Category Archives: technology use

Seymour Papert on How Computers Fundamentally Change the Way Kids Learn

Seymour Papert died at the age of 88 in 2016 (see obituary in New York Times). Many of his lectures, newspaper op-eds, books, and videoed talks are archived. The following description of  Papert was written to introduce the interview he gave to Dan Schwartz in 1999.

[Seymour] Papert is the co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence and Media Labs, professor of Media Technology at MIT, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the impact of computers on learning. He is the current elder statesman in a lineage of educational reformers that include John Dewey and Jean Piaget. His constructionist theories are manifested in Logo, a programming language he developed for children. His 1980 book Mindstorms sent shockwaves throughout the education and psychology communities, both of which accused him of pushing an educational pill that would induce psychosis in our children.

Almost twenty years later no one is exactly clamoring for surgeon general warning labels on PCs. Indeed, anyone who has witnessed a toddler using a computer has probably experienced a sense of awe at that child’s facility with what for adults can be an infinitely frustrating gadget. It’s one thing for a child to play a computer game; it’s another thing altogether for a child to build his or her own game. And this, according to Papert, is where the computer’s true power as an educational medium lies — in the ability to facilitate and extend children’s awesome natural ability and drive to construct, hypothesize, explore, experiment, evaluate, draw conclusions — in short to learn — all by themselves. It is this very drive, Papert contends, that is squelched by our current educational system.

Papert knows the bureaucracy he is crusading against is firmly entrenched. But he takes comfort in a secret weapon unavailable to a long line of education reformers up until now. He calls it “kid power.” Papert’s is a trickle-up vision of change demanded by a generation that learned to use a mouse about the same time it learned to use a spoon. And for the parents of this digitally-weaned generation, Papert offers some ideas about how to bridge a gap that, for many, starts not during adolescence, but in preschool.

 This interview was posted on ZineZone.com in 1999. Archived at: http://www.papert.org/articles/GhostInTheMachine.html

ZZ: Let’s begin with an overview of your ideas about child as a learner.

SP: Children, of course, come into the world as very powerful, highly competent learners, and the learning they do in the first few years of life is actually awesome. A child exploring the immediate world does that pretty thoroughly in an experiential, self-directed way. But when you see something in your immediate world that really represents something very far away — a picture of an elephant, for example — you wonder how elephants eat. You can’t answer that by direct exploration. So you have to gradually shift over from experiential learning to verbal learning — from independent learning to dependence on other people, culminating in school, where you’re totally dependent, and somebody is deciding what you learn.

So that shift is an unfortunate reflection of the technological level that society has been at up to now. And I see the major role of technology in the learning of young children as making that shift less abrupt, because it is a very traumatic shift. It’s not a good way of preserving the kid’s natural strengths as a learner.

With new technologies the kid is able to explore much more knowledge by direct exploration, whether it’s information or exploration by getting into his sources, or finding other people to talk about it. I think we’re just beginning to see, and we’ll see a lot more non-textual information available through something like the Web or whatever it develops into. So there will be much more opportunity to learn before running into this barrier of the limitations of the immediate.

ZZ: So context is key?

SP: It’s purpose. I think context is a concept that’s been overused here, and it’s misleading because people try to give context by relating it to other things and preaching to kids about how this is relevant to X and Y and Z. Or even providing a story of somebody who invented it, and that provides a–that’s not the same thing as being in a situation where you are struggling to solve a real problem that comes from your own activity that you really care about, and you struggle around and find this mathematical method by remembering it, or asking somebody or reinventing it or gets bits and pieces of it from other people and putting them together….

ZZ: Does technology by its very nature lead to this kind of experiential learning? Is it the tail that wags the educational dog?

SP: In fact what’s happening now is almost the opposite. I like to distinguish between that first phase of exploratory learning (home-style learning or Piagetian learning), and school-style learning. What we’ve seen with most so-called educational software is pushing school-style learning backward to earlier ages in the home, which is almost the reverse of the way that I think the technology could be used. And I think it’s a very dangerous trend that people will buy this software because it looks schoolish, and they think that makes it good, but maybe it makes it bad. I mean even apart from what you think about school as such. Pushing school back into the region of a powerful spontaneous learning is not something we should be doing lightly.

ZZ: I have a friend who has two kids. He is well-educated and keeps up with current events. He told me he’s worried that there is something about raising kids in the digital age that he should know, but that he doesn’t. What doesn’t he know that he needs to know?

SP: Well, of course, there are a lot of things that people don’t know and none of us know about the digital world. We don’t know what it’s going to turn into. There are things that people know are wrong, and maybe that’s something that one could focus on.

So I think one thing that people know is wrong is the emphasis that has been accentuated by the success of the Internet as a way of getting information. And then you begin to wonder, “What do we do with it? Why do we want all that information? How do we distinguish good information from bad information, and how do we protect people from evil information?”

In education also we’ve got the same thing. There’s education as putting out information; teacher lecturing, reading the book. There’s learning by doing, which is the constructional side versus the informational side. And, unfortunately, in our schools the informational side is the one that gets the emphasis, and so there’s this line-up between one-sided emphasis in the thinking about school, and the one-sided emphasis in thinking about the technology. Both of them emphasizing the informational side, and they reinforce one another. So in many ways, through this, the wrong image we have of what digital technology is about reinforces instead of undermining some of the weaknesses and narrowness of traditional education.

ZZ: In your book The Connected Family, you suggest that to further their understanding of these issues, parents need to learn more about learning than they do about computers.

SP: I use that term “connected family” as the name of a book, playing on two meanings of connected, of course. Talking about the fact that we connect through the Internet, but also about whether we connect or don’t connect inside the family. And there’s a widespread fear, often justified, about the possibility that computers inside the home are going to disconnect the family, that it creates a deeper generational gap than there was before. People get involved in their own isolated kinds of activities and already the television was a conversation killer in the home. This can be more so.

So what I’m interested in is, how can we think about the computer presence in ways that will strengthen rather than weaken the other kind of connection inside the family? I think if parents are going to connect with children, or if people in the family are going to connect together around the computer in intellectually interesting and bonding kinds of activities, what they need is not more knowledge about computers only, although they might need that too. But that’s the easy part. The more interesting and important part — and harder part — to get is more knowledge about learning, about shared intellectual activities. I think that parents are very inhibited by the fact that they are being solicited by vendors of software which promise to prepare the kid for school or result in better grades and all the rest of that, but which allow very little opportunity for parent and kid to do anything together.

How can they be joint projects between members of the family? How can parents participate in the learning experiences of the kids? And even if they don’t want to go through the actual learning experience of that complex game or simulation, whatever it might be, how can they converse about it, and be sympathetic and understanding, and learn from the kids about the kids’ learning experience? I think there are very strong possibilities of that, and that many parents do it, but many more parents are not aware of that possibility, or are too nervous about the technology, or too angry at it, because they don’t like what’s happening. So I was trying in that book to take a baby step towards encouraging people to think about the technology in a way that would strengthen what I call the “learning culture of the family.”

ZZ: How do you envision technology impacting teaching and learning in the classroom?

SP: I don’t think I want to predict. I think people haven’t done very well by predicting exactly what will happen. But I think we can predict that some things will go away. Age segregation will go away. This fragmentation of the day into periods devoted to different subjects will go away. Curriculum-driven structure of learning, by which I mean you learn something because it is the day in which you are supposed to learn that. As opposed to project- or application-driven learning; you learn it when you’ve got a need for it.

Now these are all transformations of existing school. “What grade are you in?” is a natural question you ask a kid, or “What subject are you doing in third period?” These are not intrinsic to the nature of creating a good learning environment. They are caused by a previous level of knowledge technology, where the only way we could give out knowledge was by a production-line method. And all this is a production-line model, an assembly-line model of school. So I’m sure that that will go away. What will come in its place has to be a social invention.

ZZ: Of course, educational reform initiatives come and go, and yet many schools don’t look a whole lot different then they did decades ago. Do you see technology as a Trojan Horse for systematic and lasting change?

SP: I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only going to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.

Unfortunately, the easier way to get the technology to the school, if you’re a vendor, for example, is to open it up and say, “Look, there’s no army inside here. It’s fine. It suits your purpose. It’s not going to be subversive, and so it’s a Trojan horse without any soldiers, and that’s not a very effective way of doing it.”

Of course, the presence of computers in the home changes the whole political context. One way that I think is very important is that it turns kids into a political force. I’ve been using the phrase “kid power” for a very optimistic trend in what’s happening in education. We’re beginning to see a significant number of kids who grew up with computers in their homes in the classrooms now.

In fact, the generation of kids where a large proportion had computers in their homes from birth is just hitting the schools now. I think that that wave is going to have a dramatic effect on the schools. It just takes a sprinkling of kids in every class who know there is a better way of learning, have experienced it, and so can make a bigger demand in the classroom. Moreover, apart from the demand, they’ve got an offer also, because they can offer their own expertise. They can help. And so the kids are becoming a political force. They are also becoming an educational force, because they are in quite a lot of projects around the country, kids are explicitly being mobilized. Those kids who really know about computers, and love them, are being mobilized by the system to teach teachers and parents and implement changes in the school.

So that’s a huge change in the player forces, and maybe the thing that makes it most optimistic. I think that in The Connected Family I used this analogy — I thought of John Dewev. Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.

ZZ: You also write in The Connected Family that great change is never free and seldom comes without risk. What’s at risk for children and families in the digital age?

SP: I think the biggest risk is what the term “connected family” is trying to counteract. There is a problem, because parents are likely to see that there is less control. That they’ve got less influence on the way their kids develop, and what the kids know, and what they learn. What they do. Many parents really don’t understand what the kids are doing, or what language the kids are using.

So there’s no doubt it has this disruptive effect–and I think that’s bad. In some ways breaking the kids free from the grip of the previous generation, the previous culture, is good, and I think the kid power that will change schooling is a tremendously good thing.

On the other hand, the preservation of an orderly progress of society depends on an a balance between forces for change and forces for stability. I think we do have a need and responsibility for conveying to kids a heritage from the past, and giving them guidance that comes from our greater experiences. It’s a delicate matter, this balance between growing independence of the kids, that has its good side, and its dangerous side.

ZZ: Has there been any risk for you in advocating something that is inherently risky?

SP: Well, I came into this business of what computers might mean for kids in the 1960s, and two significant things about the 1960s were that computers were very expensive, rare, big things, and the chance of a lot of these getting into the hands of a lot of kids seemed to a lot of people pretty remote. The 1960s was also a time of egalitarian anti-elitism — so I very acutely felt attacks for being “elitist.” I got reviews of a proposal to a federal agency, which was a scathing attack on this elitist proposal that will bring better learning to the children of a handful of millionaire families. It couldn’t possibly have any effect on the majority of people, except to increase the gap. That was hard. And it was very very hard, practically impossible to persuade most people in those days.

Now was there risk? I was pretty sure already that it was going to change. You could see it looming ahead. You could see that computers one day would be mass-produced things, and would be inexpensive enough for every kid to have one. But it was way off, and most people weren’t aware of that. So that was a risk, and I got into trouble in getting funding.

ZZ: You’ve been working with children, education and technology for over thirty years. What keeps you going? What drives you?

SP: I think what drives me –the deepest question about education is, what drives learning? What drives kids? What drives everybody? And when I look at young kids who haven’t yet been to school, they are all driven. They are passionate about what they want to do. They get into it, and they really want to do it. I think that in a lot of people that’s strangled as we go through this very traumatic, dangerous experience of school. Those who get through it can open out and find a new opportunity to be creative and free and self-directed like we had before school.

So I think the question isn’t what drives me, but how is it that you and I and all the people in the world who remain creative and passionate about what they’re doing survived the system, that in so many other cases — in the majority of cases — strangles that enormous energy?

ZZ: Looking back, did you get anything wrong that you would have done differently?

SP: There are two kinds of looking back about what I would have done differently. There’s the looking back where you say, “Given what was known at that time, was that the wrong decision to make?” And that’s a sensible kind of question, it’s re-examining how you made decisions; versus looking back: “If I’d known more. If I’d known what I know now. If I’d know what I didn’t know, would I have done…” Of course, there’s an infinite amount of that, and that’s not interesting. That’s fantasy.

Just on this education/computers thing, I think that a key balance where I got it right, but I think that when it really got out to the schools, in the 80s, I could have recognized earlier and didn’t; that there was going to be a dynamic of schools adopting and neutralizing this new thing. I think that in the 80s, if we had kept more focused on a goal of “one day,” we could have been more effective and brought it somewhat nearer. But only somewhat. I think that if we say, “Where are we now? Where are we going to be?” As much as I analyze what could have been done and what we could have done in the past, I think that what happened in the last 20 years maybe could have happened in 10 years instead of 20 years. And maybe what’s going to happen in the next five years could have happened five years earlier, but it’s not huge changes.

I think one of the themes of Mindstorms is bugs that we learn by getting it wrong, and you never get it right, and the important thing is to be able to look in a kind of constructive way at what you got wrong, and that’s a cause to do it. It’s not always easy, and sometimes I have to fight back a little bit against bad thoughts. Well, what can I learn from how I decided to do what I did? I guess that is what human life is about, and what learning ought to be about.

 

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Managing Crowds: ClassDojo (Part 2)

ClassDojo is a recently-developed software platform (2011) that, according to the founders of the company, is used in 90 percent of schools in the U.S (see here). In the past five years, however, ClassDojo has become much more than a free digital tool to motivate students and manage classroom behavior. It is a platform that allows teachers to communicate with parents by posting photos and letting parents comment on what they see; students can also post photos and videos about what they are doing in school. With parent and student communication integrated with the classroom behavior tool, a social media platform is emerging.

The company has expanded beyond the initial behavioral management software and moved into the business of producing videos on “mind set” and empathy starring “Mojo the friendly monster” to construct a communication network where students, parents and teachers are knitted together closely.

And the future? With its network of parents, teachers, and students, ClassDojo will grow into an enterprise marketing far more than a motivational and behavioral tool to manage classroom crowds.

As one ClassDojo board member said: “This company has a greater market share than Coke in the U.S.” The future, according to one of the founders of ClassDojo, is coming into view when he asked:

Your entertainment bundle is Netflix. Your music bundle is Spotify. What is your education bundle?

That may be the future that the company seeks in spurring a revenue flow—ClasDojo is free to teachers and the company is just beginning to earn revenue from its videos. But it is the original software program promising to help teachers manage student behavior so that they can smoothly, without distraction or student misbehavior, carry off a lesson in reading or math within the allotted time. And that is the focus for this post.

Managing a crowd of students with ClassDojo

Across the country, teachers have glommed onto the digital platform as a way of managing 20 to 30 students daily. Whatever admirers and critics say, ClassDojo is a management tool aimed at engaging students and keeping their academic and emotional behavior on track during class time. It is the most recent of tools (think of teachers using dunce caps, corporal punishment for inattention and bad behavior, public shaming, dispensing praise and handing out M & Ms for good behavior) that teachers have historically used to motivate and control the behavior of their charges during periods of instruction.

While there is much variation in how teachers use ClassDojo,  one reporter described  typical ways the software is used in two New York state classrooms right next to one another.

Greg Fletcher, an amiable third-grade teacher at Hunter Elementary School, in Hunter, N.Y., uses a variety of old-school techniques to get his young students to settle down to their studies in the morning.

But when those fail, he turns to ClassDojo, a popular — and, in some quarters, controversial — behavior tracking app that I wrote about in an article on Monday.

“Let’s all sit like third graders,” Mr. Fletcher said one morning last month when I visited his class. Among the 13 third graders, all but a couple of boys sat.

“Let’s all get Mona Lisa quiet,” Mr. Fletcher tried again.

Mr. Fletcher was standing in front of an interactive white board on which he had projected ClassDojo. The program allows teachers to create a virtual classroom, with the real name and a cartoon monster avatar for each student, and then select behaviors — like “following directions” or being “off task” — for which they can award points to students or deduct them.

Teachers use the system to keep a running tally of each student’s score and to communicate with parents about their child’s progress. They can adapt it to their own teaching styles — and the temperaments of their students.

Mr. Fletcher, for instance, publicly displays ClassDojo’s scoreboard in his classroom. That means not only do his students know the moment he awards or deducts a point, they can simultaneously see the scores of everyone in the class.

That morning, one student in a Star Wars T-shirt was having trouble settling down.

“If I see the back of your head,” Mr. Fletcher said firmly, “it’s going to cost you a point.”

The boy immediately sat.

“I always let them see what is happening,” Mr. Fletcher explained, “when it’s a positive or when it needs work.”

the reporter then went to the classroom next door.

….Sharon Sofranko, whose shares responsibility with Mr. Fletcher for teaching third grade, was also using ClassDojo — but in private mode. At the start of the school year, she said, she had publicly displayed the scoreboard in her classroom, but it distracted her third-graders.

“Some kids were upset,” she said. “Some kids would find that they had 20 points less than someone else.”

Now she walks around the classroom with the app open on her phone, privately awarding and subtracting points without her students being able to see their own scores or those of their classmates.

If she wants a particular student to pay more attention to, say, raising his or her hand before speaking, she takes that student aside for a private chat.

“I actually do think it’s fairly effective,” Ms. Sofranko said.

Here is what ClassDojo staff said after the above article, including criticism of the reward and penalty system embedded in the software, appeared:

Teachers use ClassDojo to give students positive feedback on skills like leadership, persistence, teamwork and curiosity, and then communicate that feedback with parents. Over 90% of the feedback teachers give to students on ClassDojo is positive. Teachers use ClassDojo to communicate success with parents, and to give students a chance to excel outside an increasingly narrow framework of academic assessment.

There has been much praise and criticism of this technological tool. Praise comes from teachers who use the software (see here and here) and parents (see here and here). Criticism comes from those concerned about student information being sold to marketeers or privacy being abridged (see here), teachers who despise the  system of rewards and penalties (see here), and academic pundits who have seldom entered classrooms to see ClassDojo being used (see here).

Much of the praise and criticism of the platform centers on the issue of teachers using extrinsic rewards (e.g., points) and penalties (e.g., deduction of points) to reinforce positive behavior rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation of students to learn. While I have read copiously (and understand as a former high school teacher) the contemporary back-and-forth argument about the values of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards,  the debate skirts the deeper and central issue that explains why so many teachers across the country, without asking anyone’s permission, download the application.

What has unlocked so many classrooms to ClassDojo is that it can be a helpful modern tool to manage a crowd of children compelled to be in 900 square feet rooms for about six hours a day to learn what teachers have to teach while at the same time keeping parents informed of how their sons and daughters are doing in class. Too often some basic facts about tax-supported public schooling in the U.S. are overlooked.

Fact 1: K-12 students have to attend school.

Fact 2: Students move from grade-to-grade based upon teacher judgment, marks on tests, and report card grades.

Fact 3: Teachers depend upon students to obey directions. Without students’ motivation and cooperation with teachers, little learning occurs.

Fact 4: Over the last century, teachers have used mixes of rewards and penalties to gain student compliance and cooperation.

Classroom management, then, is an imperative deriving from compulsory attendance, the structure of the age-graded school, what the community expects students to learn, and teacher judgments about student performance.

Teachers need every tool they can grab to help them corral student energy and fight apathy, increase kindness and decrease mischievousness, encourage passion and discourage inertia. ClassDojo is the most recent incarnation of a tool that teachers believe will help them manage the crowd they see daily. In 2017 teaching and learning in an age-graded school remains a complex phenomenon that few experts acknowledge or too few teachers publicly comment on.

 

 

 

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Change and Stability in Classrooms, Schools, and Districts (Part 2)

Organizations are dynamically conservative, that is to say, they fight like mad to remain the same.

Donald Schon, 1970[i]

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard [ii]

Based upon my research into exemplars of technology integration in 41 classrooms, 12 schools, and six districts in Silicon Valley in 2016, I concluded that the teachers and administrators I have seen and interviewed have, indeed, implemented software and hardware fully into their daily routines. In these settings, technology use shifted from the foreground to the background. Using devices has become as ordinary as once using pencils and paper. And in many instances, the integration was seamless, no stitches showed. So what?

Putting a reform into classroom practice is no stroll in the park.  Policymakers and researchers must answer four basic questions about any policy aimed at improving how teachers teach and how students learn.

  1. Did policies aimed at improving student performance get fully, moderately, or partially implemented?
  2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
  3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
  4. Did what students learn meet the intended policy goals?

Too often those who make consequential school decisions and those who research such efforts ignore these questions. And that is a mistake.

In answer to the first question, my data show clearly that in the 41 Silicon Valley classrooms I observed–spread across nine schools and five districts—the local policy of making software and devices available to every teacher and student had been implemented fully. For these teachers identified as exemplary in integrating technology into their daily lessons, access to software-loaded tablets and laptops, a district infrastructure of technical assistance, and professional development gave them many opportunities for daily use. All of these teachers had the discretion in deciding to use the technologies and they chose to do so. And I saw that use in all of the classrooms I visited.

That these “best cases” portray complete implementation toward altering routine teaching practices—a necessary prior condition for any instructional reform to reach students–does not yet answer the next crucial question of whether uses of these technologies altered the lesson format and content in these exemplary classrooms.

The assumption reformers carry in their heads is that fully implemented policies aimed at improved teaching will payoff in student learning. For that payoff to occur, however, there is a far less appreciated interim step: usual classroom practices would have to change in the direction reform-minded policymakers sought such as abandoning traditional instructional practices and adopting student-centered ones. Such changes in content and practice, reformers believe, will lead to improved student outcomes and eventually achieving district goals.

So the second question of whether the content and format of teaching in these “best cases” classrooms have actually changed and in what direction is imperative to answer. For little to no change in how and what teachers taught mean that chances of students learning more, faster, and better—as reformers sought–would diminish. Just as important, were there to be no substantial change in how teachers teach then the third and fourth policy questions become moot.

Turn now to these teachers’ views on change as a result of using technology. Most said that their classroom practices had changed, even improved. About a third said that while there were some shifts in how they taught, ones they appreciated a lot, but the basics of teaching their lessons had not changed.

As a researcher who sat in the 41 classrooms I agreed with the two-thirds of the teachers who claimed that their lessons had changed but I reached a different conclusion about basic changes in format and content of their lessons. Determining the truth about changes in content and practice can be dicey insofar as how much weight to give to teachers’ opinions and a researcher’s view of both the direction and substance of classroom change. [iii]

Without denying that 65 percent of the teachers believed their classroom practices had changed, in the previous chapter I offered two points to make sense of their opinions. First, teachers who saw changes in their teaching, for the most part, identified important incremental (not fundamental) changes due to technology use in planning and implementing lessons. These changes added to their productivity as teachers in completing classroom administrative tasks efficiently, providing a broad array of information sources previously unavailable to their students, and being able to help students in real time. Only one of the 37 teachers who responded to my questions on changes in their practices as a result of using technologies in lessons claimed that his practices had departed substantially from how he usually taught. [iv]

Second, I, as an outside researcher, offered a historical view of public schooling evolving as a institution committed to both instilling community values into the next generation and preparing the young to become independent thinkers, fully engaged citizens and workers. This split mission for tax-supported public schools existed for centuries and remains the order of the day in 2017. Based upon this dilemma-ridden goal, I also drew from scholarship about century-old teaching patterns within age-graded school organizations that suggested strongly that both change and stability were systemic and embedded in daily lessons. This historical view of both the institution and classroom was also anchored in thinking about my experiences of nearly four decades teaching high school and graduate students.

In answering the question of whether technology use had shifted teaching practices, given these differing views, it is clear to me that what teachers said, what I observed, and what I know–those perceived changes had occurred. Such 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 among the classroom changes Silicon Valley teachers recognized in their lessons. Change and continuity in teaching practice have been and continue to be entwined.

None of this should surprise readers. As the epigraphs suggest, stability and change are the yin and yang that these exemplary teachers, schools, and districts illustrate and part of a far larger way of seeing how the world works. The explanation for this persistent interaction between stability and change that I offer here is consistent with similar patterns in the larger environment within which we live, the organizations in which we work and play, and our individual lives.

__________________________

[i] Donald Schon,”Dynamic Conservatism,” Reit Lectures, 1970 at: https://larrycuban.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/1970_reith2-1.pdf

[ii]Giuseppe Lampedusa, The Leopard (London: Fontana, 1963), p. 29.

[iii] As described in the previous chapter, of the 41 teachers I observed, 37 responded to my questions about change in their classrooms. The ratios and percentages detailed in these paragraphs refer to the 37 teachers.

[iv] I attach no greater importance to either incremental or fundamental changes. Both are necessary in any institution serving the community. Each can (or cannot) be significant depending on the direction, say from teacher- to student-centered—and upon available resources and the context. To make either kind of change requires enormous cooperation and heroic action on the part of participants.

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Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach?(Part 2)

Summing up results from the Silicon Valley teachers across nine schools in five districts who responded to my questions, nearly two-thirds of the teachers I interviewed and observed said that digital tools had changed how they teach with frequent mention of saving time in doing familiar tasks and being able to individualize their work with students.

The rest of the teachers had either said no because they had been using high-tech devices for years before I observed them or on substantive grounds as some stressed the deeper, persistent features of teaching that they must perform regardless of what technologies are used in lessons. Even those who said “no” also acknowledged the efficiencies that these high-tech devices brought to their lessons. These teachers saw both change in their use of digital tools daily and stability in the essential features of planning and executing a lesson. Rather than only black-and-white, they saw gray.

Does this mean that most of these elementary and secondary school teachers identified as “best cases” of integrating technology in Silicon Valley have actually altered how they teach because of using new technologies? Almost two-thirds certainly believed so. Yet a full answer to the question requires looking at their perspectives and the views of others.

Insider vs. Outsider: Whose definition of change matters?

As a researcher I observed and interviewed each teacher. I was an outsider identified as a retired Stanford professor. The teachers were insiders telling me, an outsider, their stories.

Because I had not done prior observations of these teachers before they began using these electronic devices I could not confirm whether these teachers had actually changed or not changed from how they had taught previously. From all indications these teachers believed strongly that they had modified their daily practices due to the regular use of digital tools. I believe them.

However, as a researcher who has studied archived written and printed evidence of teaching practices between the 1890s and the present and an outsider to these schools and classrooms, I bring a different perspective to these observations and interviews. I have accumulated well-documented descriptions of the dominant trends that have typified teaching over the past century. I can, for example, compare what I see in these lessons in 2016 in Silicon Valley to the historical continuum of varied teaching practices from teacher- to student-centered stretching back a century. In addition, I have conceptually defined different kinds of school and classroom change ( e.g., incremental and fundamental) distinctions that most reformers, policymakers, and others, including teachers seldom make. Such knowledge I have acquired over decades, however, produces an internal conflict in me. [i]

What does a researcher make of the teacher, for example, who says with passionate confidence that he has shifted his teaching English to eighth graders from teacher-directed activities to student-centered ones; he cites as evidence of the change the different materials and frequent use of digital tools that he uses in daily lessons, ones that the researcher has observed. Yet during the lesson, the researcher sees those very same materials and practices being used in ways that strengthen the teacher-centered activities and under-cut the student-centeredness that the teacher seeks. Neither the teacher or researcher is lying. Each has constructed an authentic, plausible and credible story. I do not imply that such constructions are untrue; only that “plausible” and “credible” are not the same as true stories.. So who do you believe? [ii]

I am not the first (nor last) researcher to have met teachers who described substantial changes in their lessons in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”[iii]

In the mid-1980s, California policymakers adopted a new elementary math curriculum intended to have students acquire a deep understanding of math concepts rather than memorizing rules and seeking the “right” answer. The state provided staff development to help elementary teachers implement the new curriculum. Then, researchers started observing teachers using the new math curriculum.

One researcher observed third grade teacher Mrs. Oublier (a pseudonym and hereafter Mrs. O) to see to what degree Mrs. O had embraced the innovative math teaching the state sought. Widely respected in her school as a first-rate math teacher, Mrs. O told the researcher that she had “revolutionized” her teaching. She was delighted with the new math text, used manipulatives to teach concepts, organized students desks into clusters of four and five, and had student participate in discussions. Yet the researcher saw her use paper straws, beans, and paper clips for traditional classroom tasks. She used small groups, not for students to collaborate in solving math problems, but to call on individuals to give answers to text questions. She used hand clapping and choral chants—as the text and others suggested—in traditional ways to get correct answers. To the researcher, she had grafted innovative practices onto traditional ways of math teaching and, in doing so, had missed the heart and soul of the state curriculum.

How can Mrs. O and teachers I have interviewed tell researchers that they had changed their teaching yet classroom observations of these very same teachers revealed familiar patterns of teaching? The answer depends on what kind of “change” the teacher seeks and who judges—the insider or outsider– the substance of the change and its direction.

Change clearly meant one thing to Mrs. O and another to the researcher. Many teachers, like Mrs. O, had made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons as a result of integrating computer devices into their lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers and reform designers intended, nay sought, looked for fundamental changes in the how those math lessons were taught.

So whose judgment about change matters most? “ Should researchers “consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of new policies…. [or intentions of policymakers]? Or should they be considered from the teacher’s vantage point?”[iv]

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O and the gracious teachers who let me observe their lessons and answer my questions seldom get to tell their side of the story to an audience outside their family and school.

Teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they are genuine insider accounts that explain how and why they have altered their practices. As two veteran researchers of teaching and teachers said:

We need to listen closely to teachers … and to the stories of their lives in and out of classrooms. We also need to tell our own stories as we live our own collaborative researcher/teacher lives. Our own work then becomes one of learning to tell and live a new mutually constructed account of inquiry in teaching and learning. What emerges from this mutual relationship are new stories of teachers and learners as curriculum makers, stories that hold new possibilities for both researchers and teachers and for those who read their stories.[v]

Yet researchers are more than scribes. They cannot take what teachers say as unvarnished truth and dismiss what is known of the history of teaching as less compelling or immaterial. The answers teachers give to researcher questions are constructed from their insider view. With a historical perspective on past ways that teachers have taught, I have constructed an outsider’s view of what teachers do daily in their lessons with computer devices. Both points of view have to come into play to make sense—to get at the truth as best as I can–of both the teachers’ answers to my questions and what I observed in classrooms.[vi]

As a former high school history teacher between the 1950s and 1970s and a university researcher since 1981, I have tried to manage this dilemma of giving value to teacher stories about classroom change while honoring what I, as a researcher, have learned about teaching, past and present.

This is the dilemma that I negotiate in answering the central question in the book I am writing: Have teachers altered their practice as a result of using new technologies regularly?

____________________________________________________________

[i] Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Cuban. Hugging the Middle (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[ii] Interview with John DiCosmo and answers to my questions on whether use of technology has changed his teaching.

As a digital native, I have always used computers in my lessons but each year my teaching changes a little more to put students in the center of the lessons. I have used technology to engage my middle schoolers from the first day I stepped into the classroom, but I am increasingly ‘flipping’ lessons to support student access to materials to differentiate my instruction….

Email from John DiCosmo, October 16, 2016. In author’s possession.

For differences in stories told to researchers, see: D.C. Philips, “Telling the truth about Stories,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 1997, 13(1), pp. 101-109.

[iii] David Cohen, “A Revolution in One Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990, 12(3), pp. 311-329.

[iv] Ibid., p. 312

[v]Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin, “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry,” Educational Researcher, 1990, 19(5), pp.2-14. Quote is on p. 12.

[vi]D.C. Philips, “Telling the Truth about Stories,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 1997, 13(1), pp. 101-109.

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Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach? (Part 1)

Have the 41 exemplary teachers in integrating technology into daily lessons that I observed and interviewed in Silicon Valley in 2016 changed their practice as a result of using new devices and software?

Straightforward as the question sounds, it is tricky to answer. Why?

In a society geared to constant change as America is, the word has far more positive than negative connotations. Fashions in clothes, car models, gadgets, and hairstyles change every year trumpeting the next new thing to acquire. Both Presidential campaigners Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016, for example, promised their supporters that America will change for the better. Change is “good.” Embracing the new is progress. It is a norm that Americans revel in.

Especially when it comes to taking on new technologies in the past (e.g., household appliances, radio, television) and present (e.g., desktop computers, laptops, and smart phones). So for teachers, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and elected officials not accepting the next new electronic device and changing their daily practice is often seen as resistance, a fondness for the “old” that is out of step with American values and the future. Reform-driven policymakers, deep pocket donors, entrepreneurs and vendors believe a lack of change or very slow adoption of new digital tools to be a detriment to student learning, patients, clients, customers, and voters. So a social and individual bias toward change, particularly technological change, is built into American society, history, institutions and professional behavior.

Acknowledging a historical bias toward change hints at the trickiness of the question I ask. Judging whether teachers have actually altered their daily classroom practice is surprisingly hard to do. Teachers, imbued with the culture’s values, often say that they have changed their lessons from week to week, year to year due to new district curricula, tests, and programs. Yet policymakers and researchers are less certain of such changes.[i]

Consider that researchers ordinarily find out whether teachers have changed their practices through direct observation before and after change occurred, interviews, surveying faculty opinions, sampling principal evaluations, and soliciting student views. Few researchers, however, have the access, time, or funds to tap all of these sources so they use short cuts and depend upon one or two sources at best and snapshots of one moment in time. Occasional teacher interviews, drop-in classroom observations, and faculty surveys are often what researchers end up using to answer to the question.

Yet even when researchers or other inquirers believe they have sufficient information to determine that teachers have changed how they teach lessons, such a conclusion does not tell you the direction of those changes, that is, from more teacher-centered to more student-centered or whether those changes were superficial or substantial, whether they were a step forward or a step backward in classroom practice.

Think, for example, of a classroom where teachers once used a low-tech device for nearly two centuries to reach students and within the past half-century that low-tech device has morphed into an expensive high-tech tool in classroom. I speak of the chalkboard.

The innovative slate chalkboard introduced in the early 19th century was eventually replaced in the mid-20th century by green boards and then soon after whiteboards using erasable markers. Now electronic smart boards have become pervasive (60 percent of K-12 classrooms have been installed as of 2014). These changes in a classroom technology have helped teachers convey knowledge, students practice skills, and display lesson objectives and activities. And these changes have strengthened familiar teacher-centered practices (e.g., lecture, recitation, guided whole group discussion) that have dominated public school teaching for over a century and a half. [ii]

The evolution of the slate chalkboard into electronic smart boards mark classroom changes in the past century. So what did those Silicon Valley teachers, exemplars of technology integration, tell me about changes that had occurred in their classrooms?

According to what teachers told me, they have altered their practice. These teachers identified as being exemplary in integrating technology took attendance, recorded assignments, checked homework, assessed students, and emailed parents routinely using laptops and tablets and other devices. They organized lessons to include whole-group, small group instruction, and independent student work. Many of the teachers I observed created individual playlists of math, science, and social studies sources for their students to engage in research projects. They individualized lessons and helped students self-assess their grasp of content and skills. So these teachers have, according to their recall of how they taught previously, modified practices when using new technologies.

But just listing new and altered practices associated with the spread of electronic devices does not get at the depth of the change or its direction in classroom practice. Consider the following queries:

*Is using an interactive white board instead of an overhead projector and chalkboard a substantial “change” or simply a modification of a habitual practice?

*Is it a superficial or deep “change” in classroom practice when a teacher takes attendance on her tablet instead of checking off names on a sheet of paper?

*Is it a small or large “change” when students submit electronically their notes and assignments to Dropbox instead of turning in paper homework?

Surely, these queries reveal “changes,” in familiar practices. The teachers I observed and interviewed would readily acknowledge that such alterations in routines have been important to them because these changes saved time and energy. In conversations with these teachers, the word “efficient” popped up repeatedly. Using less time for administrative details and having at one’s fingertips information from multiple sources for students to access was of great importance to teachers. Such changes gave teachers an edge in racing against the clock during a lesson. Teachers perceived such changes as important. Yet ardent reformers often under-appreciate and overlook these changes.

Technologically-driven reformers might begrudgingly admit that these examples are “changes” but not ones that they envisioned. Entrepreneurs eager to help schools dump the “factory model” of schooling (e.g., age-graded school, traditional teaching) might categorize these “changes” as merely shallow or, perhaps, trivial compared to schools that convert to “blended” learning combining online and face-to-face lessons that are “personalized.” Reform-minded policymakers and donors want to see teachers creating individual playlists for students, students working on projects every week, frequently use online lessons, and similar “transformative” changes. They see technologies steering classrooms toward student-centered teaching, a direction they promote. Anything less than these kind of fundamental (or sometimes called “real”) changes in pedagogy, they would be disappointed.

Or researchers, deeply believing in student-centered learning observing lessons in these teachers’ classrooms, might see such changes as mere adjustments that reinforce dominant patterns of teacher-directed lessons. Yet these researchers know that they must be alert to their own values and biases when they collect, analyze, and publish their studies. In analyzing these facets of classroom practice, attention has to be paid to the tacit biases that inhabit those who observe, describe, and analyze how lessons unfold. Where one sits (or stands), surely shapes one’s perspective.

Teachers, principals, parents, researchers, and policymakers, for example, have different organizational roles and experiences. They approach data from varied viewpoints. And they are Americans socialized to see change as progress and an unalloyed good. These differences among academics and members of district and school communities have to be made explicit in making sense of what teachers say and do.

So answering the question of whether widespread student access and teacher use of technologies has “changed daily classroom practices” depends upon who is the asker, who is the doer, and what actually occurs in the classroom.

The next post dips into who asks the questions, the role of teacher and researcher in making sense of what occurs in lessons.

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[i] Diane Stark Rentner, et. al., “Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices,” 2016 (Center for Education Policy, George Washington University).

[ii] Kim Kankiewicz, “There’s No Erasing the Chalkboard,” The Atlantic, October 13, 2016 at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/10/theres-no-erasing-the-chalkboard/503975/

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Is Your Edtech Product a Refrigerator or Washing Machine?(Julia Fisher)

Julia Fisher is Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This post appeared in EdSurge on April 12, 2017.

Education innovators love to talk about adoption curves. It’s a fancy way of looking at a pretty basic concept: the rate at which a given tool, model or approach saturates a market.

Lately, I’ve been seeing these curves crop up a lot in the conversation about personalized learning. As more school systems attempt to customize learning environments and more education advocates and funders champion personalized models, people are increasingly anxious to know: At what rate might we can expect new ideas and tools to permeate the traditional school system?

But not all adoption curves are created equal. Depending on the features of the tools and their intended users, the arc of adoption might look vastly different. One of those distinctions hinges on the degree to which a new tool or model conforms to the traditional school structure.

To understand these differences we can look to historical data on how consumers absorbed all sorts of new gadgets that hit the market throughout the 20th century. My colleague at the Christensen Institute, Horace Dediu, has researched these patterns to try to explain such trends and interrogate anomalies. Last year, he highlighted a puzzling divergence in the data on the early adoption of home appliances. In the 1930s, two delightfully convenient innovations hit the market: the refrigerator and the washing machine.

Refrigerators quickly took hold, gaining over 90 percent adoption by the late 1950s. But households crept much more slowly up the washing machine adoption curve, only getting close to market saturation in the late 1990s. Dediu hypothesizes that this had little to do with housewives’ weighing the pros and cons of being clothed or fed. Instead, he argues, the disparate adoption rates reflect the relative conformability of each innovation to the midcentury home or apartment. Most households had electrical outlets that refrigerators could plug into directly, thus leaving iceboxes in the dust. But few homes had the pipes and drain lines required to install a washing machine.

In other words, homes at the time were never designed with washing machines in mind. As a result, to take advantage of the new technology households didn’t just have to shell out money; they had to hire a plumber to configure the pipes that would pump water into and drain water out of the new contraptions.

machines-1491937394.jpg

The same might be said of the various technological innovations hitting the education market today. Most edtech companies enthusiastically claim to make teaching and learning more effective, efficient and convenient. But not all tools plug into the same interfaces, and not all schools and classrooms were built with these modern innovations in mind. Some tools are proving to be plug-compatible tools that can be inserted into traditional classrooms relatively seamlessly. For example, short cycle tutorial tools, like Khan Academy, fit tidily into many classrooms and can unobtrusively supplement traditional models on the margin. These tools tend to help classrooms achieve outcomes along traditional dimensions like boosting average test scores and providing help to learners who are struggling on a given topic.

On the other hand, other edtech products and models can’t simply plug into the traditional classroom structure or school schedule—the school instead has to fundamentally change or adapt its infrastructure in order to accommodate the tool. For example, models like Teach to One or Summit Learning’s Platform require far greater re-engineering of classrooms processes. Schools need a new set of proverbial pipes—potentially new infrastructure, new schedules, and even entirely new approaches to teaching—to adopt these innovations and to use them to their full potential.

It also bears noting that unlike the drainpipes, this reconfiguration of schools is extremely complex and often interdependent with local policies, culture, and geographic or financial limitations. It’s not surprising, then, that the past few years have seen a flourish of intermediaries, like Transcend and 2Rev, that are stepping in to work alongside schools to help them to fundamentally reengineer their pipes and plugs.

Sketching out these distinct adoption curves might feel bleak if you’re an entrepreneur building the proverbial washing machines of edtech, or a funder hoping for speedy adoption of next-generation models that disrupt traditional classrooms. But they should also lend us a healthy dose of hope and reality about what adoption looks like depending on how much reengineering customers will be expected to do in order to absorb a new tool. It should also help us to better align resources that philanthropists and policymakers are investing in moving people along edtech and personalized learning adoption curves.

Luckily, it’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that we need to pair investments in edtech tools with investments in professional development. But for the tools and models that least conform to traditional school structures, we’re also likely to need investments in fundamental reengineering—that is, not just developing teachers’ proficiency in using tools but rethinking processes like schedules, evaluations and staffing throughout an entire school building or district.

With that dose of reality we can start to predict adoption with greater precision. We can also predict when adoption might not take off. On the other hand, if we ignore the costs of conformability and hope that schools will just figure out how to use wholly new models within their existing paradigm, the promise of new innovations may fall short. It’s like trying to plug a washing machine’s hose into an electrical outlet. It doesn’t end well.

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More Comments on Personalization Continuum (Tom Hatch)

Tom Hatch is an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. I met Tom at Stanford University when his wife, Karen Hammerness, was a graduate student and took one of my classes. Hatch had worked closely with Ted Sizer, Howard Gardner, and James Comer–leaders of whole-school reform movement in the 1980s and 1990s. He subsequently wrote thoughtfully about theories of action. I used an article he wrote in my seminars for many years (“The Difference in Theory That Matters in the Practice of School Improvement,” 1998 in American Educational Research Journal).

He posted this letter to me April 7, 2017. In it, he offers comments on the  Personalization Continuum that I had drafted, weaving together readers’ comments with his own research and experiences. 

Dear Larry

Your recent post describing the many versions of “personalization” you’ve seen in your visits to schools seems particularly relevant these days for a number of reasons:

Ironically, it’s probably worth noting that this surge in interest in personalization coincides with the closing of the national organization of the Coalition of Essential Schools – founded by Ted Sizer who put personalization on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Your post prompted me to reflect on some of these developments and what I have been seeing in my own research on improvement efforts and “innovation” in several developing and developed countries.  In particular, I think your draft of what you call a “continuum” of personalization in many of the “lessons” you’ve observed nicely highlights the way that personalization often involves a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered activities. One way to expand the continuum and get at some of the complexities that you and your commentators have acknowledged might be to look at the extent to which several different educational decisions are made by teachers and/or students.  For example, many approaches to personalization talk about customizing the goals, the content, and the pace of educational activities. It seems like those approaches at your “teacher-directed” end of the spectrum adapt instruction to the needs/interests of students, but, for the most part teachers are still making the decisions about:

  • What the students should be learning (and why)
  • The materials they should use and the paths they should follow
  • The speed with which they move along those paths

At the other end, students may be making more of those decisions themselves.  In the middle, teachers and students may be sharing those decisions, teachers may make some decisions and students others, and teachers may make those decisions sometimes while students make them at others (e.g. higher performing students may be allowed/encouraged to make more of those decisions than their peers).

To make things more complicated, each decision about goals, content, and pace can be broken down into a whole series of related choices. Decisions related to content and materials, for instance, include who chooses reading materials, what to focus on in the reading, how to read it, and how material should be presented (as one of your commenters, Dylan Kane, noted).

It’s also possible to imagine a whole bunch of other decisions that we might (or might not!) want to take into account.  For example, I’m beginning to experiment with letting my graduate students choose not only when to take on particular assignments but also where (e.g. in the classroom or not; alone or with others).  I also remember passionate discussions at one meeting of educators working on designing a new school (the Celebration School, developed as part of the planned community connected to Disneyworld) about whether or not to enable students to determine the kind of lighting that best suited their “learning style.”

Adding to the complexities, as Laura Chapman pointed out in the comments, these decisions can also be made by those who develop the technologies used to support personalization.  It’s also possible, with the developments in distance and blended learning to imagine a variety of other people, including parents, taking a more direct role in these lesson-level decisions as well. (Extending the scope of personalization beyond “lessons” and courses, and making it a core concept in a reimagined system of education as in approaches like ReSchool Colorado can make it more complicated still.)

However we define the key instructional decisions, I think you’re right that the extent to which teachers or students make those decisions distinguishes many of the current approaches.  I’d be interested to know, though, how often you see personalized approaches that really give students wide latitude and extensive control over their own learning? Chris Ongaro, a graduate student here at Teachers College, is looking at student’s experiences in a variety of “personalized” courses (many of them online), and he tells me that even when students are given choices, those choices are usually extremely limited, rarely allowing students to imagine or pursue their own options.  As he said to me, students may play a role in shaping the means, but the ends are often predetermined.

While I raise these questions, following your descriptive lead, I’m trying not to place a particular value on one end of the continuum or the other.  But as we describe the role of the teacher and the student, I’m also reminded again of what Sizer often said (quoting James Comer, eminent psychologist and founder of the School Development Program):  The three most important things in schools (and school improvement) are “relationships, relationships, relationships.” For Sizer, personalization grew out of the belief that “we can’t teach students well if we do not know them well.”  That relationship both allows those in the role of teacher to recognize and respond to each student’s needs and interests, but it also opens up those in the student’s role to opportunities and challenges they may never have encountered on their own. While I often ask my students these days to explain to me why teachers are needed in schools (truth be told, I also ask them why we need “students”), it may be worth trying to capture something about the nature of the teacher-student relationships in these approaches to personalization as well.  But now your straightforward and clear continuum looks a lot more like one of those polygons and polyhedrons that you and W[ilfred] Rubens discussed…

At the end of the day, though, I see many of the same things you do: approaches to personalizing activities, classes, and courses that are often carried out in the regular school day or within typical course structures and with the expectation that “success” will mean meeting conventional graduation standards, going to college and getting a “good” job.  Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that under these circumstances, as you… put it:

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

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