This post is composed of photographs of classrooms taken in 17 countries to mark UNESCO-sponsored World Teachers’ Day (October 5, 2015). Instead of my offering commentary on these diverse photos, I would like viewers to offer their impressions in seeing these classrooms around the world. I look forward to reading your comments. Thank you.
I watched the World Series and saw both New York Mets and Kansas City Royal fans wearing hats, shirts, and displaying signs designed to get their teams to win. I saw similar clothes and painted faces on soccer fans during the World Cup. The belief, the intuition that these caps and jerseys would get their teams to win borders on superstition. And most fans would agree. Yet, yet, yet just maybe wearing the stuff, painting the face, and holding signs aloft would be just the thing that would snatch defeat from the other team. As a recent op-ed put it: fans “have an powerful intuition and, despite its utter implausibility, they can’t just shake it.” The contradiction is aptly caught in the title of the opinion piece: “Believing What You Don’t Believe.”
This is no rant, however, about how emotion trumps reason or how thinking thoughts (or fans waving signs) will produce the desired outcome. Nor will this post elaborate how our cognitive “slow” and “fast” thinking ways do not always work in sync or that our “slow thinking” will correct the impulsive move where we have “trusted our gut. ” In this post, I again look at how local, state, and federal policymakers, high-tech entrepreneurs, and CEOs of major corporations engage in “magical thinking.” Inhabiting a technocratic mind-set, these leaders who rely on experts believe that more and more use of high-tech tools will provide the adrenaline shot for U.S. schools to match international rivals’ test scores and lead ultimately to a larger share of the global market for U.S. goods and services.
I offer two examples of high-tech industry and civic leader aspirations to link all public schooling to the job market and larger economy that highlight this phenomenon: MOOCs and every child learning to code and taking computer science courses.
Massive Open Online Courses burst on the scene three years ago with claims that such courses offered free to anyone on this planet with an Internet connection will–here come the key words–“revolutionize” and “transform” higher education. John Hennessey, President of Stanford University, said a “tsumani is coming.” Equity and excellence, values that both liberals and conservatives cherish, will be fulfilled. Nothing of the sort happened (see here, here, and here). In the Gartner “hype” cycle, MOOCs are buried in the “slough of disillusionment.” All within three years. High-tech hyperactivity has compressed time into bytes.
Coding and Computer Science
Young children learning to code in elementary schools while their older brothers and sisters take computer science in high school is currently in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” in the above hype cycle. Consider that the British government has gone even further than the mania gripping the U.S. by mandating in its national curriculum that all UK children learn to code and take computer science in their secondary schools (see here and here). The UK “computing” curriculum is, of course, a national experiment in further vocationalizing public schooling to tie education to the economy. With no national curriculum in the U.S. (Common Core state standards is a pale, decentralized version of such an effort), the surge of interest in coding (e.g., Year of the Code, next month’s celebratory week of Computer Science, coding boot camps), much of it financed by tech industry giants, has seized the spotlight of attention. That attention has shifted from every student having access to computers in school–very close to being a fact in the U.S.–to using these devices in classroom lessons. From kindergartners getting lessons on coding to online courses to blended learning to flipped classrooms, the mania for computers in schools has corralled both public and private funding as the high-tech solution to students becoming equipped with 21st century skills.
To be clear, I do not refer to those tens of thousands of teachers and principals who, with care and thoughtfulness, have slowly integrated their devices and software into lessons to teach content, skills, and creativity. They keep their heads down and often escape the mania I refer to above.
So is there anything intrinsically wrong with pushing coding and computer science in U.S. schools? After all, both are being sold to school boards and parents as ways of teaching logic, thinking skills, as well as preparation for future jobs. So on the surface, nothing appears to be unseemly. Underneath the surface, however, are two matters that often go unnoted by advocates of coding and computer science.
First, the original trio of goals for computers entering schools and classrooms since the early 1980s were improving academic achievement of students, altering the traditional patterns of teaching and learning, and preparing the next generation for the labor market. Nowadays, few champions of computers in schools even mention academic achievement or talk of “transforming” teaching and learning through laptops and tablets. But the vocational goal does remain in the current joy for teaching children and youth to write code and create algorithms.
Second, is the historic pattern of focusing on public schools as a national problem to be solved (think segregated schools, national defense, drug and alcohol addictions as problems that schools could “solve”) and seeking another “technical” solution to its ills. In this instance, injecting coding and computer science, online instruction into K-16 schooling. Such a technocratic strategy aims to alter traditional curriculum and lessons for one over-riding purpose to get ready for an ever-changing, fast-moving job market and economy.
So here again within a few years, “magical thinking” about the power of technical products to tie schools to the economy via coding and computer science has arisen even in the face of the dramatic shift in goals for these high-tech products over the past three decades and the failure of MOOCs to gain traction in higher education since 2012.
The feel-good attitude of World Series and World Cup fans who wear jerseys and hats believing that to do so will help their teams win is alive and well in the high-tech community.
Did you ever remember a melody and could even hum it but cannot, for the life of you, recall the words? That happens a lot to me. I thought of that as I read more and more about “soft skills” as an essential for 21st century students eventually entering the workplace. Working in teams, being able to motivate others, persevere at tasks, navigate organizational tricky waters, and lead–these are the skills that high schools today should teach youth.
Hey, what about content? What about intellectual acuity to develop and display a substantive argument anchored in facts? As David Brooks says in a recent op-ed: “Ultimately, what matters is not only how well you can collaborate in groups, but the quality of mind you bring to the group.” “The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom,” he writes, are “based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy.” Soft skills, he concludes, have to be taught “alongside factual literacy. The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed. The rules have have to be learned before they can be played with and broken.”
Brooks’ argument for learning has been made by earlier generations of reformers who wore the late-19th century clothes of Progressives and Traditionalists. Here is where my humming tries to recapture the lyrics of the song. The language reformers then used may sound off-key to 21st century ears, but the conflict over what subjects and skills should be taught in schools rang loud and clear over a century ago.
Listen to this math teacher lecture his colleagues:
The laboratory method has … the flexibility which permits’ students to be handled as individuals or in groups. The instructor utilizes all the experience and insight of the whole body of students. He arranges it so that the students consider that they are studying the subject itself, and not the words, either printed or oral, of any authority on the subject. And in this study they should be in the closest cooperation with one another and with their instructor, who is in a desirable sense one of them and their leader.
Instructors may fear that the brighter students will suffer if encouraged to spend time in cooperation with those not so bright. But experience shows that just as every teacher learns by teaching, so even the brightest students will find themselves much the gainers for this co-operation with their colleagues.
…[T]he student might be brought into vital relation with the fundamental elements of trigonometry, analytic geometry and the calculus, on condition that the whole treatment in its origin is and in its development remains closely associated with thoroughly concrete phenomena. With the momentum of such practical education in the methods of research in the secondary school, the college students would be ready to proceed rapidly and deeply in any direction in which their personal interests might lead them (1631286).
E. H. Moore, exiting President of the American Mathematical Society, trained a generation of mathematics professors at the University of Chicago. He was an advocate of tying together both content and pedagogy. He urged that school math lessons cover two instructional periods (rather than one) so teachers and students would have sufficient time to both understand the beauty of math and apply it to their daily lives. He wrote this article in 1903.
The either/or conundrum pops up again and again over the decades. Across science, math, English, and social studies, classroom teachers weigh in on whether they are content-driven or skills-driven in teaching. The dichotomy afflicts all academic subjects and it is, of course, a false one but one that generates far more emotional heat than light, nonetheless. For example, many content-driven teachers also know about “pedagogical content knowledge” which means that in teaching history, math, science or any academic subject, the teacher knows the usual misconceptions and skill gaps that most students have, say, in teaching evolution or quadratic equation or the American Civil War. Such teachers blend knowledge of their content with those cognitive skills students need. And many teachers are just as familiar with the “soft skills” that current reformers tout. Those smart teachers blend “soft” and “hard” skills embedding both in the content that they teach using their knowledge of the subject to sequence how and what they teach. Not easy to do but many teachers have done so.
No either/or choice. There is a continuum with skills (hard, soft,etc) at one end and content knowledge at the other end. Most teachers–K-12 or higher education–would place themselves somewhere along that continuum. I, for one, put myself at the center tilting a tad toward the skills side. Wherever teachers place themselves on that continuum, the stark and simplistic question of content vs. skills will arise again and again–as it does in Brooks’ op-ed–even though it ignores past conflicts over the same issues and obvious ways that many teachers manage both content and skills. The false dichotomy is a simple-minded way of avoiding the complex decisions that knowledgeable and skilled history, science, English, and math teachers go through in planning and teaching the day’s lesson.
Many parents are unsure about the best path to technological modernization. When my children were in elementary school, our parent association held many tense meetings about the best technology plan for the school. The parents argued for months. The many valid and important questions included:
1. Our children already spend too much time outside of school with media; is it really necessary for them to do their homework and school reading on these devices?
2. If educators focus too much on technology in the classroom, what other skills will be shortchanged?
3. On the other hand, shouldn’t children learn the basic skills for using technology productively and creatively, to help them be more effective in college and in the job market?
In order to begin to answer questions about what makes the most sense for a school, I emphasize that is important to consider carefully the current models for computer use in schools, as well as any data pointing to their effectiveness, or lack thereof. For example, is there evidence for the effectiveness of One-to-One Programs?
Is it really necessary to give each enrolled child her own device beginning in kindergarten? Certainly, putting devices into a classroom setting seems more organic to practical academic instruction than segregating computers in one area of the school. Moreover, in the real world, we don’t go to separate “computer labs” to do the parts of our job that require technology. However, most public schools are cash strapped; are one-to-one programs a good use of their budgets?
Some studies find benefits to these programs, but often the measures are limited to self-reports, with inherently subjective variables such as “student engagement.” In addition, it takes time for a program’s effects to emerge; in the first year, technological complications, such as adequate wireless bandwidth, must be resolved. More importantly, teachers need extensive training to get up to speed. In order to effectively examine this enormous investment, evidence from long-term one-to-one programs provide important information. In fact, the evidence about several of these programs, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative and One Laptop per Child, which were in place for more than ten years, suggest proceeding cautiously.
The research above reflect a pattern that researchers who study digital technology in the classroom witness repeatedly: a high level of enthusiasm for the new technology, anecdotal stories about the transformational learning that will occur, an introduction along with many unanticipated challenges, and finally an investigation of the facts and effects. Too often, the financial burden of the programs means drastic cutting in other arenas.
Convincing data does not back the claim that simply handing computers to kids will increase their engagement and achievement in academic subjects. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that without adequate infrastructure and trained teachers, digital devices cannot meet their promise. As the report on the One Laptop Per Child program concluded, “computers by themselves, at least as initially delivered by the program, do not increase achievement in curricular areas.”
Uhls understands the dilemma that parents face when their local school buys interactive whiteboards and laptops or tablets for each child. As a parent, she wants other Moms and Dads to look behind the hype over spanking new devices and ask principals and teachers the reasons why they are using computers, why, and what research there is about children learning from the new technologies. The dilemma parents face won’t go away but it surely can be better managed when they and school principals and staff openly discuss the worth of children looking at screens at home and in school.
*Yalda T. Uhls received her PhD in developmental psychology from UCLA. She is the Regional Director of Common Sense Media, a national non-profit that focuses on helping children, families and educators living in a digital world. She is also senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, UCLA campus. Yalda’s research focuses on how older and newer media impacts the social behavior of preadolescents. Her new book is: Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact, Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age (Bibliomotion, 2015)
Stories of uncommon principals who labor for decades to create structures, cultures, and political success are popular in national media. The story-line is that a principal arrives at a low-performing, minority and poor school and through much work turns it around into a successful school, as measured by test scores, low teacher turnover, and parental support. No, I am not referring to charter schools or magnets. I am referring to neighborhood schools. When such schools emerge policymakers and champions of school success call it a model and urge replication of the school. Make more of them, they cry. Scaling up such successes is rare as any observer (or participant) can tell you. It is devilishly hard to reproduce such victories over mediocrity in another neighborhood much less across a district, state, and nation. Think of KIPP for a moment. In 21 years, KIPP has created 183 schools enrolling 70,000 and done so by preparing principals and teachers, monitoring closely the quality of each school–its five pillars and school culture–and raising large sums of money.
Why is it so hard? In most cases, success comes from complex, interacting factors: the principal who has been there a long time; he or she plays three competing roles well (instructional, managerial, and political); the principal has selected a staff that works closely together learning from its mistakes; the principal has built structures that engage in constant improvement; the community supports the school and acts to keep it flourishing. This mix of ingredients is hard to replicate–no algorithm, no online tutorials, no university program–can do it. The fit between principal, staff, children, parents and community is tight. Yet it is fragile and can easily unravel. Were the principal, a few of the key teachers, and parent advocates to leave within a short time such a school can easily slide back into the mediocrity existing before that principal and teachers appeared on the scene.
Consider Jack Spatola and P.S. 172 in Brooklyn as described in a recent New York Times article. Appointed principal in 1984, Spatola who came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1970, took over a school that was predominately Puerto Rican. Thirty-one years later, Spatola leads a school that has mostly Mexican and Latin American students with more than 85 percent eligible for free lunch. One in four students are designated Special Education. The reporter described the school’s academic success:
Demographic realities have not hindered achievement. Last year, 98 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders, those required to take state exams toward the end of the year, passed the math test. Seventy-six percent passed the language test. Those figures far exceed citywide averages, which sit in the 30s for both disciplines, and they match or surpass scores at many affluent schools. On the tests administered this past spring, students at P.S. 172 did better than students at P.S. 234, a celebrated school in TriBeCa, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Steady increases in city test scores has brought crowds of out-of-state educators and business gurus like Jim Collins–of Good to Great fame–to the school. Spatola labored long and hard to build a strong, stable staff inhabiting a culture that prizes both student and adult learning.
Teachers, students and administrators are engaged in a constant process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t; why, for example, one student might be quickly gaining an understanding of symbolism in reading while another isn’t. Professional development is an experience that is not relegated to occasional seminars but is lived daily. Strikingly, members of the school’s senior staff have an extended shared history of knowing what is effective and what isn’t — Mr. Spatola’s assistant principal, Erika Gundersen, has been with him for more than 20 years; the math and literacy coaches on hand to work with teachers to enhance practices have been with him on average more than 12 years.
And he is an ace at finding money in and out of his school budget for all of the professional and academic activities that have become routine at the school.
Mr. Spatola doesn’t use textbooks, which are notoriously expensive…. In the past fiscal year, the city and state spent $100 million on textbooks in New York City schools. At P.S. 172, the allocated money is used to buy primary texts, works of fiction and nonfiction selected by teachers and administrators. Students will, for instance, use the Internet to research how the branches of government work. The many dollars left over are spent on other services…
Spatola believes that textbooks “cheapen the experience of learning.” Instead, the school creates its own lessons and units for each grade and maintains notebooks on each child’s performance. Nearly $50,000 of budgeted funds are supposed to go to buy expensive curriculum packages recommended by the district to meet Common Core standards.
“It is absolutely crazy to me that a company out west would really have any idea what my children need,” Mr. Spatola said. “If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum.”
Spatola uses the money for materials teachers choose and develop.
Are the structures and culture that Spatola and teachers have created at P.S. 172 scalable? Not impossible but hard to do given a principal who manages well, guides instruction, and provides political leadership to a staff and community. He and his staff have built by hand a successful school over many years that fits its students and community in Brooklyn.
I had the privilege of teaching history and civics to 61 8th graders in San Francisco this past year. Our school is a segregated one: 75 percent of students are Latino, 60 percent low-income, and half are learning English. My teaching materials were limited–the district-issued U.S. history textbook was published in 2005; California has not adopted any new textbooks since adopting the Common Core State Standards in 2010 in any subject.
Learning about our system of government by reading about it in a textbook and listening to me talk about it had not felt terribly successful last year. A recent California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning noted that nationally, fewer than half of eligible young people ages 18-24 voted in the 2012 elections, and that the U.S. recently ranked 139th in voter participation of 172 democracies around the world. I was worried that my standard approach to teaching civics was failing to prepare my students for their future roles as voters, jurors, and civic leaders.
Gaining the skills to meaningfully participate in our democracy is especially critical for low-income students, both because our current weak campaign finance laws allow those with money to speak louder in our democracy and because too many students from low-income families have parents who cannot vote due to their immigration status or criminal records. In California, voters must be prepared to read a 100+ page ballot pamphlet and decide whether to vote yes or no on dozens of state and local referendums on Election Day. Jurors may be called upon to listen to complex arguments about topics like trademark infringement and medical negligence. The ability to listen to the news, engage in civic debate within their communities, and make their voices heard to elected officials are just a few of the skills Americans are called upon to use when navigating a 21st century democracy.
So this year, I tried an approach to teaching civics that would get my students participating in government rather than just reading about it. Partnering with Generation Citizen, each of my classes picked an issue in our community that the students wanted to address. Over a ten week period last fall, we went through a process of choosing an issue, studying it, identifying a goal for how to address it, developing an action plan and list of key decision makers to influence, and then taking action. It was a messy process. In one class students vehemently disagreed with each other about which issue we should work on. When the class picked their issue by majority vote, students experienced democracy in action.
My students picked issues that they care deeply about and that personally affect them: evictions in the Mission District, youth violence in San Francisco, and sexual harassment at our school. None of these issues are easily solved. I worried my students would walk away from this unit having learned “adults don’t care what we have to say” or “these types of problems are too big to solve.”
But instead, this learning experience taught my students that their voices do matter. On Election Day they educated dozens of voters at the local subway station about a housing ballot measure. The measure lost by 4 percentage points, and the students were disappointed. As we debriefed the experience, though, I realized that they walked away from that day with the knowledge that individual votes matter and that they can affect how people decide to vote. They learned that just 53 percent of registered voters in our city had voted; if just a few thousand more had cast a ballot, their measure could have won. Three months later, they met with San Francisco City Supervisor David Campos to share their ideas for local affordable housing legislation.
Another class worked with school board member Matt Haney on passing an anti-violence resolution, an issue that had deep resonance for them (and me) after losing a classmate to violence at the beginning of the school year. The students read a draft of the resolution, discussed its strengths and weaknesses, and suggested ways to strengthen it. They wanted the school board to provide long-term counseling to students affected by violence for as long as they need it, not just a counselor who parachutes in for a week. Their proposal became part of the final resolution, and a dozen students testified at a packed school board meeting in support of the resolution, which passed unanimously.
My third class met with our school administration to present the problem of sexual harassment on campus and request the opportunity to lead a staff training on it. Our principal said yes, and three months later, the students led an hour long training for all of the middle school staff in which they shared personal experiences being harassed, gave a presentation about the issue, and facilitated small group discussions with teachers. The teachers gave the student trainers rave reviews, and students reported a marked decline in sexual harassment over the course of the school year simply because they had raised awareness of the issue at our school.
I’m not sure my students could tell you what branch of government is established in Article III of the Constitution, or how many representatives there are in the House. But that’s knowledge, and they can get the answer in an instant of Googling. (Maybe you need to do the same.) But by learning about our system of government in a project-based, hands-on way, my students gained the skills they will need to meaningfully participate in our democracy. They demonstrated the ability to identify a problem and then collaborate with their peers to solve it and to communicate effectively and persuasively. These types of skills are ones they will also need to be successful in college and in their future careers. Equally important, this unit gave students control over their learning. Each class got to choose the issue they worked on and could see how their learning connected to the world around them. They understood that their work products had real meaning.
At the end of the semester, students presented their portfolio of work to policy makers and other adults at “Civics Day,” a Social Studies fair organized by Generation Citizen. Not only did the students receive feedback from “real” adults (not their teachers or their parents), but they also had the chance to compare their work products to that of students from other schools. It was a more powerful form of assessment than any test I have ever given.
This fall, Congress is on the verge of passing a new federal education law, with a conference committee negotiating and reconciling the two widely different versions of an ESEA rewrite passed by the House and the Senate. Disappointingly, both versions of the bill continue to treat social studies as a bastard subject, as it has been under NCLB for the past 14 years. What’s not tested is not important.
So it will be left to states to decide what matters. Let’s hope states focus on setting standards for social studies that will prepare all students not just for college and career, but also for meaningful civic engagement. And with luck in the conference committee process, perhaps the new federal accountability system will give states some freedom to allow students to show they have met academic standards as my students did, by producing work that matters to them and to adults in the real world, not simply by filling in bubbles on standardized tests.
*Tara Kini was in a Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction class at Stanford University that Aragon High School teacher Lee Swenson and I co-taught in the late-1990s
This monthly cartoon feature looks at those in authority in the 14,000-plus school districts in the U.S. Cartoonists’ pens caricature those in positions of authority–a favorite among those who draw for a living–and reveal both the strengths and shortcomings of citizens and educators who serve the community’s children and adults. Enjoy!