Tag Archives: how teachers teach

Teaching Algebra II: Technology Integration

I observed an Algebra 2 class at Hacienda (pseudonym), a Northern California high school, on September 9, 2016. The high school has over 1900 students, mostly minority (Asian and Latino). About 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 98 percent graduate and a very high percentage of those graduates enter college. About one-third of students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent qualifying for college credit. Less than 10 percent of students are English Language Learners and just over that percentage have been identified with disabilities. This is a high school that prides itself on academic and sports achievements and is recognized in the region, state, and nation as first-rate.

Beverly Young (pseudonym) is a veteran teacher of 22 years at Hacienda.  A slim woman of average height, wearing black slacks, white blouse with a beige sweater, she has been department head and very involved in coordinating the math curriculum at the school. Since 2008, she has embraced different technologies for the efficiency they brought to her in making out quizzes and tests and their help in connecting to students. She has been using an iPad with educational apps particularly Doceri for her math lessons since the tablet appeared.

The 50-minute lesson on Friday morning went swiftly by as the fast-paced, organized teacher taught about factoring quadratic equations. Announcements about upcoming quiz are posted on bulletin board next to whiteboard: “9/14—9/15, Quiz 4.1 to 4.2” –and upcoming test—“9/21—9/22, Test on 4.1 to 4.4.” The numbers refer to textbook sections.

There are 26 students in the room sitting at five rows of three desks next to one another, all facing the whiteboard. Young, carrying her iPad with her as she walks around, uses a remote to post slides and videos on the whiteboard during the lesson.

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For the first five minutes, Young shows a video about the Rio Paralympics. As students watch the brief video, Young, holding her iPad, walks around recording who is present and then stamping homework that students had laid out on their desks. I look around the class; they were watching intently athletes with disabilities who perform extraordinary feats.

Two minutes later, school announcements appear as a video on the whiteboard. Hacienda students prepare the daily announcements. A student anchors the announcements showing clips prepared by other students for different daily and weekly school activities (e.g., upcoming mini-bike racing event in Quad). In most schools where I observe classes, announcements are on the public address system and generally students ignore them as they drone on. I looked around and saw that all but a few of the students watched each announcement.

After announcements end, Young turns to the lesson for the day. The slide on the whiteboard is the objective for the day: “Factoring and Solving x²+bx+c=0.” She asks if there are any questions on the homework. No hands go up. Young then passes out handout for the day and directs students to go to Google Classroom on their devices (I see those students sitting near me have a mix of different laptops and tablets). She then asks students to go to Socrative, a software program, and gives instructions how they should login. She walks up and down aisles to see what is on students’ screens. After all students have logged in, she clicks on a short video that explains factoring quadratic equations by using an example of jellyfish.

Young explains what the key terms are, the different variables described in video and then applies it to factoring. She gives examples of binominals and asks questions as she goes along. She encourages students to talk to one another if they are stuck. She walks up and down aisles with iPad in hand as students answer. She then reviews binominals and moves to trinominals. “Now, look at polynominals.“ One student asks for clarification of terms. Young clarifies and asks: “You guys understand?” A few heads nod.

(For readers who wish to delve into the details of this lesson’s content, the teacher has made a five minute YouTube video for students that explains the content of this lesson.)

Young moves to next set of slides about “x intercepts” and examples of “distribution.” She then asks: Why do we do factoring? A few students answer. Young explains what the key points are and the differences between factoring and solving an equation. She asks students more questions, encouraging them to talk to one another to figure out answers.

The teacher segues back to a Socrative slide and to a question that she wants student to answer.

Young encourages students to help one another—as she circulates in the room. “If you don’t remember, write it down. It’s OK.” She checks her tablet to see what each student is doing and says aloud—“I see two guys who got it right—I am waiting for 15 of you guys to finish—talk to one another.” A few minutes later, looking at her tablet, she says—“most of you got it. I will give you another minute—I am waiting on eight more here.”

She talks to individual students answering questions and complimenting students as she traverses the aisles.

“Looks like most of you have the idea,” she says.

I scan the class and all students have eyes on screen, and are clicking away or whispering to a neighbor what appears to be an answer to the teacher’s question.

“Now you guys work on the second question.” She chats easily with students—“do you have answer here?” she asks all the while checking the iPad she carries around.

She then directs class to go to next question. “Do it and give me an answer for this—it’s a little tricky. You are more than welcome to ask one another.”

One student asked a question and then the teacher used the student question to correct misconception about solving a quadratic equation. Young answers the student and refers back to jellyfish video.

In scanning the class, all students look engaged. “If you guys have an answer like this—pointing to what she wrote on the whiteboard, then you got it wrong. Here’s a little hint—[could not catch what teacher says]. I’ll give you another 50 seconds—I just want to see what you guys remember”

Again, checking her iPad she can see each student’s work and can help student in real time as she cruises through the classroom.

“Now let’s go to fun stuff.”  After she posts slide from her iPad on the whiteboard on how to factor trinominals, Young explains each problem.

Young sees that some students are confused so she starts over. She continues to work on the numbered problems appearing on the slide, explaining what she is doing at each step. Then, she asks students to factor particular parts of equations. She checks her iPad and says: “I hear guys having an answer already—that’s great!”

“When is a 9 equal to zero or a plus nine equal to zero—now can you answer no. 8?” Students talk to one another, as I scan the room. Young circulates and listens to different students to further explain if they are stuck.

She asks: “Are we ready?” Teacher walks students through how she solves problem on whiteboard using the iPad. She then asks whether students know the difference between factoring and solving. One student says yes. She then asks students to jot down their answers to central question of the lesson —she walks around and talks with students as they click away.

The teacher ends class a few minutes before bell rings and then talks to different students, answering their questions. Other students begin packing up their things to await the end of the class. Bell rings.

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Teaching Advanced Placement Composition: Technology Integration

Room 409 at Los Altos High School in the south San Francisco Bay area is one of the most spacious for an academic subject —nearly the size of two regular classrooms–I have ever seen in the many schools I have visited over the years. I marveled at its carpeting, recliner chairs near the teacher’s desk and horseshoe arrangement of 3- and 4-desk clusters facing a table in the center of the room where Michael Moul, a 12 year veteran teacher, presides over his AP class.

Well over six feet tall, the stocky and goateed Moul is wearing a blue shirt, and dark slacks. He looks out on the 32 students in the room. He is also faculty adviser for the Talon, the school newspaper. Twelve desktop computers sit on the ledge below a wall and tall windows in the rear and side of the room that Talon staff use.

moul-classroom

Los Altos High School is a Bring-Your-Own-Device school. * The high school district adopted BYOD two years ago for its three schools after teacher- and administrator-initiated pilot projects established that well over half of the students had laptops or tablets they could use for their classes and enough teachers were sufficiently skilled to integrate the hardware and software into their daily lessons. For students who lack a device, forget theirs, or if one dies suddenly in school, students can easily get a device elsewhere in the school. Teachers decide how to weave technologies into their lessons; there is no district prescribed one-best-way for teachers to follow.

The lesson I observed on September 6, 2016 is the final part of a four and a half week unit on the Narrative Essay that began with the first day of school on August 15th.. In this unit, Moul spent the first two weeks of the semester on building community in the class, setting norms for small group work, and reading excerpts from Machiavelli, George Orwell, James Baldwin and others. Students then analyzed the structures of the essays they read. Moul also uses Socratic Seminars during the unit to have students discuss various writers’ essays and reflect on their own writing before beginning their assigned narrative essay (see here).

Moul’s 50-minute lesson (the class meets four times a week on a modified block schedule) begins a moment after the tardy chime sounds. There are 32 students in the class sitting at clusters of three and four desks facing the front white-board. Today’s lesson is divided into four parts.

1. Since there was a national holiday on Monday, Moul asks the students to close the lids of their devices and then begins with a question: what “good news” do they want to share with class? For a few minutes he listens to what students call out about their long weekend: “it is a four day week,” one says, for example. Then he reviews the assignment of writing two drafts about a story they read and how this AP class differs from Honors English class in the number of drafts they will do. More drafts, more revising, he says, is crucial to writing essays. On Friday, the class had looked at the first draft of a student-written “model” essay entitled “The Vulture” (see here).

2. He segues to the next part of the lesson where he tells students to read the second draft of the student’s essay, make comments and then re-read the first draft and make comments on what changes they see between the two.

Students open lids of their tablets and laptops and proceed to read and type in comments for the second draft. From my perch in the back of the class sitting at a student desk, I see that every student appears to be on task. Moul walks up and down aisles between clusters of desks pausing to see what students are jotting down on their screens and stopping to answer student questions.

After about 10 minutes, he asks students to re-read first draft—“I’ll give you 7-8 minutes”—and asks them to put in their notes the differences they see between the two drafts.

3. Watching the wall clock, Moul asks students to stop and to form their groups. Here is where the clusters of three and four desks closely set together become a venue for small group discussion. Moul reminds students to turn their desks to face one another since eye contact is important in looking at group members and not have one’s eyes glued to screen.

In this small group activity, students discuss what they saw as differences between the two drafts of “The Vulture.” I scan the groups and note that all are engaged in talking to one another. I see no student off-task. Moul continues to walk around and listen in to different groups’ exchanges. “In a few moments,” he says, “we will start chit-chatting.”

After a one-minute warning, the teacher ends this activity and asks students to turn around their desks to face front where he is sitting.

4. The final activity is a whole group discussion of the differences between the two drafts and what students saw as improvements in the second draft. About one-fourth of the students raised their hands to respond to teacher’s request for thoughts in this 12 minute activity. After he called on a few students and they spoke—Moul, sitting at a small desk in the center of the classroom horseshoe said, “let me call on people on this side now.” After students comments, the teacher would offer his opinion of the second draft, saying, for example, “I didn’t see much in the conclusion; there needs to be a balance between narrative and exposition.” When one student comments on use of dialogue within a narrative, Moul points out how dialogue helps the flow of the essay.

I scan the class and see that most students turn to listen to one another during the whole group discussion.

Chime sounds to end the period. Moul says “wait” and students sit as he goes on to remind class that their draft is to be turned in Thursday, two days hence—school is on modified block schedule. Teacher releases students and says: “have a great couple of days.”

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* The high school has over 1900 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Latino 28, Asian 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 45 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 22 percent. Fourteen percent of students are learning disabled and just over four percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 99 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 20 AP courses—37 percent of the student body take at least one AP course and of those students taking AP tests– 83 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. LAHS has been rated repeatedly as one of the top high schools (52nd out of over 1330 in the state and 339h in the nation’s 26,000 high schools). The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). See here, here, here, here, and here.

 

 

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A Math Teacher Remembers Her Students (Education Realist)

 

This abridged post comes from the blog Education Realist. The teacher who writes this blog prefers to remain anonymous. I have observed this teacher teach math and social studies lessons; we have also met and had lunch discussing many issues in public schools.

In the fall of 2012, I began my first year at this school. I met a group of 29 freshmen in their first high school math class: geometry.  From the beginning, we all clicked. A new school didn’t seem quite so intimidating because every day of that first semester started with camaraderie and good times–and some learning, too.

Of the 26 who stayed the whole year, all but one passed. Nearly half Asians (from every part of the continent), over half the rest Hispanic, and seven whites, and one African American. Ten athletes, including two who turned their ability into scholarships. The eventual senior prom queen. All those who passed made it through trigonometry, at least. Most made it to pre-calculus. Only a few made it to Calculus or Advancement Placement Statistics.  They reflected the school’s population writ large: diverse, athletic, not overly focused on academics, but smart enough to get it done.

A few others were never in one of my classes again, but I saw them frequently; they’d always shout a greeting across the quad, identifying themselves because they know I never wear my glasses.

The remaining saw me in at least one subsequent math class. None seemed to mind.

When we talked, as we did often, we’d regularly refer to “that first geometry class”.  Our touchstone memory, kept alive through four years of their education.

One of my “three-timers”, a sweet, tentative young man who never had another math teacher until pre-calc, stopped by with his yearbook. As we thumbed through the senior pages, calling out familiar faces, he suddenly said, “Man, I bet you’ve taught most of the seniors at least once.”

We counted it together—of the 93 rows of four students each, I’d taught 288 of them, or roughly 75%. Many more than once.

In the face of that percentage, I decided it was time to work around my dislike of crowds, speeches, and heat in order to represent on their big night. So at 4:30, I showed up at the stadium to help assemble them for the procession.

At first, the seniors were gathered in informal groups outside the staging area, taking pictures, talking, dancing about impatiently. Many called me over or waved, shouting out their names.

As they moved into the cafeteria for the staging, I wandered around, touching base, asking about plans, saying goodbye. As I’d expected, they needed teachers to organize the alphabetized lines for the procession, so I took a list of twenty. Rounded them up, hollered them into line, while the fourteen students I’d taught before joked that in less than three hours they’d never have to listen to me again. “And that’s why you became a teacher!” a bunch of them chorused.

Finally, the graduation manager gave the sign for zero hour. Suddenly well-behaved and serious, they streamed out in order, paused for a few minutes at some inevitable delay, and then the music started. I stood about 15 feet away from them, put on my prescription glasses, even in the sun, the better not to miss any face.

Waved and cheered at brand new adults who waved and cheered back, glad I was there, happy to see me, happy that I was wearing my glasses and could see them.  And when the last student–one of mine–turned for one final smile, I decided that the graduation itself, the heat, the speeches, the names, would dull the joy I felt in this moment. Time to go.

As I walked back to where I’d parked my car, latecomers were hustling to the stadium, many holding signs and pictures. I saw pictures I knew, stopped to congratulate the parents and send them on their way.

And suddenly:

“Hey, it’s my geometry teacher!”

I smiled at the pretty, lively young woman holding a…toddler? infant? gurgling happily walking towards me, waving.  But I’ve only taught three geometry classes in those four years, and was coming up blank.

“You don’t remember me? I’m Annie!” and I gasped.

“Oh, my God. Annie! I thought…I haven’t run into you for so long…you didn’t go back to live with your mom? I don’t think I’ve seen you in..three years? I didn’t recognize you. You’re all grown up! ”

Annie was the only one in the geometry class that didn’t pass.

“How’s your dad? You look fantastic. And how’s this little guy? How old is he, fifteen months?”

“Nope, just nine months.”

“He’s gorgeous. How are you? Come to see the grad…well, duh, yes.”

She laughed, and hitched the baby to her other hip. “It’s great you came! I still think about that geometry class. It was so fun!”

“I wish I’d run into you more. Go, get going, you don’t want to be late. Take care of this adorable one. I’m happy to see you.”

“Me, too. Take care. Bye!” and off she went, striding confidently into her future.

I watched her, thinking of all the questions I wanted to ask: did she graduate? Go to our excellent alternative high school? Is the baby’s dad in the picture? What are your plans? and being so very glad I didn’t ask.

I resist presenting Annie as a tragedy. I didn’t feel guilt.  But I did feel…awareness, maybe? I’m good with unmotivated underachieving boys. Am I as good with girls?

Could I reach out more? Give them reasons to try, to play along?

I then remembered a saying from my ed school professor

“You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

I told him that the two sentiments don’t follow. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.

Goodbye, class of 2016.

Goodbye, geometry class. I’ll miss you.

 

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The Perils of PBL’s Popularity (John Larmer)

Recently, I have published posts on Project-based Learning. A student and foundation official  have raised questions with and about PBL as an appropriate instructional approach. As this instructional reform, once the darling of early and mid-20th century Progressives, has surged again in practitioner and researcher circles, criticism of its implementation and use needs to be aired. For this post, I turn to John Larmer, a champion of PBL, who believes deeply in the instructional approach but shows concern over its potential faddishness and too easy acceptance. Former high school teacher of social studies and English, Larmer is Editor in Chief of publications at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). He writes often about Project-Based Learning. This post originally appeared March 21, 2016

As readers of this blog well know, Project Based Learning is a hot topic in education these days. The progressive teaching method is being touted as one of the best ways to engage 21st-century students and develop a deeper understanding of content as well as build success skills such as critical thinking/problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and self-management.

At the Buck Institute for Education, we think PBL is even more than that; it can be absolutely transformative for students who experience enough high-quality PBL in their K-12 years. They gain not only understanding and success skills but also confidence in their ability as independent learners and a greater sense of their own efficacy and power.

PBL is transformative for teachers and schools, too, as they create real-world connections to learning, change school culture, and guide students to successfully complete high-quality projects. And teachers who use PBL regularly can experience  “the joy of teaching,” which they may not – make that likely will not – in a test-prep, drill-and-kill environment.

You’ll notice I use the term “high-quality” twice in the above, which points to a real concern we have at BIE. We don’t want PBL to become yesterday’s news, another education fad for which much is promised and little delivered. This is why BIE developed and promotes the Gold Standard PBL model: to help ensure PBL’s place as a permanent, regular feature of 21st century education for all students.

If it’s not done well, I see PBL facing three dangers:

1. Unprepared Teachers & Lack of Support
Teachers who are not prepared to design and implement projects effectively will see lackluster student performance and face daunting classroom management challenges. Shifting from traditional practice to PBL is not a simple matter of adding another tool to a teacher’s toolbox. PBL is not just another way to “cover standards” that’s a little more engaging for students. PBL represents a different philosophy about what and how students should learn in school, and many teachers and school leaders do not yet realize its implications. It was born in the progressive education movement associated with John Dewey, with more recent ties to constructivism and the work of Jean Piaget. Adding to this situation is the fact that most teachers teach the way they were taught, and did not experience PBL when they were students – so they don’t have a vision for what it can be.

Schools and districts need to provide teachers with opportunites for extensive and ongoing professional development, from workshops provided by experts (like BIE’s) to follow-up coaching, to work in their professional learning communities. Policies around grading, pacing guides, benchmark assessments, and more will need to be re-examined. It also means having longer class periods or blocks of time for project work, and rearranging how students are assigned to classrooms to allow for shared students for secondary-level multi-subject projects. And – I can’t stress this enough – teachers will need LOTS of time to plan projects and reflect on their practice. This means changing school schedules to create collaborative planning time, re-purposing staff meetings, perhaps providing (paid) time in the summer, and finding other creative solutions. All of this is a tall order, I realize, but these are the kinds of changes it will take for PBL to stick.

2. PBL-Lite
Many teachers and schools will create (or purchase from commercial vendors) lessons or activities that are called “project-based” and think they’re checking the box that says “we do PBL” – but find little change in student engagement or achievement, and certainly not a transformation. I’ve been seeing curriculum materials offered online and in catalogs that tout “inquiry” and “hands-on learning” that, while better than many traditional materials, are not really authentic and do not go very deep; they do not have the power of Gold Standard PBL. (For example, I’ve seen social studies “projects” from publishers that have kids writing pretend letters to government officials – instead of actually taking action to address a real-world issue – and math “projects” where students go through a set of worksheets to imagine themselves running a small business, instead of actually creating a business or at least an authentic proposal for one.)

With materials that are PBL-lite, we might see some gains in student engagement, and perhaps to some extent deeper learning; many of these materials are in fact better than the traditional alternatives for teaching the content. But the effects will be limited.

3. PBL Only for Special Occasions or Some Students
PBL might be relegated to special niches, instead of being used as a primary vehicle for teaching the curriculum – or being provided equitably for all students. I’ve heard about really cool projects that were done in “genius hours” or “maker spaces” or Gifted and Talented programs, or by A.P. students in May after the exams are over… but most students in the “regular program” did not experience PBL. Or schools might do powerful school-wide projects that do involve all students once a year or so, but the teaching of traditional academic subject matter remains unchanged. If this happens, the promise of PBL to build deeper understanding, build 21st century success skills, and transform the lives of all students, especially those furthest from educational opportunity, will remain unfulfilled.

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Project-based Learning Needs More Learning (Gisèle Huff)

Gisèle Huff is the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation. This post appeared on Flypaper, August 3, 2016

After almost eighteen years in the field of education, I have become convinced of the need to transform the way our children learn so that they can confront the unknowable challenges of the twenty-first century. I applaud any effort aimed at changing the mindset of those involved in the education system so that they can leave behind the traditional twentieth-century paradigm, which was (and in most places still is) an industrial model. Today’s enthusiasm for project-based learning (PBL) fits into the paradigm-shifting category, helpfully emphasizing that we learn best by doing. As a complete educational philosophy or strategy, however, it falls short on many fronts.

At some level, doing must be based on knowing. Yet in almost every PBL model that I’ve observed—Summit Public Schools being the main exception—little or nothing is said about the acquisition of knowledge. Instead, these models emphasize the completion of the project, and whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed. Of course, it’s true that knowledge alone is insufficient for today’s economy. Skills and dispositions must be developed in the learner for content to be relevant and engaging. But it is that “content” (a.k.a. knowledge) that students must master in order to apply it to hands-on projects. There is no need to sacrifice the rigor of content. Only its delivery and assessment must be changed to move from Carnegie units and seat time to competency-based learning.

The second problem with PBL as the main vehicle for students’ learning experience is that it is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe. One of the big problems that personalized learning seeks to solve is the “Swiss cheese” problem.  Because we all learn differently, moving along at a one-size-fits-all pace means that slower students are left with big gaps of knowledge and skills—gaps that will come back to haunt them later on. That is of particular concern when PBL occurs at the elementary level, when youngsters are building their knowledge base.

When PBL is deployed, knowledge acquisition is driven by the demands of a given project. The object may be “deeper learning,” but the outcome is definitely narrower, potentially excluding other critical knowledge and skills. This should be solvable, yet the PBL instructional models make no specific reference to mastery. In other words, students can complete a project without mastering the skills in that project or the knowledge underlying its successful completion.

PBL also suffers from a significant “free rider” problem. Because most PBL schools have students work in groups and do little tracking of individual performance, some students naturally coast on the work of others. In his five-minute “commencement speech” on the Getting Smart website, Tom Vander Ark encourages listeners to develop skills in team leadership and project management in order to succeed in the new economy. But each team has only one leader and one manager. Where does that leave the other members? In Most Likely to Succeed, a film focused on the largely PBL-based High Tech High, one of the two main students takes over a project that he has obsessed over and then fails to complete it in time. Somewhere along the line, the classmates who were once part of his group disappear. They seemingly abdicated their roles, and it is not clear how they benefited from the experience or how they were able to demonstrate their achievements in order to be assessed. The featured student himself doesn’t even master the knowledge and skills critical to the project! While embracing failure is an important part of a robust learning system, such setbacks should be used to help students revisit and master the requisite competencies. Kids should be provided with more insights into why they failed and what to do about it, so as to increase their likelihood of future success. Failure of core knowledge and skills is not an option in any effective learning environment.

Finally, PBL relies heavily on highly qualified teachers, so much so that High Tech High now trains its own. That’s well and good for High Tech High, but it isn’t a satisfactory formula for mass adoption of PBL. American public education faces an immense human capital problem that we have not been able to resolve since “A Nation at Risk” sounded the alarm in 1983. We cannot rely on extraordinary people to deliver a twenty-first-century education to all our children; not enough such people exist. We have to deploy strategies that empower the learners and teachers as they are, where they are. In its current form, PBL may work well for kids in boutique school settings. But it offers scant hope of solving education problems on the scale that America needs.

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Why I’m Unsure Project-based Learning Prepares Students for College (Ronnie Estoque)

“Ronnie Estoque is a junior at Seattle’s Cleveland High School. He is a staff writer for Cleveland Publications, an intern at The Seattle Globalist and is interested in pursuing a career in journalism.” This appeared in the Seattle Times, June 16, 2016.

As a junior attending Cleveland High School, I am slowly approaching the arduous process of college applications. This has led me to reflect on whether or not Cleveland has prepared me for college-level work.

In the fall of 2010, Cleveland became a STEM high school with a focus on project-based learning. The newly designed curriculum was meant to emulate a work environment for students while teaching them how to use technology in their school work. Cleveland classes revolve around group work and projects. This unique way of teaching helps students build group-work skills, but does it prepare students for college, where students mostly work independently?

Linda Chen graduated from Cleveland in 2015 and is a freshman at the University of Washington. She enjoyed her time at Cleveland, but now sees one major flaw of project-based learning.

“The one thing I hated was that they (teachers) didn’t enforce student accountability during projects,” Chen said. “Most of the time it was me just doing all the work and someone else taking the credit.”

Group projects, in other words, don’t accurately reflect students’ individual knowledge and, more often than not, the students who work hard and complete their portion of projects also have to do more work to make up for the students who aren’t pulling their weight.

Kiet Sam also graduated in 2015 and is a freshman at the University of Washington majoring in computer science. Sam describes in stark contrast his college-level and the project-based learning at Cleveland.

“In college, almost all my work is completed independently.” Sam said. “Depending on your major there may be more projects, but in general, college is mostly to measure a student’s individual ability to perform.”

Cleveland students are judged on their individual knowledge through tests, but not as frequently as other high schools that don’t use project-based learning. Catherine Brown, the School of Life Sciences principal at Cleveland, said she thinks project-based learning has been good for the school.

Before, there were small pockets of success among the student population,” Brown said. “Now success is the new norm.”

And there’s evidence that the changes at Cleveland have made a difference. According to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, only 17 percent of 10th-graders at Cleveland met state standards for math in the 2009-10 school year. During the 2013-14 school year, that number dramatically increased to more than 80 percent.

Cleveland teacher Steve Pratt, who has taught at the school for 10 years, said the implementation of STEM and project-based learning at Cleveland has also led to a drastic change in student culture. According to Pratt, before STEM and project-based learning, students weren’t as engaged and eager to learn in class. Now, he sees more students striving to take their work more seriously.

“It has done great things for Cleveland even though there are still some things that need to be improved,” Pratt said.

Pratt is one of the teachers who enforces student accountability. In his classes, students can “fire” their group members during projects. Pratt holds a high standard for his students’ group work contributions, but not all Cleveland teachers do the same. He also believes that it can be difficult for students to adjust to project-based learning if they’re coming from a conventional style of teaching, and students can quickly fall behind in the workload. I believe more teachers, like Pratt, should hold students to higher standards.

While project-based learning, along with STEM, has done great things for Cleveland as a whole, I worry that many students won’t be as prepared for college as they need to be. I believe that more teachers at Cleveland need to hold students more accountable for the roles they play in projects. By holding students to higher standards during group projects, teachers will be able to teach them more about responsibility, time management, and prioritization.

Students like Chen and Sam, who do their share of project work — and more — are doing fine in college, although Chen said the adjustment to individual work was tough at first. I am concerned about the students who are piggybacking their way through Cleveland’s system. Those are the ones who will suffer most when they get to college. This worries me, as I also have been a student who has had to do the work of peers who didn’t do their share.

What will happen to them?

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Hype on Steroids: Self-Driving Cars and School Technologies

A full week of mainstream and social media swept across the nation about the death of a Tesla car owner killed in Florida using the self-driving option. With the auto-pilot function turned on, the Tesla driver collided with a tractor-trailer and became the first known fatality in the industry’s surge to produce self-driving cars. Google and Tesla and 30 other companies (e.g., Honda, Ford, GM,Toyota) compete for what is hyped as the “next big thing”; such cars, they claim, will “disrupt” the century-old personal transportation market.

A Morgan Stanley Blue Paper announced in 2013:

Autonomous cars are no longer just the realm of science fiction.They are real and will be on roads sooner than you think. Cars with basic autonomous capability are in showrooms today, semi-autonomous cars are coming in 12-18 months, and completely autonomous cars are
set to be available before the end of the decade

Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk said the self-driving function on the Tesla meant that “[t]he probability of having an accident is 50 per cent lower if you have Autopilot on” …. “Even with our first version, it’s almost twice as good as a person.”

Skeptics have tossed in their two cents (see here and here; for rebutting skeptics, see here) but when it comes to questioning new technologies in U.S. culture, skeptics are alien creatures.

While the hype pumping up self-driving cars can lead to accidents and deaths, no such serious consequences accompany promoters of technological innovations who have promised increased teacher efficiency, improved student achievement, and the end of low-performing schools for the  past half-century.  Need I mention that Google has a “Chief Evangelist for Global Education?”

Nothing surprising about hype (even when  injected with steroids)  in a consumer-driven, highly commercial society committed to practicing democracy. Hype is hype either for self-driving cars or for school technologies. Parsing the hyped language and images becomes important because real-life consequences flow from these words and pictures.

 

Consider these advertisements championing new technologies since the 1950s.

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Over-stated claims are  commonplace when it comes to pumping up the benefits of the “next big thing.” Early adopters of new technologies discover the bugs in new hardware and software soon enough.  Glitches, however, seldom dissuade this crowd from peering around the corner for its replacement.

Does hype serve any social and political purpose other than to stimulate consumers to buy the product? I believe it does.

1. Over-the-top statements strengthen the popular belief that change is “good” for individuals and society overall. Not only is change “good” for Americans but in the technology industry and culture of school reform, change morphs into improvement. In Silicon Valley argot, “making the world a better place,” means a new product, a new service, a new app will improve life (a parody of this oft-repeated phrase can be seen here)

Equating change with improvement is a cognitive error. Surely, an improvement implies a change has occurred but because the change has happened, improvement does not necessarily follow. A moment’s thought would quickly squelch equating change with improvement. Stepping on a scale and seeing that you have gained five pounds while on a low-carb diet is clearly a change but not, in your view, an improvement. Think of a divorce in a family. The spouse initiating the divorce sees the split as a change for the better but for the others involved including children, few would see it as an improvement with two homes, living with different parents or weekend visits. Change occurs constantly but improvement is in the mind of the beholder.

Consider whether a new app that has a “smart” button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down or another app that locates rentable yachts are improvements to one’s life (see here). To those individuals who buy and download these apps they appear as improvements promising a better life but to others, they appear as trivial indulgences that hardly make the “world a better place.”

School reformers who believe that changes lead to improvements in teaching and learning, for example, often refer to gains in student test scores, increases in teacher productivity (i.e., less time to do routine tasks), and other measurable outcomes as evidence of  better schooling. Reformers holding divergent values (e.g., higher civic engagement, student well-being), however, would differ over whether test scores, et. al. are improvements. Quite often, then, the definition of improvement depends upon who does the defining and the values they prize.

2. Hype over new technologies raises questions about the existing institution’s quality.  Consider current health care where millions still lack health insurance, emergency rooms are over-crowded, wait time to see specialists physicians increases, and patients get less and less time when they do see their doctors. Hyping the “next big thing” in medical technology becomes a direct criticism of existing health care. Think of “hospital in a box,” or patient kiosks placed in pharmacies, where ill people go to the kiosk for video conferencing with one or more doctors about what ails them. Such new technologies raises implicit questions about access to adequate health care and to what degree the relationship between doctor and patient is important in improving health.

Or consider the thousands of lives lost on the nation’s roads to accidents and human error in driving. Self-driving cars, once prevalent on the nation’s highways will, promoters claim, dramatically reduce the 32,000 deaths in car accidents while increasing worker productivity since with self-driving cars owners can complete other tasks that heretofore would have not been done. Self-driving cars raises anew questions about the lack of adequate public transportation and a society committed to one-person-per car.

And hype for technological innovations in schools for “personalized” or “adaptive” learning pictures the existing system as factory-like  whole-class, age graded, teacher-dominated instruction that ignores, even neglects individualized lessons, student-centered learning, and reconfigured classrooms.

3. Hype shrinks the time to show results to immediately. Most software products in the educational arena, for example, take time for teachers and students to grasp, understand, and use them in lessons. Education proceeds by short not long steps. Hyping these products leave the distinct impression that unless the desired result hasn’t happened in a few months then someone (note the beginnings of blame) has failed to do it right. And it ain’t the software developer.

4. Software and hardware developers come to believe their own hype. The cliche of “drinking the Kool-Aid–applies here and such self-deception occurs. And when it does, CEOs of start-ups and other companies start making short-cuts to get products into schools and stores. Those short-cuts increase software glitches, highten arguments with consumers of the products, and diminish faith in the innovation.

These outcomes of hype are not justifications for its ubiquity. They  help me understand the role that it (and its cousin, “magical thinking”) perform in U.S. society.

 

 

 

 

 

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