Tag Archives: school reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Recycling Poverty, Segregated Schools, and Academic Achievement: Then and Now

A recent spate of reports and books  linking family poverty, segregated schools, and academic achievement (see here, here, and here) have concluded that school improvement (insofar as test scores are the measure) has hit a wall. Over the past decade, test scores have plateaued in reading and math or even fallen (see here and here). After thirty years of reform after reform, achievement gaps between high- and low-income schools run to four or more grade levels between schools within and across districts (see here and here)   How come?

Researchers have pointed out for decades that the largest influence on school achievement (as measured by test scores),  has been family socioeconomic status. No surprise now with the release of new data on test scores that the same findings about poverty and segregation shape student achievement. Such findings have been around since the massive Coleman Report (1966) and have appeared regularly every decade since. With such findings appearing again and again,  the question asked a half-century ago is the same questions now: Can schools make a difference when socioeconomic conditions (e.g., poverty) clearly play a large role in determining academic achievement?

Those who say “yes,” then and now, have urged upon elected decision-makers different reform policies from better teachers and teaching, more parental choice in schools, higher standards, more testing, accountability, new technologies in schools, and larger investments in education. “No excuses” school leaders, acknowledge that poverty exists but  “good” schools can overcome zip codes.

Those who say “no,” then and now, have pointed out consistently meager outcomes in academic achievement and constancy in test score gaps between minorities and whites. These naysayers have urged those very same decision-makers to improve schools but politically work on reducing poverty in the U.S. (see here) because of the powerful effects of family background on student academic outcomes. The back-and-forth between reformers who see successful schools as the  solvent for poverty and their critics who see family and neighborhood poverty as factors that cannot be washed away by the solvent of schooling. That debate has been reignited in 2016 by recent reports documenting gaps in achievement and few test score gains.

Here’s the rub, however. Much has been written (again by researchers) that policymakers seldom use social science research to make decisions. Instead, they define crises that must be solved and use research to support solutions  they have already decided (see here, here, and here).  Research studies are dragged in to bolster agreed-upon policy directions. At best, then, these research findings get smuggled into the debate after a new policy has been decided. Making policy, then and now, has been far more about political will, mobilizing coalitions to back solutions, and the power to decide what should be done to end the crisis than leaning on rigorous research findings. Educational policy, then, is politics writ small.

Consider what happened to the Coleman Report (1966)–mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. James Coleman, a highly respected sociologist and his team surveyed pupil expenditures, quality of facilities and teacher certification because federal officials then were sure that low student achievement, especially in urban minority and poor districts  was due to inequitable allocation of resources. Instead, the Coleman Report showed a weak correlation between resources and achievement but a strong  association between family background and student test scores.

When government officials saw results that challenged their assumptions about the “problem” of low achievement, they kept these findings under wraps for months until the results leaked out (see here). These results gave plenty of ammunition to critics of the “War on Poverty,”  the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), and federal agencies pushing for more desegregation in the nation’s  school districts. All of these initiatives had the political muscle of  President Lyndon Johnson behind them. Educational policy and political will were joined at the hip then.

The Coleman Report’s controversial findings, however, gave a shot of adrenalin to opponents of these new policies and ventures in the early 1970s, particularly the huge increases in federal spending to end poverty and improve schools.  Opponents of desegregating residential communities in order to have blacks and whites attend school together found sustenance in these results also (see here). Schools remained a battleground in these years as the “War on Poverty” became a historical footnote.

So these current policy research findings, either supporting those who say “yes” or those who say “no” to the question of schools making a difference even amid strong socioeconomic influences, like similar studies in the past will revive the same old question that has divided the nation for the past half-century. But the research findings will not answer the question.

Results from 2016 studies such as Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon’s may recapture the argument used by earlier policymakers that investing more money in school improvement might be a fool’s errand, given the results from earlier reforms. Rebuttals to this line of argument come from social scientists  who urge expanded investment in pre-Kindergarten, and those, like Reardon and other researchers who point to the tiny fraction of high poverty, segregated schools that somehow perform beyond what researchers would have ordinarily predicted. Ditto for charter school proponents and advocates of “no excuses” schools who point to the high graduation rates, college admissions, and yes, high test scores that they have racked up and, according to their advocates, deserve more money and political support.

What’s missing now in 2016 from this brew of research, policy solutions, and advocacy, however, is what was present a half-century ago, a muscular political coalition, a sizable group of elected policymakers with the will to provide a popularly supported response to this conundrum that has divided this nation for decades over the role of schooling in a capitalist democracy.

 

 

 

 

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Rubik Cube, School Reform, and Summit Charter Schools (Part 2)

In part 1, I made the point that while solving a Rubik’s Cube is complicated, designing and implementing a school reform is complex. In that post, I offered nine different yet interacting moving parts that I believe has to go into any reform aimed at improving high schools for preparing youth to complete college. They are:

*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with youth before, during, and after the school day.

*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.

*Students takes a college prep curriculum, aligned with district standards, that enables them to enter any higher education institution in the state.

*Students have access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.

*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college but have the wherewithal to persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree.

*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.

*Build a culture of respect, safety, and focus on collaboration and learning for both youth and adults.

*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.

*Do all of the above efficiently within available resources.

 

These different features–drawn from different bodies of research (see Part 1)— of a structural design are within designers’ and implementers’ control. They can be built and put into practice. While fragile and easy to fall apart without attention and care, these interacting parts are essentials, I argue. Note, however, is that I mention no computers. Part of the complex design of these high schools is to use powerful software applications and content seamlessly in achieving desired outcomes. Technology is not central to achieving desired outcomes; it is, however, an enabling condition that surely helps both adults and youth reach the outcomes they seek.

What is beyond the reach or control of designers and implementers, however, are the unpredictable events that inexorably occur in and to schools because they exist in political, social, and economic environments within which both are wholly dependent upon those who fund schools. Consider just a few examples of the unanticipated occurrences that influence teaching practices and student outcomes: district and states cut funds, parental crises send students into  spirals of despair, illness of a highly-respected administrator slows implementation of an innovation; a clutch of veteran teachers exit school in one year.  Such events–and I have hardly listed all of the contingencies that could occur–if coming in clusters or sequentially (or both) can damage quickly the culture that has grown within the structures and, if left unattended, destroy the school. These schools, after all, are fragile creations that can only take so much shaking before they fragment and disappear. The history of successful schools, however, defined, has shown, time and again (see here), that creating and sustaining such schools is as dicey as predicting the locations and consequences of the next El Nino.

A charter network in Northern California has been working and re-working a design containing these moving parts for nearly 15 years. Over the past two months I have visited two of its seven charter schools in the Bay area and in those two schools have watched nine teachers across different academic subjects teach 90-minute lessons.* I have also interviewed administrators. The network of Summit charter schools has been written about often and positively (see here, here, here, and here). In all instances, these teachers I observed had integrated the software they had loaded onto students’ Chromebooks, the playlists of videos and links to articles for units that teachers created, and students’ self-assessment exercises seamlessly into the daily lessons with varying degrees of student engagement.

The cliched statement said over and over again by advocates of new technologies in schools: “It is not about technology, it is about learning,” captured what I saw. The overall aims of Summit students acquiring academic content, cognitive skills, “habits of success,” and the know-how of students assessing their own progress–all of that involved online work during and after lessons. Clearly, the school did not have to use Chromebooks and extensive software to reach the schools’ overall goals and each student’s personal ones. The technology did enable, however, the process of learning to be more efficient, more timely, and give real-time feedback to students. In the words of one of the teachers who emailed me his thoughts on using the available technology**:

Technology and the model we are currently using at Summit has transformed my classroom and changed me as a teacher….  As we have relatively recently embraced a model that puts students as drivers of their own learning further into the center of their academic experience,  we have moved the teacher further outward, acting more as a facilitator than a traditional teacher much of the time. This could make some teachers feel uneasy and others even disillusioned at the perceived prospect that all the knowledge students need is online and the essence of the teacher-student relationship has been subsumed by the technology. Having now helped develop the curriculum for this model, used it and iterated on it for nearly three years, I view this model as a powerful, mostly positive way to educate young people….

I am now able to provide a much wider variety of experiences to my students because I have access to a wealth of data about both their learning performance and preferences. Changes in my practice that took days or weeks based on our previous assessment cycles are now reduced to days, hours or even minutes. That said, as we iterate to improve the academic tools we use, we also need to be equally mindful, innovative and proactive in building and maintaining the ethical and character culture(informed by a knowledge of adolescent development)that marks an excellent high school education from a merely good one. Moreover, we need to similarly work on building a more powerful, authentic sense of common purpose with the varied backgrounds of our families and communities that overlap with our school community. This requires tremendous empathy and solidarity, and I feel it is the greatest challenge ahead of us….

Such a culture that this Summit teacher speaks of is not engineered by new software or machines. The culture and structures that support it are built by administrators’ and teachers’ hands, hearts, and minds. It is a work-in-progress. It is complex with many moving parts. And it is fragile.

What is missing, of course, from this description of Summit’s complex design and its execution is any evaluation of what students are learning (In my observations, I focused on what teachers did in their classrooms), whether all Summit high schools (or just the two I observed) are succeeding (however measured) in achieving its goals, or whether you need all (or just a few) of the features outlined above. There is a great deal absent from this limited account of lessons I observed.

But I did learn a few things very well.  If the Rubik Cube can be solved in either seconds or minutes with algorithms, I am confident that building and sustaining an improved high school for minority and poor youth is a long-term affair, lacking algorithms, that needs smart and patient leaders, and years to accomplish. Such schools are live inventions that keep adapting to their environment as problems arise and fade.  But these works-in-progress are vulnerable and delicate creations. They need constant attention.

 

 

 

 

 

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*Diane Tavenner, a founding teacher at Summit Prep and director of Summit Schools Network and Chief Academic Officer, Adam Carter–also a founding teacher at Summit Prep–picked the two schools. In both schools, I interviewed the principals (called Executive Directors), and they suggested various teachers I should visit. Because of scheduling difficulties, I could not see all of those recommended to me. So in both schools, I reached out to other teachers, introduced myself and asked them if I could observe their classes. Of the nine teachers who permitted me to spend a 90-minute block, I had selected five to have a broad coverage of academic subjects and grades 9-12. All nine lessons taught by English, social studies, science, math, and foreign language teachers have been published on this blog on: March 13, 2016, March 16, March 21, March 23, March 29, April 1, April 6, April 12, April 18.

**In my possession. It was a confidential exchange between this teacher and myself.

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Rubik’s Cube and School Reform (Part 1)

When the Rubik Cube appeared in the early 1980s, I tried twisting and turning the colors to get them all aligned. I failed. Finding out that there are 3 billion possible ways to turn the cube’s corners, edges, and center to get the solution comforted me not a bit. Nor did knowing that one out of seven people on the planet (yes, the planet) have tried to solve the puzzle. Especially after I read that the speed record–established in November 2015–for solving the puzzle is now under five seconds (not minutes nor hours, but seconds). A blindfolded participant (yes, blindfolded) in the China Championship (2015) solved the Rubik Cube in 21 seconds. I gave up. And I have not tried since. This is the end of my confession of failure to solve the Rubik’s Cube.

Now what does the Rubik Cube have to do with school reform then and now? The Rubik Cube is complicated; school reform is complex. I and many others have pointed out the distinction between complicated and complex. This post offers another distinction, one that is crucial for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers to consider before adopting and implementing policies in school curriculum, organization, governance, and pedagogy that touch children and youth. That distinction is: changing school structures and culture to reshape classroom pedagogy is far harder to do than solving Rubik’s Cube.

Like the Rubik’s Cube, there are many moving parts to altering what teachers do in their classrooms such as school structures, culture, and interactions (many of which can not be predicted) between and among adults and children, and life outside of school. These moving parts have to work in sync in order for students to benefit. When they do it is a beauty to behold. But most of the time they do not. Why? Because reformers believe that reforming a school is a matter of providing the right incentives to motivate children and adults, laying out clear and measurable objectives, planning the tasks to be done step-by-step, executing those tasks efficiently, measuring results, evaluating the outcomes, and correcting errors. Then repeat the cycle. But reforming a school goes beyond clever design, putting the right people in the right slots,  efficient execution of tasks, and measuring results. Which is why reformers get stumped by the complexity of altering a school and what teachers do.

What makes it hard (i.e., complex) to create and sustain a “successful” school–however measured–is that there are no algorithms–as there are for the Cube–to get from here to there. Space flight to the moon, shuttles to a space-station orbiting the earth, and preparations for an eventual mission to the planet Mars are enormously complicated efforts that have been planned and executed (albeit with a few disasters) flawlessly. But complicated does not equal complex. There is no Mission Control for school reform in a decentralized national system of schooling. One example of the complexity of school reform will illustrate what I mean.

Take the U.S. high school. Begun in the mid-19th century, subsequent reforms created the comprehensive high school with college prep, commercial, and vocational curricula housing 1500 or more teenagers in the 1920s. Since then the institution has been praised and attacked every single decade for nearly a century. Policymakers have adopted reform-after-reform: from many curricula in the high school to everyone-goes-to-college; from conventionally organized schools with 50-minute periods and academic departments to ones that are re-organized (e.g., hour-and-a-half block for periods, subject matter departments disbanded, team teaching); from 1500 to 2000 or more students to small high schools (e.g., 500 students or less); from dominant teacher-centered pedagogy to more personalized and individualized ways of teaching (e.g., project based learning, student-centered teaching, online instruction)–see here, here, and here.

Some reforms stuck, many did not. No surprise then that the high school that U.S. viewers’ parents and grandparents attended would be familiar to them even now. Altering school structures and cultures is tough to do because high schools are complex organizations situated in a mercurial, ever-shifting political, social, economic, and technological environment. Surely, there have been changes in size, curriculum offerings, use of technologies, and instruction but these changes–actually political responses to clamor among those who make policy, pay taxes, vote, and demand changes–preserved the essential organizational and governance arrangements (e.g., age-graded school, subject matter departments, hour-long periods of instruction, etc.) and, truth be told, how most teachers teach.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine some of the moving parts and myriad interactions that have to occur in designing a very different kind of high school aimed at those students who want to go to college and succeed economically in the U.S. Here are the elements that I would imagine have to be in place and occur for such an imagined (and complex) high school.**

*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with youth before, during, and after the school day.

*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.

*Every student takes a college prep curriculum, aligned with district standards, that enables them to enter any higher education institution in the state.

*Every student has access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.

*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college but have the wherewithal to persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree.

*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.

*Build a culture of respect, safety, and focus on collaboration and learning for both youth and adults.

*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.

*Do all of the above efficiently within available resources.

Note that the design takes-for-granted the age-graded high school structures of administrators, academic departments, and teachers in self-contained classrooms. Note further that none of the elements of the design favor any particular pedagogy–neither teacher- or student-centered lessons or hybrids of both.

Easy as it is to list the components of such an imagined design, there is much that goes unmentioned. Nowhere, for example, do I note the required interactions (both routine and unexpected) between and among students, teachers, administrators, and parents that occur daily. Nor have I listed the unanticipated changes that occur regularly within political institutions such as schools (e.g., fund cuts, parental crises, student suicide, illness of a highly-respected administrator; spike in teacher turnover). All of the design pieces and these elements are moving parts that have to come together at a moment in time to work. Friction, mishaps, and stumbles occur all the time as people and events interact. Longevity of such designs are rare. A short, happy life of such high school reforms is the norm.

Is high school school reform easy as a Rubik’s Cube? Hardly. Part 2 will describe a network of schools that has put into practice most of the above design.

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**Some readers may ask: where do these features come from? The answer is that decades of research and experience with high school reform from the effective schools research of the 1980s and 1990s, the federally-subsidized research on Whole School Reform, and both research and experience gained from the small high schools movement form the basis for generating these features. Also there is the evidence drawn from small high school models launched and sustained within urban charter schools across the nation such as by Aspire, Kipp, Green Dot, Leadership Public Schools, and Summit Charter Schools. Finally, my experience as a high school teacher for 14 years, a superintendent of a district for seven years,  a trustee for a charter school organization for three years, and a researcher studying successful and failing high schools have given me a framework for analyzing and imagining high school  improvement.

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Forget technology–Let’s Talk about Tools for Teaching (Karin Forssell)

Karin Forssell, directs the Learning, Design, & Technology master’s program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Her students design innovative solutions to learning problems. She studies the conditions under which teachers choose to use digital tools, and the features that make them useful.

For some teachers, the idea of incorporating technology into teaching is intimidating, to say the least. It’s complicated. It’s distracting. It breaks. It is not necessary for good teaching.

In common parlance, “technology” is a word we use to describe things that are new.  To quote Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”  Hence Marc Prensky’s distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.”  If you were born before the advent of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, or SnapChat, you might well have a sense that they are different, uncharted, and not critical to good teaching.  By talking about technology, we invoke a sense of exciting novelty, but also untamed wilderness.  Untamed wilderness is not necessarily what a K-12 teacher or a university professor is looking for in a course.

And yet.

“Technology” is useful. The National Academy of Engineers defines it as “any modification of the natural world made to fulfill human needs and desires.”  By this definition, technology for teaching includes not only student response systems and MOOC platforms, but also lecture halls, blue books, and chalk.  All of these can help us address the challenges we face when teaching.  If the word “technology” distracts us from talking about improving instructional practices, would it perhaps be better to use a different word?

First, we can focus on the different “needs and desires” that instructors might want to address in teaching. For example, we might want to provide students with a sense of how ideas are connected through interactive representations.  Or allow them to quickly receive feedback on whether their understanding is correct.  They might need to engage with some ideas in ways that protect them emotionally, or interact with something that would be too dangerous in real life.  We might want to find out who among the students does not understand the concepts, and to explore why. Once we have identified the needs and desires, we may need new “tools.”

Unlike “technology,” the word “tool” evokes a sense of stability. Humans have used tools for thousands of years.  We use tools to provide us with leverage, or power, or the insight needed to act on a given situation.  They make us smart.  In courses, they help our students engage with the content we teach.

Tools are used by people to allow them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. They amplify human capabilities. So different tools are appropriate for different skill levels, or for individuals with different strengths.  An instructor in history would reasonably be interested in a different set than an instructor in physics, given the nature of the content being taught.

Tools are designed to solve problems. Tools make it possible for us to do things more easily, more quickly, or better.  They have handles.  Whereas “technology” often feels inscrutable, a “black box” that operates as if by magic, a tool was designed to be operated by someone.  On a well-designed tool, that handle is obvious.  Of course, not all tools are well designed.  But thinking of tools as designed allows us to get inside the head of the designer.  It suggests ways that we might create a theory of mind.  (If all else fails, it allows us to blame the designer with our own dignity intact.)  For our teaching purposes, a tool that does not do what we want and expect is perhaps not the right tool for the job.

An interesting effect of talking about tools instead of technology is that it frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that “technology” can bring. Instead, we focus on the problems we want to solve in our teaching, or the challenges we choose to take on for our own continuous improvement. The beauty of focusing on the challenges instead of the solutions is that we might uncover a variety of ways of approaching the problem.

In having conversations about the nature of teaching, learning, and our students, we grow far more than in debating the merits of “technology.”

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Predictions, Dumb and Otherwise, about Technology in Schools in 2025

One easily trips over a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them.  Other lists of high-tech predictions for 2020 were equally entertaining about the future of schools. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such dream lists for years about high-tech devices (with brand-new names) promising a glorious (or nefarious) future just around the corner, including the disappearance of the teacher (see here).

And I have contributed to such lists with my own predictions over the past six years (see (see December 26, 2009, December 30, 2010, December 29, 2011, December 27, 2012, and December 10, 2013.). I have predicted that textbooks will be digitized, online learning will spread, and the onset of computer testing will create more access to devices across schools and accelerate classroom usage. These developments will occur incrementally over the next decade and will be obvious to observers but hardly dominate K-12 age-graded schools.

While higher education textbooks  have shifted markedly to e-books and less expensive ways of getting content into students’ devices, the K-12 market remains a proprietary domain of a handful of publishers (e.g. Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill Education) in part due to the mechanics of  certain states (e.g.Florida, California, and Texas) dominating which texts get chosen. But changes continue (see here, here, and here) Changes in K-12 texts will occur in bits and pieces as publishers adapt to the impact of the web.

K-12 online learning will also spread slowly, very slowly, as blended instruction, personalized learning, and “flipped” classrooms gain traction. For public schools in 2016, the recent debacle in Los Angeles Unified School District largest (and most expensive) adoption of  iPads in the  U.S. continues to shadow rollouts of  tablets across the nation. Nonetheless, more and more tablets are in teacher and student hands. Many teacher and principal bloggers tout how they have integrated the use of new devices into daily lessons meeting Common Core standards.

I see no let-up in the spread of these devices as online tests to measure achievement of Common Core standards, already mandatory, extend to district tests. Policymakers and IT specialists continue to give one another high-five hand slaps in getting interactive whiteboards, laptops, and tablets to more and more teachers and students.

With all of the above occurring, one would think that by 2025, age-graded schools and the familiar teaching and learning that occurs today in K-12 and universities  would have exited the rear door. Not so. Blended instruction, personalized learning, and flipped classrooms will reinforce the age-graded school, the 19th century organizational innovation that is rock-solid in 2015. That is what I predict for 2025.

For nearly three decades, I have written about teacher and student access to, and instructional use of, computers in schools. In those articles and books, I have been skeptical of vendors’ and promoters’ claims about how these ever-changing electronic devices will transform age-graded schools and conventional teaching and learning. Even in the face of accumulated evidence that hardware and software, in of themselves, have not increased academic achievement, even in the face of self-evident truism that it is the teacher who is the key player in learning not the silicon chip, enthusiasts and vendors continue to click their castanets for tablets, laptops, and other devices as ways of getting test scores to go higher and “transforming” teaching and the age-graded school (see The_Impact_of_Digital_Technologies_on_Learning_FULL_REPORT_(2012).

Amid that skepticism, however, I have often noted that many teachers adopted devices and software not only for home use but also for planning lessons, grading students, communicating with parents and other educators, and dozens of other classroom and non-classroom tasks. Nor have my criticisms of policymakers’ decisions to purchase extensive hardware and software (far too often without consulting teachers) prevented me from identifying (and celebrating) teachers who have imaginatively and creatively integrated new devices and social media seamlessly into their daily lessons to advance student learning.

My allergy, however, to rose-colored scenarios of a future rich with technology remains intact.

Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2025, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students. No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.

Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy–what knowledge is most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning? What are other ways of organizing schools to help students learn and grow into independent, clear-thinking, and whole people? These questions, in turn, depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how does one live a useful and worthy life. When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their role in schools and classrooms.

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Physics Teacher Speaks Out on Technology (Alice Flarend)

“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania.  She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years.  She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State.  She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education  and public K-12 schools.”

 

Technology will revolutionize the classroom! I have been hearing these promises for most of my 20 year physics teaching career and yet there is scant high quality evidence for it. Cyber schools show little learning (https://credo.stanford.edu/pdfs/OnlineCharterStudyFinal2015.pdf). The OECD found “no appreciable improvement in student achievement” with large scale investments in computer technology. (http://www.oecd.org/edu/students-computers-and-learning-9789264239555-en.htm). Computer technology seems like such a natural fit in the classroom. Why has it not been the game changer that it should be?

I claim that most educational applications of technology ignore what we know about basic learning theory. Technology is viewed as the whole toolbox, table, chairs and school rather than a tool itself.

We know that humans individually construct their knowledge and this construction is heavily influenced by a person’s prior knowledge and experiences. We also know language is the primary vehicle by which knowledge is constructed (http://ac-journal.org/journal/vol5/iss3/special/jones.pdf). Contrast this with most uses of technology where the learner passively watches multimedia presentations, clicks through an online textbook or manipulates a meaningless simulation. The learner appears to be active, but we commonly mistake clicking with thinking.

A useful analogy for learning is the construction of a building. Tools and materials are needed but are useless unless there is an architectural design that is structurally sound and suited to the owner. Technology can provide the materials and can be tools, but the teacher is needed to design instruction for their students. The teacher is the architect and the contractor. The idea that people are pondering whether we will even need teachers in the future illustrates the misapplication of technology.

To illustrate this disconnect, a personal story helps. Early in my career I participated in a summer-long institute on teaching physics using inquiry. That experience really changed my teaching.

Back in my classroom, student learning did improve, but not to the degree that I expected. They were highly engaged in hands-on experiments and problem solving. I appeared to be doing everything right. However, my students were still not achieving deep conceptual understanding. They still needed me to tell them the physics even though they had just correctly answered questions during the lab. What was I doing wrong? I found the missing piece at the beginning of my doctoral program in science education when I completed classes on learning theory. I was using lots of tools but without a sufficient plan. I was not explicitly using their prior knowledge so my students looked at this new information wearing the lenses of their old ideas. I was not giving my students opportunities to talk and to write deeply about the science. My students were doing without thinking.

This brings me back to technology. Technology can provide efficient access to content but it teacher must manipulate the technology to fit the student, the curriculum. Google can provide factual information on almost any topic, but without design, those facts remain a pile of useless lumber. A simulation could be effective at addressing a common scientific misconception. The students could use it to test their prior knowledge, gather data to find a pattern or model a complex scenario. Without a design, however, the students will “play” but fail to develop a robust understanding. Too often the lesson is built around the technology rather than the technology helping to build the lesson.

Large-scale technology products with their all encompassing content, assessment and monitoring give the illusion of building knowledge. The program, however, cannot deviate from its code. A student must choose everything from a pre-generated list. There is no chance for spontaneous conversation about a meaningful detail that addresses a student’s unique prior knowledge. There is no sharing of examples from a student’s life that can then be discussed to expand beyond the textbook example. Without even trying, meaningful conversations occur in face-to-face classrooms. They must be “allowed” in digital settings.

Online discussion boards may seem a substitute for these conversations, but there is not the give and take needed for successful construction. Missing is the intonation, the emotions, the smiles and frowns, which are all a part of effective human communication. Google Docs can help kids co-construct knowledge but there must be a rich, teacher-constructed prompt requiring the knowledge of the entire group. If it can be answered or created by a single person, there is no need of a sharing tool.

I do hope that technology will help students learn. But, there will be no game-changing tech revolution. Let’s instead use it as a tool in rich lessons that help our students construct deep understandings rather than choose a lettered answer.

 

 

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Filed under school reform policies, technology use