media maelstrom.

Our most reported finding was that 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between an ad and a news story. But putting it that way isn’t really fair to kids: While dozens of outlets reported this nugget, none mentioned an industry study that showed 59 percent of adults couldn’t tell the difference, either.

We are all in the same boat. That boat is taking on water.

In the wake of mass confusion caused by the internet and social media, there have been calls for a renewed commitment to teaching civics and instructing students in the foundations of democracy. But if we think this challenge is only about civics, we’re deluding ourselves. Bringing education into the 21st century demands that we rethink how we teach every subject in the curriculum.

We’re still teaching history using only print texts even as kids are being historicized online by Holocaust deniers and Lost-Causers. We’re teaching science in an era when online anti-vaxxers gain traction by using scientific language to deceive and intimidate. We’re teaching students to solve math equations while remaining oblivious to the fact that they’re being bamboozled by cunning infographics that mask rising temperatures by playing fast and loose with the X and Y axes.

Massive education response needed

We will fail the challenge posed by the digital revolution if we think there’s a cheap way out of this mess. A new course in media literacy or a half-day presentation by the librarian is a Band-Aid. Ushering education into the digital age will demand the educational equivalent of thehuman genome project: a decade-long effort that cost billions of dollars, engaged thousands of scientists, and relied on international cooperation with teams from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other nations.

The first step is to get an accurate fix on where students are at. We can’t confuse kids’ ease in operating digital devices with the sophistication needed to evaluate the information those devices yield. We’ll need a host of innovative assessments that can be administered online and that take advantage of artificial intelligence and natural language processing for scoring.

Next, we’ll need massive curriculum development and experimentation to help kids succeed on these assessments. We will need to develop new approaches to professional development for teachers, who sometimes are as confused as their students. And we’ll have to overhaul teacher education, so that new teachers feel prepared when they tell kids to open their Chromebooks.

Digital threat is a national defense issue

Most of all, we’ll need public education in the deepest sense — the education of the public — in our libraries, our community centers and our places of worship — to reach parents and grandparents so we can help them help their children become informed citizens.

In October 1957, a whirling orbital ball known as Sputnik roused Americans from their slumber and set into motion a rethinking of our educational system. I don’t see the equivalent of the National Defense Education Act coming out of Washington anytime soon. But the threat to democracy by a digitally credulous citizenry is nothing less than an issue of national defense.

Treating it as anything but guarantees a further erosion of democratic society.

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