Toddlers and Touchscreens: What Does the Research Actually Say? (Marnie Kaplan)

“Prior to joining Bellwether, Marnie [Kaplan] worked as a policy analyst at Success Academy Charter Schools, where she analyzed local, state, and federal education policies. Previously she worked as a program manager at the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she tracked and analyzed special education compliance, and as a Stoneleigh Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Education Law Center, where she proposed solutions to reform Pennsylvania’s alternative education system and improve the accountability of cyber charter schools. Marnie began her career as a middle school English and social studies teacher in New York City. She went on to earn her M.P.P. and J.D. from Georgetown University. While in graduate school, Marnie interned at the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the DC Public Schools’ Urban Education Leaders Internship Program; taught street law to high school students; worked in a day care center; volunteered with 826DC; and served as a research assistant to the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Marnie also holds a master’s in the science of teaching from Pace University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania” (Bio taken from Bellwether staff descriptions)

This post appeared December 8, 2016 in Ahead of the Heard, A Bellwether blog.





You walk by an outdoor restaurant and see a toddler watching a movie on an iPad while his parents eat dinner. Your first thought is:

  • a) those parents deserve a break
  • b) screens don’t belong at meal time
  • c) is the video educational?
  • d) alert: bad parenting

Is there an app to help us decide how to respond? No. But a quorum of pediatricians might be able to help.

From 1999 till 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraged the use of screen media by children under two (which might have led an informed passerby to loosely circle answer d while feeling slightly judgmental). But just last month, the AAP departed from its previous strict restriction on screen exposure for this age group.

There was a lot of media attention heralding the departure from the “no screens under two rule.” Some celebrated the beginning of the end of the “screen wars.” In reality, while the new guidelines offer a more nuanced view of screen exposure, the debate will likely rage on. Screens continue to pervade modern life so rapidly that research can’t keep up.

Let me fill in some background on why the AAP changed its recommendations. The “no screens before two” rule was first issued in 1999 as a response to interactive videos for infants such as Baby Einstein. Research showed these videos decreased children’s executive functioning and cognitive development. In October 2011, the AAP reaffirmed its original statement regarding infants and toddlers and media. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age two, studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems, and studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. Since this statement was developed through  a lengthy internal review process, it was drafted before the iPad was first introduced to the market in April of 2010. So for the last five years, the strict restriction on screen time included touch screens even though the committee hadn’t evaluated the emerging research on this media.

In the intervening years, many doctors and scientists urged the AAP committee on children and media to revisit their recommendations and take a more balanced approach to media. In 2014, Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, urged experts to base their recommendations on evidence-based decision making instead of values or opinions. He criticized pediatricians for focusing too much on negative effects and overlooking the positive effects of media on children. Later that year, Dr. Dimitri Christikas, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at University of Washington, suggested rethinking the guidelines to distinguish between TV and interactive screens. Dr. Christikas was one of the first researchers to determine that the time babies and toddlers spend in front of the TV was detrimental to their health and development. He posited that the time young children spend interacting with touch screens is more analogous to time playing with blocks than time passively watching a television. In 2015, a trio of pediatricians published an article offering further support for the idea that interactive media necessitated different guidelines than television. In the same article, they recognizing the need for further research and argued that doctors should emphasize the benefits of parents and children using interactive media together.

So what are a quorum of pediatricians saying in 2016?

The new AAP guidelines still set rather strict restrictions for children under eighteen months. The AAP recommends that infants and toddlers only be exposed to screens for the purpose of video chatting with family members. This squares with some emerging observational research but likely also displays pediatricians’ understanding of modern life. The new AAP guidelines say parents can introduce children between 18 and 24 months to education shows. For children between the ages of two and five, the AAP recommends a max of one hour per day of “high-quality programs,” which they define as PBS and Sesame Network.

But there remains a lot that pediatricians, neuroscientists, and developmental psychologists cannot say conclusively. How does a small child clamoring to watch videos of herself affect a child’s conception of self?  Does the sensory experience of interactive screens have negative effects on small children’s brains?

Scientists continue to approach the research regarding long-term effects of this exposure from different perspectives. In fact, earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, new research was presented which hinted at the possible detrimental effects of touch screens on young brains. Dr. Jan Marino Ramirez, from the Center for Integrative Brain Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, presented new research which revealed that excessive exposure to sensory stimulation early in life had significant effects on the behavior and brain circuits of mice. The mice acted like they had attention deficit disorder (ADD), showed signs of learning problems, and engaged in risky behavior. Ramirez therefore recommends minimizing screen time for young children. In a recent interview, Dr. Leah Krubitzer, an evolutionary neurobiologist at University of California, Davis, was less concerned about the detrimental impacts of screen time. She believes the benefits may outweigh the negative effects. Krubitzer argues that fast-moving interactive touch screens may prepare children for our increasingly fast-paced world.

So, parents of young children can now feel less guilty encouraging their toddlers to video chat with family across the country. And possibly we have a more clear answer for the scenario above (e.g., If the child is at least two years old, the appropriate response is c, at least for now).


Filed under medicine and schooling, preschool, raising children, research, technology

Cartoons on New Year Resolutions

As we come to the end of 2016, I offer cartoons poking fun at the perennial practice of resolving to do better next year–whatever “better” means. Enjoy!












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Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions (The Onion)*

September 28, 2011

Vol/ 47, Issue 39, Science, Technology, and History

WASHINGTON—With the United States facing a daunting array of problems at home and abroad, leading historians courteously reminded the nation Thursday that when making tough choices, it never hurts to stop a moment, take a look at similar situations from the past, and then think about whether the decisions people made back then were good or bad.

According to the historians, by looking at things that have already happened, Americans can learn a lot about which actions made things better versus which actions made things worse, and can then plan their own actions accordingly.

“In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues,” Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. “And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not.”

“It’s actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen,” Collins continued. “Did the thing we’re thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it.”

In addition, Collins carefully explained that if a past decision proved to be favorable—if, for example, it led to increased employment, caused fewer deaths, or made lots of people feel good inside— then the nation should consider following through with the same decision now.

While the new strategy, known as “Look Back Before You Act,” has raised concerns among people worried they will have to remember lots of events from long ago, the historians have assured Americans they won’t be required to read all the way through thick books or memorize anything.

Instead, citizens have been told they can just find a large-print, illustrated timeline of historical events, place their finger on an important moment, and then look to the right of that point to see what happened afterward, paying especially close attention to whether things got worse or better.

“You know how the economy is not doing so well right now?” Professor Elizabeth Schuller of the University of North Carolina said. “Well, in the 1930s, financial markets—no, wait, I’m sorry. Here: A long, long time ago, way far in the past, certain things happened that were a lot like things now, and they made people hungry and sad.”

“How do you feel when you’re hungry? Doesn’t feel good, does it?” Schuller added. “So, maybe we should avoid doing those things that caused people to feel that way, don’t you think?”

Concluding their address, the panel of scholars provided a number of guidelines to help implement the strategy, reminding the nation that the biggest decisions required the most looking back, and stressing the importance of checking the past before one makes a decision, not afterward, when the decision has already been made.

While many citizens have expressed skepticism of the historians’ assertions, the majority of Americans have reportedly grasped the concept of noticing bad things from earlier times and trying not to repeat them.

“I get it. If we do something bad that happened before, then the same bad thing could happen again,” said Barb Ennis, 48, of Pawtucket, RI. “We don’t want history to happen again, unless the thing that happened was good.”

“When you think about it, a lot of things have happened already,” Ennis added. “That’s what history is.”

In Washington, several elected officials praised the looking-back-first strategy as a helpful, practical tool with the potential to revolutionize government.

“The things the historians were saying seemed complicated at first, but now it makes sense to me,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who reversed his opposition to oil-drilling safety regulations after checking past events and finding a number of “very, very sad things [he] didn’t like.” “I just wished they’d told us about this trick before.”


*The Onion satirizes news. The above “article” pokes fun at prevailing, strong ahistorical attitudes in the U.S. when it comes to major decision policy decisions See here.


Filed under technology, Uncategorized

Personalized Learning at Weller Elementary School (Milpitas, CA)

In the Spring of 2012, teachers at Weller Elementary School, along with other schools in the Milpitas Unified School District, presented blueprints for re-designing their schools to Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, his top deputies, and the teachers’ union. The Superintendent’s group chose Weller’s  redesign for its school as one of two pilots for “blended” and “personalized learning” to be put into place using rotation of upper-grade students through the Learning Lab for a few hours a week and for the lower grades, in-class rotation of activities, including online software, supervised by the teacher. Soon after, Milpitas voters approved a bond referendum that produced funds for building new schools, remodeling older ones, and buying new technologies for teachers and students to use.

All of this occurred during the tenure of Weller principal, Raquel Kusunoki.

As a young child, she and her family immigrated from the Philippines to the Bay area. Kusunoki eventually became a credentialed teacher. She has been the Weller principal for four years after serving as assistant principal at the school and then teaching  for 13 years in San Jose Unified District elementary schools. As she told me about her years at Weller, “my umbilical cord is connected here.”

With nearly 450 students (K-6), Weller has a diverse cultural mix. Sixty percent of the students are Asian (including Filipino), 29 percent are Latino, four percent are African American and four percent are white (2015). Of that enrollment, 44 percent are English Language Learners and 47 percent are eligible for free and reduced price lunch–the poverty indicator.

On October 19, 2016, I spent the morning at Weller interviewing the principal, observing  two teachers’ lessons, and then meeting with a group of 6th graders and five teachers who have been closely involved in Weller’s “blended learning” design.

I first went to Richard Hart’s combined 5th and 6th grade class. While they have access to the Learning Lab at scheduled times, when in their classroom, Hart’s class rotates activities between whole group instruction, small group, and individual work in language arts, math, and online units that Weller teachers had designed in their summer experience with Summit Base Camp.

It is 8:30. There are 32 students in class sitting at pods of four, pushed together desks scattered throughout the room. The walls have displays of students’ work— hand-drawn architectural drawings of community centers, part of a recent unit. There is a Chromebook cart in the room and shelves of books along the walls. There is also a printer and TV monitor in the room.

All students are engaged in different activities. On the whiteboard is an agenda for the day’s work showing that students will work on their “Myths” project and their PLPs. As I move about the room, I see 10 students working on their Personalized Learning Plans. They are doing their self-assessment of what they have completed and what they still have to finish in their “myths” unit. Others have their tablets open and are reading, taking notes, conferring with classmates. Some students have ear buds when they have videos to see. Each student has a playlist (much of which has been created by Weller upper-grade teachers) for the “myths” unit to read, watch videos, do worksheets, etc. They take notes and when they have completed their playlist, they check with the teacher and then, if teacher approves, students take the assessment (see below).

Hart walks around the room talking with individual students as they work on their PLPs and sees where they are in the project on “myths.” When students want teacher’s help, they raise their hands. Hart carries his Apple laptop in hand and sees what is on screen of each 6th grader (he is using gScholar to track individual student’s work). Teacher does question-and-answer with each student as he moves around the room. Hart often leans over and shows a student what he has on his screen tracking the student’s completion of work.

I see some students going up to an whiteboard easel and sign their names when they finish a topic. Their names and topic signal the teacher that he will have to see the notes each student has taken, approve what student has done,  and then permit student to move to assessment for that part of the unit. After one quickie conference with a student, I see Hart do a fist bump with student who completed the task.  I also see one English Language Learner working online by herself.

As I scan the classroom close to 9AM, room noise is minimal  with the murmuring of the teacher in conference with a students or a pairs of students talking about a task. After walking through the room, I note that no students are off-task.

I then go to Juhi Sharma’s combination 5th grade class. Twenty-seven students sitting in the room arrayed 3-6 at tables in no particular order. Student work covers walls. White boards on three sides of room contain instruction, daily agenda, and goals.

One white board has instructions for her 5th graders in the morning and 6th graders in the afternoon:

5th PLP—activity Chap. 2 Review/test
PLT—Focus Area” Math (Personal Learning Time when students can choose to work on different topics)
WorkShop: Powers of 10

6th—Complete Checkpoint 1 (PLP)
Complete 6.2 & 6.3—(refers to chapters in textbook Go Math)

On the front whiteboard, the schedule for that week is displayed.
8:00 HR/PE  (home room and physical education)
9:00 Math
10.00 RTI (program called Response to Intervention used to identify students needing academic or behavioral support)
11:00 Recess/Lunch
12:00 Math
1:00 Science
2:00 Clean Up

As I look around the room, I see 10 students sitting in two rows facing another teacher, Beverly McCarter, who is teaching place value. The title of the workshop is :”Powers of Ten.” McCarter gestures to a chart on the whiteboard showing place value as she explains the concept and gives examples and then asks students to use place value as she poses questions. Sharma will do similar math workshop with a portion of McCarter’s class at another time.

As I scan the room, the rest of the class is working individually as I saw in Richard Hart’s class.  Sharma walks around with laptop in hand asking and answering questions and monitoring work (like Hart, she uses gScholar to see where the class and individual students are). I see that Sharma does a high-five slap of hands with student after he shows her that he is finished. When students have completed a topic, they write their names on a whiteboard. Once Sharma approves notes of each student, they move on to assessment–in this instance class is working on multiplication and fractions. Looking over the shoulder of one student’s PLP, I see that he has finished and passed all of topics but one. He is using his Personal Learning Time to finish up.

As noise in room increases from “Powers of Ten” workshop finishing up and the 10  students returning to their tables, writing their names on whiteboard and conferring with others at their tables, Sharma says, “voices, please.” Class quiets down and she says “thank you.”

After 35 minutes, I look around the class and see students working on different tasks during PLT, going from their Chromebook screen to writing in their notebook, and working on assessments they can submit and then move on to next task.

Five minutes later, Sharma announces that one student has passed all of his unit tasks. There is scattered applause from students.

A buzzer sounds ending the class.

I then go to another room for a half-hour meeting with a group of sixth graders and five teachers. The principal selected the teachers and the teachers selected the students. Because Weller has had many visitors from the Bay area, state and from across the country, the 6th graders and teachers were well-prepared for my easy questions.

I asked students what they liked most and liked least about the PLPs. I did the same with the teachers. In both instances, there was many positive statements about the process salted with occasional complaints from the students. Nothing substantial, weighty, or surprising did I hear.


On November 8, 2016 I returned to Weller to see two primary teachers do their in-class rotation of activities in small groups, large groups, and independently, again, using Chromebooks for individual work on content and skills.

Third grade teacher Jackie Dang is in her third year teaching. As I enter her room, I see  21 students arrayed at seven tables, each holding 2-4 students. In the rear of the room, there is a circular table where Dang sits with one 3rd grader listening to the child reading. High on one wall are large photos of every child in the class, big enough to see from anywhere in the room. On another wall is a set of posters about what a “mind-set” is and its importance (the teacher told me later that she taught five lessons on “growth mindset” at the beginning of semester). And on another wall are posters of the branches of the U.S. government.

growth-mindset-weller    dang-class-weller

The class has just finished a rotation of activities.  One group of nine students with their Chromebooks open are taking a quiz on readings they completed. Ten students are sitting on the multi-colored rug with rubik cube colors—red, orange, green, blue–writing in notebooks, reading on the topic of the day, watching videos.

After Dang finishes with one student, she calls up another. She listens as student reads story to her and then hands the little girl a work sheet that gets at comprehension of story. The questions on the worksheet asks student to make predictions based on what she read and then to write short sentences to summarize the story.

As I walk around the room, I see that all of the students are on task. From time to time, the teacher wants everyone’s attention to announce something. She sings: bump,de-bump-de-bump. Students stop what they are doing and repeat the syllables. One one of these occasions, the teacher says that two worksheets were turned in that did not have names on them. Two boys come up and collect their papers from the teacher.

Before calling up another student, Dang walks around the room checking on what each student is doing. She returns to her table, summons another student. The girl  reads to teacher and teacher goes over worksheet she had turned in.

I walk over to a third grader who is typing in her Chromebook. I ask what she is doing and she tells me that she belongs to the “typing club” in class. I look at the screen where there are printed sentences. The nine year-old types letters to match the words of the on-screen sentence. As she does, the screen lights up showing the fingers of each hand hitting the keyboard letters. The  screen simultaneously shows the percent of the letters and words that are accurate and the speed at which she is typing. After she finished, the screen flashes that she has attained 95% accuracy at a speed of 30 words per minute. The screen also shows what the requirement was for this exercise, 80% accuracy at 25 words per minute; a nearby student had 100% accuracy at six words per minute.

As the activities come to an end, Dang sings bump,de-bump-de-bump. Students stop what they are doing. Dang announces that class will come to the rug to begin a social studies lesson on government. After they settle in, Dang moves to a whole group discussion by reviewing words they learned in the last lesson: symbol, vote, laws, legislative, and judge. Students raise hands to answer her review questions.  After going over these words, she asks them to work in groups to write five sentences on strips of cardboard that uses each of the words they just reviewed. Dang  creates groups by counting off students 1 through 6 and then directs each numbered group to different parts of rooms to begin writing the five sentences on cardboard strips

At this point I leave the room and go down the corridor to John Duong’s 4th grade class. A former Weller student who was hired by the principal, he is in his fourth year as a teacher. There are 31 students in the room. The agenda for the day is on little black board in the front of the room:


Ellis/Angel Island trip,




End of day. 

Rows of tables sitting two students per table face the front of the room. At the rear of the room are 30 Chromebooks lying flat on desks facing a wall.

When I entered the class, students were working on immigration and creating a brochure for immigrants coming to either Ellis or Angel Islands (Ellis Island admitted 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Europe; Angel Island admitted immigrants from Asia at roughly the same time). The class was going on a field trip to Angel Island the next day.

Duong was leading a whole group question-and-answer on which island students should  choose as immigrant entry point to the U.S. for their brochure. Students had a handout of directions and items to be included in a brochure for each island.

On the whiteboard, Duong projected the sheets students had to complete. On each sheet students were asked to compare and contrast the two entry points for immigrants. Venn circle for each island appeared on whiteboard with an overlapping part for the two circles.  Students had already read excerpts and seen videos about each island and immigration from Europe and Asia on the Chromebooks and were now ready to complete these sheets. After their field trip to Angel Island, they would return to lessons on completing a brochure for immigrants from Europe and Asia coming to America.

As the whole-group discussion came to an end, Duong directed the class to divide up into their pre-arranged small groups to complete the Compare and Contrast worksheet.

As the small groups went to work, I spoke with students near me and asked what they were doing with the Venn circles and why. They explained the task accurately to me. In the next 10 minutes, the noise level rose and at one point, the teacher got everyone’s attention and asked them to work quietly. The noise level fell to a murmur.

At this point, I left the lesson, met briefly with principal Raquel Kusunoki and exited Weller.

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Personalized Learning at Pomeroy Elementary School (Milpitas, CA)

The recently built Learning Lab at Pomeroy Elementary School is a large room with multi-colored chairs, cubbies for students to sit in, and tables where students work together. Part of the previous Superintendent’s plan for staff to redesign their schools for blended learning (see here), Pomeroy’s Learning Lab the morning of October 21, 2016 was filled with 28 sixth graders working on different tasks. “We are,” their teacher Deanna Sainten said,”doing blended learning to the max.”


Pomeroy LL.jpgLL at Pomeroy.jpg

After listening to the veteran teacher who has spent ten years at Pomeroy, I walked around and spoke to students sitting in pairs, trios, and alone. Three students told me that they were looking at a Scholastic News article called “Vote for Me,” about the Clinton/Trump campaign for president. They were reading the article and moving back-and-forth from the text to the worksheet with questions to answer. Another boy was writing in his notebook as he paged through his math text.

Two other 6th graders were working on their Personal Learning Plan checking which items they had “mastered,” (these show up in green on their screens) and ones that they have yet to complete (they show up in red). I asked them whether they had set goals for themselves–the PLP helps students acquire skills of self-assessment–and one showed me a screen shot of his goal labeled “Going to College.” The other boy still was at sea in figuring out how to use that part of the PLP.*

Elsewhere in the Learning Lab, I saw a line of about five students waiting to see Sainten sitting at a small desk. The students wanted the teacher to check their work  or were asking questions about the task they were working on.

I walked over to other students to see what they were doing. One boy was writing out answers on a worksheet about Ron Jones’ Acorn People and then transferring his answers to his Chromebook.  I asked him why he was doing that. He said: “It’s neater.” Two girls were working on the Scholastic News article on the presidential campaign and Googling on their tablets for information to answer questions. A boy and girl at a table were working on the Paleothic unit on their Chromebooks. Both were taking notes on their tablets from the readings they had done on screen. They said that after they were finished with the notes they would submit them to Ms. Sainten for her approval before they could move to assessing on screen how much they learned on this part of the Paleolithic era.

As I scanned the room every trio, pair, and individual were at work on different tasks.

At the 12′ X 12′ whiteboard under the banner: The Mind Is Not a Vessel To Be Filled But a Fire To Be Ignited–see above photo–a boy and girl were working out math problem called “opposites of numbers.” They were talking to one another and jotting down notes to be sent to the teacher after they were finished.

The teacher tells class that they have five minutes left to complete their work before returning to their room. Four students wait in line to see Sainten. She looks around the Learning Lab and says aloud to the group, “Make sure conversations are on task.”

With a minute before the buzzer sounds, teacher tells class: “You have to leave Learning Lab cleaner than you found it.” Students straighten out tables and chairs, pick up scraps of paper on the floor. Buzzer sounds. Students return to their classroom.

In those classrooms when upper-grade teachers are not in the Learning Lab,  Sainten and colleagues organize their daily lessons around switching students between small groups, individual work, and large group instruction. The teachers rotate their students through various activities (reading, math, independent work using Chromebooks whenever appropriate) within a 45-minute lesson. For the primary teachers who do not have access to the Learning Lab, they do rotation of activities within the classroom (see below).

Pomeroy Elementary School has 761 students of whom 72% Asian, 12% Hispanic, 5% white, 1% African American and 10% mixed race or other. In addition, the school has 36% English Language Learners and 25% Free or Reduced Lunch (2015). Sheila Murphy Brewer is principal. She and an assistant principal, 29 teachers and 19 staff members run the school. Teachers and students live for six or more hours a day in a remodeled main building and a host of portables, many of which have been made permanent.

Built in 1967 as an “open space” school, within a few years walls went up and teachers reclaimed their own classrooms while still retaining common space in the primary grades. As the school grew in enrollment, portables were added and renovations occurred as did the addition of even more portables. The Learning Lab space is, in effect, a resurrection of “open space” in the original part of the school.

Pomeroy school.jpg

After leaving the Learning Lab, I walked over to visit Akshat Das’s 5th grade class. With 29 students, each wall laden with posters, students’ work, and photos, the room felt crowded. Students leave their back packs outside the room.

Pom--5th grade.jpgPomeroy.jpg

Das was seated at a table in the front of the room working with individual students who she called up one at a time to meet with her. The rest of the class were at work on different activities, some reading from their Chromebook screens, others in pairs taking notes and talking to one another, and even others helping classmates with a question. Das looks across the room and says: “eyes and ears up here,” meaning that students stop and look at her. “You have been working in pairs and if you need more help you can turn to others at your table, she says.”

A former parent at the school and volunteer, Das eventually acquired her credentials and began teaching at Pomeroy five years ago. Like her upper grade colleagues, she participated in Summit’s Base Camp and created lessons that could be used (and shared) among 5th grade teachers.

After class, Das told me that she works closely with one other 5th grade teacher, particularly on how best to manage time and do all that is required to help kids especially those who need help. She has shifted, she says, from “direct instruction” in content (she teaches science, language arts, math, social studies) to using the Personal Learning Plan after her summer work with Base Camp. Now, she says, content is available to students on their Chromebooks as they learn subject matter in different “modalities.”

Das also pointed out to me that 5th graders now learn far more and explicitly from each other. They work on their individual PLPs and know what they have finished and what they have to work on. They know how many items they have “mastered” and how many items in lessons need further work. She now parlays small groups working together, pairs, whole group instruction, and individual attention from her–as she was doing when I entered the room–into a complex lesson that unfolded as I was there.

According to Das, she has decentralized her instruction by using PLPs. Moreover, she has trained members of the class to be “mentors” to other students who need help on a particular skill. On one wall is a list of  student names and the skills they have mastered. After being approved by Das, students write in their names and what content and skills they can help  other 5th graders. When these  “mentors” complete their tasks during a lesson they are then allowed to help other students who have asked them for aid.

Upper grade teachers had access to Learning Lab and had learned to use the PLP. What about the primary grades?

On another day, after interviewing the principal, I visited Pomeroy to see how primary grade teachers put “blended learning” into practice. As part of the school plan, these teachers did not have access to the Learning Lab. I saw two second grade classes (with a large common space between the two rooms) teach lessons by rotating students through three activities within the classroom.

primary--pomeroy.jpgprimary grade--pom.jpg

For example, in Vicky Ramirez’s second grade room there are 23 boys and girls. She has been teaching at Pomeroy for over 20 years. Sitting in the back of the room I see 11 students using the iReady application with   earphones/ear buds sitting at tables working on math in their Chromebooks (there is a cart of devices in the room). Ramirez, sitting in a rocker, works on reading with eight students sitting on rug. Elsewhere in the room, four boys are lying on rug working on clipboards that they have with tasks to complete.

Ramirez has divided the lesson into three activities: teacher-led reading group, independent work–boys with clipboards–and others using iReady. After about 15-20 minutes, the teacher announces that the students will rotate to another activity. Students respond quickly and some go up to Ramirez for reading, another group dons earphones and buds, and the rest work independently on worksheets.

Over the two morning visits to Pomeroy Elementary school, “blended learning” and “personalization” operated differently in the primary and upper grades of the school. The Learning Lab catered to the upper grades and in-class rotation of activities in the  primary ones. In both instances, the use of the devices were in the background, not the foreground of each teacher’s lessons.


*The Personal Learning Plan and individual playlists for 5th and 6th graders in language arts, social studies, science, and math come from Pomeroy teachers’ involvement with Summit charter network creation of a Base Camp (see here). Fifth and 6th grade teachers at Pomeroy and Weller elementary schools had joined the Summit Base Camp during the summer of 2015 and that school year and the following summer had learned how to have students use the PLP and, in addition, had customized playlists for their upper-grade elementary school students. Sixth grade teacher Deanna Sainten, described above, had attended the Summit Base Camp.She and her colleagues had created lessons and units adapted to upper elementary grades since the Base Camp was tilted toward secondary schools.

The above description of Pomeroy students in the Learning Lab draws from this partnership with the Summit network of schools reaching out to other public schools (Interview with Principal Sheila Murphy-Brewer, October 21, 2016).


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Personalized Learning in Milpitas (CA): District Reforms

A former high school science teacher in a small Northern California district, Cary Matsuoka eventually moved into administration and became superintendent in 2006 in Los Gatos-Saratoga Union school district with two high schools, one of which he had taught in for 13 years. After five years as superintendent, he applied for and was chosen superintendent of the larger Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) in 2011. Milpitas then had 13 schools (nine elementary, two middle, and one high school) serving about 10,000 students, far more diverse than the smaller mostly white Los Gatos-Saratoga Union district. Matsuoka left MUSD in 2016 to serve the larger Santa Barbara district of 22 schools and over 15,000 students (see here and here).

But, oh what a five year run in technology integration it was for Milpitas.

A year after Matsuoka arrived, district voters approved a $95 million bond proposition for new buildings and technology infrastructure. In that year, the superintendent posed a question to district staff.

*”If you could design a school what would it look like?”

Taken with how contemporary designers pose problems and involve those who have to execute decisions in classrooms (see here), Matsuoka involved staff, the school board, and teacher union in answering this critical question. No top-down answers or direction from the board or superintendent. No command-and-control decisions. Answers would come from those who had to execute the designs. An unusual process in most districts.

He and Chin Song, director of technology, took groups of teachers, administrators, and board of education members to see about 50 schools throughout California. Also as Song explained, “We wanted to bring people to campus because it was easier timing-wise.Maybe it’ll be teachers from Rocketship, maybe Summit, maybe Santa Barbara… we like variety.”


[Matsuoka on left; Song, right]

The answers came slowly but clearly over the next school year driven by the widely shared truth of teaching in public schools: classrooms with 30-plus students in age-graded schools, tailoring instruction to meet differences among students and individualizing learning is very hard to do.

With construction and technology funding, district administrators asked schools to come up with designs, new models, for their schools. Matsuoka said that the models schools came up would be judged and a few selected to become pilots for the district. The designs had to meet these criteria:

“The models had to 1) integrate technology, 2) use data to inform instruction 3) be student-centered and 4) be flexible in how they used space, time, and student grouping.” (see here)

District committees chose two elementary schools  to be pilots. By the end of 2013, the direction was clear. The pilots and work at one middle school showed that a newly designed school could integrate technology into daily lessons.  All district schools would have blended learning with special spaces set aside for newly constructed Learning Labs.

By 2013, with money from the approved bond proposition, nearly 5,000 Chromebooks had been purchased and distributed across the district. By 2015, six elementary schools, one middle school and the one district high school had been remodeled to include Learning Labs (Matsuoka letter to Milpitas Post, September 2014).

In the primary grades of elementary schools teachers would rotate learning stations during a lesson: students would move from small groups in reading, to math, and then tablet computers to work individually).  In the upper elementary grades, rotation of classes through the Learning Lab would occur. In middle and high schools, the newly built Learning Labs became centers for technology integration. Individual teachers and departments scheduled their classes to use the new spaces. This became the blended learning model that MUSD gradually–not in one fell swoop–spread through the district (see here and here).

This also became the district version of “personalized learning.” As the Superintendent put it in a letter to the Milpitas Post in September 2014:

What does personalized learning look like?  It begins by looking at education as both acquisition of information and application of information.  Then we must create learning environments that nurture a strong relationship between the teacher and the student, and a strong sense of community within each classroom.  Students should have opportunities for collaboration and learning with and from their peers.  Students should have more choice about what they learn, more control over time and pacing, and use technology to create a personalized learning pathway

In the Fall of 2016, I visited two of the elementary schools that have been involved in the redesign of their schools, one of which had been selected as a pilot for blended learning, and spent two mornings each observing primary and upper-grade lessons and interviewing  teachers. The following posts will describe what I saw and heard.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Beyond the Classroom and School: District Technology Integration

Over the years, I have written about differences between complicated and complex (see here). I pointed out the differences in those top-down, command-and-control organizations that launch rockets into space and keep cities safe and those open, loosely-coupled organizations that provide health care, administer criminal justice, and offer public schooling that are vulnerable to their political and social environments,  heavily dependent upon relationships, and individual discretion.

For the past year, I have described best cases of classrooms that I have visited where technology integration was in the background, not the foreground (see here, here, and here). I have also posted descriptions of schools identified as exemplary in integrating technology across all of their classrooms such as the Summit network of charter schools.

But I have not yet profiled districts that have integrated technology on a systematic basis. In Silicon Valley, including most of the Bay area, there are 77 school districts. All have technology plans for their schools. These districts buy lots of hard- and software, wire and WiFi schools, provide classroom carts of laptops and tablets, offer teacher workshops and then cross their fingers that teachers will step up and use what the district has provided for daily lessons.Voluntary participation is the rule which means that great variation exists not only in every single school but across these districts heralded as embracing high-tech.

Only a few districts, however, have gone beyond a plan, buying devices, and crossing their fingers that teachers will use all of the available hardware and software. Only a few districts adopted policies that nudged all teachers in every school to use new technologies, blended learning, and personalized lessons.  Only a few districts have built a systematic infrastructure of broadband and WiFi, incorporated newly-developed software, sponsored professional development, and provided technical assistance to support (and push) teachers to integrate technology into their daily lessons. In Silicon Valley I found two such districts: Mountain View-Los Altos and Milpitas.

In the Mountain View-Los Altos district I profiled two of its schools and described 10 classroom lessons I observed in these schools (see, for example, here and here) . In Milpitas, a dozen miles away, two principals invited me to observe their primary and upper-elementary classrooms and interview teachers. I did observe classes and interview teachers at each school as well as interviewing a district administrator.

Knowing that each level of schooling–classroom, school, and district–contains its unique complexities and knowing that districts are not command-and-control organizations, using a tri-focal lens one can come to appreciate, if not understand, that changing what classroom teachers do, altering how schools operate daily, and improving  district performance  is no easy walk in the park.

Each of these three systems are nested in one another. Each level affects the other as teachers go about doing what is expected in classrooms, school staff wrestle with instruction and curriculum, and both individual teachers and school staffs connect to the district school board, superintendent, and administrators from which policies and resources flow downward. These three levels of schooling are Siamese triplets that are separate and interactive but cannot be severed.

There are so many moving parts in these loosely-coupled system called a district.  So much interaction and overlap in these nested communities nonetheless depend on continuity in student/teacher relationships, principal/staff cooperation, and school board/district administrators working closely together. Sure, there are top-down directives that flow into schools and bottom-up actions that trickle upward in the organization.

Furthermore, there are constant search for resources and support from groups inside and outside the system. Include, then, among the moving parts, the ever-changing political interests that have their own ideas of what is a “good” teacher, what is a “good” school, and a “good” district. Enacting public schooling is political drama with conflict, tears, hurrahs, and disappointment. And that is what makes school reform a complex endeavor. District work is not for the faint-of-heart or those who fail to grasp that complexity across and between three organizational levels.

The fact is that classrooms, schools, and districts are open systems with permeable boundaries that can be easily crossed by outside groups such as single issue advocates, state officials, national lobbies, etc. It is one fact that policymakers, researchers, and parents have to not only grasp but also know it in their actions.  If  educational decision-makers cannot give up their vision of command-and-control organizations and wrap their minds around open, loosely-coupled places established to help students (not customers), these top decision-makers will continue to stumble their way through school reform.

Consider, for example, all the factors and constraints teachers face putting a planned lesson into practice.  In a 50- or 60-minute lesson, teachers make hundreds of decisions, some planned, many unplanned, anchored in the content and skills to be learned, the technologies used, relationships among students and between the teacher and students, and the norms and rituals  within the class (e.g., teacher counting from 10 to 0 to get quiet, rhythmic clapping of teacher and students to get attention, students listening to one another and taking turns).

The deep knowledge teachers have of subject matter, cognitive and social skills, details about their students all come to the surface in the questions teachers ask, how they determine who will be with whom in small group activities, and when–clock watching is an occupational tic with most teachers–to segue from one part of the lesson to another. The inexorable unpredictability of student response to a lesson often calls for instant decision-making, for example, when a student unexpectedly rants or cries; when snow starts falling outside the windows and students get restless. Or an assistant principal enters the room to observe the lesson. Or an incident of bullying during recess that spills into the class, and on and on. Teacher’s tacit knowledge of all of the above forms the bedrock of the relationship with students which is the core of their learning both in and out of classrooms.


As one teacher told me “just managing the complexity of teaching a lesson can be overwhelming.” Looking at all of the above factors that come into play when a teacher improvises or goes ahead with a planned decision is often what staggers newcomer to teaching and researcher.

So too the complexity deepens when one moves from the classroom as the unit of analysis to the school. Grasping the sheer number of factors that influence a school’s  organization, culture and relationships among adults and with students is tough enough. Schools with 10 to 100 classrooms, credentialed and non-credentialed staff, diversity of students, parental involvement, and dozens of other factors come into play. Then consider that one school is multiplied by 1o to 50 to 100 to form a district and how the complexity of each level multiplies when one considers the cross-cutting factors that come into play when the district is the unit of analysis. Each level embedded in the other has a structure, culture, and entwined relationships. Look at the figure below that tries to capture just a fraction of myriad moving parts.


All of this discussion of complexity brings me to the Milpitas Unified School District a system of just over 10,000 students (45 % Asian, 21% Filipino, 21 % Hispanic, 7% white, 3% black) distributed among 14 schools from pre-K to senior high school. Thirty three percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunches.  Nearly 800 staff strive to reach the goals that the school board and superintendent seek to achieve (see here, here, and here).

Thus, Milpitas is a system of embedded organizations (e.g., classrooms, schools, and district office) interacting daily with one another often in loosely coupled arrangements. Then consider how the city of Milpitas (over 100,000 residents), Santa Clara County in which the city is located, the state of California, and the federal government also interact in small and large ways with the district. Yes, this is complexity with a capital C.

In the next post, I will describe how one superintendent, Cary Matusoka, spent five years  (2011-2016) trying to move an entire district to redesign the way its teachers taught and students learned through integrating new technologies.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use