Tag Archives: classroom practice,

A Poem about Teaching and A Critique (Taylor Mali and Joe Bower)

Like doctors, lawyers, architects, and therapists, teachers disagree about the nature of teaching and the ends that teaching and learning should attain. Such disagreements go back millennia and it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of these honest and deep disagreements that exist among teachers. Consider the following poem (“What Teachers Make”) by Taylor Mali and a critique of it written by Joe Bower.


Taylor Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching everything from English and history to math and S.A.T. test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society. Mali is the author most recently of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” (Putnam 2012)…. (From Taylor Mali’s website)


What Teachers Make

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.

Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?


Canadian teacher Joe Bower replied in 2010.

Let’s take a look at Taylor Mali’s little poem:

“I can make kids work harder” – Kids don’t work, they learn. Making education metaphorical with business is precisely what has gotten us in the mess we are in today. Policy makers that are pedagogically further removed from the classroom than they are geographically are responsible for too much of what is wrong with school today.

“I can make a C- feel like a congressional medal of honor, and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face.” Of course you can, Taylor. This is true because grades can only ever be experienced by children as a reward or punishment. Do you really want to take credit for that? Extrinsically manipulating children to coerce them to learn with carrots and sticks is hardly something to brag about. You’re a bully.

“How dare you waste my time!” That sounds awfully conditional, Taylor. You realize that kids don’t need their teacher to be a judge-in-waiting that they must learn to keep their distance from, right? You realize that what they really need is a teacher who will unconditionally accept them for who they are, right? Right?

“I make kids sit through study hall for 40 minutes in absolute silence.” Learning is a social exercise – it isn’t often that we learn best in isolation – and in the real world collaboration is not cheating. Beyond that, what are they studying for? The state-mandated, high-stakes standardized test? Taylor, are you really proud of wasting 40 minutes of study time when your students could have been doing real learning?

“No you may not work in groups?” Why not, Taylor? How will children learn to collaborate if you arbitrarily decide they can’t. And then when you do provide them with the privilege of working together, and they screw it up, you’ll blame them because they don’t know how to work together. Be honest, Taylor, the quiet classroom is more for you than it is for them. Cui bono?.

“No you may not ask me a question.” Again, why not, Taylor? Are you their teacher who is there to guide them and coach them to better learning or are you just a supervisor? The more I listen to you, the more I believe it is the latter.

“No you may not go to the bathroom.” Taylor, as an adult, when was the last time you had to even ask to go the bathroom? And as an adult, when was the last time you were told that you couldn’t go? And, as an adult, if you were told ‘no’, what would be your reaction?

“You’re bored and you don’t really have to go to the bathroom.” Taylor, I’ll give you 3 guesses why they are bored. I’ll give you a hint. It has something to do with that 40 minutes of solitary confinement you love so much.

“I make parents tremble in fear when I call home.” I have no idea how this could possibly be a good thing. EVER. Shameful.

“To the biggest bully in the class, he said…” Was this boy speaking to you, Taylor?

“I make kids wonder.” No Taylor, at best you make them want to wander. As in wander out of your classroom because you can’t make someone do anything and make them like it.

“I make them apologize.” Yes, you made them say the word ‘sorry’, but ‘sorry’ isn’t a word. It’s a feeling. I doubt you were ever able to make someone feel sorry… in a good way.

“I make the write, write, write. I make them read.” If they could spot a comma splice or a Shakespeare quote from a block away, but they swear to God they’ll never pick up a pen or book again, what have you accomplished? Where there’s interest, achievement follows. Where there’s disinterest, boredom and misbehavior sets in. Montaigne once wrote if students lack “appetite and affection” for learning, they become little more than “asses loaded with books.”

“I make them spell…” Sounds like you make your kids sit down for a spell. It also sounds like the real choice you give kids is that we either let them use invented spelling or we don’t let them write at all. Wow, how honorable of you.

We can’t test our way to a better education, nor can we bully kids to better learning, while our fixation on quantity and control continue to do a massive disservice for our children….




Filed under how teachers teach

Part 4: Summit Prep Charter Teachers Integrating Technology–World Studies

Any high school teacher who has taught 9th graders and seniors can quickly list the differences in teaching 15 and 18 year-olds. One of the tasks of teaching 9th graders at Summit Prep (and most other high schools as well) is socializing them into the school’s academic and behavioral norms so that by the end of the year, these students know what to do, when to do it across academic subjects, and how to behave out of class while still on the campus. These skills and behaviors, Summit leaders believe, are crucial for success not only in high school but also in higher education.

Aukeem Ballard, who is finishing his third year as a teacher, teaches the first block of the school day, usually a 95 minute period for his 9th grade World Studies students. But today Block 1 is only 55 minutes because half of the school will be visiting Bay area college campuses for the rest of the week. The 28 students sitting in foursomes facing one another at tables are jumpy about the trip. Questions quietly ripple through the room. Ballard is very aware of the higher-than-usual nervousness among students and spends time at the beginning of the class taking their questions about when and where they will meet, what they need to bring, what they will be doing, etc.  He does all of this before launching into a Warm Up that begins a new unit on Imperialism. He puts up a slide on the screen that has the daily objectives and goes over them one-by-one (see slide 3 here).

For the Warm Up, Ballard asks students to write a two-minute summary of the story “The Rabbits” that they had finished reading earlier in the week (the fable-like story is about how rabbits  invade a land where other animals are living, colonizes the country, and despotically rules the nation; the story is an allegory for 19th and 20th century imperialistic powers slicing up Africa and Asia (see here). He tells students that to do the summary, there will be no partnering. He wants individual work.  Students take out their notebooks and begin writing. Ballard walks around the room checking to see their summaries. “I just saw,” he says, “a two sentence summary that is better-than-fair.” After most of the class has finished, he tells students to draw a dotted line under their summary and then write their opinion in a few sentences about “The Rabbits.” After they finish, he says, share for three minutes your opinions with their table partner.

I scan the class and all students are writing their opinions, a few have begun talking to their table-mates.

After three minutes, Ballard calls for their attention by counting down from five to one. He then asks students for their opinions of the story. No one responds. He calls on three different students and they give their opinions in very low voices. He asks them to speak louder so that others can hear.

“Now,” after the brief back-and-forth with a few students, “we are going to swing from the rabbit story to imperialism.” He then puts a slide on screen calling it a Link Frame.*   It is a matrix of  four squares with labels for each quadrant: List, Inquire, Notice, and Know (LINK). He asks students to put the Link Frame in their notebooks and then fill in  the List quadrant with 5-6 words that they associate with the word “imperialism.”  He says: “Use what you know in your incredible brains.” After a few minutes, the teacher says: “You should be ready to share out LIST with the rest at your table—don’t use Chromebooks yet.”

After the sharing, Ballard calls on students in various groups to give the words they wrote; the teacher jots the words down on his laptop and they appear on screen. He then walks around with his Chromebook in hand,  listening to various students, closing lids of three Chromebooks as he continues to note what words students have put down for imperialism in the List quadrant.

After a long list of words from class appear, he asks students to go to next quadrant of the Link Frame, Inquiry. Here he wants students in their group to brainstorm questions they would ask about imperialism for their project essays. He asks each table group of four to have one of them act as recorder while the other three members stand up and says questions that they would ask about imperialism. Recorder takes down questions as three peers stand and throw out questions. Ballard walks around room listening, offering compliments to some groups for their questions. He has a stop watch and tells students how many minutes are left for the activity.

At end of task, students sit and Ballard asks what questions came up in each group. He types their questions and they appear on the screen at front of room (e.g., Why do countries need resources in other places? Why so much violence? What are the most recent nations to be imperialized?).

Teacher then directs students to go to third quadrant of Link Frame, Notice. Here he asks students to use their Chromebooks and go to a link (see here) that shows photos and has text of Before and After Belgium, Great Britain, and other countries colonized parts of Africa and Asia. Students open Chromebooks, go to link and quietly read while jotting down in their notebooks things they notice. I scan class and every student is on task. As the end of class approaches, Ballard calls for “professional courtesy,” a code phrase students recognize for closing the lids of their Chromebooks. They do. He then asks students to complete Notice and Know quadrants of the matrix as homework for their next block class. They will pick up discussion from that point, hesays.

Teacher dismisses class and students leave for their next 55-minute class.

Teaching norms of discourse and behavior is a long process of socialization to high school and essential for those who enter college. It begins in the 9th grade at Summit Prep and shows itself fully in subsequent years. Such student compliance to these academic and behavioral norms, Summit leaders believe, is the basis for success in high school and higher education.


*After reviewing a draft of this post for inaccuracies, Ballard said that “it is important to note that lesson and PowerPoint are a result of collaboration with my 9th grade history teacher colleague …. at [another Summit] school.”


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Choosing Exemplars of Technology Integration: Teachers

I have embarked on a new project of describing and analyzing “best cases” of teachers, schools, and districts. In earlier posts, I explained why I have shifted the center of gravity in my research (see here and here). The past three posts describing lessons of teachers identified as exemplars illustrate the direction I will take in my research (see here, here, and here). I am not the first, nor the last, researcher who examined and analyzed “best cases” of a practice.

What I did not explain, however, was how I came to sit in the classes of these teachers (and others who I will describe in subsequent posts).  The question gets at the criteria I used to contact these teachers and watch them teach their lessons. The answer to the question of why these teachers and not others becomes complicated because there is no agreement on what exactly “exemplary” means. In this post, I will deal with criteria for choosing “best cases” of teachers integrating technology into their lessons. In later posts, I will specify the criteria I used to choose instances of exemplary schools and districts.

Before getting into the criteria I used to enter teachers’ classrooms, documenting past efforts to identify, describe, and analyze exemplary teachers who integrated computers into their daily lessons is essential.

History of seeking classroom exemplars

In the late-1980s, Karen Sheingold and Martha Hadley surveyed 600 teachers across the nation in grades 4-12 who had been “[n]ominated because of their involvement and accomplishments in integrating computers into their teaching.” These were teachers who had developed a reputation among colleagues and administrators for being expert users of computers and its many applications to stretch their students into learning more, faster, and better. These were “best cases” of computer using teachers based on reputation. In the earliest years of teachers and students gaining access to desktop computers, this study showed that such teachers do exist. But what percentage of teachers are motivated and skilled sufficiently to become known among peers and administrators as experts in using computers in their daily lessons?

That is the question that Henry Becker tried to answer following the Sheingold and Hadley study. In a national sample of nearly 1000 teachers in elementary through secondary schools across the country, Becker found that five percent of the teachers could be called exemplary (see Table 1). What distinguished the five percent of exemplary teachers from the 95 percent of computer-using colleagues was, in Becker’s words:

[E]xemplary teachers teach in an environment that helps them to be better computer-using teachers; they are themselves better prepared to use computers well in their teaching; and, in fact, they have allowed computers to have a much greater impact in how and what they teach. At the same time, exemplary teachers make greater demands on available resources and face problems that other computer-using teachers are less likely to face….[T]heir districts provide relevant and broad-ranging staff development activities, that they have access to computers at school and have the time to use them personally, and that they teach smaller classes….
So researchers often use a criterion of reputation among peers and others to identify exemplars. Becker estimates that such teachers are a tiny fraction of teachers using computers.
Criteria I used to choose teachers
Basically, I used the reputational approach. I had asked Dominic Bigue, San Mateo Union High School District coordinator in charge of instructional technology, for names of exemplary technology-using teachers. Bigue, a teacher-on-assignment to the post,  identified the teachers.  After interviewing Bigue, I found out that the teachers on the list he drew up were ones who had initiated proposals in past years to secure carts of Chromebooks and other devices to use in their classrooms. They also had attended district-wide sessions on computers, and had led professional development sessions for SMUHSD teachers during the school year and summer. In addition, these teachers were willing to have me visit their classes.Among the seven on the list, three responded to my email requests to visit. I observed lessons of those three teachers teaching different subjects in two different high schools. Those were the lessons I described in previous posts.
Because no teacher is an island, context matters. The school setting, the departmental organizational of subjects, networks of like-minded teachers in the school and across the district, and available resources all come into play in influencing how teachers teach using new technologies. Questions about existing school structures and the ethos pervading the school that advance or impede collaboration, risk-taking, and problem solving also matter because the answers have much to do with the work of exemplary teachers and their colleagues within a building and within the district. Later posts will go into the criteria I used to choose schools and districts.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

From the Classroom: Teachers Integrating Technology (Part 1)

Just as an expert restaurant chef makes use of all of the techniques–from frying, to baking to poaching to molecular cooking with liquid nitrogen– [and] tools–from paring knives to rolling pins to food processors to steam ovens [and] ingredients that [she] has at her … disposal, [that chef] has the requisite deep knowledge, skills and experience to know what to use with what as well as how and when to use them. An expert [teacher] also makes use of all of the techniques–different pedagogies and approaches to instruction and learning from lecture to computer supported collaborative learning to games/simulations, etc. [and] tools–books, whiteboards, computers, mobile devices, wet labs, and ingredients–content domain, adjunct questions, feedback, learning objectives, etc., [that teacher] has the requisite deep … pedagogical content, and technological … knowledge and skills and experience to know what to use with what as well as how and when to use them.

Professor Paul Kirschner at Open University of the Netherlands

Analogies between teachers and chefs or orchestra conductors or staff sergeants or master performers stud the literature describing effective teachers. I happen to like the different analogies because they get at how particular teachers combine the art and science of teaching, the evanescent and abiding, the simple and complex into daily lessons. When it occurs, it is a pleasure to see. And so it was when I observed three teachers in the San Mateo Union High School District in northern California a few weeks ago. The teachers invited me into their classes and gave me permission to use their names. These three posts describe the lessons I saw where teachers were like chefs (readers can choose another analogy) as they prepared and executed lessons that seamlessly integrated tablets and smart boards into  English and Spanish lessons in two different schools within SMUHSD.

Sarah Press has been teaching English at Hillsdale High School since 2007. With about 1,400 students of whom 94 percent graduate, about 60 percent are minority and less than 20 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch (common poverty measure), Hillsdale High School had adopted nearly 15 years ago the small “learning community” model and sub-divided itself into six “houses.” Press is in Florence House. Working closely with Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, the school had established a reputation for academic excellence and innovation for both students and teachers. When I asked the district coordinator for exemplars of technology integration he recommended Sarah Press. I emailed her and she invited me into her 50-minute class for January 25, 2016.

Press and a colleague next door who teaches U.S. history share the same 100 students.  The two teachers integrate the content of both English and history for most of units and projects they do. For the lesson I observed, Press had planned two activities (for an overview of her Freshman and Sophomore English classes, see here)

As the 23 students enter the smaller-than-usual classroom, each picks up a Chromebook from a cart next to the door and went to their desks. The desks are in rows facing a puled down screen with daily agenda on it. The teacher’s desk is at the side of the room and in the rear where I am sitting, there is a comfy couch that can sit at least 4 people. On the walls are students’ work, photos of previous classes, inspirational quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., reminders of books they have read, and lists of key concepts (e.g., motif, oxymoron) used in English lessons. On the back wall is a list of questions students generated to delve into the “housing crisis” in Northern California. Title above research questions is “We Want To Know.”

She had placed slide of agenda for the day on front screen*:

  1. Apostrophe Review
  2. Fact Finding Reminders

–Presentation of Projects during block schedule Friday

–Product update: Maximum time for presentation and speaking notes

–guest speaker tomorrow—means less research time to work on project presentation

  1. Work time on project (about housing in the Bay area–see below)
  2. In your groups, check what each person does,figure out how to assess progress in completing project, delegate who does what, and assign homework
  3. Office hours today. Come and get caught up.

The room is crowded, students open their Chromebooks, as Press launches into review of apostrophes. Press gives students a link and they take a quick quiz on use of apostrophe. Then after five minutes of students filling in answers to questions, she clicks on her laptop and slide appears with student results for each question. Seventy-eight percent of class got all items correct. She then focuses on particular questions where students erred and with a quick back-and-forth between her and students, re-taught correct use of apostrophe. All of this took about 15 minutes.

Press then asks students to close “lids” partway and goes over tasks students have to complete prior to presentation. Each group had asked specific questions about the housing “crunch” in the Bay area and the presentation was their solution to it. She then asks students to move into their groups, pointing to agenda for the day, and have each group work on project answering the questions they asked (for each group’s research questions, see here).

For the remainder of the period, each group, at different stages of preparing for presentation and completing the project, worked away. To answer their particular housing question, each group had collected documents, interviewed different people, and sifted newspaper and web articles. Everything about the project was on their Chromebook. Press went up and down the aisles asking and answering questions and checking on each group’s progress on different tasks.

Every five minutes, I would scan the class to see which students were off-task, uninvolved, or simply staring into space. Each time I checked, I saw, perhaps one or two students, in each instance different ones, who appeared off-task. Of course, I could not tell for sure.

Three minutes before the buzzer sounded ending the class, Press calls for students’ attention–“eyeballs up here,” she says. She reminds class that each group decides what to do next, assigns work on presentation, and figures out homework for each member of group. A few students ask questions and she answers them crisply. Buzzer sounds. Students return Chromebooks to cart and leave class, some going next door and others to Chemistry and Math classes.


For content of Press’s daily lessons including this one, see here.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

A British High School and Its Integration of Technology (Jose Picardo)

Jose’ Picardo, describes himself in his blogI am a Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School, where I teach Modern Foreign Languages and I am in charge of developing the school’s digital strategy, which can be summarised as follows: ensuring the integration of technologies that enable and facilitate teaching and learning into the life of the school and its wider community….”

Jose’  Picardo commented on a two-part post on my technology integration project. He gave me permission to use his comment. In Picardo’s comment he included a three-minute video about different classrooms in Surbiton High School, outside of London. The video shows the range of usage in both high- and low-tech tools across academic and non-academic subjects.


Hi Larry,

I’ve recently led the adoption of tablets across our school in a suburb of London, UK. Depending on who you ask, we’re either incredibly innovative or completely foolish.

Perhaps surprisingly then, I’ve always been very sceptical of claims of transformation when it comes to the adoption of technology in schools. Throughout the deployment of our 1:1 tablet programme one thing above all was always present on our minds: There is no app for great teaching.

From the start, some of the myths that we found ourselves dispelling most often were that technology would substitute teachers; that tablets would stop children from writing; and that we were somehow giving up on rigour and in to edutainment. As if mobile technology and high academic standards were somehow mutually exclusive.

Anticipating my seminar at BETT yesterday, I had asked a colleague, who is a dab hand at filming and editing, to go round the school and film instances of tablets being used in lessons (if they were being used), so we can paint an accurate picture of how they are used, as opposed to how some folk assume they are being used.(see video at:  https://vimeo.com/152408282 )

It is actual lesson footage. Nothing was ‘put on’ for the camera. If you have time to watch this 3 min video, you will notice how students weave seamlessly between tablet and paper. Tablets are not substituting paper or preventing children from learning how to handwrite.

The teacher is still the ‘sage on the stage’ most of the time. Students are still students. They are still mostly sitting in rows. Some would argue that if tablets have not transformed the classroom beyond this traditional paradigm, then what is the point? But when you tailor into the equation the multiple ways in which mobile devices support teaching and learning (in the classroom and beyond), then their value begins to become more apparent.

Our school is a great school by all measures. Our results and inspection reports confirm this. Tablets have not yet been shown to have had a great impact on exam results (to early to tell) but, to be honest with you, we will not be surprised if exam results are not dramatically improved by the adoption of these devices. Having said that, our current data leads us to expect a modest improvement.

At the end of the day, the decision to use tablet to support teaching and learning when appropriate was a value call. Good luck measuring that!


While I have no idea how representative Jose Picardo’s video and his comment are of other UK schools that have integrated new technologies into their daily classroom routines, both the comment and video  illustrate two points that I have observed in U.S. classrooms over the past few decades. First, no “transformation” in teaching has occurred (see third paragraph from end of Picardo’s comment). Second, the perpetual hope that use of new technologies will improve “exam” results  (see next-to-last paragraph of  comment).

Both of these points capture the current climate for adopting and integrating tablets and hand-held devices into U.S. classroom instruction. In the technology project I am just beginning, I stay away from linking usage of hardware/software to student achievement for the simple reason that if instruction stays pretty much the same after high-tech devices and applications are regularly used, then chances of gains (or losses) in how much students learn, as measured by existing tests, are slim to non-existent. If teaching is, indeed, linked to student learning then noticeable changes in teaching have to occur for that learning to improve. And that is why in my current project, I focus on how teachers teach in classrooms, schools, and districts  where technology integration has been identified by multiple individuals and agencies rather than how students perform on tests.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Technology Integration in Districts and Schools: Next Project (Part 1)

For decades, as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I have been a consumer and a skeptic of new technologies in both K-12 schools and higher education. My books, articles, talks, and this blog have documented the hype, adoption, and partial implementation of new devices from the 16mm film in the early 20th century, radio in classrooms in the 1930s, instructional television in the 1950s and 1960s, and the desktop computer since the early 1980s. And within the past decade, I have researched and written about the exponential growth in laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with a cornucopia of apps and software that have swept through U.S. schools and colleges.

Student and teacher access to these shiny, new devices–ones that often become obsolete in the blink of an eye–and increased use in districts, schools, and classrooms for data gathering and instructional materials have been stunning to early adopters in and out of schools. Results of these major investments especially in the last decade, however, have been less stunning, even disappointing because the initial reasons for distributing the digital wealth have fallen short time and again. Gains in academic achievement, major shifts in teacher methods, and entry into decent-paying jobs–original goals for buying new technologies–have been missing-in-action when it comes to evaluating the return on investment in digital classroom tools. Thus, I have remained a skeptic and will continue to question the claims of high-tech entrepreneurs and avid champions when it comes to “transforming” the organization and practice of schooling.

Being skeptical, however, does not mean I have a closed mind. I have diligently looked for instances where districts, schools, and classroom teachers have mindfully infused software into their lessons to reach the learning outcomes they seek for their students. On my blog, I have featured such examples (see here, here, and here). For my next project I want to be more systematic in seeking out exemplars of technology integration in districts, schools, and classrooms. Why select exemplars?

First, the often-told story that highly promoted devices and software fall short of the promised outcomes is accurate. The literature on technology use in schools and universities is strewn with examples of broken dreams. I have no enthusiasm to contribute further to that literature since I know that others will document the holes in the Swiss cheese of high-tech hype. Furthermore, stories of failure have hardly blunted the continuing promotion of districts, schools, and classrooms that have come to rely on the latest app, software, and device. The volleying back-and-forth between uncritical advocates and skeptical users will continue into the next decade whatever I think and do. So I want to take a break from that badminton game.

Second, seeking out exemplars of technology integration leap-frogs over the current debates by examining (yes, critically) those instances where experts and local users believe that they are infusing software seamlessly into actual instruction. For them, the technology “works” (what I and others mean by “works” will be addressed later). By describing and analyzing “best cases” of technology integration I can delve deeper into puzzles that have rattled around in my mind as I researched access and use of new hardware and software over the past three decades.

And exactly what are those puzzles?

One that has bothered me for a long time is why “technology” in education is considered separate, an add-on, when that is not the case when observers look at technological tools applied to business, medicine, architecture, engineering and other professional work. For some reasons in these other domains high-tech tools are part-and-parcel of the daily work that professionals do in getting the job done well. Doctors, for example, diagnose illnesses. New technologies—hand-held devices that do EKGs and monitor heartbeats, machines that do CAT-scans–help doctors in figuring out what’s wrong with a patient. In medicine, technology helps in making diagnoses. That’s it. Not in schools and higher education. There, use of such tools is the subject and predicate. The problem to be solved is secondary. Why, then, unlike other professional work, has the use of educational technology been front-and-center in discussions about improving schools, changing teaching, and preparing students for the labor market? In looking at exemplars of educators infusing technology into their daily activities, perhaps a few clues will emerge to unravel this puzzle.

The other puzzle that has bothered me over the years is that teachers, like clinical physicians, nurses, and therapists, engage in the “helping professions” where the use of their expertise is wholly dependent upon the responses of their students, patients, and clients. These helping professionals depend a great deal on frequent interactions to achieve any degree of success in improving learning and maintaining health. The introduction of online lessons, 1:1 tablets, Google glasses for doctors, robots in hospitals, and the like raise significant questions about the nature of the work these professionals do and how success is defined. Keeping this view of teaching as a “helping profession” and the crucial importance of teacher-student interactions lays out questions for me to answer in examining exemplars in districts, schools, and classrooms. In what ways do the best cases of technology infusion improve or hinder (or both) relationships between teachers and students?

Part 2 describes my thinking about how I will go about this project in the next year.


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

Why Your Students Forgot Everything On Your PowerPoint Slides (Mary Jo Madda)

Mary Jo Madda writes for EdSurge. This post appeared January 19, 2015.

Don’t fret, we’ve all been there: You’re up late the night before Thursday and you have to teach a lesson at 8 AM the next day. So, what do you do? Throw some text on a PowerPoint and get ready to talk through your points. Couldn’t hurt, right? You might not always read straight off of the slides—they’ll just help keep your lecture on track, and if you lose your place, the text is right there for you.

Unfortunately, whether you’re discussing Columbus with 4th graders or quantum physics with college freshmen, you may be hurting your students’ learning more than helping them.

Let’s explore why instructional design doesn’t typically work with students, or anyone’s learning for that matter, when you teach with PowerPoint—as well as how you can avoid it. It all begins with a little concept called “cognitive load.”

Too Much for the Student to Process

Imagine your student’s brain as a container. When you start tossing rocks into the container, it gets heavier and heavier—and more difficult for the student to carry or sort through. Essentially, that’s cognitive load. Cognitive load describes the capacity of our brain’s working memory (or WM) to hold and process new pieces of information. We’ve all got a limited amount of working memory, so when we have to handle information in more than one way, our load gets heavier, and progressively more challenging to manage.

In a classroom, a student’s cognitive load is greatly affected by the “extraneous” nature of information—in other words, the manner by which information is presented to them (Sweller, 2010). Every teacher instinctively knows there are better—and worse—ways to present information. The reason for these, research shows, is that when you lighten the load, it’s easier for students’ brains to take information in and transform it into memory.

Teaching with text-based PowerPoint slides while also reading them aloud, unfortunately, amounts to throwing too many rocks into the student container—and potentially causing students to regress.

The Redundancy Effect

Simultaneous auditory (spoken) and visual presentation of text, often done through PowerPoint presentations, is an all-too-common occurrence in classrooms nowadays. Think about it: How many times have you walked into a classroom or lecture hall and heard a teacher reading out the text on slides displayed on the front board?

A study in Australia in the late 1990s (the 1999 Kalyuga study) compared the learning achievement of a group of college students who watched an educator’s presentation involving a visual text element and an audio text element (meaning there were words on a screen while the teacher also talked) with those who only listened to a lecture, minus the pesky PowerPoint slides. The researchers concluded that utilizing visual stimuli involving words while a separate auditory presentation is delivered increases the cognitive load, rather than lessening it.

It’s called the the redundancy effect. Verbal redundancy “arises from the concurrent presentation of text and verbatim speech,” increasing the risk of overloading working memory capacity—and so may have a negative effect on learning.

Consider, for instance, a science lesson on food chains. A teacher may start by lecturing on the difference between herbivores and carnivores. Up comes a slide with definitions of each term. The teacher starts reading directly from the slide. The duplicated pieces of information—spoken and written—don’t positively reinforce one another; instead, the two flood students’ abilities to handle the information.

Researchers including John Sweller and Kimberly Leslie contend that it would be easier for students to learn the differences between herbivores and carnivores by closing their eyes and only listening to the teacher. But students who close their eyes during a lecture are likely to to called out for “failing to paying attention.”

How to Lighten the Load

So, then, what do you do? How do you ensure that your kids learn from your lectures rather than wind up with brains that feel like oversoaked sponges? (And keep in mind, entrepreneurs—this could apply to your product pitches as well.)

Richard Mayer, a brain scientist at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Multimedia Learning, offers the following prescription: Eliminate textual elements from presentations and instead talk through points, sharing images or graphs with students. This video illustrates exactly what he means (see video here).

This approach, he suggests, is particularly appropriate for those subjects where geometric graphs and visual imagery are crucial for understanding key concepts, like food chains, the water cycle or calculating surface area.

Other studies, such as a separate Australian investigation by Leslie et al. (2012), suggest that mixing visual cues with auditory explanations (in math and science classrooms, in particular) are essential and effective. In the Leslie study, a group of 4th grade students who knew nothing about magnetism and light learned significantly more when presented with both images and a teacher’s explanation than a separate group which received only auditory explanation.

Are you a science teacher? Throw up a picture of a lion’s tooth and a zebra’s tooth onto the screen while explaining the differences between carnivores and herbivores. Teach social studies? Surround the number “1776” with painted images of the founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence, rather than including straight facts on your presentation.

And if you find it difficult to eliminate words entirely from your PowerPoint presentations, especially when you want students to get those key vocabulary words down, here are some additional hints:

  • Limit yourself to one word per slide. If you’re defining words, try putting up the vocabulary word and an associated set of images—then challenge students to deduce the definition.
  • Honor the “personalization principle,” which essentially says that engaging learners by delivering content in a conversational tone will increase learning. For example, Richard Mayer suggests using lots of “I’s” and “you’s” in your text, as students typically relate better to more informal language.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Politics of Math Education (Christopher Phillips)

This op-ed appeared in the New York Times, December 3, 2015.

Christopher J. Phillips teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University and is the author of “The New Math: A Political History.”


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

“Teachers Know Best” Survey of Technology in Classrooms

The rollout of the Gates Foundation 2015 survey of teacher opinion about technology sought to gain attention from entrepreneurs, policymakers, administrators, and teachers. I do not know if it did attract such attention but a brief analysis of what teachers told pollsters is in order because the report reveal strong biases that need attention.


1. Teachers still do not “personalize” instruction. On p. 2 of the report, under the heading “What Today’s Classrooms Look Like” the first finding of the survey is in the following  paragraphs:
Despite the proliferation of technology that enables student
learning experiences to be tailored to meet individual skills, needs,
and interests, … More than two-thirds (69 percent) of participating teachers
report teaching in classrooms where students generally
learn the same content, working at the same pace together
as a class.

The implied meaning is that over two-thirds of teachers teaching where students generally learn the same content, working at the same pace together as a class  is bad especially because there is a  proliferation of technology that enables student learning experiences to be tailored to meet individual skills, needs, and interests.

And if the reader did not get the message, the text on the same page continues:
Despite the availability of digital tools to assist with independent practice, assessment, and tutoring, most classroom time in these areas is still spent without using digital content. Teachers spend 16 percent of class time, on average, on independent practice without digital content, compared to 11 percent using it; another 16 percent of class time on paper-and-pencil assessment, compared to 9 percent on computer-based assessments; and 10 percent of class time on individual in-person tutoring, compared to 4 percent on online tutoring.
So most teachers, the text implies because no other explanations are offered, willfully ignore the technologies that would embrace a student-centered version of “personalized” instruction.As others have pointed out, this bias toward student-centered–call it individualized, “personalized,” or blended–instruction continues to drive techno-advocates (see here).
In the very next paragraph, the report says:

However, the majority of teachers (65 percent) report grouping students of similar abilities together for differentiated instruction or other supports. These groupings are also increasingly responsive to ongoing changes in student learning, with 73 percent of teachers changing the composition of student groups at least monthly.

The report suggests that teachers using multiple groupings to differentiate instruction is a “good” thing. Here nearly two-thirds of teachers are doing the right thing. Again there the history and organizational context for teachers using small groups are missing.

The fact of the matter is that Progressive reformers started grouping of students in the 1920s (following the use of IQ tests) and it has taken decades for the practice to become a mainstay in the nation’s schools. Why? Because organizational factors that teachers have faced (and do so now) account for the slow but steady adoption of an innovation a century old.

As I and many others have pointed out (see here and here) there are historical, political, and organizational reasons why teachers teach as they do that have little to do with whether new technologies are available. State standards, tests, accountability, class size, demographics, teacher turnover, historical patterns of instruction, and many other factors account for this stability in instruction, not the availability of new devices and software.


The Gates Foundation-funded study depends upon online responses from teachers. Researchers know the dangers of unreliable estimates that plague such survey responses. For example, when investigators examined classrooms of teachers and students who reported high frequency of usage, these researchers subsequently found large discrepancies between what was reported and what was observed. None of the gap between what is said on a survey and what is practiced in a classroom is intentional. The discrepancy often arises from what sociologists call the bias of “social desirability,” that is, respondents to a survey put down what they think the desirable answer should be rather than what they actually do.

Online surveys are also plagued with selection bias. While the Boston Consulting Group that the Gates Foundation hired to survey over 3000 teachers claims that the respondents mirror the nation’s pool of teachers (p. 3), those who take the time to respond to an online survey may well differ from those teachers who cannot be bothered to answer the questions. That is called selection bias and flaws many online surveys (see here, here, and here). I could not find in the report whether the BCG corrected for selection bias or simply used the excuse of  teachers who responded as being representative of the nation’s teachers.


The foundation’s report Teachers Know Best offers a biased view (both substantively and methodologically) of what should happen in the nation’s classrooms. Handle with care.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

How I Studied the Teaching of History Then and Now

From time to time, a few readers ask me how I, as a historian of education, go about collecting and analyzing data about teachers at work in classrooms especially those who have taught many decades ago and those who teach now. In my next book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change in Schools, I reconstructed how I taught history at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) and Cardozo High School (Washington, D.C.) in the 1950s and 1960s and then returned to those same schools in 2013-2014 to determine how history is taught there now (see here).

This post is for those viewers and curious readers who have asked me the direct question of how I dig into the past and recapture the present in answering the central question I asked in the forthcoming book: What has changed and what has remained the same in the content and pedagogy of high school history?

In carrying out this study to answer that central question, I had to deal with the following methodological issues. 

How did I reconstruct my teaching of history at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools between 1956-1967?

The design of the book is basically two case studies that answer the question: to what degree did the larger context of national and local reform-driven policies influence the teaching of history then and now? I used the common historical methodology of seeking out multiple primary and secondary sources to describe and analyze the macro- and micro-contexts, that is, national movements (e.g., civil rights, the New Social Studies), city and school district settings, and what happened during the decade I taught in Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Primary sources included district school board minutes, local newspaper articles, available school archives, and district and school reports and studies published in the late-1950s through the late-1960s for both Glenville and Cardozo High Schools.

I used secondary sources to establish national socioeconomic and political forces at work that influenced each city (e.g., Civil Rights movement, demographic changes, shifts in economic base). Other secondary sources included descriptions of how teachers taught elsewhere in the nation during these years. For each of the cities I tapped histories of the District of Columbia’s and Cleveland’s black communities, the political and socioeconomic forces at work in both cities in the 1950s and 1960s, and their linkages to changes in both school districts in these decades.

These primary and secondary sources permitted me to recapture the macro-contexts within which my classroom teaching unfolded. I used a similar mix of sources to portray the micro-setting of my classrooms in each district and how history teachers in other locations taught.

For my teaching at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools between 1956-1967, I used the following primary sources:

  1. Student “study guides” I used in my U.S. history and world history classes at Glenville (two former students kept copies and sent them to me). Lesson plans and readings (in my possession) I used in classes at Cardozo High School.
  2. Student assignments at Glenville that I had graded and commented on (one of the above students sent a packet of her work to me from 1960).
  3. Personal journal I kept for 1961-1967.
  4. Annual yearbooks at Glenville called “The Olympiad” and at Cardozo, “Purple Wave,” for the years I taught.
  5. Glenville student newspaper articles for the time period.
  6. Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper articles on Glenville for those years. The Washington Post and Washington Evening Star for articles on Cardozo High School.
  7. Cleveland School District documents including Board of Education minutes, special reports, and memos.
  8. District of Columbia documents including Board of Education minutes, memos, and official reports.

In returning to the two high schools I taught in a half-century ago, what methods did I use to describe what I saw and heard?

I spent two weeks at each high school. I visited Glenville High School for a week in November 2013. The media center specialist set me up in a room adjacent to the library filled with yearbooks and uncatalogued issues of the student newspaper for the years just before, during, and after I taught there. For recent years, I found scattered issues of the yearbook for the years 1990-2010.

At Cardozo, I spent a week in December 2013 navigating the school library and closets within the school for past and current school reports, evaluations, yearbooks and student newspapers. The high school had just reopened after a two-year long renovation of its facilities. Many materials had been tossed and destroyed in the move to prepare for the renovation and some had been stored at other sites but I could not locate any staff members who knew where.

After some digging, I located a room in the basement that did contain issues of yearbooks only from the period of 1990-2010. Issues of the yearbook for 2011-2013 had not been published. I also visited the District of Columbia school collections at the Charles Sumner Museum and located newspaper clippings about Cardozo High School covering the years 1975-2007.

In the next round of visits to each high school, I observed lessons and interviewed teachers. I went to Glenville for the week in April 2014. I interviewed the principal and three of the four social studies teachers at the school. I observed a total of nine classes (scheduled for 45-minute periods) of these four teachers. Overall, I spent an entire period in least one class of each of the four teachers. For one world history teacher, however, I observed three back-to-back classes and the other world history teacher I visited three different classes over two days. One of these teachers had invited me into his classes on my first visit to the school in November 2013 (but did not agree to be interviewed). None of the teachers had syllabi available for me or had posted any on the school website.

My final visit to Cardozo High School occurred during the week of May 2014. I interviewed two history teachers and observed three classes (each scheduled for 80-minutes). Another teacher permitted me to observe two of his classes but did not agree to an interview. In total, then, I observed eight lessons of three history teachers. In preparation for the observations, I reviewed the syllabi that all three teachers had placed on the school website (http://www.cardozohs.com/)

What did I do when I observed classes? In four of the 14 classes I observed in both schools, I was introduced as a professor who had taught at the school a half-century ago. In three of these classes, at the end of the lesson, the teacher invited students to question me about what teaching at Glenville and Cardozo was like then. A handful of students asked questions and I answered them.

During each lesson I observed, I sat in classrooms and writing out in longhand or typing on my laptop what teachers and students did during the 45-minute period at Glenville or 80-minute period at Cardozo. Each sheet of paper or laptop screen was divided into a wide column and a narrow column. In the wide column I recorded the seating organization of the classroom, what was on chalkboards, what was on the walls and bulletin boards, and what electronic equipment was present in the room. Then after the lesson began, I would note every few minutes what the teacher was talking about or doing and student responses and actions they were engaged in. I also noted when the teacher segued from one activity to another and directed students to the next task.

In the narrow column, I commented on what I saw. That included connections (or lack of connections) I saw between what teacher said and what students did. I scanned the classroom every few minutes and commented on whether some, most, or all students were on- or off-task and my sense of how attentive students and teacher were to what was happening in the lesson.

The major advantage of this approach is being in the room and picking up non-verbal and verbal asides of what is going on every few minutes as well as noting classroom climate or ethos that often goes unnoticed.  As an experienced teacher familiar with schooling historically and the common moves that occur in teacher-directed lessons, I can also assess the relationship between the teacher and students, subjectively to be sure, that other observers using different protocols or videos may miss or exclude.

The major disadvantage of this way of observing history lessons is the subjectivity and inevitable biases that any observer including myself brings to documenting lessons. To minimize my biases, I worked hard at separating what I saw from what I interpreted. Thus, the wide and narrow columns I used to record what happens during a lesson and my comments. I described objectively classroom conditions in diagrams of student and teacher desk arrangements, listing the content of bulletin boards and chalkboards. I noted the electronic devices available in the room and their location on the diagram of the room and whether the lesson included students using the devices. I described and did not judge teacher and student behaviors. But eliminating biases completely is hard to do. As in other approaches researching classroom lessons, some biases remain.

After observing classes, I sat down and had half-hour to 45-minute interviews with teachers at times convenient to them. After jotting down their history in the district, the school, and other experiences, I turned to the lessons and asked a series of questions about what happened during the period I observed. I asked what the teachers’ goals were and whether they believe those goals were reached. Then, I asked about the different activities I observed during the lesson and whether they thought the lesson I observed was typical or not.

In answering these questions, teachers gave me reasons they did (or did not do) something in lessons.  In most instances, individual teachers were eager to provide a rationale for doing what they did, thus, communicating to me a cognitive map of their beliefs and assumptions about teaching, learning, and the content they typically teach. In all of the give-and-take of these discussions with teachers I made no judgment about the success or failure of different activities or of the lesson itself.

Like any methodology to describe what happens in a lesson, there are inevitable trade-offs between using protocols with trained observers who seldom depart from the instrument, videotaping the lesson with or without commentary, the approach I used, and other methods of classroom observation. Each approach and in combination may increase objectivity and subjectivity but trade-offs remain.

In what ways did my skills as an historian and writing about my classroom experiences in the past help and hinder the account I constructed?

History is what historians say about the past and can document what they claim; memory is what individuals believe occurred in the past. So when a historian writes personally about what he or she has experienced, analytic skills, remembrances, and perceptions get entangled in one another and sorting out one from the other becomes essential.

I have tried to disentangle documented facts, memories, perceptions, and analysis particularly in identifying sources for the reader that may be unreliable but nonetheless usable because they add a dimension to the account that would be missing if this were another of my academic studies.

To be clear, then, this book describing two urban high schools in which history was taught then and is taught now is neither a memoir nor an autobiography; it is a combination of facts that can be documented by reliable sources (therefore I use endnotes to establish a factual basis for statements or raise doubts about what I and others have said and done) and personal experiences of teaching history. It is not an academic study of teaching history nor is it a personal recollection of then and now but a hybrid, or an “unconventional history” of teaching a high school subject laced with full documentation and personal experiences.

Moreover, I take my memories and that of former students and others as to what happened in order to construct a story of how I taught history a half-century ago. I drew from my previous studies such as How Teachers Taught to give a context for how and what I taught from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s. As for how history is taught now in these two high schools, I draw from the current movement among social studies educators of teaching students the skills and concepts that working historians use in describing, analyzing, and interpreting the past.

This hybrid of memoir and history tries to combine two disparate impulses that have characterized my career as a high school teacher and historian: As Patrick Hutton put it: “what is at issue here is not how history can recover memory but, rather, what memory will bequeath to history.”  Both history and memory, then, are necessary to recover what has occurred as policy decisions travel their zig-zag path into classrooms. Those policies and practices got filtered through the remembrance of one participant who was deeply involved in both teaching high school history and researching the history of education.

Combining history and memory in this hybrid study of teaching history then and now also reinforces my longstanding commitment to teachers and teaching as the core, the very essence, of public and private schooling in the U.S. Understanding that centrality of teachers and teaching to the enterprise of formal schooling has been the mainstay of my academic work for the past forty years.

So being a historian who also traffics in personal stories, I have had to be careful in how I documented my remembrances and those of my former students. Here is one example of decisions I made on personal accounts.

I have cited student comments in the Glenville High School chapter covering my seven-year stint there. As an historian, I have to be clear that such decades-old recollections are neither representative of all of my students nor constitute a majority or even substantial fraction of those who were in my classes. For the truth is that no more than 20 of my former students in the years I taught at Glenville have contacted me. They have written about their experiences to me in emails and in published venues. Even though the vast majority of my former students have not contacted me in the decades since I left Glenville, those that have are less than one percent. Moreover, for even that less than one percent of students, memories decades old are selective and often subject to bias. Yet I also know that perceptions and memories provide a shaft of light on past events and experiences. As a result of believing, in the name of memory, that what they have to say, given these caveats, may be worthwhile, I placed them in endnotes rather than the text to give readers the opportunity to judge the worth of their remembrances as a source of information about my teaching. In each instance, I contacted the writer of the email and asked for their permission to quote from it

All in all, then, creating this hybrid of the history of classroom teaching mixed with personal recollections has been a boon, I believe, to a deeper and fuller description of what teaching history over a half-century ago was like in two different high schools. It has been also a barrier since personal recollections are selective and can give undue weight to stories rather than documented facts.

The foregoing description of the methods I used in describing and analyzing the teaching of history then and now hardly removes the difficulties and dilemmas built into any reconstruction of the past. I wanted to be explicit in detailing the ways that I captured the past and compared it to the present.



Filed under how teachers teach