Integrating Technology In Classrooms: Teach To One in a Oakland Charter School

“Personalized learning” joins “disrupted” and “transform” as popular hyped words used by policymakers, entrepreneurs, superintendents, online enthusiasts, and wannabe reformers. As with the other catch-phrases, “personalized learning” means different things to different people (see here, here, and here). What all do share is a commitment to another often-hyped but less attractive phrase: “competency-based learning” or individualized mastery learning that has nearly a half-century of experience in U.S. schools. Now, with digital tools available and a climate hostile to the “factory-system of schooling”, the capacity to convert “personalized” learning into daily school work has spread.

So, no surprise that when “personalized learning” is translated into practice, the concept appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, AltSchool, Agora Cyber School, and the rural Lindsay Unified School District in California’s Central Valley blazon their “personalized learning”  (or “competency-based learning”) placard for all to see. It is a marketplace where different brands compete for the shopper’s attention. Within this branding competition sits Teach To One.

Teach To One is a middle school math program that re-arranges traditional classroom space and furniture, tailors daily lessons for individual students, and uses different forms of teaching (“modalities” is their favored word) within a 90-minute period. The program grew out of a venture in New York City called School for One that got rave reviews (see here). Two of its founders left and created a non-profit that markets Teach To One; it is now in 28 schools in eight states teaching math to 10,000 students. Teach To One has received rave reviews in its early growth years (see here and here).*

On May 15, 2016, I spent an hour and a half shadowing Lupe (a pseudonym), an eighth grade student at ASCEND charter school** in Oakland where she and about 100 classmates (sixth graders were on a field trip) received their daily math instruction through Teach To One. The Director of Teach To One, Winona Bassett (a pseudonym) briefed me on the first-year program, answered a number of questions I had and found the student I would shadow. She explained to me the different “modalities” I would see during the morning.

What I observed are clear instances of both teachers and students seamlessly integrating technology in a lesson on scientific notation. The math skill of scientific notation is listed on the online Portal  (for a video explaining the Portal, see here) The Portal shows the playlist and the skill the student is working on for that day  (it is numbered A 280–“I will solve real world problems involving numbers in scientific notation”). The Portal (see here) also includes each student’s all important Exit Slip which contains multiple choice questions that the student has to answer. It is an assessment of grasping and applying the skill. One Exit Slip question, for example, asks: “A website had approximately 300 thousand visits in 2010. The number of visits rose to 6.31 X 10¹° in 2011. In scientific notation, how many more visits were there in 2011 than in 2010?” The student has four choice from which to choose. The central server in New York City reports to the staff how well or poorly each students has done on the questions. How many were missed, how many correct. Using the Portal, students (and their parents) can see exactly how they are faring on each skill, how much work they have to do and whether they have “room for growth, are almost there, and great and perfect”  (Teach To One calls these skill levels “Foundational, Core, and Extension”). Lupe is working on a skill that is “at grade level.” This version of “personalized learning” also is “competency based.”

The student’s answer to these Exit Slip questions each day determines what the student will work on the following one. All Exit Slips are sent electronically to New York City, graded, and “using, ” in the Director’s words,  “algorithms and human judgment,” the next day’s Exit Slip is sent back within hours  to the director and teachers of the program. Through accessing the Portal, students then know what they will work on the next day and whether or not they are progressing or regressing (or mastered) each skill. All math skills are aligned with Common Core standards in a highly flexible physical environment unlike a traditional classroom.

The physical space. Taking over the school’s library, the large space is demarcated into four separate rooms each with a sign of a local university (e.g., San Jose State, San Francisco State). Each room is designed with Teach To One space consultants. has long tables–each movable chair clearly numbered–capable of seating up to six students.




















There is much noise from different segments of the room since library shelving units separate the spaces. Students, teachers, and aides went about their business amid ebb and flow of sound across the divided space. One space is used for a teacher-directed lesson on scientific notation (see below), another space is used for students to use their Chromebooks to work on the individually designed lesson on scientific notation (based on their results of work the previous day recorded on their online Exit Slip–see below); the third space is for collaborative work between and among students and teachers. The fourth space is used for a teacher-directed lesson on circumference. This morning, the seventh and eighth graders are distributed between the four “rooms” spending a half-hour in each space before moving on to the next “modality.” For each segment of the 90-minute class, students sit at different tables with different classmates.

The students. Ages 13-14, these seventh and eighth graders, mostly Latino boys and girls (see demography of ASCEND below) range in size from large to pint-sized, exhibiting varying stages of puberty. They are filled with energy, zest, and seriousness mixed with playfulness. As an old white man on a cane, I stand out among them and when I sit at a table next to the student I am shadowing, many ask my name and what I am doing there. I tell them that I am shadowing Lupe and will write about the class on my blog. I tell them my name and one student yells out: “Larry, the Cable Guy.” The name sticks as I move from one “modality” to another. As I observe them in each “modality,” I see students using their Chromebooks and reading from the screen and writing in a large notebook. There is much back-and-forth between students about the task they were working on and playful kidding with each other as they exchange information about friends, how each looked. etc.

ASCEND students have a dress code. They wear tee-shirts or hoodies  marked with an ASCEND logo on the front; on the back of the tee-shirt is printed one-liners  called the Six Ways to ASCEND:

•”Take Charge of Your Own Learning”

∗Be kind and considerate

•Help Each Other


•Be Responsible for yourself, your family, and your community

•Be reflective”

The teachers. For the 50 students there this morning, there are two credentialed teachers and two teaching assistants. I watched both teachers in their different spaces for 30 minute periods. Chimes ring during the 90 minutes they take math signaling students when to switch “modalities”(e.g., go from 10-minute Math Advisory–like a “homeroom”–to a teacher-directed lesson, etc.) and when they must complete their Exit Slip, and when they move to their next ASCEND class.

The first teacher I observe is doing what the program calls “Live Investigation.” An experienced teacher, Julia Kerr (a pseudonym) has 10 students at three tables. For 30 minutes she conducts a recitation/whole group discussion/Q & A on converting standard notation to scientific notation. She begins with a matrix of four cells on the whiteboard, each cell holding the following symbols: +, -, x, ÷  .  Students open their  notebooks and draw the matrix. She then asks students: “what are the rules when we add decimals?” She calls on students by name.

At my table, there are two boys and two girls. They have their Chromebooks open and have taken out their notebooks and pens. As they exchange information and gossip, they move easily between Spanish and English. One of the boys is a big, non-stop talker who prods the much shorter, slight boy with jokes and comments about others in the class. The smaller boy laughs but hardly responds back. The two girls say nothing to the larger boy’s comments. The teacher who scans the class constantly sees what is happening and admonishes the boy by name. He quiets down and returns to his Chromebook and notebook.

Teacher asks: “What do you do when when you multiply (3.4 X 10-²) by (6.2 X 10−³)?” A few students raise their hands and reply. She builds on their responses and gives examples to tie down point. She then moves to subtraction part of matrix. Kerr moves around room while talking and insuring that everyone is on task. When one student yells out an answer to one of her questions instead of raising hand and waiting for teacher to call upon him, she looks directly at him and says: “You have a warning.”***

Teacher moves through each cell of matrix giving examples and asking students by name to respond to her questions about how to convert standard to scientific notation. They use their calculators on the Chromebook and move easily back and forth between paper and screen. As she walks around, students show her their screens and notes they have taken.

Chimes ring a five minute warning. Kerr begins to sum up by asking students to “pay attention.” She goes over rules students should follow in doing conversion and asks a student–the large boy at my table–to “do it for me.” He does. Then she asks students to work with partner to review each other’s work. They do. No back-and-forth at my table. All work. Kerr puts up on whiteboard another example of converting from standard to scientific notation. Chimes ring and the 10 students disperse to work in a different “modality.”

I asked Lupe what she got out of the class. She told me that Ms. Kerr helped her understand better what scientific notation is. She will use her notes when she works on her Exit Slip. When I asked if she can convert standard to scientific notation, she paused, hesitated, and murmured something I could not hear. She smiled and we went to the next class.

In this “modality,” Lupe and classmates will work individually in their Chromebooks, consult their notebook, ask veteran teacher Donald Percy (pseudonym) questions about scientific notation that they are stuck on. There are 24 students in the room. They open their Chromebooks and notebooks. Most dig right into the task. Some are clearly stuck. Percy sees this whether they raise their hands for help or not. He moves easily in and around the tables, questioning a student, making suggestions, and going to white board to show what a student is stuck on and what the student needs to do. At my table there is one boy and four girls. The boy cracks jokes and one girl occasionally laughs. He is working from another sheet of paper and answering questions on paper. It is his “Independent Practice” handout. While some students who work at Independent Practice use Chromebooks for their handouts, some do not. I learn later from the Director of the program that he is having a very hard time with previous skills and the current scientific notation. The girls at my table generally ignore him and proceed to move back-and-forth from notebook to Chromebook. Percy works with three boys at another table who need help. He goes to the whiteboard and writes down examples, explaining how to go from standard to scientific notation. Chimes ring signaling that everyone transitions back to 10-minute Math Advisories to complete there Exit Slip.

Those at my table begin doing so. Quiet descends in the room. Students click away on the questions they have to answer, given where they are in mastering the skill. Some consult their notebooks. Before the chimes ring, the teacher praises the entire group for their diligent work and then asks students as they leave to plug in their Chromebooks to recharge them. They do. In a few minutes, this session ends and students move to their next ASCEND class.

I met with the Director to debrief. I was curious about the switching between paper and screen and she explained that this was a teacher decision, not a company one, since teachers wanted a record, “evidence” was the word she used, that staff could assess and then compare what they see on paper with students’ progress through the competency-based math curriculum via Exit Slips. She explained to me the rapid electronic turnaround between New York City servers and staff, Teach To One accessibility to distant staff, and the ups-and-down of being a first year program. Her enthusiasm was infectious and I thanked her for setting up the shadowing of a student.






*Joel Rose, one of the founders of School of One who joined with Christopher Rush to start-up New Classrooms, contacted me in March 2016. He wanted to discuss Teach To One with me. We met for coffee talking about his vision of schooling, “personalized learning,” and his work in expanding New Classrooms. Afterwards, I asked him if he could arrange my visiting its Oakland Unified School District site in ASCEND charter school. He did.

**ASCEND is a Oakland public charter school that opened in 2001. The charter serves 430 students in grades K-8 with 24 students in every class. Students are 80% Latino, 8% Asian, 6% African American, 5% Multi-Racial, and 1% Filipino (2015). Poverty rate in school, determined by number of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, is 95 percent (2013).

***the classroom disciplinary policy is ASCEND’s. Verbal warning first. Then with another violation, name goes on whiteboard. Next time a check mark next to name. After two check marks, detention, and with three check marks, student goes to principal. I learned this from the student I shadowed and classmates. None of the students knew of anyone who had been ejected from their math class.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

What Has Done More to Improve Living Standards: Indoor Toilets, Air-conditioning, or Smart Phones?

Living in the heart of Silicon Valley–where bullet-proof coffee, gluten-free muffins, and traffic gridlock prevail–I am surrounded daily by unrelenting optimism about the promise of technology making our lives better. I would guess, then, that fellow Valley-ites, if given the above choices, would pick “smart phones.” *

Were they to do so, they would be wrong. According to economic historian Robert Gordon, between 1870-1970 standards of living rose far more dramatically than the half-century since 1970. As he puts it:

The century of revolution in the United States after the Civil War was economic, not political, freeing households from an unremitting daily grind of painful manual labor, household drudgery, darkness, isolation, and early death. Only one hundred years later, daily life had changed beyond recognition. Manual outdoor jobs were replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by electric appliances, darkness was replaced by light, and isolation was replaced not just by travel, but also by color television images bringing the world into the living room. Most important, a newborn infant could expect to live not to age forty-five, but to age seventy-two. The economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique in human history, unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once.

And since 1970 and the advent of computer technology in daily life? Gordon says:

… economic growth since 1970 has been simultaneously dazzling and disappointing. This paradox is resolved when we recognize that advances since 1970 have tended to be channeled into a narrow sphere of human activity having to do with entertainment, communications, and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health, and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress slowed down after 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Thus, an unheralded, stunning century of innovation and economic growth produced the telegraph, phone, television, house lighting, automobile, airplane travel, and, yes, indoor plumbing. These inventions networked the home and workplace in ways that raised living standards and increased workplace productivity considerably. It was in that same century that medical advances reduced infant mortality and lengthened life of Americans dramatically.

The half-century since 1970 has surely seen innovations that have enhanced these earlier inventions but the template for economic growth was laid down for that fruitful hundred-year period.  In past decades, new technologies have clearly expanded communication and entertainment, making life far more instantaneous, convenient and pleasurable. But social media, immediate communication, and constant access to photos, video clips, and films have not increased the standard of living as had the decades between 1870-1970. This is the argument that Gordon makes in the Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016).

What does Gordon’s argument and enormous evidence he compiled (the book is 762 pages long) have to do with the current school reform movement prompted in large part by  A Nation at Risk that appeared in 1983?

Recall that the highly influential report that CEOs, philanthropists, and political leaders embraced was driven by an economic rationale–the human capital argument–for improving U.S. schools:

If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all—old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority.

Linking school reform to economic growth and competition, the Report spurred a generation of reformers to raise curriculum and performance standards for both students and teachers, increase testing, and create accountability frameworks that included rewards and penalties in subsequent decades. Marrying school reform to the nation’s economic growth–the human capital rationale for schooling (see here and a rebuttal here)–occurred, according to Robert Gordon, at roughly the same moment–1970s–when the “special century” of inventions, innovations, rising standard of living and productivity were ebbing.

In other words, reforms aimed at getting U.S. students to perform better on international tests for the past three decades–think No Child Left Behind, expanded parental choice in schools, more computers in schools, and Common Core state standards–was of little influence on growing a strong economy, raising median income, or lessening inequality, according to Gordon. These reforms, while aiding low-income minorities in many instances, overall, contributed little to improving productivity or raising standards of living.

Of course, Gordon and others (including myself) see schools as crucial in a democracy for many reasons. But one of them is not better schools leading to economic growth, an enhanced standard of living, and workplace productivity especially since that standard of living had dramatically improved between 1870-1970. Gordon, like others (see here and here), have begun to undermine the dominant rationale for school reform since the early 1980s: the belief that public schools’ primary focus must be economic in preparing a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. That prevalent human capital rationale has ignored for more than a quarter-century other historic aims of schools: civic engagement to keep democracy vital, independent decision-making, and a well-rounded schooling that enlarges children’s and youth’s potential and sensibilities. Preparing the next generation for the workforce remains as an abiding goal, of course, but not the dominating one it has been for over three decades. And that is why Gordon’s argument and evidence is useful for those seeking to build a political coalition of policymakers, practitioners, researchers, civic and business leaders, and parents who question the shotgun marriage of schools to a growing economy.

Gordon, like some other economists and policymakers, recognize that economic growth has slowed down, productivity has lessened. and inequalities have risen. All of these have occurred because the “special century” has ended and because “the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by (1970)… already been achieved along so many dimensions. including food, clothing, housing, transportation, entertainment, communication, health, and working conditions” (p.641). In his final chapter, Even with his argument that the “special century” ended decades ago, Gordon does see policy interventions that can help reduce current economic inequalities and lowered productivity. He lists ten such interventions such as raising the minimum wage, more progressive income tax reform–earn more, pay more– and eliminating many deductions, and encouraging high-skilled immigrants to come to U.S.

For education, however, only three of the ten interventions appear–investing in preschools, state and federal school financing rather than local taxes, and reducing student indebtedness in higher education. Not a word about the dominant school reforms in 2016–Common Core standards, standardized testing, technologies in schools, charter schools, accountability (see p. 648).

In questioning the dominant beliefs in current school reform as essential to economic growth, Gordon’s argument and evidence are useful to those politically active decision-makers, teachers, parents, and researchers who know that a democracy needs schools that do more than prepare children and youth for the workplace.


* At a coffee shop near Google campus in Mountain View (CA), I overheard one software engineer say to  a friend: “I lost my phone and didn’t find it for two days. I thought my life was over.” For the references to bullet-proof coffee and gluten-free muffins, I thank Janice Cuban.



Filed under school reform policies, technology

Page vs Screen: Technology in the Classroom isn’t Hobson’s Choice! (Dorian Love)

Dorian Love teaches ICT and 8th grade English at Roedean, a private school in Johannesburg, South Africa. He says at his blog: “I am passionate about educational technology and critical thinking.” He wrote this post on May 12, 2016.

It seems to me that in any class I teach there are three distinct groups of students: one consisting of enthusiastic adopters of digital technologies; a second group of those comfortable enough with the technology, but rather less gung-ho about it; and finally a group which struggles with anything to do with a device, and is all at sea. I gave my grade 8 English class a writing task the other day, and told them they could submit digitally, or on paper. A large group reached immediately for their devices, but some put their tablets to one side, and took out pen and paper. Likewise, when it comes to reading, most of my students have a textbook, but a few use eBooks downloaded on their kindles.

This is, I believe, exactly what it should be. The introduction of technology in the classroom should never amount to an all or nothing affair. The research on the effects of reading and writing on page and screen is by no means conclusive, and with something as important as reading and writing, I believe we should be very cautious about any change. On the other hand so much reading and writing is done on devices these days, we would be ill-advised to ignore it. My common sense, unscientific intuition is that both page and screen form important modalities for literacy practices, and that we need to cultivate good habits in both.

I try to give my students opportunities throughout the year to read and write on page and screen. This has some obvious advantages. When my students are writing in Google docs I can view and comment in real-time, as the writing is happening. This allows me to engage with the process of writing in ways which are more constrained on paper. But I do worry that writing on paper may well be developing other skill sets, such as fore-planning, which screen writing might be eroding. So I make sure that we do writing on paper as well. And sometimes I give them a choice. I have to admit that this is all hope and pray for the best – I have no idea what I am doing. But I do hope that by mixing things up sufficiently, hit and miss tactics will result in more hits than misses.

The time has come to start developing a comprehensive notion of what it means to read or write on the screen, and how to teach good habits towards hypertextual reading and screen writing. here are some initial thoughts:

  • Reading Hypertext is about scanning for information and synthesising ideas from hyperlinked sources, so students need to be given tasks which call for them to browse rapidly to find relevant information, and need to have these skills scaffolded. How do you evaluate what is relevant and valid? How do you go about assessing what it is you need to find: what is your question? How do you go about assessing where to find this?
  • Reading the page is more about following a narrative or train of thought and understanding how the argument is structured. This can be practised through more searching “comprehension” style exercises.
  • Screen Writing is less about setting out your thoughts before you begin writing, planning the structure of your argument; it does afford a more exploratory style. You need a more recursive writing strategy in which you interrogate what you have written to reveal the argument that is emerging from the words. These habits can be practised.
  • Page Writing, because the ability to edit is constrained, needs more thorough planning, and a sense of the structure of your narrative or argument before you begin writing, or recursive drafting.

At the moment very little work is being done in developing ways of teaching and assessing these different modalities. I suspect language teachers are largely winging it, as I am, but we do need to start addressing these issues before we lose a generation to bad page and screen habits!


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

“Transforming” Public Schools: Enough already with an Overhyped Word!

We have the opportunity to completely reform our nation’s schools. We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges here. We’re talking about a fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function—and placing a focus on teaching and learning like never before…. With the first decade of the 21st century now history, we’ve committed to securing the vitality of our nation by transforming the way we teach our students.  U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, 2010


Transform the way teachers teach and how children learn by replacing group-based, teacher-centered instruction with personalized, learner-centered instruction….

Transform the quality of work life for teachers, administrators, and support staff by transforming a school system’s organization culture, its reward system, job descriptions, and so on, to align with the requirements of the new teaching and learning processes….

Transform the way in which educators’ create change by replacing piecemeal change strategies with whole-system change strategies.... Francis Duffy, 2010


Computers, the Internet, online courses, smart phones, cameras, interactive whiteboards, and other digital tools play an important role in improving and, yes, transforming schools.  The role of technology in schools will increase, and as we use these new tools wisely, they help make schools more effective and engaging.    Andrew Zucker, 2012


Harness Technology to transform your School: With technology, anything is possible and today’s students experience and use technology every hour of every day. Shouldn’t your classrooms have the technology products and solutions to help your students move forward?    Advertisement for conference on technology held by HB Communications, 2016



If you enter “school reform” in a Google search you will get 12, 100,000 hits. But were you to type in “transformed schools,” you would get 111,000,000 hits (as of May 17, 2016). When it comes to school reform, as the quotes above indicate, the word “transform” hits the jackpot of overhyped words in reformers’ vocabulary. Another highly touted word that has become puffery is “disrupt” as in “disrupting schools through technological innovations” (which got a measly 1,430,000 Google “results” on May 19, 2016). But for today, one overrated word is enough.  I will concentrate on “transform”

The dictionary meaning of the verb and noun (see here and here) refers to dramatic changes in form, appearance, and conditions. Often used as an example is the metamorphosis of the butterfly.




But “transform” applied to institutions is less biological, less genetic and far more hand-made. Humans manufacture changes.  But not just any change. In the world of school reformers, “transform,” implies not only dramatic changes but ones that make better schools. Also implied is that “better” means fundamental or radical, not incremental or tinkering changes. Moreover, these fundamental changes are instituted speedily rather than slowly. Here are some images that capture the range of meanings for the verb and noun when applied to individuals and organizations:







This post, then, is about this over-used, pumped-up word and its implications especially how meaningless it has become in policy-talk. Keep in mind that historically there have been proof-positive “transformations.” One-room rural schoolhouses in the 19th century changed into brick-and-mortar age-graded schools with scores of classrooms by the end of that century. A few decades later, reformers launched the innovative comprehensive high school. Previously about 10 percent of students had graduated high school in 1890; a century later, about 75 percent graduated the comprehensive high school. Those are “transformations” in school organization that strongly influenced teachers and students in schedule, curriculum, and instruction (see here and here).

Think about the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and the subsequent Civil Rights Act that enforced school desegregation. With court-ordered desegregation in district after district, by the mid-1980s, more black students in the South were going to schools with whites than elsewhere in the nation. That was a “transformation.” With subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that returned authority to local districts in assigning students to neighborhood schools (thus, reflecting residential segregation), re-segregation has reappeared (see here and here).

Yes, I have gotten allergic to the word “transform” when it is applied to schooling. That allergy has prompted me to ask any policymaker, researcher, practitioner, high-tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or parent using the word, certain questions about what he or she means.

1. What does “transform” mean to you?

Sometimes I use above images (e.g., like a before/after photo of an overweight man? A butterfly?) to prompt the picture of the change that resides in the head of the person .

2. What are the problems to which “transformed” schools is the solution?

Is the problem academic achievement falling behind other nations? Or is it the long-term achievement gap between whites and minorities? Or is it the technological backwardness of schools compared to other industries?

3. What exactly is to be transformed?  school structures? Cultures? Classroom teaching? Learners?

Public schools as an institution are complex organizations with many moving parts, some being tightly coupled to one another while some are often unconnected to one another. What, then is the target for the “transformation?”

4. Transform to what? what are the outcomes that you want to achieve?

This is the key question that gets at what the believer in “transforming” schools wants to be better. It reveals the person’s value about the place of schooling in a democratic society and the kinds of teaching and learning that are “good.”  Of all the questions, this cannot be skipped.

5.  How fast should the “transformation” be?

Nearly always, believers in “transformed” schools believe in speedy action, grand moves while the window of opportunity is open. Not in making changes slowly or in small increments.

6. How will you know that the “transformation” will be better than what you already have?

Ah, the evaluation question that captures in another way the desired outcomes, the better school.

So, if viewers want to end the promiscuous use of a word leached of its meaning in policy-talk, I suggest asking these questions. To do so, may lose you an acquaintance or colleague but, in the end, both parties gain a larger and deeper sense of what the words “transform schools” mean. And maybe I will stop sneezing when the word comes up.



Filed under school reform policies, Uncategorized

What Guides My Thinking on School Reform: Pulling the Curtain Aside *

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. But I do embrace certain principles that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. And also this blog for the past six years. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Context matters. Suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible because the setting in of itself influences what happens in the school and classrooms. There is no  reform I know of aimed at improving classroom teaching and student performance that should be applied across the board (e.g., school uniforms, teaching children to code, project-based learning). Policies and programs delivered to teachers need to be adapted to different settings.

No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in teachers’  tool kits. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., online “personalized” lessons, project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small changes in classroom practice occur often and slowly; fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.

Age-graded school structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms. Teachers adapt to this dominant structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare lesson to get students ready for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

Yet adding new structures to shift the center of gravity from prevailing teacher-centered lessons to student-centered ones (e.g., “personalized” learning, project-based instruction) while retaining the larger organizational structure of the age-graded organization fails to alter daily classroom practices.

Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions ala Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise.

These principles guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning.


*This is a revised version of a post that appeared September 15, 2015.


Filed under Reforming schools

Cartoons on University Teaching

In looking for cartoons that caricature professors, research, and teaching–viewers of this blog have all seen up close professors teach–I found a few that got me to chuckle. Perhaps they will get you to grin. Enjoy!






Philosophy class door is next to window: 'Lost and Profound'









"They said he had to post his office hours, but they didn't say where."









Filed under how teachers teach

Why Ditching Textbooks Would Be To the Detriment of Learning (Tim Oates)

Tim Oates CBE (A royal award called Commander of the British Empire for service to education) is group director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment. On 28 April, he launched the ‘Cambridge Approach to Textbooks’ at a seminar in London. This op-ed appeared April 18, 2016.

Last year, Richard Culatta – an adviser to President Obama at the time – stated that textbooks should be scrapped in England in the next five years. His comments were echoed by the new master of Wellington College, Julian Thomas, who said in TES that “a textbook is not dynamic at all” (4 September 2015).

This all sounds very credible and up-to-date, except that it is blind to the evidence from a whole range of sources.

Not least of those is from the heart of the IT industry itself: Abigail Sellen, of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, has stated that “the implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realised”.

This leads us straight to important evidence from educational research, focused on the psychology of perception. This research tells us that recall and comprehension differ when reading from paper compared with on-screen, with comprehension in particular still significantly superior when pupils are reading from paper materials. Consistent with this, pupils are accessing more materials online at university but retaining less information.

The case for print

Digging into the research in detail throws up some very interesting issues:

  • Research on visual perception and cognitive loading suggests that screen flicker, scrolling and navigation all load up the brain so that comprehension suffers;
  • Navigation in a book is straightforward; pupils can look back at old material and forward to new with great ease. Not so on the sprawling websites which aim to replace books;
  • An evaluation in Singapore led to new electronic versions of very well-designed paper textbooks being abandoned after they failed to deliver the same learning processes and outcomes;
  • The tactile and physical experience of reading a book can embed memories of the content more securely;
  • And in terms of focusing attention, textbooks do not wait to receive that next email or tweet.

We currently think that there are a set of interacting factors and processes that reduce the enduring learning gained from digital materials, not least a view of “…I can always look it up again”. With this attitude, reading a digital source becomes a passing experience rather than a learning experience.

Research around the world on well-designed textbooks shows that they are used flexibly by teachers – they are not the straitjacket implied by Culatta’s analysis. Shanghai textbooks are built from the very best lessons on specific topics – they are then available to all teachers.

And Culatta’s view neglects the key role that exquisitely designed paper textbooks have had during periods of impressive reform of education systems in settings as diverse as Shanghai, Massachusetts and Finland.

Of course, well-designed digital resources can do things that paper materials cannot – such as simulations. But it’s contrary to the evidence to adopt a naive position that “all paper is wrong and all digital is perfect”. Using the strengths of each is apparent in some of the latest generation of textbooks in England; those informed by international comparisons of the best around the world.

We ignore the research at our peril; let’s move forward through science, not misleading rhetoric.


For a teacher’s reasons why he “ditched his textbook” listen to Vickie Davis (Cool Cat Teacher Blog) interview (six minutes long) Matt Miller, an Indiana high school  Spanish teacher. Although Oates is very clear about the strong advantages for well-designed texts, he does point out it is not an either-or-choice.  Matt Miller underscores his flexible use of texts combined with online and other classroom resources. I note that most of the teachers I have observed over the past three decade do use texts selectively, that is, a classroom set is available for reference for reading particular pages, answering certain questions, etc.


Filed under how teachers teach