Category Archives: technology use

When Algorithms Give Real Students Imaginary Grades (Meredith Broussard)

Meredith Broussard (@merbroussard) is a data journalism professor at New York University and the author of “Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World.” She is working on a book about race and technology.This op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times on September 9, 2020.

Isabel Castañeda’s first words were in Spanish. She spends every summer with relatives in Mexico. She speaks Spanish with her family at home. When her school, Westminster High in Colorado, closed for the pandemic in March, her Spanish literature class had just finished analyzing an entire novel in translation, Albert Camus’s “The Plague.”She got a 5 out of 5 on her Advanced Placement Spanish exam last year, following two straight years of A+ grades in Spanish class.

And yet, she failed her International Baccalaureate Spanish exam this year.

When she got her final results, Ms. Castañeda was shocked. “Everybody believed that I was going to score very high,” she told me. “Then, the scores came back and I didn’t even score a passing grade. I scored well below passing.”

How did this happen? An algorithm assigned a grade to Ms. Castañeda and 160,000 other students. The International Baccalaureate — a global program that awards a prestigious diploma to students in addition to the one they receive from their high schools — canceled its usual in-person final exams because of the pandemic. Instead, it used an algorithm to “predict” students’ grades, based on an array of student information, including teacher-estimated grades and past performance by students in each school.

Ms. Castañeda wasnot alone in receiving a surprising failing grade — tens of thousands of International Baccalaureate students protested their computer-assigned grades online and in person. High-achieving, low-income students were hit particularly hard: many took the exams expecting to earn college credit with their scores and save thousands of dollars on tuition.

Nor was the International Baccalaureate the only organization to use a computer program to assign students grades amid the pandemic. The United Kingdom’s in-person A-level exams, which help determine which universities students go to, were also canceled and replaced with grades-by-algorithm. Students who were denied university entrance because of these imaginary grades took to the streets, chanting anti-algorithm slogans. Only after an uproar did the government change course, though many students were left in limbo without university admission.

The lesson from these debacles is clear: Algorithms should not be used to assign student grades. And we should think much more critically about algorithmic decision-making overall, especially in education. The pandemic makes it tempting to imagine that social institutions like school can be replaced by technological solutions. They can’t.

The bureaucrats who decided to use a computer to assign grades are guilty of a bias I call technochauvinism: the idea that technological solutions are superior. It’s usually accompanied by equally bogus notions like, “Computers make neutral decisions” or, “Computers are objective because their decisions are based on math.”

Computers are excellent at doing math, but education is not math — it’s a social system. And algorithmic systems repeatedly fail at making social decisions. Algorithms can’t monitor or detect hate speech, they can’t replace social workers in public assistance programs, they can’t predict crime, they can’t determine which job applicants are more suited than others, they can’t do effective facial recognition, and they can’t grade essays or replace teachers.

In the case of the International Baccalaureate program, grades could have been assigned based on the sample materials that students had already submitted by the time schools shut down. Instead, the organization decided to use an algorithm, which probably seemed like it would be cheaper and easier.

The process worked like this: Data scientists took student information and fed it into a computer. The computer then constructed a model that outputted individual student grades, which International Baccalaureate claimed the students would have gotten if they had taken the standardized tests that didn’t happen. It’s a legitimate data science method, similar to the methods that predict which Netflix series you’ll want to watch next or which deodorant you’re likely to order from Amazon.

The problem is, data science stinks at making predictions that are ethical or fair. In education, racial and class bias is baked into the system — and an algorithm will only amplify those biases.

Crude generalizations work for Netflix predictions because the stakes are low. If the Netflix algorithm suggests a show and I don’t like it, I ignore it and move on with my day. In education, the stakes are much higher. A transcript follows you for years; when I was 25 and well out of college, I applied for a job that asked for my SAT scores.

In Ms. Castañeda’s case, her failing grade was most likely due in part to the fact that historical performance data for her school was one of the inputs to the algorithm. The computer assumed that the students at Westminster, who are mostly low-income students of color, would continue to do poorly.

“Everyone I know got downgraded one or two levels,” Ms. Castañeda told me. “It’s not fair that our scores were brought down because of our school’s history. It’s unfair to punish students for where they live.”

Another input to the algorithm was teacher prediction of the students’ grades. Teachers tend to have lower expectations for Black and Brown students compared to white students; this bias is well known in the education community and ignored in the data science community. Thus a very human bias prevailed in the computational system.

International Baccalaureate and Ofqual, the agency that administers Britain’s A-level exams, have reluctantly realized that algorithmic grades were a mistake. Since the outcry over algorithm-assigned grades, both organizations have been sued. Many students, including Ms. Castañeda, ended up receiving new, higher imaginary grades.

Roger Taylor, chair of the Ofqual board, apologized in front of a House of Commons educational oversight committee this week. “We are sorry for what happened this summer,” he said. “With hindsight it appears unlikely that we could ever have delivered this policy successfully.”

As we stare down the fall semester online, there are going to be infinitely many technochauvinist calls to transform online education and use algorithmic tools that promise to evaluate individual student learning. Resist these calls.

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How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 3)

Covid-19 has not only frozen prior reforms–BC (Before Covid)–see Parts 1 and 2–but the spread of software and devices throughout schools prior to the coronavirus pandemic has led to a total embrace of online instruction or DC, During Covid-19. Districts are providing families with laptops and tablets like popcorn.

I take up particularly the work of entrepreneurs and school districts to spread “personalization” software and claims of tailoring teaching and learning to each student, a reform that will finally reach the Holy Grail of mass schooling–individualized learning at home and school. Using devices and software is now not a choice, it is a must. *

That is the story I want to tell. I begin with the word, palimpsest:

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

Personalized instruction in 2020 is like a palimpsest.

Tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student and given students control over their learning has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and now.

The School of One, Summit Schools, and the Khan Lab school are different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago.

Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized instruction–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

What I do in the rest of this post is clarify the original text of Progressive education a century ago, fast-forward to the 1960s when that Progressive impulse surfaced again, and leap ahead to the early 2000s for the current effort to personalize instruction, connecting it to the Progressive reforms decades earlier.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

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

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

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

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

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

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

Personalized Instruction During Covid

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

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

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

With the suspension of state tests during the pandemic, however, few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized instruction” in their schools need look over their shoulders fearful of the state or local parents taking note of these conflicts.

But a puzzle about remote instruction remains during Covid-19. How does an elementary school teacher with 30 students or a secondary teachers with 130 or more students “personalize” instruction online five hours a day. This puzzle has yet to be solved.

Before Covid, innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered instruction,   and “blended instruction”  were written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education. Today, current “pedagogical” and efficiency-minded Progressives committed to “personalized instruction” are writing their script over previous reformers during the discombobulation of schooling by Covid-19. 

___________________

*Elizabeth Brott Beese, a reader of my blog on “personalized” instruction, has researched different ways of parsing “personalized” and come up with her own. See here.

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How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 2)

What was school reform like before Covid-19 ( BC)?

Since the mid-1980s, U.S. public schools had been enthralled with and institutionalized a series of reforms that are now called the “standards, testing, and accountability movement.” It is nearly three decades long.

Recall that the Progressive movement began in the 1890s and, depending upon the historian one reads, lasted until the 1920s or through World War II. The other reform movement that flowed across the schools had a shorter life-span. The civil rights movement spilling over public schools is usually dated by the 1954 Brown decision and peters out by the mid-1970s. Soon to be overtaken by the “standards, testing, and accountability” reforms that readers know so well.

Civic and corporate leaders allied with enthusiastic donors turned public schools in the 1980s to building human capital essential to fostering economic growth and stronger competition for global markets. Their overall strategy was (and still is) to apply a business model of competitiveness, innovation, and efficiency to public schools that fixed attention on the bottom line of test scores and return-on-investment in high school graduates entering and completing college.[i]

These leaders and foundation officials over the past three decades have created beefy portfolios of reform ventures including changes in funding and structural innovations such as vouchers, charter schools, common curriculum standards, testing and accountability including using student scores to determine district and school “success” and “failure.”

No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) collected converted state initiatives into federal policy under Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. This cobbled together strategy emerged from ideas tossed up by business and civic leaders and entrepreneurial policymakers who cherry-picked anecdotal and statistical evidence from here and there to convince Americans that the result would be strong schools, strong students, and a strong economy.

A jerry-built reform strategy of ventures flung together helter-skelter add up to a movement to improve public schools through expanded parental choice of public schools and instilling market competition into a quasi-monopolistic institution. For-profit companies taking over low-performing public schools (e.g. K-12 Inc., Edison Inc–now defunct), non-profit charter schools (e.g., KIPP, Aspire, Summit Schools, Green Dot), and, under NCLB, requiring districts to meet their Adequate Yearly Progress targets or be closed. NCLB had a legislative do-over in 2016 and is now called Every Student Succeeds Act.

This standards, testing, and accountability regime existed Before Covid-19 hit. With the closing of schools in March 2020 and the stunning shift to remote instruction and uncertainty when most U.S. students will return to face-to-face instruction, these reforms in curriculum standards, annual tests, and accountability mechanisms to insure responsibility for student outcomes are frozen in place. Even state tests for the upcoming school year, if U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has her way.

Alfie Kohn believes that the pandemic is a pivot point for school districts to pull back from standardized tests, how colleges admit students, and reassess grades that teachers are required to give. Part of me wants to join Kohn in his belief that the pandemic can trigger deep and important changes.Part of me, the part that has studied school reform, however, says that it is possible but improbable that such changes will occur.

Another major reform strategy existed before Covid-19 struck. Giving all teachers and students access to instructional technology (e.g., laptops, tablets, etc.) and expecting their use in daily lessons, technology-driven reformers saw these devices and an array of software as ways of improving both teaching and student learning.

Technology reforms Before Covid-19

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 brief 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 (to meet NCLB requirements) fell far short of raising students’ test scores or lifting academic achievement. The promise of algorithms and program playlists tailored to each student’s academic profile (often called “personalization”) had faltered then and even now remains a work in progress (see here, here, and here).

As for 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) in the 1980s and 1990s 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 set of reasons for computers in schools:

*Devices are essential since all standardized tests and other student assessments 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 dream of “personalizing” instruction–in-person teaching and software tailored to individual differences in each and every child–can now become a reality with every student having a device at school and at home.

The constant chasing of a technological solution to a teaching and learning problem captures the BC experience of school reform.

And it is here that BC technology reforms slide over to DC–During Covid Reforms. I take up the nation’s school districts embracing remote instruction as a temporary replacement for in-person schooling in Part 3.

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How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 1)

Face-to-face schooling without minimal risk from getting infected with the coronavirus will be dicey until an approved vaccine shown to have high effectiveness and sufficient immunity is available to over 50 million students and nearly 4 million teachers.

Already two school years in the U.S. have been seriously impacted (March 2020 through January 2021). Effective vaccines, at best, will be available to Americans sometime in 2021. Shaking out data on which of the many vaccines being developed work best and provide mid- to-long-term immunity will occur throughout the calendar year of 2021. In short, until there is scientifically determined confidence that particular vaccines immunize children and adults at least three school years will be shot.

In such a stretch of time, forget about school reform. What Americans want is a swift return to “normalcy” and a new definition of “success”: Not high test scores, rates of graduation or admission to college, no, “success” will be just opening simply schoolhouse doors and having teachers teaching lessons.

Whoa! What about the sudden and massive turn to remote instruction for K-12 children and youth throughout spring and fall 2020? Isn’t that a reform?

No, it is not. Reforms are intentionally-designed changes aimed at improving what happens in schools. The immediate and national embrace of remote instruction was a necessity-driven, unsought change that upturned regular schooling? Yes, it is a change but not a reform.

The shutdown of schools threw educators for a loop in shifting from in-person to distance instruction. No one I know–even the most ardent cheerleader for online instruction–wanted nearly all U.S. students to work at home staring at screens during spring time and in the fall to the Xmas holidays.

Schooling, as Americans have surely known it, has, indeed, been “disrupted” But not in the way that Harvard’s Business School Professor Clayton Christensen had predicted over a decade ago.

As an Education Week journalist recalled recently: …the spread of technology-based innovations in K-12 bears little resemblance to the ambitious claims that outsiders have been making for years. Back in 2008, for example, innovation guru Clayton M. Christensen predicted in his much-hyped book Disrupting Class that half of all high school classes would be online by 2019, radically transforming the nature of public education.

No one, of course, could have (or did) predict a viral plague that still has no treatment (as I write in September) driving public schools to rely on distance instruction. Not half of “all high school classes,” as Christensen said, but nearly all U.S. students in 2020 are sitting in kitchens, living rooms, or bedrooms listening to their on-screen teachers and then tapping away at their keyboards to meet with small groups on-screen, and submitting their assignments. That is “disruption.”

Not in any planned, intentional way–the usual definition of a school reform–educators have mandated in over 13,000 school districts across the country the switch to remote instruction. School boards and superintendents were utterly dependent upon the expertise of health officials who themselves were uncertain about the nature of the catastrophic plague that had, by early September, already infected over five million Americans and killed nearly 200,000.

I cannot recall a historical case of such massive and quick change in schooling except for New Orleans. Surely, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 decimated parish schools; the state moved quickly to redesign the district by converting nearly all district schools into charters. These schools opened a year or so later. Students’ learning losses after being out of school for year or more were large (see here). Yet, according to some researchers, these schools’ test scores and graduation rates have improved (see here).

Funding and school organization definitely changed in New Orleans. The decades-long reform idea of parental choice dominated post-Katrina schooling. No other district in the U.S. that I know of has experienced such total and rapid change. If readers know of such Katrina-like transformations, please let me know.

Except for how New Orleans teachers teach. My hunch is that the rise in test scores and graduation rates mirrored teachers’ intense focus on insuring that students would do well on state tests. Which, if my guess is accurate, means a pedagogy close to traditional teacher-directed instruction dominated lessons. In all of the studies I have looked at regarding New Orleans after Katrina, I have yet to find one that takes up the simple question of: how do most New Orleans teachers in these charters teach? Again, if readers know of such studies of teaching in New Orleans, please let me know.

Covid-19’s rapid spread across the nation led to the warp-like speed of shifting from face-to-face classroom interactions to Zoomed remote instruction. Unlike most reforms that are introduced in a few classrooms or as pilot projects to determine what bugs have to remedied, online instruction smacked everyone between the eyes immediately.

Is, then, this embrace, reluctant as it may be, a school reform? Necessity, not ideology, school planning and systematic trials, drove the dramatic change. Because U.S. schools before Covid-19 were already managing different reforms, the coronavirus halted ongoing efforts to improve schooling, putting current ones in a deep freeze.

In subsequent posts I will take up the array of school reforms in BC (Before Covid), DC (During Covid), and AC (After Covid).

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Online Instruction for All

Even the most fervent advocate for online instruction would be surprised. For those who predicted 20 years ago that remote instruction will take over public schooling, the future has arrived. And for the true believers in online instruction as the best, efficient (read: less expensive) way of teaching and learning, Nirvana has arrived.

Covid-19 has upended naysayers who opposed expanded use of online instruction, seeing it as a pale substitute for in-person instruction. For the fall semester in schools across the nation, complete or partial online instruction (I avoid the word “learning”) is nearly universal.

Since March 2020 when nearly all public and private schools were closed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, face-to-face classroom instruction has largely disappeared from large urban districts. With the continued spread of the virus into rural, suburban, and urban communities, virtual instruction has become the only way of re-opening schools—except for those districts in states that have paid only lip service to guidelines for protection from the virus or where the incidence of infections are low, according to health authorities. In those places, hybrids of remote and in-person or full in-person schooling have been announced for the fall semester.

But for most students , they will sit and face screens daily. As a result, many district administrators have been scrambling to insure that every student has the hardware and software necessary to enable a K-12 program to be brought into every kitchen and living room. And teachers unused to teaching from their apartments and homes have hurried double-time to get versed in the techniques of teaching from a distance. Few policymakers, practitioners, or parents wanted online instruction as the sole provider of schooling but that is what it looks like for most of 2020.

In such a dire situation—Heaven for cheerleaders of remote instruction and for critics, a glimpse of an educational Hell–perhaps it is reasonable to ask the unasked question: Does online instruction work? 

That is the fundamental question that public policymakers (e.g., federal and state officials, local school board members and superintendents) have avoided in the rush to mandate cyber schooling when that is the only available option. Of course, there will be a small fraction of parents who will continue home schooling their sons and daughters using a mix of screen time with face-to-face instruction.

Nonetheless, such a question about the effectiveness of online instruction in raising student’s academic achievement and producing other desirable outcomes such as increased attendance, higher graduation and lower dropout rates, and college admissions—that is what I mean by “work”– gives educational leaders heartburn.

Why heartburn? Because of the tortuous role that research has historically played in policymaker decisions about adopting and implementing technologies in schools, especially amid a pandemic, for online instruction.

Necessity not research results, of course, demands a switch from in-person instruction to electronic schooling. The fear of losing a full year of schooling, continued unknowns of the virus threatening safety of children and the cratering of the economy press policymakers including the President of the U.S. very hard to re-open using distance instruction.

A brief look at the thousands of K-12 studies that have sought an answer to the question of the effectiveness of online instruction may be helpful to those policymakers, practitioners, and parents who have to enter that world.

Answers to the question are muddled. Scores of studies have been contested because most have had serious design and methodological flaws. Moreover, many of these studies lumped together full-time virtual schools, hybrids, and online courses, And the results have been underwhelming.  That is where heartburn enters the picture.[i]

Even when researchers over the past few decades have performed meta-analyses of a smaller number of studies that have met higher standards of quality they found that virtual instruction in its various modes, at best, is equivalent to regular face-to-face classroom instruction. At worst, some studies showed less achievement gains than traditional teaching. And keep in mind that these meta-analyses were of studies where online instruction occurred in mostly math, reading, and science courses—not other academic subjects. Nor in areas of great concern such as kindergarten and primary grades, the arts, and social and emotional learning. The overall picture is considerably dimmer than promoters of full- and part-time virtual schooling have promised or leaders had expected.[ii]

What complicates matters in 2020 is that findings drawn from research studies on the effectiveness of online instruction are only one of many interlocking tiles in a mosaic that policymakers assemble in adopting virtual instruction for children and youth. The usual back-and-forth that policymakers experience in the push-and-pull of conflicting demands such as what kinds of evidence of effectiveness matter and how much evidence is necessary to inform, shape, and justify a policy decision. Such doubts fly out the window when remote instruction is the only viable public policy during Covid-19.      [iii]

Thus, answers to the question of whether online instruction “works” matter little during emergencies.  The truth is that no one knows with certainty which students benefit from virtual schooling works, in what subjects, and under what conditions. No doubt that much data will be gathered in the upcoming school year by researchers and policymakers on what happens with students who have to rely on remote instruction, assessing its worth and overall  effectiveness. The health crisis has produced a massive experiment in schooling. Tens of millions of students will have to be instructed, assessed, and judged on performance by watching screens.

Few boosters of remote instruction in 2019 ever fantasized that nearly all American school children and youth would get their schooling remotely the next year. Covid-19 is surely the mother of reform—desired or not.  

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[i] Gene Glass, “The Realities of K-12 Virtual Education,” p. 5.

[ii] Cathy Cavanaugh, et. al. “The Effects of Distance Education on K–12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2004 Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates ; Rosina Smith, et. al.  “A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning”. 2005, Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates; Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010).

[iii] See, for example, Charles Lindblom and David Cohen, Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979); Carol Weiss, et. al., “The Fairy Godmother and Her Warts: Making the Dream of Evidence-Based Policy Come True,” American Journal of Evaluation, 2008, 29(1) at: http://aje.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/29/1/29

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Revisiting Predictions On Technology in Classrooms

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

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

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

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

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

HANDHELDS

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

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

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

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

ONLINE COURSES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Disappearing Social Safety Net: Public Schools

Sondra Cuban and I jointly wrote this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Schools Re-Opening in Other Countries

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

Schools re-open in different parts of China.

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

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

In Vietnam:

In Israel:

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

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

In Denmark:

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

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Why Are Lecturing and Questioning Still Around?

The lecture is 800 years old (Lecture).

Teachers questioning students is millenia-old.

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

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

LECTURE

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

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

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

TEACHER QUESTIONING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Is there ever a “just” war?

*How can I sound more like a native speaker?

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

*What is the relationship between fiction and truth?

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

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

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