Tag Archives: technology

iPads and Teachers: a Response (Matt Chandler)

Matt Chandler is CEO of 4.0 Schools. He responded to Peg Tyre’s post in Bright, April 6, 2015. I offer my thoughts on the Tyre post and Chandler’s response below.

I loved reading Peg’s piece, especially her take on effective personalized learning at Bricolage Academy — a school I’ve watched grow from an idea in Josh Densen’s head to a thriving community fulfilling many of its promises.

While I agree with Peg’s frustrations about personalized and blended learning overall, her focus on myth-busting stops short of explaining how innovative schools like Bricolage actually get the way they are. Valuing teachers is important, but there’s much more to effective innovation than that.

In particular, I think what makes Bricolage and other innovative communities so disruptive is a focus on mindset before resources.

Here are three techniques great innovators use to create communities like Bricolage — techniques that will make your use of personalized and blended learning better tomorrow. For way less than the $1.3B that Los Angeles spent on iPads.

Good innovators start cheap and iterate.

As we’ve seen in manufacturing, software, and even the restaurant business, waterfall methods (spend tons of time and money to plan the perfect solution, then push it over the waterfall) are losing ground to agile development (start small, iterate quickly based on lots of smaller tests) in schools like Bricolage.

This simple reordering — mindset first, resources second — allows members of innovative communities to make tectonic shifts in traditional approaches by making lots and lots of little bets instead of massive $1.3B gambles that inevitably prove unfulfilling.

This is where I wish Peg dug in more in her explanation of Bricolage culture. It’s not the lack of bells and whistles that makes Bricolage special. What makes Bricolage special is investing in a mindset of creative confidence before picking the bells and whistles.

Look at the tools Diana Turner’s using: homemade YouTube videos (free), cell phone or tablet cameras (probably free) and Google Docs (free). Look at how she’s using them; they make her so human, so real. And she’s modeling for kids how to solve their own challenges in a more creative, efficient way.

This focus on making things seeps into everything at Bricolage. You won’t see many bake sales or book fairs at the school; rather, you’re more likely to get an invite to New Orleans Mini Maker Faire.

Good innovators listen to their users.

Starting cheap and iterating only works if you adjust to user feedback in between each iteration.

Before Josh Densen wrote the application to start his charter school, he started doing “pop-up classrooms” at music festivals around town. He’d cleverly set up his table close enough to the blow-up bounce house that all music festival organizers worth their salt set up — so close that you almost wondered if he was the guy who’d paid for it. He had no brochures, no propaganda. He’d just stand there next to his own kids as they played with some really cool new learning tools he wanted to test. Families would wander in to the festival and do a double take. There Josh would be, smiling, ready to talk with parents about school — what they liked, what they didn’t, what they dreamed of in a school.

A diverse mix of families started showing up at the pop-ups, and Josh felt it was time to test his ideas at a deeper level. He struck a deal with Samuel Green Charter School: he would to show up at the school a few times with some of the pop-up kids, and have them join Green kids in a test run of his design thinking class.

The best entrepreneurs do this consistently; they make high frequency attempts at new solutions — each repeated attempt an improvement based on what they learned from users.

Good innovators steal.

Josh stole his early-stage pop-up ideas from food truck operators. There was a big fight going on at the time between old-line New Orleans restaurants and a bunch of cooks working out of food trucks serving more diverse food. We talked about this fight at 4.0 Schools, where I serve as CEO; one of our teammates, Cambria Martinelli, worked with the food truck coalition on the side.

Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, explains how common this stealing — what he calls “exaptation” — is among innovators. Exaptation occurs when someone crosses the membrane between one domain and another, extracts something that’s serving one purpose there, and then adapts it in the original domain for a different purpose. Josh’s application of the food truck concept in schooling is a great example.

We could use more of this in schooling. Teachers — even the good ones Peg raves about — are often too out of touch with the world around them. In a 2012 study, McKinsey found that only 45% of kids and 42% of employers thought schools were doing a good job preparing students for the world of work. Meanwhile back in our schools, when teachers were asked the same question, 72% said they were doing great.

We’ve created a profession that’s entirely too isolated from the world around it. Shoving tools — hardware or software — into that world won’t do nearly as much as changing the mindsets of the people doing their level best to serve kids within it.

My latest exaptation candidate is twitch.tv. Twitch.tv lets experts in World of Warcraft (or any other game) teach others how to play, hack, and win. Seth Stevenson explained the learning that’s actually happening: “Well, those viewers are finding a community of like-minded souls, they’re engaging over a shared interest, and they’re getting tips from superior gamers on how to win at the games.”

On Twitch, I see more than the 24% engagement Peg mentions as the state of ed-tech today. These platforms aren’t perfect, but I’m inspired by the engagement and curious about how we could exapt this kind of platform into schooling. What if a group of kids tried a low-tech version of twitch.tv for an hour in their own classrooms? How fast could we build on those little experiments to truly rethink engagement? What role would the teacher have in that scenario? What could happen if we really mixed what we know about teaching with examples from completely unexpected places?

Peg got this dialogue going with some myths that deserve busting. But we shouldn’t stop there. We can start making personalized learning better right now. We can start by making many more, much smaller bets. This is better for our kids and for our collective wallet. And we should start listening to our users — students, families, and yes, teachers. Doing so will lead to innovation that’s much more fulfilling. I promise.

_________________________________________

After reading both Tyre and Chandler, I had these thoughts.  First, Chandler deals with what “ought to be”about innovation and technology in public schools while Tyre deals with “what is” when it comes to technology-assisted personalized instruction (a.k.a. blended learning).  The difference between having a dream of a better future and getting through the day well in an urban school is the difference between wearing rose-colored glasses and seeing the world as it is.  Nothing wrong about dreaming–it can be a beginning point to a finer world–but unanchored in the daily (and gritty) realities of school life, Chandler’s “should” becomes seriously detached from any workable strategy of urban school improvement.

Second, Tyre’s focus is on the centrality of a knowledgeable and skilled teacher who understands when and how to use available technologies. Chandler’s focus mentions teachers, of course, but unrelentingly directs the reader’s attention to innovation and what’s in the heads of those innovators–their “mindset.” No word about the conditions on the ground, the context in which school and classroom innovations are birthed and nurtured.Not a syllable mentioned about the abundance of inexperienced teachers visited upon urban children and youth.

Third, Chandler’s takes the one example of Josh Densen, founder of the New Orleans Parish charter called Bricolage, and shows how Schools 4.0, an organization Chandler founded, helped incubate the charter to where it is now. Bricolage opened two years ago and now has 150 students in kindergarten and first grade. It is a fine, worthy example. But Bricolage or similar instances of schools cannot do the serious cooking in the kitchen necessary to understand deeply the work facing teachers seeking to improve urban schooling. Tyre’s analysis of myths points to a stronger meat-and-potatoes (or vegan) technology-enhanced diet that can improve urban schools. Chandler’s offers bytes of cotton candy.

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

iPads and Teachers: Why Technology-assisted Learning Will Never, on Its Own, Solve Our Education Crisis (Peg Tyre)

Peg Tyre is a journalist. This article appeared in Bright, April 6, 2015.

At the Carpe Diem-Meridian School in Indianapolis, row after row of students are wearing headphones and staring into computer screens. Although they look like employees at a call center, they are actually fifteen-year-olds tackling algebra concepts. Their lessons were delivered earlier in the day by a software program offered by Edgenuity and reinforced by an instructor. Now the students are working through problems on their monitors, to show they have mastered it. Their results will be quickly fed back to their instructors, who will use it to shape the next day’s instruction.

Two students finish quickly and check the overhead monitor for their next task. Others are sweating through sophisticated problems. A few, who are struggling with the material, are working on problems that a software algorithm has determined are simpler but will help build the foundational skills they need. And, as in any classroom, some students are using ancient technology that has become less central at Carpe Diem schools — a notepad and a pen — to make abstract doodles.

Improvements in public education, we are told, are going to be accelerated, disrupted, and finally transformed by technology-assisted personalized learning (also known as blended learning). For the first time in the history of schooling, kids can interact with their teachers through personal computers or iPads. With adaptive assessment, continuous feedback will create a constantly changing portrait of what kids know, allowing algorithms to recalibrate lessons to fit students’ needs.

The promise is this: all children, particularly those in isolated rural communities and those in chaotic schools with inexperienced teachers, will be able to get the kind of education that was once reserved for the elite.

Technology will create private tutors that are masters of their subjects. But unlike human teachers — who are expensive and time-consuming to train, have variable levels of talent, and leave the profession in droves — the electronic versions will be cheap, top-notch from the very start, easily updatable, and available 24/7.

In theory, it should work. Kurt VanLehn, a researcher at Arizona State University, conducted a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies of “intelligent,” computer-based tutoring systems — ones used to teach physics to college students, physics, or medical students about cardiovascular physiology — and found that the best of these systems can nearly match the performance of human tutors.

Schools like KIPP Empower, Carpe Diem, and Rocketship, along with sites like Khan Academy, show anecdotal evidence that given the right circumstances, blended learning works. Enticed by incentives from the federal government and deep-pocketed philanthropy, superintendents all over the country, from Tulsa to Ann Arbor, are recasting budgets and issuing bonds in order to invest in the hardware needed to bring blended learning to their struggling districts.

Blended learning models, which were pioneered for corporations and the military, have been around since the 1990s. The rush to add blending learning in classrooms, though, began in earnest about a dozen years ago. Thus far, however, solid research on the effects of K-12 blended-learning is thin. Smaller studies, most often conducted with older students, suggest that blended-learning can produce a modestly positive effect on learning — although researchers warn the uptick is just as likely to be a product of extended learning time and focus, rather than any alchemy of teaching and technology. It seems to work best when students are learning math, which relies in part on students learning, practicing, and applying procedural knowledge.

Still, everyone wants the magic bullet that will help all kids — especially poor kids — learn more with less.

There have been some high profile setbacks. In Los Angeles, the $1.3 billion effort to give iPads to 650,000 public schools students went up in flames. The software was incomplete, and many students used the tablets to play Candy Crush rather than watch historic presidential speeches. Within a few months, the superintendent was out of a job and the entire initiative was under investigation by the FBI. Across the country, the school district in Guilford County, North Carolina, once held up as a model early adopter, struggled and hit the reset button on their program, too.

To be sure, schools are successfully using education technology for targeted tasks, like streamlining parent-teacher communication, collecting homework, disseminating grades, filing permission slips, and letting teachers share lesson plans. But efficient, low-cost, sustainable blended learning in the classroom is turning out to be hard to do right. And in many cases, it is freighted with hidden costs: replacing broken hardware, updating software, retro-fitting old buildings for WiFi, and providing adequate training to new teachers.

These days, it’s common to find schools obtaining impressive student gains with technology-assisted learning — but it may be equally common to find schools where it was announced with great fanfare but died a quick, quiet death. Those classrooms are now littered with racks of unused iPads and broken Chromebooks.

Teaching kids, especially those who lag behind, is hard. It requires focus, energy, deep knowledge and resources. Technology changes the equation — but perhaps not as dramatically as blended learning evangelists want us to believe.

Here are four observations that ground the conversation about personalized learning in the messy realities of educating young people — and especially our vulnerable learners.

1. There is no magic device that helps kids learn more.

When you hear about some grand new initiative to give every student an iPad or smartphone, be very skeptical. No single piece of technology has yet to change the basic nature of teaching and learning. Radio, television, CDs, Smartboards, and personal computers were all hailed as transformative educational innovations in their day. They were not. iPads won’t be either. There is a big difference between finding new ways to deliver information and true educational innovation, which a far more complicated endeavor. Yes, an iPad can make an endless supply of images, books and instructional videos available to students any time, anywhere. But learning is about engaging with that material in deep, essentials ways that help build, extend and ultimately create new knowledge. It takes more than swiping.

2. For the most part, education software is worse than you think.

Teaching may look easy, but great teaching is complicated.

Master teachers are something like NBA stars; they have a seemingly endless supply of tiny, almost gestural moves that can have a big impact on a kid’s cognition. They make split-second choices about how to introduce new ideas, speak in a way that resonates, order concepts for maximum comprehension, and reinforce ideas and skills. Those choices depend on the teacher’s reading of the subtleties of a specific situation.

Technology-assisted personalized learning has come a long way, but it’s hard to get software to replicate what teachers do. And too often, it ends up being a simple lesson and an electronic worksheet buried among some zippy graphics.

Getting it right will require continual investment on the part of many software designers. What’s the holdup? It’s not clear what the financial incentive will be. Great teachers aren’t likely to buy into the vision of any single ed tech company. They want to integrate ideas — likely from several sources, designers, and companies — into their own creative processes. Schools that are trying to move from terrible to so-so might grab hold of a one-size-fits-all software package. But until education entrepreneurs develop easy-to-use, software than can be splintered in many different ways, great teachers won’t use it and the promise of technology-assisted personalized learning will be unfulfilled. “It’s like the printing press has been invented,” said one teacher in New Orleans wistfully. “But the great books have not yet been written.”

3. Tech-assisted personalized learning is not going to be the answer for every kid.

For those in the education reform community, making a visit to a Carpe Diem schools is like the hajj. You are strongly advised to do it once. And for good reason. Carpe Diem schools, which exist in Arizona, Indianapolis, Ohio, and soon Texas, look and run differently than the high school you probably attended: no gym, no lockers, no pep rally. Instead, Carpe Diem instruction is delivered through computers and supplemented by face-to-face instruction. Their tasks are directed by overhead airport-style monitors. There are no ringing bells to mark the end of class. Students advance at their own pace.

Since adapting the blended-learning model in 2006, results at the first Carpe Diem school in Yuma, Arizona have been strong. The sixth graders there were first in the state in math in 2010. Other Carpe Diem schools have boasted similar results. The per-pupil cost is lower than at traditional public schools, too.

Carpe Diem schools are not for every kid, though. Founder Rick Ogston cracked that he opened Carpe Diem to provide kids with a great education — but many of the initial applicants had exactly the opposite idea in mind. “They took one look at the computers, the lack of supervision and oversight, and thought it would be good way to avoid getting a great education,” he said. “And that’s what we have to watch out for.” He’s joking, of course, but there’s a grain of truth there.

Indeed, in a recent survey by the education tech company TES Global, only twenty-four percent of 1,000 U.S. teachers who used their products agreed that technology “improves student engagement.”

In other words, three-quarters of teachers using educational technology — remember, these are not Luddites but teachers that are already logging in — believe it has no effect, or worse, is a distraction.

4. Technology-assisted personalized learning is not going to get rid of a central problem in American schooling: We are not training and retaining nearly enough great teachers.

Everyone wants a plug-and-play school, with cheap, portable, high-quality lessons originated by a single instructor and delivered to thousands of students. It’s a vision — think Khan Academy on steroids — that promises to resolve what has become a seemingly intractable problem in American public education: we aren’t producing that many great teachers. One charter network in Ohio is experimenting with robot teachers — four foot plastic towers topped with a video image of the (off-site) teacher’s face.

Up close, technology-assisted personalized learning doesn’t seem to reduce the need for great teachers; in fact, the most successful programs seem to rely on them. In the Bricolage Academy, a charter school in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans, first grade teacher Diana Turner uses technology to amplify what she does best: explain and reinforce complex mathematical concepts so that six-year-olds can grasp and retain it. She then provides the children with opportunities to use that knowledge in a variety of different ways.

It looks like this. First, Turner gives her full class a high-energy lesson on how to add two digit numbers in their heads. “What does 54 plus 24 equal, Ce’ Leb?” she asks. Ce’ Leb knits his brow. She waits for the answer. “88,” he says finally. “Why do you think that?” she asks. While explaining how he broke the numbers down into tens and ones, he realizes his mistake and amends his answer.

By her students’ facial expressions and body language, Turner can tell which kids are getting it (most) and which kids aren’t (four kids in particular seem a little foggy on the whole idea.) She puts the bulk of her class to work on a simple pencil-and-paper worksheet and quickly reteaches the concept to two of the laggards.

After a few minutes, she reformulates her class again. A group of eight kids begin representing a list of two-digit numbers by counting beans into tens and ones cups, giving them a physical sense of place value. Five others grab chunky plastic covered iPads, don headphones, and listen to Turner via some homemade videos she posted to YouTube. In the videos, she is coaching her students to add two digit numbers on a dry erase board, photograph their results, and send it to her Google Docs account. With fourteen of her students learning with iPads and YouTube or Dixie Cups and dried beans, Turner is free to give a quick private lesson to two students who need it re-explained.

Bricologe principal Josh Densen believes blended learning is great “because it allows us to enhance the teacher’s effect. But it only works so well because we have a great teacher who is running it.”

Can technology-assisted personalized learning work with sub-standard teachers or teachers who work remotely and never meet their students at all? “I’ve seen schools try that,” said Densen, with a shrug. “It’s not something we think is viable.”

School staffing is notoriously unstable. Superintendents come and go, principals are increasingly on the move, and most teachers leave the profession in five years. What happens when superstar teachers like Turner move on?

Densen’s formula is to make sure technology enhances but doesn’t replace the relationship between teacher and student, which from his perspective, “needs to be at the center of every kid’s learning experience.” And that means investing in technology for the classroom but also investing in coaching to help Bricolage teachers grow.

Finding and growing great teachers is devilishly hard. Retaining them is very expensive. Without them, though, technology-assisted personalized learning is just not a way to do more with less. Rather, it is a way to deliver less with less. And that would be a promise unfilled.

Part 2 of this guest post will be a response to this post from Matt Chandler, CEO of 4.0 Schools.

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Kids as Tour Guides: Integrating Student-Created Media into History Class (Kerry Gallagher)

Kerry Gallagher , a veteran middle school and high school history teacher posted this project she did with her ninth graders. It appeared Feb 20, 2015 on EdSurge.

Why do we travel? How do we choose a place to put down roots? What draws us there? Today, when we plan to travel or relocate, we do research. We find out about the climate, people, culture, and economy that we are about to dive into.

I wanted my students to experience that kind of research process, and to arrive at an answer relating the question of why people are drawn to places. After all, project-based learning should allow students to experience authentic processes while learning content. But I also wanted them to show their learning through a product that professionals typically publish: tourism commercials.

And so, that is what we did.

Step 1: Frame the Task

In our early North American colonies unit, students learned about the cultures and economies of the 17th century colonies. What was the draw? Why did Europeans take the risky trek across the volatile Atlantic Ocean to put down roots in a place so far away? It was time for my students to start investigating.

First, I showed the ninth graders real tourism advertisements I found on YouTube; they watched clever ads from across the continent in California and from their home turf in Massachusetts. Then we talked, in small groups and as a class, about what made each place attractive. Some of the items on the list had to do with the places themselves: lots to do, beautiful scenery, welcoming people, while other students mentioned aspects of the video production: bright colors, upbeat music, cheerful narrative script.

Step 2: Start the Research

Small groups of 2-3 students chose an early North American colony from New York in the North to Georgia in the South, and started digging for information about founding leadership, religion, economy, climate, and culture. Students used articles from our school subscription databases and books from the classroom and school libraries.

When students gathered their information in Evernote or Google Drive, they shared it with me for extra input and approval. Once I reviewed their work and pushed them deeper with some guiding questions, a real vision of their colonies became clearer.

Step 3: Pulling it Together

This next step is a great opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, for those teachers who are interested in it.

As students began writing their scripts, they were instructed to use what they learned about persuasive techniques from their English classes. My colleague Kate Crosby even pointed me toward a handy guide to the Aristotelian Appeals ethos, pathos, and logos they’d used in her freshman English class, making this a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. They also had to consider who their commercial might target: families? young men just starting out? the wealthy? the religious?

Once the script was crafted, students looked for images to represent their colony and used iMovie to put together their commercial and Airdrop to share it with me. Finally, I uploaded the videos to my YouTube channel, specifically created for student projects.

Step 4: Hosting a Viewing Party

Students showed their final commercials to one another in the classroom. No information was given to the audience prior to the screening, but while watching, other students were given varying information to look for: economy, culture, religion, leaders, and method of persuasion utilized. The audience told the creators what they learned from the video, and the creators confirmed or clarified the details.

Step 5: Reflect, Report, Publish

Any great project can’t be complete without reflection, so my students share their learning on blogs. The benefit of this medium is that the final work can be a mix of written expression illustrated with images and video clips.

  • Kirsten’s post about her New Jersey ad is a great example. She wrote about the process we went through in class, what she learned about New Jersey, embedded her video, and concluded with an analysis of persuasive techniques employed.
  • Olivia’s post on Georgia was also well put together and her group’s video production quality was perhaps the best of the class. See the video below. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SJxYaDpSL4

This journey brought my students through required curriculum, but also gave them experience with the real process people must go through before traveling to a destination or developing marketing material. When real world skills are combined with rich content, the best of project-based learning happens.

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Technology Enthusiasts, Pragmatists, and Skeptics among Practitioners and Policymakers: Where Are You?

I wrote this post five years ago this month. In it, I mentioned two recently published books that divided advocates of and opponents to technologies in schools into two camps: enthusiasts and skeptics. For the past few months I have been thinking anew about those policymakers, pundits, and practitioners (including blogging students and parents) who write about technology. I want to broaden the familiar continuum of positions on technology in schools beyond those at either pole. I want to include a rich array of those who inhabit the middle. So here is a revised and expanded post.

In reading Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (2009) by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, they, like many other writers on technology, create a continuum of advocates and critics of technology in schools. At one end of their continuum are the “Technology Enthusiasts” and at the other end are the “Technology Skeptics.

Collins and Halverson do not bash either the cheerleaders or doubters at either end of the continuum although many of those gleeful about school technologies do dump on those who express doubt with the position they take. The authors cite points for each side but clearly believe that the world has become digital and schools as they are currently operated will be undercut and overwhelmed by home schooling, cyberschools, charters, private learning centers, workplace learning, and distance education. “These new alternatives,” they say, “will make us rethink the dominant role of K-12 public schools in education as children and adults spend more time learning in new venues” (p.4). Thus, the “digital revolution” will alter the nature of schooling completely by making learning life-long and, in their words, mere “schooling” will finally become “educational.” Maybe.

The problem I have with such scenarios—and, God knows, there have been such claims for decades from Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert and many others (see here and here)—is that these peeks into the future carry the assumption of inevitability—it’s gonna happen and no one can stop it—and no middle ground for folks who may say: “wait a minute, let’s look at this again.”

Seldom do these futurists acknowledge in either their celebratory or dismal predictions that while many parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers inhabit either the Enthusiast or Skeptic pole, many others cluster in the middle of the continuum. Many of those–more often than not, teachers and principals rather than policymakers–who hug the middle know that present and past school uses of technologies show great promise for student learning but contain serious flaws; sometimes they even wince at especially foolish claims made by one or the other side. Overall, however, most writers and actual players in the school technology game, especially policymakers, believe technologies in or out of school will ultimately benefit students and teachers.

Those middle-of-the-roaders, however—let’s call them Pragmatists— may tilt toward the Enthusiasts in their heart-of-hearts, but in practice, shy away from the unrealistically rosy future digital millennials imagine. Pragmatists see merit in the arguments and evidence laid out by the Skeptics and have doubts about the too bright and too dark futures that advocates at both end of this continuum forecast. These Pragmatists see the institutional limits of schooling, the varied purposes that schools serve in a democratic society, and the inevitable glitches that arise. They do not worship at the shrine of technology.  If push comes to shove, those in the middle might tilt toward the Enthusiasts’ side but would not pooh-pooh Skeptics or call them names.

These Pragmatists are neither unvarnished fans of the newest software application—some Enthusiasts have yet to meet one they didn’t like–nor doom-saying Skeptics who claim that any new device shoves teachers further down that road of dumbing down the art and science of teaching, isolating individuals from one another and confusing students by equating information with knowledge.

I believe that most teachers are Pragmatists and most policymakers are Enthusiasts. As schools have been the pushed into  trying out the most recent technological innovations, teachers have learned over time that some devices and software can be very helpful in reaching their objectives and some applications cannot (or will not) be helpful. More and more teachers have incorporated new technologies into their daily lessons  since the early 1980s. Using mixes of traditional teaching with new technologies (e.g., smart boards, tablets, laptops) have led to increasing instances of “blended learning.” Such teachers using mixes of old and new classroom approaches illustrate Pragmatists in action.

Where do you fit on the continuum?

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The Striking Similarities between Teachers and Start-up CEOs (Aaron Schildkrout)

Aaron Schildkrout is a former Codman Academy charter school teacher in Boston and technology entrepreneur in creating a dating website, HowAboutMe. He is currently Entrepreneur in Residence at RRE Ventures in New York City. This post appeared February 9, 2015.

In this post he compares being a teacher to being the CEO of a start-up company, two positions that he has held. Explicitly, Schildkrout says that both roles, one public and the other private, are “strikingly” similar. Implicitly, however, in bridging both the private and the public sectors, he asks readers to take away a deeper lesson.  The dissimilar purposes of running a for-profit business and the purposes of teaching youth in a tax-supported public school are, he says, of little consequence. What really matters, according to him, is not toward what ends but how the job gets done.

When, six years ago, I made the switch from high school teacher to start-up founder I thought I was in for a rather dramatic change.

On the surface, the two vocations could not be more divergent: non-profit v. for-profit; public institution v. free market; chalkboard & textbook v. google analytics & expansion playbook; curriculum building v. consumer product design; and so on.

And yet, I’ve come to see that teaching is a lot more like being a start-up CEO than our teacher-degrading, CEO-fetishizing society wishes to know.

Here are some of the striking similarities between running a classroom and running an early stage company…

 Create an Unforgettable Experience

Guide them into the experience. Clarify their purpose. Hint at the great value that lies ahead if they stick with the process. Assure them that they have everything they need to succeed. Don’t clog the experience with superfluities and distractions; focus on the essential thing. Make the process itself delightful. Engage curiosity. Build them up through small victories and motivate them through moments of profound, perceived value. Release them from any scaffolding you’ve constructed so they experience their own self-sufficient competency. Understand and evaluate their success in order to further refine the experience. Individualize things. Promote collaboration. Reward them for contributing value to the ecosystem and express gratitude for their participation. Inspire them to share unabashedly with anyone who will listen. Find the very best among them and let them go wild. Make it real. Make it matter!

These are instructions in product design — a core competency of the start-up CEO.

These are also instructions in curriculum design—the essential skill of the modern teacher.

 Get Out of the Way

Getting a group of tremendously smart, motivated, skillful, sleep-deprived adults to rapidly deploy, iterate on, and market multiple product lines amidst fierce competition and an unpredictable and fickle market is approximately as hard as getting a group of disgruntled, previously poorly-educated, sleep-deprived, profoundly curious young people with hearts of gold to learn something of genuine import.

Surprisingly, key to both is getting out of the way.

I once mentored a gifted student teacher who decided to apply for a full-time teaching role at our school. As part of her interview she taught a “sample class” in a structure called Literature Circles in which students talk in small groups about a book they’re reading. The kids came in. She said, “Ok, Literature Circles, get to it.” And for the next hour she walked around the classroom with a clipboard silently watching the students as they talked about Native Son. She was essentially unnoticeable.

What was noticeable was the students. By the end of the class each student had been assessed by their group on about ten individual metrics (e.g. using examples in discussion, reading for details, etc.). They had engaged in a thematic, in-depth dialogue of a difficult novel. They had practiced specific skills (e.g. noticing metaphors) They had collaborated in teams. And there was palpable excitement about the protagonist Bigger and his disturbed journey. It was a killer class, so to speak.

To the untrained eye, the teacher did almost nothing. But every teacher knows that behind each minute of classroom fluidity lies hundreds of hours of preparation: building processes, setting expectations, clarifying vision.

It’s no different as a start-up CEO. They say the three jobs of the CEO are to make sure there is cash in the bank, to hire great people, and to define the vision. I’d add to that: to build a culture of intense productivity and efficiency. If you achieve these four things, you will have nothing to do. (Obviously this isn’t true, but you get the idea…) Hire amazing human beings, give them the resources they need, make the goal clear and inspiring, get everyone on the same page about how all the parts work together to ensure maximum productivity—and then get out of the way.

Measure it, or it Won’t Happen

Data-driven companies are all the rage. Precisely the same principles apply to the classroom.

I became a data-driven teacher long before I was a data-driven start-up founder. By my last year of teaching, I was often giving students dozens of quantitative grades during every class. I would put a spreadsheet transparency on an overhead (yes, back then) and would add micro-grades to it throughout the class. I would then add the grades to our school’s online grading system; the students got addicted to checking — and improving — their grades. I had essentially created a transparent, real-time metrics dashboard for my students — and for me. (Honestly, I might have gone a bit overboard.)

It’s the same for the CEO. You want every person in your company to qualitatively understand their goals and their progress towards these goals. When you measure things and make the goals quantitatively clear and attainable, people rally around them and make things happen. When you don’t, everything floats in a dangerous land of vagueness. If the goal is to improve conversion rates they will stay flat; if the goal is to move conversion rates to 15.4%, they will get there.

The teacher and the CEO both need to set clear, smart goals and ensure that data is transparently and accurately available about the degree to which these goals are being realized. Then magic happens — and everyone knows damn well it isn’t magic.

 Cherish Innovation (and Failure)

The teacher and start-up CEO are each solely responsible for the success of the processes they are overseeing. This means that failure holds a special place in both of their hearts — its dark side and its importance.

As a teacher, a mistake means classroom hell. And classroom hell is a special kind of hell that you want to avoid at all costs. There’s a reason they say you should never smile till Christmas — and it isn’t because you’re holding out for presents. If you err in October, you’re going to have a very very long year. As a CEO, a mistake means company hell — also to be aggressively avoided. Both the teacher and the CEO understand well the adage: never f&#$ the same thing up twice.

The other side of this dangerous coin is that failure is the necessary fuel of success. This is particularly true for teaching and early stage company-building because in both settings it’s so unclear what’s going to work. You have to fail in order to get anywhere. Failure is the bedrock of learning.

This is obvious for the start-up CEO. A huge percentage of new companies fail; that is, you must risk failure in order to succeed. Indeed, a striking number of successful companies find success after various earlier struggles. Innovation, by its very nature, is a flirtation with failure. You have to break the rules of prior success in order to make something truly new.

This is less obvious for teaching, which people think of as a by-the-book vocation—as though a single winning curricular formulation might solve the multitude of micro challenges that pave the path to substantive learning in each unique child. Consider this: how many really good teachers did you have in the first 18 years of your life? Certainly fewer than five. Maybe just one. Maybe zero. Sounds a good bit like the ratio of successful companies to failed ones. The book on great teaching is not written. State standards are, at best, a series of guiding cairns. As a teacher, you are inventing it as you go. A hundred times a week. And so, like an inventor, you learn via failure.

For the CEO and teacher, every failure is both wrenching and precious.

 Start Inside

Finally, both the CEO and teacher create value by helping people understand and realize their unique potential. That is, the process of value creation starts inside.

As a teacher, over time I came to see that my fundamental task wasn’t to teach American History— but to teach young people about who they were, how their minds worked, how they could realize and unlock their huge potential. American History was the excuse, the context — and it was critical; without a rigorous learning experience, the deeper learning would end up groundless. But without the deeper learning, the American History learning would be superficial and ultimately deadening.

This will become increasingly the case as curriculum design becomes commoditized by the Internet; the teacher will become, more and more, the teacher of the child as human rather than as repository of information and skills.

Likewise, part of your job as CEO — an important part , particularly in the early stages— is to build a work culture that inspires your team to be great. Obviously, right? Your employees are spending the majority of this part of their life working in your company, and we each only have so long on this planet. So, everyone’s experience of work — including your own! — should be more than just productive. It should be personally transformational. Said otherwise, as a CEO your company culture should be as magical and value-creating as the products you make for consumers.

It’s no mistake that Jack Ma, the CEO of the company with the most successful IPO ever, was first a teacher.

At root, the early-stage CEO and teacher share an unquenchable drive to create deep value for humans. They have a unique, inspired vision that they need to share—be it with children or consumers.

Collectively, we are doing a tremendous job honoring and supporting our early-stage CEOs. Indeed, as an increasingly start-up and entrepreneur-obsessed culture, we’re coming to recognize CEOs as conductor’s of our culture’s creative progress.

But we still have a disturbingly long way to go until our teachers feel that society is rooting for them. Teachers—the people who are taking care of our most important asset, the people who come to work each day with a task equal in so many ways to our CEOs—do not feel that we are behind them.

While we pay lip service to the importance of education and the nobility of teachers, we don’t come close to offering them the concrete manifestations of honor that we afford our CEOs.

Luckily, being a teacher — like being a start-up CEO—is profoundly fulfilling independent of compensation and status. Luckily, because the job is lonely and humbling. It puts a mirror in front of you that you can’t avoid. It requires that you understand your unique vision and that you fight tooth and nail to pass this vision on to the world, day in and day out.

Even so, every bit of support from the outside helps. Every cheer matters. Every dollar—the most concrete manifestation of our collective respect— makes it more likely that each of our teachers becomes better and better, that our great teachers stay teachers, and that our great students at least consider becoming great teachers.

 

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Evidence for Textbooks? Evidence for Classroom Computers?

In the three part series on evidence for use of computer devices in classrooms I posted recently, one reader highly supportive of classroom technology questioned my focus on evidence by pointing out on his blog that  no studies had been done when textbooks were introduced so why should the introduction and use of electronic devices and their software be held to that standard. Here is, in part, what the reader said:

For instance, we spend a lot of money on textbooks. Is there evidence, research based, that paper textbooks are an effective teaching tool with today’s students? How about pencils? Pens? Air conditioned classrooms? The point is, there are lots of things we spend great deal of money on in education without asking if there is evidence to show that the program works. I have NEVER, in all my years in education, ever heard any school board or state legislator ask if textbooks are worth the money that is spent on them. And I would venture to say, that along with technology, textbooks are perhaps the most expensive purchase that school districts make. Do they make a difference, especially in the connected wireless world where the exact same information is available for free on the internet?

This is a familiar rebuttal from advocates of using new high-tech devices for classroom lessons. They  believe that it is unfair to expect researchers, including both academics and teachers, to investigate the worth of district investments in classroom software and hardware when the value of so many low-tech devices (e.g., the slate blackboard, pencil, paper, textbooks)  used for centuries have not been either researched or evaluated.  Why pick on use of software and hardware, they ask?

Here are two answers to the question.

First, when different groups inside and outside schools compete for limited resources at a time of high-intensity accountability, demands for data-driven decisions and asking for evidence of worth are as obvious and necessary as rain during a drought. But what is obvious and necessary give way to political choices since high-tech software and hardware compete for those scarce dollars with other highly-valued alternatives such as smaller class size,  teacher professional development, and school security. Faddish as they may be such phrases as “evidence-based practice” or “best practices” at least contain a non-political response that raises the standard for school decisions higher than pointing to strong political support for new technologies from parent surveys, top policymakers, vendors, and others who have unvarnished faith in the students being exposed to the next new thing.

Second, there is a historical answer. Two hundred years ago, the most basic tools for teaching reading, math, writing geography, and history in mostly one-room public schoolhouses with students ranging in age from four to twenty-one were in very short supply. Before children had individual textbooks filled with the knowledge and skills they were expected to learn, the teacher had a book–the Bible, Webster’s Speller, or similar texts–and told students everything that was on the page that they had to learn. Initially before the Civil War, parents had to buy books for their children to attend school before some city schools (e.g., Boston, New York City) began to buy textbooks for all children attending school. From the 19th century until the mid-20th century,  textbooks were the computers of the day giving students access to basic knowledge.

So questions of whether or not to have textbooks are moot. It is (and was) taken-for-granted that every student has to have access to community-sanctioned knowledge and textbooks are (and were) the answer. Even today when some districts buy licenses to load current textbooks on tablet computers or laptops, it is the text that remains central to most, but surely not all, teachers’ lessons.

As blackboards have given way to whiteboards and now smart boards, as pencil and paper–still in much evidence in schools–slowly give way to the keyboard, low-tech devices and high-tech devices will continue to compete for dollars in a district’s budget. Policymakers will continue to decide what gets funded based on tradition, available data, and community values. Tax-supported public schools have been political institutions from their very birth in the early-19th century. Decisions made to buy iPads or air-conditioning are, in effect, political decisions subject to social beliefs, whims, and available data. Recognizing the political nature of schools does not mean, however, ignoring or dispensing with evidence when decision-makers decide among competing choices.

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After 20 years, a Teacher Reinvents Her Classroom Using Technology (Nichole Dobo)

Nichole Dobo, a reporter, writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a journalist has focused on education. This post appeared on October 15, 2014. The Hechinger Institute is a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education

Teacher Valyncia O. Hawkins knew she needed extra time with students who arrived in her classroom behind grade level, but slowing down the whole class risked boring the more advanced students. But even after 20 years as a teacher, Hawkins still didn’t have a good method to keep everyone moving forward. The 21 children in her classroom at Anne Beers Elementary School shared the label of fifth grader, but they arrived with different needs. It was clear she was losing some of them. It was disheartening.

“When I would stand and talk they would be bouncing off the walls,” Hawkins recalled.

Convinced there had to be a better way, this D.C. Public Schools Teacher took a fellowship with the CityBridge Foundation in 2013 to research and develop a new teaching method. She traveled to see other schools in states such as California and New Jersey, and she noticed technology offered a solution. It inspired her to create a new method of instruction. And in the process she found her zeal for teaching returned.

Today, she is no longer standing in front of the room for a whole class period, trying to keep everyone on the same page. She developed a new style of teaching that gives students a mix of technology and small-group instruction. Online tools, most of them free, helped her customize lessons for students. She periodically checks progress through the year to adjust.

“I am meeting them where they are,” she said.

That’s not to say she found a method that is easier. It requires a lot of advance planning. She must craft several lesson plans for one class period.

On a recent day, when students arrived the first task was correcting the punctuation on two sentences projected on a smart board. Everyone gathered at the front of the room, composition books in hand, and they got to work fixing run-ons. They had four minutes to do it. Hawkins knew some students would move quicker, and her new teaching method meant she was prepared for it.

After answering correctly, students grabbed laptop computers and got to work on more challenging problems provided by online lessons that allowed them to work at their own pace.

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This allowed Hawkins to work with students who took longer to arrive at the right answer.

“After we add a period is the ‘I’ lowercase?” Hawkins asked the smaller group who remained.

“No,” a student responded, a few moments later.

“Right, it is capitalized because you are always important,” Hawkins said.

A blended learning classroom gives children a mix of online and in-person instruction, and some say it offers more personalized learning. There are many ways teachers can do it, but Hawkins created something that is her own model. There is a lot of movement in her classroom, with many students breaking off to work on lessons at their own pace after the starting the class together. Groups of desks offer places for children to gather to work on laptops. A small couch near the front allows for comfy seating for small group-instruction at a smart board. Singular desks in corners welcome children who seek solitude while they work.

The children are often allowed a measure of independence. For instance, they can choose from several vocabulary lessons. They can wear headphones. Or not.

Student JaNaia Jackson, 10, said her favorite lessons in English are finding the theme and main idea, she said. She notices that some of her peers like to take the computers off and work quietly on their own. Others like to stay near each other. There are other perks, such as getting to write with a tool that is preferred over a pencil and paper.

“I love to type,” she said. “I just love to work on typing.”

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Right now, Hawkins is the only educator using this model of teaching in her school. In other D.C. schools, the district is coordinating blended-learning experiments.

Hawkins has noticed students are more engaged and there are fewer behavioral issues, something other D.C. educators said they have noticed with this model of instruction. The novelty of the technology isn’t the only factor, Hawkins said. Personalized instruction that allows students some freedom to explore keeps them from getting bored or frustrated.

“It just helped me feel like I was contributing to the learning of the students,” Hawkins said. “It helped address those students who don’t necessarily follow the norms.”

That’s not to say the transition was easy or the results perfect. Hawkins considers her classroom a work in progress. She continues to remodel it to fit the needs of the school day and her students.

This year, for example, she had to re-organize her blended classroom because she now teaches English language arts to all fifth graders in the school. Before, she taught multiple subjects to the same 20 students all day. The new schedule means she has more students, so she is customizing plans for about 63 children who transition in and out of her room for English class. The new schedule has also shortened the class-time window. (That’s not to say there is less time for English and language arts at the school — writing instruction is now included across other subjects, such as science class.)

Another challenge: Managing the multiple online platforms, such as quizzes, learning games and online grade reporting for parents. Data on the websites she uses aren’t connected so Hawkins has to juggle them to monitor how her students are progressing.

But those obstacles haven’t sent Hawkins back to the familiar way of teaching. She continues to find a way to navigate, and it often means finding low-cost, or free, help.

Volunteer students from Georgetown University spend time in her classroom as aides to help with things like transitions between the groups and the inevitable technical issue, such as a misplaced log in for a computer. And plastic milk crates Hawkins snagged in the cafeteria are the perfect size for storing student folders that organize personalized learning materials. To organize online resources, she puts links on a free website that she’s used for the classroom for a long time. Students are in one of five groups based on their ability level. Each group has a “playlist” of lessons. They access it in the classroom, and it’s available at home for the students who have Internet access.

On Tuesday, most students worked independently on computers in the classroom to answer a question about the class word of the day, “persistence.” Meanwhile, Hawkins stood in front of about 10 students with the word projected on a smart board. The students were asked to define the word. They wrote in composition books, pencils in hand and dictionaries by their side.

Hawkins challenged students to explain how the word “persistence” was subtly different than the examples they were giving, which would better fit the word “repetition.” She called the entire classes’ attention, including the faster-moving students who had been working independently. They had a joint class discussion, and together everyone arrived at the answer.

“Even though you know there is trouble ahead you have persistence,” Hawkins said.

 

 

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