The Innovation Infatuation (Chester Finn)

Over the past three decades I have admired the clarity of Checker Finn’s writing, the wry sense of humor he injects into his prose, and the willingness to challenge whatever is the mainstream wisdom of the moment. Although I have differed with Finn on key education policies (e.g., vouchers, standards and testing), he is a thoughtful, reflective writer who knows well the history of school reform. And that in of itself is a boon. Although I do not agree with all that he says here, it is, in my opinion, worth reading.

Chester Finn is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This commentary appeared December 16, 2016 on Flypaper .

Every once in a while, American K–12 education is overwhelmed by the conviction that its basic design is obsolete and that it needs somehow to reinvent schooling. One hears statements such as “If Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today from a century-long slumber, the only institutions he’d recognize would be schools and cemeteries.” We hear of education being stuck in an “industrial model.” And we observe educators, policymakers, and philanthropists scurrying to replace the schools of their childhoods with something different for their children and grandchildren to attend. We always seem to be, in the memorable phrase of Larry Cuban and the late David Tyack, “Tinkering Toward Utopia”—although those engaged in what generally ends up resembling tinkering actually fancy themselves to be bold revolutionaries.

We went through a phase of this a century ago when educators and policymakers sought to apply Frederick Taylor’s principles of “scientific management” to our disorderly collection of locally devised schools.

We went through a further round in the 1920s and ‘30s as notions of child-centered education and “social efficiency” permeated the schools.

We went through another round in the 1960s and 70s as “open classrooms” proliferated, schools were desegregated and detracked, and sundry curricular innovations (e.g., “whole language” reading and “new” math) kicked in.

We went through another round in the early 90s with “New American Schools”—a purposeful effort by Bush 41, Secretary Lamar Alexander, and former Xerox head David Kearns to “reinvent” the school—and a parallel effort led by Chris Whittle in the private sector (the “Edison Project”).

And we’re going through another round today, with initiatives such as “Reimagining Learning,” led by Stacey Childress and her team at the NewSchools Venture Fund; the Emerson Collective’s XQ SuperSchool project; Marc Zuckerberg’s efforts to “personalize learning”; and any number of technology-centric undertakings like Summit Public Schools, Carpe Diem charter schools, and K12-operated virtual schools.

Unlike more traditional societies, Americans have always been fascinated by “the new,” and that’s why, historically, a lot of inventing, discovering, and innovating has happened on U.S. shores. (That’s why, for example, so many Nobel Prizes have been conferred on Americans—including people who immigrated to this country because it was more hospitable and generous with research and discovery.) Every sector of our lives shows the after-effects of repeated cycles of innovation, many—but not all—of which have improved our lives. Some have been transformative. Some have simply been transitory, even frivolous.

In K–12 education, every reinvention effort gained some traction for a while and left a legacy behind. Indeed, one way to depict U.S. public schools circa 2016 is a vast archeological dig with layers of earlier civilizations visible as we excavate and with the pottery shards and tools that each used now heaped messily all over the place.

One may fairly ask whether the cumulative effect of all this innovating and reinventing has been profound and positive or superficial and confusing. How much good has it really done? To what extent are today’s schools truly different from those my parents attended ninety years back? And how much does that really matter? If they’re not palpably better—more effective, more impactful—we may have wasted a great deal of time, effort, and money while attempting to make them over.

Each cycle of reinvention fancies that it’s the “disruptive innovation” (in Clayton Christensen’s term) that will squeeze out the old model and replace it with something different, something more efficient, effective, and appealing. In the end, however, the net effect seems more like “tinkering” with the old model. The schools just aren’t all that different. Yes, they have whiteboards and tablets. They have different furniture, lighting, heating, and (sometimes) cooling. They have smaller classes and more ancillary staff. Many have added pre-K and afterschool programs. But fundamentally different? I think not.

Occurring in rough parallel have been all manner of external policy changes—standards, accountability, choice, teacher evaluation, funding shifts, categorical programs, etc.—that may have advanced, retarded, or simply ignored the innovators. Some were coordinated, such as the federal “e-rate” program intended to get schools online and thus make modern communications and IT tools functional within their walls. Mostly, though, I’m struck by how few fundamentals have been altered by a century of reinventing and innovating with the model itself. The school day and year aren’t much different in many places, in most of which the educational sequence is still divided into twelve grades. The essential “technology” of instruction is still a solo teacher in a four-walled classroom with fifteen to thirty kids. The curricular core remains quite similar to what it was when I—and my parents—went to school. And school governance, administration, and professional preparation still resemble the arrangements devised by progressive-era reformers and “cult of efficiency” managers.

From where I sit, the biggest changes in U.S. K–12 education have been those forced by policy shifts outside the schoolhouse: the right of millions of families to choose their school rather than being told where to go; the emergence of statewide standards and accountability regimes; and the appearance of more non-district public schools—charters mainly—even as the traditional private sector has shrunk. Yet the majority of those new schools, once you walk inside, are awfully similar to the schools to which they are alternatives.

Will the NewSchools Venture fund catalyze a different outcome, a truly and fundamentally different sort of learning environment for children? Will the Gates or Walton Foundations? The Emerson super-school? Chan Zuckerberg’s efforts at personalization? They’ll surely introduce more technology, and more classrooms will be “blended” and perhaps also “flipped.” They will strive to customize and individualize the learning experience and to help more students “own” their own learning experiences. All such efforts will, however, collide with the hoary structures, habits, and patterns that have led us to organize schools the way we have for so many decades. Real personalizing of education, for example, would disrupt just about everything: from school architecture to teacher preparation, from state academic standards and grade-level class assignments to the scheduling of the period, the day, the week, and the year. I think it makes sense to move in this direction, but I can’t see it happening at more than a snail’s pace. In the end, I suspect, it will end up looking awfully much like more tinkering. Utopia will remain the goal.

I’m all for it, for all the experimenting, innovating, and reinventing that anyone has the imagination and money to undertake. But let’s do it in an experimental mode, evaluate the bejesus out of it, and not put all our eggs in any one utopian basket. Let’s recognize that some of the most appealing (to me, at least) and high-performing new schools in the land are innovating in a “back to the future” sense, places like Great Hearts Academy with its focus on character and classics, the Latin-centric schools that have arisen in Washington and Brooklyn, the Reno- (and now Internet-) based Davidson Academy for highly gifted youngsters, and career-tech programs that integrate the classroom with the world of modern work. Much of what’s good about today’s policy regimen of common standards but independently-operated schools of choice is the enhanced capability of school innovators to strike out in potentially promising directions that may work well for different kids. I don’t want my grandchildren to go to schools that resemble the ones I attended, but neither do I want any given innovator, zillionaire funder, or snake-oil vendor to think he or she knows what’s best for them. Let’s encourage plenty of education flowers to bloom and welcome school diversity, loosely united by common standards and metrics. But let us not bow before the trendy, the fashionable, the politically correct, or the assumption that different is always better.

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Why Are There So Few Films and TV Programs That Capture the Daily Work and Life of Teachers In and Out of School? (Part 3)

Hollywood and network television have filmed cop shows, lawyer series, and doctor programs again and again over the past half-century. From “Law and Order” and “Dirty Harry” to “The Good Wife” and “The Firm” to “ER” and “Patch Adams,” viewers have gotten a sense of how detectives do stakeouts and grill suspects, lawyers do briefs and argue in court, and doctors deal with patients and emergencies. And in the past decade, computers appear regularly in the filmed work these professionals do. These network, Hollywood, and cable procedurals  have been (and are) weekly fare for tens of millions of viewers.

Procedurals show how professionals do their work daily–allowing for the ever-present conflicts and resolution within 48 minutes for a network TV program or 90 minutes for a film. They reveal how cops, lawyers, and doctors not only follow step-by-step procedures, often using cell phones and computers in doing their job, but also that their work mixes with family life and friends creating dilemmas that spill over to their private lives. These are staples for U.S. viewers.

The accuracy of these TV programs and films is secondary to their entertainment value. Nonetheless, they do capture key activities of each professional’s craft.

What about teachers and teaching? In the previous post, I pointed out that new technologies have yet to “disrupt” public/private organization, governance, and instruction in K-12 schools–as they already have in print journalism. Moreover, there are distinctions that can be made between technologies that help students acquire content and skills (e.g., playlists, software games, personalized platforms) and the actual craft of teaching that requires much face-to-face contact through hour long lessons with varied activities, different groupings of students, and screen time to reach a teacher’s content and skill objectives.

But where are the procedurals that capture six hours in schools with children and youth and how being a teacher has its own dramatic moments and dilemmas that spill over families and friends just like cops, lawyers, and doctors?

I ransacked my memory of films and TV shows about teachers and teaching (yes, I used to watch network TV’s “Our Miss Brooks in the 1950s,” “Room 222” in the 1970s and saw the Hollywood film “Blackboard Jungle in 1955 a few months before I began teaching in Cleveland, Ohio).

Then, I looked up lists of popular TV shows and Hollywood films on teachers such as   “Top Twelve Must See Movies.” The same names showed up repeatedly on these lists (e.g., “Dead Poets Society,” “Lean on Me,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Dangerous Minds”).

The film genre is heavy on teachers as heroes (“Freedom Writers,” “Akeelah and the Bee,” “To Sir with Love”), satire (e.g.,  “Chalk,” “Bad Teacher”), and violence (e.g., “The Substitute,” “187”).

Except for occasional documentaries such as Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” (1968), “American Teacher” (2011) and David Guggenheim’s “TEACH” (2013), few films and TV programs ever show the complexities and difficulties of the craft, the long hours spent preparing lessons, reading students’ work, the tedium, and interactions with students while lessons unfold. How come?

One obvious answer is the nature of film and TV which is an entertainment medium. Conflict, life-and-death decisions, making difficult choices, wreaking or avoiding violence, flawed but lovable protagonists–appeal to audiences. The film, for example, of an engaging elementary school teacher in Harlem who garners the interest of his class but is a cocaine addict (“Half Nelson”) is just what the screen demands of this genre.

Audiences would fall asleep if they were to watch how a teacher plans a lesson on the Declaration of Independence or one on polynomials, or a unit on evolution. The hours teachers spend facing a computer screen at home finding sources for students to read and watch on their screens does not make for engaging drama.

Were a TV episode devoted to a teacher managing a class reasonably well, asking stimulating questions,  and grading tests, count on audiences snoring. Orchestrating a class’s whole-group discussions, small-group work on questions to answer, and independent work on a project hardly captures viewers’ emotions. All of that, or even a portion, would leave viewers rolling their eyes , that is, if they were still open. Then at the end of the school day, the teacher leaves school to be alone in an apartment or home with family and friends leaving time set aside to plan the next  day’s lesson and grade homework.

That kind of TV  or Hollywood script, pitched to a producer in a one-minute elevator ride would be laughed at by the producer, much less make it past an editor’s eye for audience appeal. Yet such a film or TV program would be describing the daily tasks and activities that teachers and students engage in.

Another answer that may account for the low incidence of quasi-accurate teacher procedurals on screens is that every script writer has been in K-12 schools and knows teachers and the act of teaching well, they believe, because they sat a few feet away from them day in and day out for well over a decade. They think they know the topography of classrooms. Like driving a car gives the person behind the steering wheel no special knowledge of what’s under the hood or how driving has become increasingly computerized, being a student for years misses all that goes on before the teacher enters the classroom and the craft of teaching as a lesson unfolds over an hour.

The above reasons for the lack of teacher procedurals is speculation. Viewers might offer other explanations.

A few writers, however, have been teachers and their classroom savvy shows up from time to time. In HBO’s fourth year of “The Wire,” a former cop becomes a middle school math teacher in a drug-infested Baltimore neighborhood where he had been a member of a police unit working to catch drug dealers. Script writer Ed Burns was a Baltimore cop for 20 years, retired and became a school teacher in the city. He drew from both experiences to write episodes that were fictitious but conveyed a real-life classroom where a teacher was struggling to teach math to students he wanted to connect with and help; he slowly developed his craft through trial and error–to reach some but hardly all of this 8th grade students.

There are very few Ed Burns writing scripts for cable and network programs or Hollywood about the fundamentals of teaching students. I guess that is another reason why there are so few procedurals about teaching.

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Technology “Disrupting” Teaching (Part 2)

In the previous post, I argued that the onset of digital technologies since the 1990s had “disrupted” the print media beholden to a business model anchored in advertising revenues. Newspapers closed; reporters let go. Digital media spread swiftly and most Americans now get their news from screens, not newsprint.

Organizations that had not existed two decades ago such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter dispense news to their followers. New technologies had surely changed the institutional terrain of the newspaper world. But had these new technologies also irreversibly altered the practice of news gathering, writing, and publishing particularly investigative journalism?

I argued that core practices have remained constant in the midst of institutional meltdown. The practice of investigative journalism (as shown in procedural films, TV shows, and books such as “All the President’s Men,” “Lou Grant,” and “Spotlight”) not only still existed in the now smaller world of print media but also had mushroomed in cyberspace. Even with the proliferation of computer devices and software and their daily use in gathering and publishing news stories, reporters hewed to well-honed practices at  the heart of the craft called investigative journalism.

Have the new technologies that “disrupted” print media as a business done the same in public education? Have the new technologies used by schools and in classrooms altered the practice of teaching and learning? These questions I take up in this post.

Have the new technologies “disrupted” education?

The answer is no. The screeching rhetoric of new technologies “revolutionizing”  schooling in the U.S. and that  by 2020 online instruction at home and in the community will be how most children and youth learn (see here, here, here, and here)  is, well, talk. That rose-tinted future has yet to emerge from behind the curtain.

Surely, new technologies have spilled over public schools since the early 1980s and especially in the past decade. As student access to new devices and software has increased, so has teacher use in daily lessons. Laptops and tablets have become the new pen and paper in classrooms across the U.S. While for- and non-profit cyber schools have grown and online instruction has expanded in public schools,  bricks-and-mortar, age-graded public and private schools still remain the established institution they have been since the early 19th century. No “disruption” as predicted has occurred (see here and here).

Have the new technologies used by schools and in classrooms altered the practice of teaching and learning?

Depends on what “altered” means? Yes, teachers have said often in surveys and interviews that they now use new technologies to expand the resources students use in lessons, deepen the content they teach, and save time and energy in running down sources for their students while more efficiently recording grades and taking attendance. Using digital tools more frequently than  before, teachers have, indeed, changed how they access information, broaden the sources students use, and assess student understanding immediately. Teachers see these as important gains for them in planning and interacting with their students during lessons.

Digging deeper, however, has use of the new technologies altered core practices in teaching?  In age-graded schools in which children and youth are compelled to attend, elementary and secondary school teachers bring to their work strongly held beliefs in how students learn best and expertise in using techniques that best convey knowledge and skills. One of those beliefs is the importance of developing relationships with a class and individual students based on trust and affection for one another. Without this basic relationship between students and teacher, learning is hampered.

From these beliefs, elementary and secondary school teachers come up with goals and objectives for a lesson. They plan the content and skills that both kindergarten and Advanced Placement students will get to know and do in the time they will be together. They locate the sources and materials students will use for the lesson. They organize varied activities, depending on the lesson objectives, such as whole-group sessions, small-group work, and students working independently. Moreover, teachers plan and execute a beginning, middle and end of a lesson that is defined by the wall-mounted clock. These are the fundamentals of teaching to which teachers apply low- and high-tech tools.

Before there were classroom films, radio, television, and computers, these core practices characterized the teaching of lessons in age-graded schools. To be sure,  teachers then used paper, pencil, textbooks, etc. Now with digital tools available, they can enhance (or hinder) these core practices. But these core practices are constants that didn’t disappear when laptops appeared in classrooms.

In 2016, I observed over 40 teachers who had been identified as exemplars of integrating technology into their lessons. I asked the teachers whether using the new technologies had changed how they taught. One of the teachers answered “yes” and “no.” Her answer, I believe is instructive for those who fail to make the distinction between using new technologies to  save time and energy while enhancing a lesson and the deeply-embedded basic practices that teachers perform daily in getting students to learn. The former cannot erase or replace the latter.

Here is Nicole Lenz-Martin teaches in the San Mateo Union High School District at Aragon High School making that distinction. An 11-year veteran of teaching, she teaches Spanish level 3 through level 6 (including Advanced Placement). Elenz-Martin is also an instructional coach in the district and an instructor in the Stanford World Language Project.

My teaching — in terms of pedagogical strategy and philosophical beliefs about World Language instruction — has not changed because of my regular use of technology; however, the regular use of Chromebooks in my classroom has dramatically changed my access to student learning, monitoring of their proficiency development, and my ability to cover more material over the course of a school year.  

Why yes [that my teaching has changed]:

  • My students are required to be much more engaged and participatory in their learning because of their interaction with my lessons through technology.  When covering material in class, every student can interact with the presentation on my SmartBoard to share answers, respond to polls, or ask questions (Peardeck, Nearpod, Google Forms, etc.)  This has informed my instruction immensely and has allowed me to change my lesson “on-the-fly” to ensure understanding before moving on.
  • Students practice new vocabulary and/or comprehension questions with Quizlet, for example, and I can see their results and areas of challenge in real time.  It allows me to change my path of instruction if necessary, as stated above, and it also allows me to personalize the learning for each student’s level and need.  
  • Students have built classroom community and have strengthened camaraderie with review games (Quizlet Live, Socrative Space Race, and Kahoot!).  Not only has light ‘gaming’ sparked excitement and interest for the students in learning the material, but it has allowed me to formatively assess each students’ understanding and learning on a daily basis.  The comfort level and “fun” among classmates has allowed them to be better risk-takers and communicators with one another, and this is critical for a language class where students really need to feel confident and safe around their classmates.    
  • Students have had individual access to more authentic materials from around the world, which is of course extremely important for culture and language learning.  Their interaction with videos, texts, and audio can be documented in EdPuzzle, GoFormative, and Google Classroom.  I can see their engagement with the material in a way that I was never able to assess before, and I can respond to students both individually and as a group much more efficiently and effectively.  I can see what they are learning about a culture and I can motivate them to respond more critically to what they are seeing and comparing to their own culture….

Why [my teaching has not changed]

Certain parts of teaching can never be replaced, enhanced, or changed by technology.  The very most critical aspect of my teaching is the relationship that I create with each and every one of my students.  Without having a strong, trusting, solid, and respectful relationship with each student, he or she is lost in my classroom and will be unable to learn from my teaching.  Because I speak almost exclusively in Spanish, the oral communication in my classroom and the relationships with my students are the very cornerstones of my teaching.  Therefore: 

  • Technology has not replaced the way I speak or communicate with my students, and since I am a Spanish teacher, they are still listening and responding to me and to each other through oral communication much more than with the technology.  The amount that I expect them to speak with me and communicate with one another is the same as it has always been, even before technology access. 

Complex Instruction and Groupworthy tasks:  I passionately believe in the importance of “student talk” and participation for learning, especially when it comes to working with partners and small groups on a communicative and/or complex task.  Technology is almost non-existent in my classroom when students are working on an assignment that involves learning through talking with one another.  Without going into too much detail — technology hardly has changed the way I engage students in partnering and groupwork….

Lenz-Martin’s “yes” and “no” answer nicely captures how, like investigative journalism, the core procedures and practices of the craft continue regardless of the high-tech devices available. Also Lenz-Martin captures the complexity of teaching high schoolers, the procedures she follows in daily contact with her students. Much of what she describes is  seldom seen in Hollywood films and television screens past and present.

Which brings me to the next post. With all of the film and TV shows describing how detectives, doctors, and journalists perform their craft and live their lives in and out of their workplaces, why are there so few dramatizations that capture the daily work and life of teachers in and out of their classrooms?

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Technology “Disrupting” Journalism and Teaching (Part 1)

Recently a few friends and I saw “All The President’s Men.” The 1976 film about the Watergate burglary in 1972, the subsequent cover up by the White House and eventual resignation of President Nixon in 1974 featured Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford playing Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward.

As I watched the two-hour film unfold, these young investigative reporters ran down leads, established facts, verified sources, and pecked out their stories on typewriters– desktop computers didn’t enter newsrooms until the early 1980s. Constantly on landline phones in the newsroom checking out facts and sources, using street-corner telephone booths when they were checking out leads in the field, and jotting notes hurriedly as they interviewed and re-interviewed sources, the technology was clearly state-of-the-art for the early 1970s. The film (drawn from the book of the same name) is a textbook description of how investigative reporters go about their work on a daily basis.

If “Law and Order,” “NYPD Blue” and “Blue Bloods” are police procedurals detailing the steps that patrolmen and detectives investigate a case, develop theories, establish facts, and make arrests, then “All the President’s Men” is a journalism procedural much like the recent Oscar nominated film “Spotlight” that followed a Boston Globe team investigating Catholic priests accused of abusing children and youth. A generation later than the Watergate burglary and Nixon’s resignation, a “Spotlight” reporter commenting on the film, said:  “We talk on the phone, we do data entry, we look at court records. Good luck making that interesting!” Their newspaper stories published in 2002 became an Oscar-winning film in 2016.

Fast forward 40 years from the Washington Post reporters and nearly two decades since  the Boston Globe pieces on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of abusive priests, and journalists today use an array of technologies that were unavailable then to journalists. Today reporters for print and digital media carry cell phones that double as recorders and memo takers, laptops and tablets; they access social media hourly, and write stories for both digital and print editions of newspapers and magazines. The range of technologies available to journalists in 2017 is stunning compared to their peers a mere generation or two earlier.

More obvious to readers is how much new digital technologies have “disrupted” the traditional organizational business of journalism and print media. Most Americans now get their news from screens: television network and cable news programs, Google, Facebook, and other digital media rather than print publications. With the loss of advertising revenue and subscribers to digital competitors, newspapers and magazines have cut back the number of reporters, reduced actual size of their printed product, and altered publishing schedules. Many newspapers and magazines have gone out of business. There is little question that new technologies have taken print media and given it a shaking similar to the onset of the telegraph ending the pony express over a century ago.

Digital and print media, of course, still employ reporters (the number of newspaper reporters have fallen from 57,000 in 1990 to 33,000 in 2015) who investigate  drug abuse and crime, political corruption, corporate wrongdoing,  educational failures, and medical scandals. ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, The Lens, BuzzFeed, Fusion, and other digital companies have investigative reporters as do national print media like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

With all of the new technologies creating “disruptions” in print media and the rise of digital-only news, has the daily work of journalists getting the story accurately changed since Washington Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward in the early 1970s and the Boston Globe team in the late-1990s?

Seeing all of the devices that reporters have at their fingertips, it surely appears that it has. Seeing contemporary journalists portrayed in films (e.g., “House of Cards,” the Australian series “The Code”), on their cell phones, clicking away at their Facebook and Twitter feeds, accessing various data bases, filling in spread sheets,and furiously tapping away at their laptops to meet a deadline would startle a Rip Van Winkle reporter alive in 1972 dropped into today’s newsroom.

Yet, I argue that one has to look past these powerful technologies to see what reporters do daily to get the full story correctly and write it up for their editors.  The journalist procedural highlighted in “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” remain today amidst all of the devices and information access.

I have looked at present-day advice that investigative journalists give to novices and, except for one or two points, none of the advice has to do with technologies. The advice is about knocking on doors, analyzing documents, interviewing and re-interviewing sources, getting new leads, sniffing out weird clues, working closely with editors, and writing clearly for readers that are at the heart of doing investigative journalism (see here, here, here, and here). Bernstein and Woodward, I would guess, would nod their heads in agreement with the advice.

The eye-catching technologies, while enormously helpful in getting and organizing information efficiently, do not alter the basic steps of the craft that first-rate journalists have to pursue in getting the story. While the technologies change over time, the legwork, tedious checking and re-checking of sources, figuring out what the essence of the story is,and writing clearly remain at the heart of journalists reporting their stories.

In Part 2, I look at teaching procedurals in film and story, the changes in technology over time, and the craft of teaching.

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Life in Schools: Cartoons

For this month, I have gathered a dozen or so cartoons that shine a light on different facets of life in schools. Enjoy!

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A Continuum on Personalized Learning: First Draft

After visiting over three dozen teachers in 11 schools in Silicon Valley and hearing an earful about “personalized learning,” I drafted a continuum where I could locate all of the different versions of “personalized learning” I observed and have read about.

If readers have comments about what’s missing, what needs to be added or how I organized the continuum conceptually, I would surely appreciate hearing from you.

In 2016, when I visited Silicon Valley classrooms, schools and districts, many school administrators and teachers told me that they were personalizing learning. From the Summit network of charter schools to individual teachers at Los Altos and Mountain View High School where Bring Your Own Devices reigned to two Milpitas elementary schools that had upper-grade Learning Labs and rotated students through different stations in all grades, I heard the phrase often.

But I was puzzled by what I saw and heard. When asked what a teacher, principal or district administrator meant by “personalized learning I heard different definitions of the policy. Not a surprise since the history of school reform is dotted with the debris of earlier instructional reforms that varied greatly in definitions (e.g., New Math, Socratic seminars, mastery learning, individualized instruction). No one definition of personalized learning monopolizes the reform terrain. [i]

When I went into classrooms to see what “personalized learning” meant in action, I observed much variation in the lessons and units that bore the label. None of this should be surprising since “technology integration” and other reform-minded policies draw from the hyped-up world of new technologies where vendors, promoters, critics, and skeptics compete openly  for the minds (and wallets) of those who make decisions about what gets into classrooms.

Not only have definitions of “personalized learning” among policymakers and entrepreneurs varied,  but also diverse incarnations have taken form as the policy   percolated downward from school board decisions, superintendent directions to principals, and principals’ asking teachers to put into practice a new board policy. Teacher adaptations of policy is as natural as a yawn and just as prevalent. Variation in district schools and classrooms is the norm, not the exception.

Translated into practice in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the concept of “personalized instruction” is like a chameleon; it appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, the AltSchool, and the Agora Cyber School blazon their personalized learning  (or competency-based learning) placard for all to see yet it differs in each location.[ii]

The Personalized Learning Continuum

To make sense of what I observed in Silicon Valley schools and what I know historically about instructionally-guided reforms over the past century, I have constructed a continuum of classrooms, programs, and schools that encompass distinct ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons seeking short- and long-term goals for schooling the young.

Let me be clear, I place no value for either end (or the middle) of the personalized learning continuum. I have stripped away value-loaded words in my writing that suggest some kinds of personalized learning are better than others. Moreover, the continuum does not suggest the effectiveness of “personalized learning” or achievement of specific student outcomes.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons within the traditional age-graded school. These classrooms and programs, switching back and forth between phrases on “competency-based education” and “personalization,” use new technologies online and in class daily that convey specific content and skills, aligned to Common Core standards, to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market and become adults who help their communities.

The format of these lessons including the instructional moves the teacher makes in seguing from one activity to another, handling student behavior, time management, and student participation in activities to reach the lesson’s objectives typically call for a mix of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently. At this end of the continuum, these lessons contain a mix of whole group, small group, and independent activities but with a decided tilt to teacher direction and whole-group work.

For examples, consider the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire,  USC Hybrid High School CA), and Lindsay Unified School District (CA). While these examples inhabit the teacher-centered end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from  Virtual Learning Academy Charter. [iii]

Yet I cluster these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using online and offline lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Specific behavioral outcomes guide what is expected of each and every student. The knowledge and skills are packaged by software designers and teachers and delivered to students daily and weekly. Students use applications that permit them to self-assess their mastery of the specific knowledge and skills embedded in discrete lessons. Some students move well ahead of their peers, others maintain steady progress, and some need help from teachers.

Even though these schools and programs often use the language of student-centeredness (e.g., students decide what to learn, students participate in their own learning), and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, the teacher-crafted playlists and online lessons keyed to particular concepts and skills determine what is to be learned. Finally, these programs and schools, operating within traditional K-12 age-graded schools, are descendants of the efficiency-minded wing of the Progressive reforms a century earlier.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered classrooms, programs, and schools often departing from the traditional age-graded school model in using multi-age groupings, asking big questions that combine reading, math, science, and social studies while integrating new technologies regularly in lessons. These places seek to cultivate student agency and want children and youth to reach beyond academic and intellectual development. They want to shape how individual students grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

Moreover, these programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions including community-based activities. The overall goals of schooling at this end of the continuum are similar to ones at the teacher-directed end: help children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults. Like the other end of the spectrum, these approaches draw from the pedagogical wing of the Progressives a century ago.[iv]

For example, there are over 60 Big Picture Learning schools across the nation where students create their own “personalized learning plans” and work weekly as interns on projects that capture their passions. Or High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), The Open Classroom at Lagunitas Elementary in San Geronimo (CA), the Continuous Progress Program at Highlands Elementary in Edina (MN)–all have multi-age groupings, project-based instruction, and focus on the “whole child.” And there are private schools such as San Francisco-based AltSchool, a covey of micro-schools located in big cities and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well. [v]

Lesson formats in schools at this end of the continuum commonly call for a blend of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently–with alignment to Common Core standards. At this end of the continuum, these lessons bend noticeably toward small group and individual activities with occasional whole group instruction.

Many of these schools claim that they “personalize learning” in their daily work to create graduates who are independent thinkers, can work in any environment, and help to make their communities better places to live. There are many such schools scattered across the nation (but I found no public school in Silicon Valley that would fit here). Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum, much variation exists among these schools harbored at this end of the continuum.[vi]

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrid programs and schools mixing teacher-directed and student-directed lessons. In this diverse middle are teachers, schools and programs that provide blends of whole group, small group, and independent activities in lessons. Some teachers and schools, in their quest to personalize learning tilt toward the teacher-directed end while others lean toward the student-centered pole. But they occupy slots in the middle of the continuum.

These classrooms, schools, and programs combine online and offline lessons for individual students and teacher-directed whole group discussions, and small group work such as ones taught by Mountain View High School English teacher, Kristen Krauss, Aragon High School Spanish teacher, Nicole Elenz-Martin, and second-grade teacher Jennifer Auten at Montclaire Elementary School in Cupertino (CA) into blends of teacher- and student-centered lessons.

The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 charter school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting toward the teacher-directed end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on.

I would also include the nine teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed  who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While the two Summit schools in which I observed teachers had explicitly committed itself to “project-based learning,” the projects were largely chosen by the teachers who collaborated with one another in making these decisions for all Summit schools; the projects were aligned to the Common Core state standards.

While choices were given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects were in teachers’ hands. That is why I placed these teachers, programs, and schools in the center of the continuum, rather than the student-centered end.

Such schools and teachers mix competency-based, individual lessons for children with lessons that are teacher-directed and pursuing project-based activities. The format of lessons continue the inevitable mix of whole, group, small group, and independent learning with inclinations to more of one than the other, depending on lesson objectives and teacher expertise. In no instance, however, does whole-group activities dominate lesson after lesson.

Like those at the teacher- and student-centered ends, these programs lodged in the middle of the spectrum contain obvious differences among them. In hugging the middle, however, these programs also embody distinct traces of both the efficiency- and pedagogical wings of the century old Progressive reformers.

The popular policy innovation of “personalized learning” has a history of Progressive reformers a century ago embedded in it. Implementation today, as before, depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that rigorous–however it is defined–lessons will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of the policy. And putting “personalized learning” into classroom practice means that there will continue to be hand-to-hand wrestling with issues of testing and accountability.

Yet, and this is a basic point, 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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[i] In the glossary of educational terms, the entry describes a full array of meanings for the phrase. One of the longer entries in the glossary, personalized learning includes programs, instructional applications, and academic strategies. See: http://edglossary.org/personalized-learning/

[ii] Each of the programs named claim that they have personalized learning. See their websites for descriptions of what each does. Rocketship can be found at: http://www.rsed.org/

Alt/School can be found at: https://www.altschool.com/

Agora Cyber School can be found at: http://www.agora.org/home

[iii] The New Hampshire Virtual Learning Academy Charter website describes its format and content at: http://vlacs.org/ .

An article on the virtual school’s creation and operation is: Julia Fisher, “New Hampshire’s Journey toward Competency-Based Education,” Education Next, February 1, 2015; USC Hybrid High School’s website is at: http://www.ednovate.org/about-usc/#image1-1

Also see Mike Syzmanski, “USC Hybrid High School Graduates Its First Class, with All 84 Heading to College,” LA School Report, June 13, 2016.

For Lindsay Unified School District, see Christina Qattrocchi, “How Lindsay Unified Redesigned Itself from the Ground Up,” EdSurge, June 17, 2014.

[iv] See Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) in chapters on New York City and Denver for student-centered reforms in the 1920s and 1930s.

[v] Descriptions of Big Picture Learning schools can be found at: Katrina Schwartz, “Can Truly Student-Centered Education Be Available To All?” KQED News, December 8, 2015 at: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/12/08/is-the-public-system-scared-to-put-students-at-the-center-of-education/

Stephen Ceasar, “For Students at L.A.’s Big Picture Charter School, Downtown Is Their Classroom,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2014; for a YouTube description that includes interview with one of the co-founders of Big Picture Learning, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT716pobd2o

For Mission Hill School, see: http://www.missionhillschool.org/

Open Classroom at Lagunitas can be found aat: http://lagunitas.org/open/

Edina’s Continuous Progress elementary school option is at: http://webapps.edinaschools.org/sw/cp/newcpinfo.html

Private micro-schools called AltSchool can be found at: https://www.altschool.com/

The Khan Lab School, a private school, is at: http://khanlabschool.org/

[vi] Mission Hill School’s website is: http://www.missionhillschool.org/

Lagunitas Open Classroom’s history and offerings are at: http://lagunitas.org/open/history/

Continuous Progress School in Edina (MN) has a description of its program at: http://webapps.edinaschools.org/sw/cp/newcpinfo.html

On the AltSchool, see Rebecca Mead, “Learn Different,” New Yorker, March 7, 2016; for the Khan Lab School, see Jason Tanz, “The Tech Elite’s Quest to Reinvent School in Its Own Image,” Wired, October 26, 2015 at: https://www.wired.com/2015/10/salman-khan-academy-lab-school-reinventing-classrooms/

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How Technology Integration Has Altered Doctor/Patient Care in Hospitals (David Rosenthal, M.D. and Abraham Verghese, M.D.)

Over the past few years, I have compared physicians and teachers because even with so many differences in preparation and the nature of their work, they share two core principles. Both professionals belong to helping professions where their success, in part, is dependent upon the patient and the student. And success, however defined, depend upon each professional developing close relationships with their patients and students. The degree to which labor-saving devices have increased the efficiency of both physicans and teachers in carrying out their daily work, there are, nonetheless, tradeoffs that have become apparent as professionals practice in hospitals and schools.

The following article, “Meaning and Nature of Physicians’ Work,” appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, November 16, 2016. To see citations, click on footnote number in NEJM article.

….Typically in our field, internal medicine, residents arrive at the hospital at 7 a.m., get sign-outs from nighttime residents, and conduct “pre-rounds” to see patients they have inherited but don’t know well, before heading to morning report or attending rounds. Attending rounds often consist of “card-flipping” sessions held in a workroom, frequently interrupted by discharge planning and pages, calls, and texts from nurses and specialists. Finalizing discharges before noon can feel more important than getting to know new patients. Increasingly, the attending physician doesn’t see patients with the team, given the time constraints.

No longer are there paper charts at the bedside. The advent of the electronic era, while reducing the time required for tracking down laboratory or radiology results, has not substantially changed the time spent with patients: recent estimates indicate that medical students and residents often spend more than 40 to 50% of their day in front of a computer screen filling out documentation, reviewing charts, and placing orders. They spend much of the rest of their time on the phone coordinating care with specialists, pharmacists, nutritionists, primary care offices, family members, social workers, nurses, and care coordinators; very few meetings with these people occur face-to-face. Somewhat surprisingly, the time spent with patients has remained stable over the past six decades.1

The skills learned early by today’s medical students and house staff — because they are critical to getting the work done — are not those needed to perform a good physical exam or take a history, but rather the arts of efficient “chart biopsy,” order entry, documentation, and sign-out in the electronic age. When a medical team gets notice of a new admission, it seems instinctive and necessary to study the patient’s record before meeting him or her. This “flipped patient” approach2 has advantages, but it introduces a framing bias and dilutes independent assessment and confirmation of history or physical findings.

In short, the majority of what we define as “work” takes place away from the patient, in workrooms and on computers. Our attention is so frequently diverted from the lives, bodies, and souls of the people entrusted to our care that the doctor focused on the screen rather than the patient has become a cultural cliché. As technology has allowed us to care for patients at a distance from the bedside and the nursing staff, we’ve distanced ourselves from the personhood, the embodied identity, of patients, as well as from our colleagues, to do our work on the computer.

But what is the actual work of a physician? Medical students entering the wards for the first time recognize a dysjunction, seeing that physicians’ work has less to do with patients than they had imagined. The skills they learned in courses on physical diagnosis or communication are unlikely to improve. Despite all the rhetoric about “patient-centered care,” the patient is not at the center of things.

Meanwhile, drop-down menus, cut-and-paste text fields, and lists populated with a keystroke have created a medical record that (at least in documenting the physical exam) at best reads like fiction or meaningless repetition of facts and at worst amounts to misleading inaccuracies or fraud. Given the quantity of information and discrepancies within medical records, it’s often impossible to discern any signal in the mountains of noise. Yet our entire health care system — including its financing, accounting, research, and quality reporting — rests heavily on this digital representation of the patient, the iPatient, and provides incentives for its creation and maintenance.3 It would appear from our hospital quality reports that iPatients uniformly get wonderful care; the experiences of actual patients are a different question.

It’s clear that physicians are increasingly dissatisfied with their work, resentful of the time required to transcribe and translate information for the computer and the fact that, in that sense, the work never stops. Burnout is widespread in the workforce, and more than a quarter of residents have depression or depressive symptoms.4 In response, health care leaders have advocated amending the “Triple Aim” of enhancing patients’ experience, improving population health, and reducing costs to add a fourth goal: improving the work life of the people who deliver care.

A 2013 study commissioned by the American Medical Association highlights some of the factors associated with higher professional satisfaction. Perhaps not surprisingly, the investigators found that perceptions of higher quality of care, autonomy, leadership, collegiality, fairness, and respect were critical. The report highlighted persistent problems with the usability of electronic health records as a “unique and vexing challenge.”5

These findings underscore the importance of reflecting on what our work once was, what it now is, and what it should be. Regardless of whatever nobility inhered in the work of physicians in a bygone era, that work was done under conditions and quality standards that would now be unacceptable. We practice in a safer and more efficient system with measurable outcomes. Yet with the current rates of burnout, our expectations for finding meaning in our profession and careers seem largely unfulfilled.

We believe that if meaning is to be restored, the changes needed are complex and will have to be made nationally, beginning with a dialogue that includes the people on medicine’s front lines. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for improving our professional satisfaction in the short term lies in restoring our connections with one another. We could work on rebuilding our practices and physical spaces to promote the sorts of human connections that can sustain us — between physicians and patients, physicians and physicians, and physicians and nurses. We could get back to the bedside with patients, families, and nurses. We could get to know our colleagues from other specialties in shared lunchrooms or meeting spaces.

In addition, we believe that in the coming years, the U.S. medical community will have to rethink the human–computer interface and more thoughtfully merge the real patient with the iPatient. We have an opportunity to radically redesign electronic health record systems, initially created for fee-for-service billing, as our organizations shift toward bundled payments, capitation, and risk sharing. Perhaps virtual scribes and artificial intelligence will eventually reduce our documentation burden.

But technology cannot restore our professional satisfaction. Our profession will have to rebuild a sense of teamwork, community, and the ties that bind us together as human beings. We believe that will require spending more time with each other and with our patients, restoring some rituals that are meaningful to both us and the people we care for and eliminating those that are not.

Solutions will not be easy, since the problems are entangled in the high cost of health care, reimbursement for our work, and obstacles to health care reform. But we can start by recalling the original purpose of physicians’ work: to witness others’ suffering and provide comfort and care. That remains the privilege at the heart of the medical profession.

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