Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Personalized learning, standardized tests: Stop "reforming"

This past August Ian Altman published a piece in The Washington Post. It was recently shared again on Facebook by my colleague Tom Whitford. I started to just share it, but realized I had a few other things I wanted to say about it.

In Seven things teachers are sick of hearing from school reformers, Altman calls out the likely well-meaning but generally misguided and misinformed individuals who may or may not intentionally challenge not only the professionalism of teachers, but their intelligence and their competence.

Most of our teachers are good teachers, even excellent teachers. We have a tendency in the US to paint everything with a broad brush, so if one school isn't doing well, the whole district is cause for alarm. If one district has failing grades, the entire state is convulsed with angst.

For the past couple of years, when occasion has permitted, I've asked educators to consider the number of initiatives in their schools and in their districts. I've suggested they do an audit of the initiatives launched over the past few years. One district I worked with did such an audit and was astonished to discover the number of school, district, and state initiatives launched and subsequently ignored or countermanded or contradicted by additional initiatives. They soon discovered that most teachers acknowledged the initiative, followed what they needed to in most cases, and just ignored the rest.

Many of us have been talking about the need for patience when any change of policy or practice is introduced. But far too many have unrealistic expectations for change in schools. A superintendent wants to see change by the end of a school year, no matter what. Her job or his legacy may depend upon it. If change doesn't seem to occur fast enough, additional changes are forthcoming and those only serve to slow down any progress or muddle it.

So when school reformers come knocking on the schoolhouse door with their so-called research and the push for data analysis to make good decisions about how to teach a child, the majority of teachers want to tell reformers to take a hike. Why? Because what most reformers don't realize is that the really good teachers and the best of our teachers do all kinds of "assessment" during every single hour of every single school day. They might not see every sign of every kid every time, but they work hard to get to know their kids. They spend long hours on their own finding new strategies or new activities that will help their kids learn. They recognize when they've designed a bad test question and adjust accordingly. They don't need no stinkin' data-driven decision-making nor standardized tests to know which kids are struggling. They don't need formal policies to figure out why most of their kids are struggling in particular areas. In fact, they really don't need the stranglehold of excessive policies and practices that mostly interfere with their ability to do their jobs, and they really don't need to hear about bloated and condescending research from individuals who have spent little time in actual classrooms doing actual teaching with actual kids.

I believe most school reformers mean well, but I wonder why in the world they seem to insist on the broad brush approach when so much about a school is individual. We laugh when we talk about principals who think their schools are unique, and yet, they're right to think their schools are unique. Sure, many grade level schools share the same kinds of problems because they have elementary, middle, or high school students. But the demographics are different; the personalities and the capabilities of their teachers are different; the backgrounds of their students and their students' families are different.

What is so fabulously contradictory and ironic about education is that we are currently riding the wave of personalized learning. Many of our reformers who were or are staunch supporters of standardized tests are also or have become passionate cheerleaders for personalized learning. Um, is it just me or does it seem odd that we would encourage students to pursue personalized learning and then expect them all to take the same exact exam?

In other words, once again, we have a weird confluence of policies and initiatives that confuse whatever it might be that reformers might have been trying to do.

Teachers have every right to be weary of so-called reformers, most of whom haven't been in a K-12 classroom since they were kids or since they went to their last parent-teacher conference, and neither of those count.

Every time I get to be in a school with a group of educators, I get to spend time with some outstanding teachers as well as some teachers who are probably pretty good at what they do in the classroom. I am always impressed with what teachers can do in spite of everything.

I'm not saying we don't need some changes in our schools, but, again, a broad brush approach to impose the same changes on all teachers in all schools is absurd.

People wail and wring their hands over standardized test scores even though many of our teachers, because of other stupid policies, have been forced to become proctors to prepare students to pass a test rather than actually teaching them. And we wonder why our kids aren't ready for college.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The linked array of educational revolutions

Recently I've been doing a lot of thinking about and research on blended, personalized, and competency-based learning, but I've also been thinking a lot about how much we focus on teaching strategies, which has led me to think more about our much we emphasize motivating students to learn. And I've been thinking about the various "revolutions" that are supposedly occurring in education.

"Learning by doing." "Learning by doing." "Learning by doing." This is a phrase that insists on running through my head, when it's not being elbowed out by Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass," Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," or "Let It Go" from Frozen. It can be an interesting mix of stuff in my head.

Try this on for size. Worksheets could be learning by doing. . . when used judiciously and when designed well. Worksheets could provide options for choice. . .when used judiciously and when designed well. Judicious use and strong design are two important caveats, but I have seen some good worksheets that students actually enjoyed doing.

In A Revolution in Higher Education, Sarma Sanjay of MIT asserts there is a "learning by doing" revolution occurring in higher education. That technology will "sweeten the experience" of being an on-campus student because student learning experiences will be coupled with online learning, study abroad options, and field work.

When I do educational technology workshops, inevitably one of the primary barriers for any sort of technology integration is the teacher's fear of failure (or looking stupid or incapable in front of his or her students) and another is the teacher's unwillingness to relinquish control. These two are concerns with or without technology. Somehow educators have come to believe they cannot make a mistake in the classroom and that they must always be in control of whatever is happening in the classroom and how it is happening.

I started thinking about my collegiate teaching experience and what I think I know of some of my colleagues' teaching styles. Many of us lectured, occasionally tiptoed in Socratic questioning, and then gave tests or assigned papers. I remember being exhausted from working so hard to elicit responses from students and had a gobsmacking light bulb moment when a student asked me, his own frustration evident in his voice, what I wanted to hear. Because, for far too long, educators have spent most of students' lives expecting them to provide an answer within a limited parameter of possibilities.

It occurs to me the so-called revolution, whether in K-12 or in higher education, doesn't have to be disruption on the scale of a tsunami. Every classroom teacher could make small changes in his or her classroom to encourage the kind of critical thinking and problem solving skills we seem to value so much. Even using worksheets.

We have to find reasonably engaging ways to help students learn to learn when the learning cannot be made fun. . .because sometimes learning something is just hard and maybe a little boring, and we have to be encouraging through that learning process. We have to find reasonably engaging ways to provide opportunities for students to learn by doing and at different levels, perhaps using Webb's Depth of Knowledge as a resource.

Mike Press wrote in Why learning through making matters, "Learning through making fuses science and art, technology and culture. It defines our humanity and our values, it provides future visions and possibilities. It captures imagination." Because of his work in design and art, some might think his points are limited to "the arts," but I think they'd be wrong.

I think "learning by doing" and "learning through making" are nearly synonymous, and I think the probable intrinsic pleasure and reward students experience through the experience and the results of learning by doing and/or learning by making can catapult their desire to learn and increase their willingness to put up with the more tedious bits of learning.

K-12 educators talk about their work being all about the kids, and for most teachers their work really is all about the kids. In higher education, the professoriate is hamstrung by the "publish or perish" dictum and, all too frequently, their lack of real-world experience with the real world of their disciplines.

The more I think about this, the more I come to grips with the complexity of teaching, of wanting to make sure our students have as much knowledge and exposure to resources, content, and information as they possibly can so they will be "prepared" once they begin to take on the world beyond the classroom. Too often we forget that it's quite possible that the most important thing we can do for our kids and their futures is provide them with a solid foundation (and for some of us that foundation might be a tad excessive because I really do know how hard it is to say one thing is less important than another), and to help them learn how to learn, how to discover, how to wrestle with something and figure it out.

I realize that when I got so frustrated that I didn't have enough time to teach my students everything I wanted them to learn that it was often because I wanted to share that experience with them. I wanted to see and hear what they had to say when they discovered something about something that brought me joy or moved me or challenged me or stopped me in my tracks and forced me to reconsider something. I wanted them to challenge me with their thinking and their perspectives. I wanted them to show me something new but I also wanted to share what it was that I loved and hated, and why.

We cannot teach students everything we want them to learn or everything we think they need to learn before they are no longer in our classrooms. Indeed, perhaps the best we can do is build that foundation of our non-negotiables as we build a rapport and a relationship with our students so what they want most is to continue to learn because of something ineffable, something profoundly moving, something they learned through doing or making that offered a stepping stone to something more--those visions and possibilities.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Addressing the present, planning for the future

Let's assume Mr. Ito, with his ideas on innovation and being a "now-ist" is on to something. Let's assume that hackerspace and bottom-up innovation becomes a more commmonplace thing. There are pros and cons, of course, to looking past the more traditional model of planning, building prototypes, etc. and simply building what seems to solve the immediate problem.

Mr. Ito offers the example of the kids who build some cellphones, manufacture a few thousand, and go see what sells, then return to their manufacturing space to make some changes, build a few more thousand, etc. Sure, that works for those kids, but is it scalable? I don't know, but I do know that large global organizations not only constantly look for ways to improve their processes, but require scalability. And, depending on the product, they require safety and security on a number of levels.

I'm impressed with the "citizen scientist" concept and what he and others were able to do as a result of their concern about and their interest in the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant crisis. Yes, the Internet has made many things possible. Amazing things possible.

Yes, because of the Internet and an abundance of technology as well as curiosity about "what if. . .?", kids are creating wondrous things in their dorm rooms and their rooms at home (high schoolers are in on this, too) and entrepreneurs and discoverers in shared spaces, such as 1871 in Chicago, are doing amazing things.

But then there is the "so what?" Is that something that anyone else will care about? What kind of difference can and should and will it make and in what capacity and for whom and why? Is the idea or the product or the service scalable or will it be a niche market that might grow over time when the time is right or better?

I agree that there is some value in taking an agile programming approach to some things, but even with agile programming there are stopgaps or backstops to help with the decision-making. And lest we forget, agile programming came about because programmers believed the older methodologies were less efficient. (Check out the Manifesto for Agile Software Development for some history, but also Agile Programming and a reflection on the impact of Agile 10 years after the Manifesto.) As a former programmer, I understand the importance of finding better and more efficient ways of doing things. If you read the reflection article, you'll see that there are different paths for agile programming which remind us that not only are there different ways to implement good ideas and processes, but that implementation is mostly dependent on what matters most. So, once again, beginning with the end in mind.

After all of that, the statement that really made me sit up and take notice is "learning over education" and that "Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do to yourself." Wikipedia might not have been a great example resource nor the somewhat condescending statements about educators and their expectations. Dude needs to be in a few more classrooms, maybe even at that university attached to his lab.

Should we be "now-ists"? Sure. We need to be in and aware of the present. The work we are doing now, whether in schools or manufacturing spaces, is for the present but it also for the future. And that future might be a few years or decades. We should, on occasion, do more than glance at the past because we can learn from past mistakes and successes.

I believe there is danger is not thinking about the possibilities of the future, about unintended consequences. I believe there is significant danger in not finding balance between the present and the future, and not overcomplicating our thinking and our progress by wading too deeply into the past. I think we need to be "now-turists" as we address the present and design an architecture, framework, or plan for the future, recognizing the future will be influenced by what we do now and might not be as we imagine it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I am curious. . . about learning?

It really shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone that curiosity fuels learning. After all, what is it that prompts individuals to take something apart? Curiosity about how it works. What is that prompts individuals to start thumbing through Google (figuratively speaking)  or other resources? Curiosity. The desire, maybe even the need, to answer a question.

As an aside, that's one of the reasons I think the "Ok, Google" ads are pretty brilliant. For many of us, questions beget questions. What is it that prompted early explorers to venture into the unknown? Wondering what was in or beyond the unknown. Wondering how to make the unknown known.

What is beyond the question "What if. . .?" or the phrase "I wonder. . . "? Yep, curiosity.

So it should be no surprise to us that curiosity prepares us for learning. All of us; not just K-12 kids. And that should make it even more evident that learning situations that prompt, even provoke, curiosity just make sense.

There are plenty of adults who talk wistfully of the loss of wonder that they see in kids who are constantly discovering new things and being excited about those discoveries. In workshops I often say one of the most important questions anyone can ask is "Why?", and I believe it. Because "Why?" is a question that foster curiosity, exploration, and discovery. In this Lifehack article we're told four reasons why curiosity is important and how to develop it. I'm not sure we have to develop curiosity, per se, but maybe some of us have to rediscover it. I also think some of us need to be able to channel our enthusiasm about discovery because of curiosity or we risk spending all of our time chasing after the next shiny distraction. So there is at least one downside to curiosity, but one that's manageable, I think.

Which brings me a bit lumberingly to another article which prompted my thinking about curiosity and learning. See? That's how this works. You might be doing one thing and something you're hearing or reading sparks a connection or a question and the need to follow it, well, that's curiosity.

The article is about educational research. A brief aside on that: there is a LOT of research in education to try to find, well, I'm not sure exactly what other than trying to explain how learning works. Which, to me, is interesting but also a bit silly because one of the things we do know is that each of us approaches learning a bit differently. On the other hand, there are commonalities, so research tries to find ways to say something about those commonalities which might lead to insight but might also lead to someone trying to create a thing so that everyone can do something with those commonalities. I'm very deliberate with those generalities because too often I think we do research with the hope of discovering a problem to solve rather than doing research based on a concrete hypothesis. Well, there's a lot more I could say about that but I don't want to digress any further.

What made me start to think and wonder about curiosity, how we view it, and how we empower kids to be curious in their learning is the opening paragraph of the Scientific American article on educational research.
Anna Fisher was leading an undergraduate seminar on the subject of attention and distractibility in young children when she noticed that the walls of her classroom were bare. That got her thinking about kindergarten classrooms, which are typically decorated with cheerful posters, multicolored maps, charts and artwork. What effect, she wondered, does all that visual stimulation have on children, who are far more susceptible to distraction than her students at Carnegie Mellon University? Do the decorations affect youngsters' ability to learn?
It reminded me of articles I've seen of research suggesting that too much visual stimulation impacts student learning negatively and yet we think we know the value of having stuff on the walls. Maybe we haven't yet figured out if there is a way to measure what's optimal, what's distracting, and what just becomes, in effect, white noise. And maybe we don't really know if stuff on the wall influences learning, maybe prompts curiosity. And maybe we don't really know if there is a way to make decisions to have the "right" stuff on the wall or if some stuff is better for some students and other stuff better for others. Who knew that decorating one's classroom might be so complicated? And yet, I wonder. . . .

Friday, October 3, 2014

Writing should not be "tedious"

The first sentence of an article promoting "awesome" iPad apps reads thusly: "Writing is a tedious task and as such kids find it hard to sit down and write." Ugh. Balderdash. Ugh again.

If writing is a "tedious task" it's because that's the way the teacher is teaching it and presenting it. No app is going to make writing less onerous if the teacher truly believes that writing is a "tedious task." And the only things these apps do is present the same sort of possible writing activities teachers might do in class but do so on a web-based application or via an app.

So let's back up for just a teeny second or several and talking about writing and why some consider it a difficult task. Most teachers I know blanch at the grading. They don't know how to grade it and/or there is a lot to grade if they have several students in their classes.

One more step back then: why do we ask students to write? I don't mean that in the broader and more esoteric sense, but in the very real "what are kids learning by doing this?" sense. Kids start to think writing is about grammar and mechanics only, and they begin to lose the sense of wonder about writing, which leads to discovery in its own right. Teachers obsess about spelling and punctuation, which is important but can muddy up the significance of ideas.

Do you know why there are editors in this world? In my opinion, because even the best writer needs some help with structure, grammar, and mechanics. Because the best writers on focused on the ideas of the text. Yes, they recognize the importance of word choice, punctuation, spelling, and all of that, but they also recognize the superlative importance of getting the ideas on paper first.

So why do we ask kids to learn how to write? The same reason anyone writes: to convey information, to explain, to excite the imagination, to communicate emotions and passions.

For the youngest of our writers, the hardest part is learning how to write, literally. Gripping a pencil and forming letters, and then forming words. Or using fingerpaints to draw letters. Or crafting letters with Play-Doh. Or use Wikki Stix or some other something to let kids play with practicing their letters and learning words. And don't fret over the backwards "N" or "E" or funky "S." That will come in time.

Reading to kids and then having them make up their own versions of the story or what happens after the end of the story, so they can use the text of the book to help identify and find words to use. Let them make up words. Shakespeare did and he was a pretty good writer.

As for older kids, well, it depends on their age and it depends on what they're learning and it depends on what the teacher needs them to learn and reinforce. I don't think writing should be separate from anything else. I think writing should always be a part of other learning.

I worked with a school some time ago who had some great activities for their kindergartners that were reinforced in every class by every teacher. Every day those kids wrote about something. The alphabet was on the wall in the K-3 classrooms and every teacher in the school had a word wall. In kindergarten, they used that lovely newsprint lined paper but kids could use pencils, colored pencils, or crayons, or some combination. So kids wrote and could, of course, draw on their papers, too. There wasn't a specific number of words they had to write or a particular number of lines they had to write. They just had to write.

The point was that they were to write. Every day.

And the kindergarten teachers worked with their students to create a portfolio for every student. At first the kids put only their writing in those portfolios, but then the kids wanted to put everything in their learning portfolios.

In the first two weeks, teachers offered prompts for the kids. They would have the prompts on the board and students could choose to write about the same one or different ones throughout the week. The prompts were on the board so students would see them all day and would, therefore, be thinking about them off and on all day. The prompts were pretty general and teachers weren't surprised when at first kids would write about recess, about something at home, about a friend--and illustrate it accordingly, of course. And then kids started writing about what they were learning. And as the kids started writing about more complex ideas, they would raise their hands for help with a word or do their best to figure out how to spell it because the teachers told them not to worry about spelling or punctuation but to focus on their ideas. That's why we teach kids to edit and revise their work. Eventually. And then one student wrote about how he was always forgetting to put a period at the end of a sentence and he wanted to practice that. And another student wrote about wanting to be a better reader to learn more words.

What works in kindergarten can work in other grades. The topics and the prompts might be a little more complex as does the process. As students learn the process of writing and become more comfortable with editing and revision, they learn why grammar and mechanics matters and how some of those details can improve their writing.

In my opinion, writing becomes a tedious task because we make it so. We require students to write a specific number of words or pages so they are more concerned about the right number of words or the right number of pages or, heaven forbid, writing only five paragraphs, that they are distracted from their writing.

I will admit that teaching writing is exhausting. It requires a lot of time and it requires a lot of patience. Sitting down with a student to help them see why they have too many ideas in a single paragraph and why they need more than one paragraph is something (among many other things) teachers would love to be able to teach in one fell swoop. But the thing about writing is that it requires some coaching because writing is a very individual activity.

Sure, we can have kids write collaboratively and there is a lot of power in that activity. It also saves on grading. There are ways to reduce some of the stress of grading through peer work, but that takes some time, too, to teach kids how to do peer reviews well and effectively.

I don't think there is one single way to teach writing well. I think much depends on the comfort level of the teacher and then a lot depends on the personality of the class of students. Some kids may do well with having a word scavenger hunt throughout the week and others might prefer a different kind of word jumble activity, but, again, so much depends on the learning objectives and how these writing activities might be tied to other learning.

Want some coaching on teaching writing? Contact me. Today. Right now.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Success through experimentation with edtech

I need to do some math one of these days: tracking all of the notifications of the "must-have" applications and other technology resources that I ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY MUST HAVE each school year. Then figure out how often I might be able to use any of those resources given a factor of how long it might take to test and become familiar with that resource and then attempt to integrate it in a lesson.

OR, ed tech coordinators and directors can do as Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) advises and just pick three things. What three applications make sense? Perhaps the ed tech coordinator/director can make a recommendation of up to a dozen tech resources that could be useful across the school, regardless of grade or content area. Then teachers divvy up the exploration of and experimentation with each of the resources to report back to the grade level meeting. Think Check, Please or its variations but for teachers and tech resources.

Then each teachers returns to the grade level meeting with recommendations for that particular resources: how it was used, the accompanying learning objectives, how students used the resource and responded to it, discoveries about implementation during and after class, etc. Having a checklist everyone uses would make the conversation easier.

Then, as a grade, teachers decide which of the resources they want to try to use throughout the year knowing that others have tried or are trying the same resources so they have folks of whom they can ask questions and with whom they can collaborate.

This doesn't preclude adding additional resources throughout the year, but it gives teachers a process for trying and evaluate resources, and for having someone else's perspective and insight.

I know there are schools and districts that have ed tech committees made up of a group of educators across grade levels and content areas who work with the ed tech coordinator or director (and that person's team if he or she is fortunate enough to have an actual team) to review new apps and resources and then make recommendations of which one to examine more closely. That is, I think, an ideal situation but not always possible. Still, having others who can make recommendations based on some agreed upon criteria not only helps the ed tech coordinator, but ensures the likelihood of a broader range of resources being examined.

As Ms. Coleman notes in her article 5 Reasons Why Great Edtech Products Don't Succeed, one of the reasons is the saturation of the market. So having some mechanism in place that offers a realistic product funnel may reduce some of the resistance to change and implementation of edtech products and resources.

P.S. Grammar note: The "why" isn't necessary in the title of Ms. Coleman's article.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The World IS Your Class[room]

There is a home school group in the Chicagoland area with that very name for its group: The World Is Your Classroom. And why not? Why not in this age of the Internet, Google Hangout, Voxer, Skype, and more? Why not in this age in which video can be so present and so powerful? Why not in this age of technological advancements that seem to spew every few seconds? Why not the world as a classroom? Other than assessments, standards, and other significant stuff that takes up resident in a brick-and-mortar classroom?

The Future of Education Eliminates the Classroom Because the World Is Your Class explores this very idea as what author Marina Gorbis calls "socialstructed learning." Never mind that the resource mentioned is Wikipedia. Wikipedia continues to get a bad rap for its sins of the past, omissions it has worked hard to resolve over the years. And keep in mind that Wikipedia is still free whereas the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica (yes, it still exists) is about $70 per year, which isn't a bad price considering all that one can get.

But let's get back to "socialstructed learning." As Ms. Gorbis points out, socialstructed learning is not really a new idea. It has its roots in early thinking about education. Read Socrates and Plato and you will see socialstructed learning. Take a closer look at constructivism and what fuels today's Maker Movement and you will see socialstructed learning. Think about project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and action research and what you will see is problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaborative learning with ties to or roots in what informs socialstructed learning. Do some research on the way one-room schoolhouses had to operate and you will see evidence of socialstructed learning. Examine the essence of personalized learning and you will find features of socialstructed learning.

Ms. Gobis also notes that "[i]n the early stages of technology introduction we try to fit new technologies into existing social structures in ways that have become familiar to us." She uses MOOCs as an example, a way of replacing lectures. But MOOCs are simply large-scale online courses. If we look at the fundamental disruption of online courses, we see that online learning started a shift in thinking about how we can learn--any time and in any place. Hmmm. Sort of like socialstructed learning.

I know there are educators who quiver at the idea of such a concept: who will manage student learning and make sure they learn what they need to know? How will such learning be assessed?

I don't think we are yet ready to replace the current classroom model, whether in K-12 or in higher education. I do think we're struggling to figure out what works in today's model and what could and should be changed as well as how to make that happen. I think that too many educators cling too firmly to certain ways of thinking about learning and about assessment--and that changing our thinking, mine included, about assessment and how we know what students know and can do will remain one of our greatest challenges.

However, being reminded that learning opportunities and learning resources can be found where we least expect them should reinforce our appreciation of serendipitous learning moments during which our students may learn far more than today's learning objectives and, even more importantly, may retain that learning.

Ms. Gobis speaks of learning as a flow: resources are available and "opportunities for learning are abundant" which seems to suggest that teachers say, in effect, "This is our plan for learning today and this is what I hope you will achieve, but if you can do more--and I won't prescribe what 'more' means, then let's do that!" And that means letting go some (which reminds me of one of things I learned from reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart) and not just permitting but inviting learners to "have the ability to autonomously dip into and out of continuous learning flows."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Inventive Innovation

[Cross-posted on LinkedIn]

In The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), Clayton M. Christensen summed up the insights as follows. He noted first that “the pace of progress that markets demand or can absorb may be different from the progress offered by technology” (p. 258). Christensen goes on to say “[r]ecognizing this possibility, we cannot expect our customers to lead us towards innovations that they do not now need.” Except in the case, I suppose, of Google Glass when businesses signaled uses that Google hadn’t anticipated.

Christensen’s second insight is that “the major reason for the difficulty of managing innovation is the complexity of managing the resource allocation progress” (p. 258). That was true until crowdfunding so perhaps it is slightly less true now.

The third insight is that another innovation problem is “matching the market to the technology” (p. 258). “Successful companies have a practiced capability in taking sustaining technologies to market, routinely giving their customers more and better versions of what they say they want” (p. 258-259). Except in the case of Apple that has made an art form of offering products for which we have no need and trying to convince us otherwise.

However, Christensen also states that “[d]isruptive technology should be framed as a marketing challenge, not a technological one” (p. 259).

I’m going to skip to the sixth insight which I think is more valuable for my purposes and that is that “it is not wise to adopt a blanket technology strategy to be always a leader or always a follower. . . . Disruptive innovations entail significant first-mover advantages” (p. 260). Unless, of course, you are the tipping point in which case you garner the advantages and the acclaim for taking advantage of the work leading towards the disruption and appearing to be the disruptive innovator. Kudos, and take your bows.

In 2003, Christensen published The Innovator’s Solution. Again I skip past most of the pages to the end of the book, though I highly recommend the “Managing the Strategy Development Process” chapter. Chapter Ten is titled “The Role of Senior Executives in Leading New Growth.” Yawn. Let me sum up: the senior executive 1) manages the resource and process flow between the “disruptive growth” and “the mainstream” businesses; 2) shepherds the “disruptive growth engine;” and 3) senses when the wind is changing direction and teaches the grasshoppers this skill.

Before we’re all in a snit that only senior executives get to play these roles, let me point out there is a reason there is only one head chef, only one ship captain, only one field commander, only one. . . well, you get the idea. Someone has to keep an eye on what is and what could be. But I also want to say that the senior executive who does teach others how to recognize the signals of disruptive growth will also have trained the staff how to make productive use of the disruptive growth engine. There are only four steps: 1) start before you need to; 2) appoint a senior executive to be in charge; 3) create a team; and 4) train people what to identify disruptive ideas. I would add that once folks know how and what to look for—and recognize that some of your people will already have these skills, perhaps intuitively—get out of the way.

In 2007, Scott Berkun published The Myth of Innovation. Say what? A book of which John Seely Brown said (and I quote the inside book jacket), “. . .insightful, inspiring, evocative, and just plain fun to read. . . it’s totally great.” I agree. I loved this book. In “There is a method for innovation,” Berkun reminds us there is little magic, but often a lot of hard work in what we see as innovation: “Innovation is best compared to exploration, and like Magellan or Captain Cook, you can’t find something new if you limit your travels to places others have already found” (p. 39).

“Name an emotion, motivation, or situation, and you’ll find an innovation somewhere that it seeded” (p. 40). So how do we get to innovation, disruptive or otherwise? There is no specific path to such righteousness, but there are categories.

Hard work in a specific direction: frame the problem; enumerate possible solutions; experiment and analyze results; adjust as needed; keep experimenting with the focus on the problem to be solved
Hard work with direction change: frame a problem and find an unexpected solution to an unknown problem so ask the question, “Huh. Wonder what I can do with this?”
Curiosity: as in the stories behind Velcro and Linux

Wealth and money: “The Internet boom and bust of the 1990s was driven by start-up firms innovating, or pretending to innovate, just enough for established corporations to acquire them” (p. 42). So have an idea and hope someone will buy into to take the risk of innovation, which is back to Christensen’s points about resources, etc.

Necessity: Well, Plato did say that “Necessity, who is the mother of our invention” (The Republic, Book II) and who is going to argue with an ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician who has been proven right time and time (and time) again?
Innovations that change the world often begin with humble aspirations” (p. 43).

The good people of Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) remind us that “Innovation is for rethinking things in order to do them better, not merely differently. Ideally, it is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation to leverage innovation to help them achieve whatever it is they need to achieve.”

They also suggest it might be a good idea to think inside the box because sometimes we can be so distracted by trying to be exceptionally innovative to imagine the Next Big Thing we fail to see the possibilities in front of us.

So as we are investing in 3D printers and other technologies for our schools and standing back, awaiting student innovation, perhaps with excessive expectation, let’s keep in mind some basic principles for innovation and invention. Let’s give kids the foundations they need but let’s also give
them time for tinkering. And in the work place, let’s not put people in a conference room with chart paper and blank whiteboards and expect miraculous innovative thinking because the most likely results are heartburn and headaches.

In starting early and in putting processes in place, one of the key reminders is that to be inventive and innovative, kids of all ages need time. . . to experiment.

Other stuff you should read on this topic:

Monday, September 8, 2014

Standardized and summative tests: Let's think about why

The other day I wrote about standardized tests. I suggested they are bunkum, or nonsense. Maybe not so much nonsense as nonsensical in that we give and give and give standardized tests but seem to have forgotten why we give standardized tests except to gather data that tells us how terrible our teachers or students or schools are.

After I posted those observations, I was reading about the PISA 2012 results. It should come as no surprise that the US did not do well. But I also found research that shows state-by-state analysis of the results based on parental education. The US still doesn't measure up too well though some states are more competitive than others.

My reading led to a rather heated discussion about the value of such assessments. I contend the assessments themselves aren't useful if we overtest (and we do overtest) because teachers spend too much time preparing students for tests. Is there residual learning as a result of test preparation? Good question. If there is, I can't imagine it's substantive.

There are many discussions about the use of "big data" though when teachers (or anyone) will find time to sift through all of the data, and aggregate or disaggregate it in ways that are meaningful to individual teachers for their grades levels and for specific content areas is a concern. And then if teachers will get any of that data in a sufficiently timely fashion to make any difference in the way they plan and implement their lessons.

Which leads me to a recent post by Dr. Justin Tarte who asks if summative assessments are obsolete. Now this could be poking the wrong bear, but I believe he has a point.

We know students don't learn at the same pace or the same way. We have to provide some structure and it's not unreasonable to expect students to work together on the same thing at the same time. In the "real world" those experiences are meetings of some sort.

Dr. Tarte also notes that if teachers are using formative assessments. . . . well, I need to stop there. Because we have to assume that teachers are using formative assessments and by that I mean that a) teachers know what formative assessments are and how to use them effectively; and b) teachers are using formative assessments consistently and continuously so at any time they have a general idea of their students' capabilities and challenges.

Don't be hatin' on the first supposition because we all know teachers who are not clear on the concept of formative assessments, who believe that all they have to do is give their students exit slips at the end of the class but never bother to do anything with that information.

In all forms of assessment, the differentiator is using the information from the assessment to help students continue to learn and to improve their learning. As one teacher said, "The test is too late."

And if the test is too late, if that summative assessment is too late, why bother with the summative assessment?

Dr. Tarte points out that if we know where kids are and aren't in their learning, why give a summative assessment? Why lose part of or an entire class period to give a test that is essentially unnecessary?

Kids cramming for tests isn't learning. It's cramming for a test. It's the student hoping to remember too many unlearned things for as long as the test takes. It's the teacher hoping. . . . I don't know what the teacher is hoping. That the students will retain the results of their cramming for longer than the test period?

I'm not really a fan of eliminating tests. I think rethinking why a test is given makes sense and what the test actually assesses, other than students' abilities to stay up late and memorize a bunch of stuff that is otherwise meaningless to them.

So I appreciate the article that tells us it's a waste of time for students to cram for tests. Years ago I would give my students the option of completing a project for their literature class. They could write a paper if they wanted, or they could create something: write a song, make a game, create a video, whatever. Whatever they did, they also had to include a short explanation of how this thing they created demonstrates what they learned in the class. I got amazingly creative stuff from students. I got to the point that I asked students if they wanted a take-home final or an in-class open book final. Either way it was going to be open book. Why? Because in the work place I get to open books or do research on the Internet any time I need or want to. Those skills are important, especially when working under a deadline. If the kids hadn't read the texts or done any of the work for class, cramming wasn't going to help anyway. They knew up front they'd have the choice, so they still needed to do the work to know where to go to find support for whatever they had to say about the questions. And most of my tests were short answer or essay because I wanted them to write. Maybe intuitively I knew that any other kind of exam was a waste of their time and mine.

As we think about assessments--formative, summative, and standardized--I think it's really important for us to think about why we give these assessments, and what we hope to glean from the results. Not for our benefit, but for that of the students and their learning.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Remediating remediation (Part V): D-d-d-data

Remediation needs to be fixed. Yes, we know that. Remediation is necessary; we know that, too. And we know that remediation is best when it's relevant.

But what do we really know about the students who are taking remedial courses? How can we really measure if and how remedial programs are successful? That is, if they are helping students gain the knowledge, skills, and practice they need and enabling those students to continue in college. This no guarantee of graduation or a job, mind you, but remediation should be a confidence-building step up in full-time college student status.

An Education Commission of the States report indicates that most states do not collect data on the entire picture of remediation: participation, success, and cost. The report, A Cure For Remedial Reporting Chaos, does focus mostly on the data, but that data is important because organizations can't make reasonable decisions, especially about change, without good data.

A subsequent report published in June 2014, A Common Framework for Remedial Reporting: Response to Remedial Reporting Task Force Recommendations, outlines a framework for gathering data.

Recognizing that it's not just high school graduates who often have to enroll in remedial courses, the framework suggests the data include:
  • How many first-time college students enroll in remedial courses
  • How many students complete their remedial courses
  • How many students in remediation complete their other courses
  • How many students who start in remediation persist year to year
  • How many students who start in remediation graduate from college
  • How long does it take students who start in remediation to graduate from college
Tracking their grades and GPAs is useful data, but not always good data, in my opinion. Some professors are harder than others; some professors reward effort as well as performance. We know, however, that grades and GPAs are indicators of likelihood of retention and graduation and often inform how hireable that graduate might be.

In addition to the quantitative data, I think the qualitative data may also be useful. Having professors (or adjuncts, more likely) who are teaching those remedial courses meet periodically to talk about what is working in their classes; where most students seem to be struggling; if there are any differences in content or skills trends (e.g, fewer students confused about area and perimeter this year or more students struggling with text-influenced spelling); if students from particular schools, districts, or states are doing better or worse than prior years; etc. That professional learning network (PLN) of remediation instructors could help make sense of the quantitative data, but they could also make use of that quantitative data.

There MUST be conversations between those who are instructing and facilitating the remedial courses and those who are teaching the next level of courses. Just because the remediation faculty think something is a great idea because it is "relevant" or "innovative" doesn't mean it's going to help students pass the freshman English or math courses, or do well in their other courses. That kind of feedback loop is imperative.

In a perfect world, the remediation faculty would also get to talk with some high school teachers, especially from those schools from which some (even many) of the incoming freshman class graduated. Not to speak (necessarily) of specific students, but to talk about the general challenges for the majority of students, especially those likely to have to take remedial courses.

And if the freshman English and math faculty can share where the academic challenges remain for
the remedial students once they move into those full credit-bearing courses, remediation faculty can continue to tinker with their courses. The more information they have about incoming students and the more they know about what's working as students work through their remedial courses and move on to a full credit-bearing course load, the more likely remediation faculty are to provide the skills, knowledge, and practice students require. Those remedial courses and those educators are, after all, the bridge for that gap between high school and college.

There should be no shame in having to take remedial courses. Most of us have been remediated in one thing or another in our lives; we probably didn't call it "remediation" or "developmental."

The better and yes, more relevant, we can make those remedial experiences for students, the better prepared they will be for more than just college.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Remediating remediation (Part IV): Innovation

We know that the requirement of remediation is a common occurrence for far too many students. As I noted in the first of this series:
It's important to recognize that remediation is a real problem. Nearly 60% of all high school graduates need some remediation. According to some data, as many as 80% of high school graduates are not ready for college in one or more content area.

The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) met August 19-21 and, apparently, one of the topics of that conference was supposed to be remedial education. The NCSL has some recommendations for what legislators can do and I responded to that in the second of this series. There seems to be nothing new on the NCSL web site concerning this topic, so maybe those conversations didn't occur or nothing came of them. In my opinion, that's fine. I don't think legislators should be involved in determining how remedial education can or should work.

In the third of this series I addressed one of the other suggestions of the NCSL: innovating remediation. When we need to find a way to improve or jump start or somehow figure out a different way to do something, we fall back to "innovate." On the other hand, as I learned from Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), sometimes innovation is a simple matter of adding or subtracting something that is small but functionally different.

And, as we learned from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (2000), there is a moment that makes a difference. Whether that moment is from stickiness, context, or those who can make that moment-in-time difference--the connectors, mavens, or persuaders--sometimes that coupled with that small but functional difference is all the innovation we need. But that's a different blog post.

We've heard a lot, too, about remediation through job training. In July 2014, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled Job-Training Programs Make Remediation Relevant. Relevance is another important word in education, but for kids who are taking Basic Math, or whatever the remedial math course is called, the challenge of understanding fractions, percentages, and decimals in the context of real world situations does matter.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that most of the students in community college are also working. In 2013, that number was 80%. We can reasonably assume that most of the traditionally-aged students are in entry-level jobs, but jobs that nonetheless require them to understand basic math. So why not gear the content of the course and its activities around the realities of the students? Why not have students bring some of the challenging math problems they face in the work lives to be part of their learning?

Why not connect to media? The now-classic scene in Big (1988) when Tom Hanks' character explains algebra in the context of basketball. Stand and Deliver (1987) with some calculus learning. Even the TV show Numb3rs, which showed a math wizard explaining complex mathematics in the most amazingly simple ways. I actually watched that show for the math. Me, an English major! But I digress.

That relevancy is applicable for English courses, too, even a course in reading and study skills. Having students bring examples of writing and reading they have to do, no matter how simple it might seem. The OSHA regulations and the HR information on the bulletin board most people ignore. Memos from the corporate office. The way they are expected to interact with customers and the binders of information they get. In any shop or store anywhere, there are materials people write and materials people have to read.

So much of this kind of relevancy is likely to work best with face-to-face learning. Students bring their examples and the instructor facilitates the learning through discussion and practice. At this point I can't even speak to the bonus learning that is likely to occur, but I can imagine it and it's impressive. Having a student come from that kind of remedial learning might force me to step up my game in an ENG 101 or 102 course.

Even so, I believe that remedial learning can be reinforced and supplemented with online options. Students who are struggling with some fundamentals might benefit from online resources such as Learning Bird (tell Michael or Roxanne I sent you) or Odysseyware as they continue to refine their digital content and their academy concept (tell Patty I sent you). [By the way, I might get a commission for any sale of Learning Bird or Odysseyware, but I'm acting on my own to recommend them.]

Remediation might also be supported through Skype in the Classroom. Yes, most of the products are geared towards students who are not in college, but the students who are in remediation are struggling because they are not yet college-ready in some content areas.

In my mind, one of the best things remediation can do is meet students where they are and provide them a path towards improvement and success.

PBL is another avenue for remediation. What's cool about the Life Practice cards innovated by my friend Ginger Lewman (tell her I said "Hey!" and to save me a place at Podstock next year) is that they touch more than one content area. If I were teaching a remedial course for reading and study skills and/or for English, I'd use the Life Practice cards. I'd have to adapt them some, but I think the options they provide help students learn to differentiate for themselves, get a better grasp on how they learn best, and might even uncover some otherwise unknown interest, which would be more than awesomely amazing.

I believe there are plenty of ways to be systematically inventive with remediation. The gap between high school and college is going to exist for a while, but remediation doesn't have to be a shameful experience and doesn't have to be one that seems pointlessly expensive.

In fact, I think a GREAT innovation is for universities to be willing to offer at least 1 hour of credit, maybe even 2 (I have to think about this some more), for outstanding work in those remedial courses. It would give the academic systems people and records offices such agita to accommodate this, but students could sign up for the 1-hr or 2-hr version of the remedial course based on the syllabus on the projects. Within the university add/drop period, they could make the decision to change the version of the course--this would be a version of a cross-referenced course--if they thought the work might be more than they could manage. For the instructor, it would be akin to having a contract project for students or a different rubric of expectations. The 0-credit students do x; the 1-credit students do x + y, and the 2-credit students do x + y + z or (x + y) * z, whatever math formula you want to use there.

As I said, one of the best things remediation can do is meet students where they are and provide them a path towards improvement and success. Finding ways to make remedial courses relevant isn't all that complicated and the possibilities for student discovery could be exhilarating for the students; not only that, but retention rates might increase. Students who are able to graduate from college are more likely to be able to pay off their students loans and contribute to society and the economy in positive ways. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Remediating remediation, Part III

Another recommendation of the NCSL is to encourage colleges to innovate remediation. Pffft. And then suggests that "legislators can be key actors in the reform and improvement of remedial education." Wrong again unless the legislators have any role in funding (more) and/or policy making.

Let's keep in mind that remedial courses are not credit-bearing. Some may be three-hour courses and others may be only 1-hour courses, but none of that time in class counts towards graduation. What students in remedial courses need to understand is that the work they do for remediation counts towards graduation in ways they cannot yet see. But that's only if the remediation course is any good.

Now most remedial courses have a syllabus like any other course and students are expected to progress through the 15 weeks of the course just as they do with any other course. They will be forced to do work or activities in which they don't really need remediation, which means they might be bored or resentful or both. Rarely will most of us get excited about that experience as review to reinforce what we think we already know.

Again, it's not just the courses that need change, but the processes. Franky, Elisa, and Maria plus, apparently, most of the others in their freshman class need some sort of remediation. Policy wisely requires they not take on too many courses, but advisers tend to focus mostly on the general education requirements without necessarily giving a lot of thought to reading and writing loads, an important consideration for students who need to take a remedial reading/study course and/or English (aka grammar and writing) course(s).

One of the NCSL ideas is actually a pretty good one and that is to form learning communities. Rather than have a separate reading/study course and a separate English course, students would sign up for a block of learning community time. After all, writing and reading are inextricably linked so there are ways to reinforce reading strategies that can also reinforce writing strategies. In addition, the community becomes a safe space for learning critiques which can spill over into other content areas given that varying degrees of reading and writing are required in all college classes.

Universities would have to offer more than one block of learning community time: 8-9:50 Tue/Thu, 10-11:50 Tue/Thu, 8-8:50 Mon/Wed/Thu, etc. Block options that will allow for students who have to work as well as for students on athletic, arts, or other scholarships. I'd build in some specific policies about missing meetings, but I'd also spend some time with coaches and other professors to talk about implications of learning community penalties. That will certainly vary from school to school.

The content of the learning community requires a bit more work, I think, on the part of the professor. I would treat it like a reading and writing workshop so assignments from other classes are part of the learning community activities. Some activities for the learning community alone to help students focus on specific skills and needs. In fact, I'd even make sure students had choices for the activities because some will advance more quickly for some skills and need greater attention to others. I also think that students who progress quickly should be given the option of staying with the community or, in effect, passing out of the community. I'd prefer they stay in the community even if they've met the learning objectives because that experience is more likely to reinforce any of those new learning skills.

I don't like the idea of accelerated courses because it suggests the remediation is just a hoop and might lead the student to see the course(s) as a nuisance exercise.

Another reason I like the learning community idea is that it can reinforce that learning can be a collaborative process. While students are expected to do their own thinking, their own problem-solving, etc., they are also expected to participate in the community activities of discussion, brainstorming, and even debate. With that kind of experience, kids may even want to sign up for remediation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Remediating remediation, Part II

So we know that remediation for high school graduates is an issue. The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) is meeting August 19-21 and, apparently, one of the topics of that conference is remedial education. The NCSL has some recommendations for what legislators can do.

The first recommendation is to Implement preventative (or preventive) strategies. By that I think they mean they should implement more or other standardized tests. Buried in the text is this: "[t]he WestEd study recommends that policymakers and higher education leaders work together to promote awareness among students about what it means to be college ready and how the assessment and placement process works."

Wrong. I believe K-12 classroom teachers and administrators in conjunction with higher education leaders need to understand how the placement process works. Then high school counselors and university admissions counselors could be using the same language. It would be amazing (and improbable) if placement processes were somewhat universal so that parents and students didn't have to navigate multiple placement processes if the student applies to more than one school. If processes were somewhat universal, high school counselors could provide useful insight. Okay, so the universal process isn't going to happen, so K-12 classroom teacher and administrators have to help parents and students learn what questions to ask when they start their campus visits. And that means that K-12 teachers and administrators have to have stronger, better, or existing partnerships with the universities to which most of their students apply to get that information.

And let's get real about those standardized tests. Students need to know which colleges require a placement test regardless of ACT or SAT scores. Students need to which colleges offer a placement test regardless of ACT or SAT scores. If the placement test is optional, I suggest students take it anyway. If nothing else, it will give the student one more piece of information about his or her actual readiness to succeed at that school. Students need to know that the ACT and the SAT English scores don't mean they can write well and for college.

My recommendation is that 10th grade teachers build relationships with university professors, particularly writing professors. Invite those professors to do a presentation on writing, maybe even an activity or two with their students so high school students get a hint of what it means to write in college. Better yet, invite a panel of writing, math, social science, and science professors to talk to students about their expectations for student writing. I had a colleague who taught a freshman-level biology class. She would mark the first five errors on a student's paper and then hand it back. She expected students to do what was necessary to improve the writing of their work before resubmitting it and they had a specific window of opportunity.

High school guidance counselors need to have more information about placement processes for the universities to which most of their graduates apply. They need to have some of those admissions counselors on speed dial, too. High school teachers, staff, and administrators have to reinforce the means by which students can gauge their readiness, which is not by standardized tests or high school grades alone.

Students need to learn to talk to their admissions counselors and ask questions about standardized tests, placement exams, resources for academic support (tutoring, Writing Center, etc.). Better to have the information about those resources and not need it than scramble for it when it's almost too late.

Students need to learn to talk to their professors or other students who have had those professors, or both. Kids cannot be afraid to or ashamed of asking for help. Asking for help tells professors that those students take their education seriously and they are willing to do what it takes to do well.

My next blog post will focus on innovation of remediation.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Remediating remediation, Part I

GIVEN: There will always be a gap between what high school graduates know and can do and what college professors expect them to know and be able to do.

GIVEN: This will always be true.

GIVEN: College remediation is one of many possibilities to bridge the gap for high school graduates and college professors.

GIVEN: College remediation can be expensive in time and money for students; it can also be discouraging and psychologically debilitating for students and frustrating for professors.

GIVEN: Academics aren't the only concerns for incoming college freshmen.

Franky B takes the ACT and gets a low score in both math and English. That means he's going to have to take remedial courses in both subjects. Not only will he have to enroll in at least six non-credit-bearing hours (they won't count towards graduation), but he will not be able to take more than 12 hours that semester. If half of his hours are for remedial courses, he's automatically on track for the 5-year plan to graduate, unless he can make up time during the summer. When he arrives on campus for freshman orientation, his adviser reviews his application materials and see that he has a strong GPA and good grades in English and above average grades in math. Curious about the situation, the adviser has a conversation with Franky. At the end, they decide to drop him from the remedial courses and put him in credit-bearing courses with the understanding that Franky will get a tutor for both math and English, just in case. The adviser also talks with Franky about the value of going to the on-campus Writing Center for all writing assignments, not just for those in his English classes. Franky feels fairly confident but worries that his friends might be a distraction for him.

Elise G takes the SAT and gets borderline scores. Because of her borderline scores, she chooses to take the placement tests on campus. Her English placement test makes it clear she needs remediation while she is able to register for freshman-level math courses. Because she has to take at least one remedial English course, she can register for only 12 hours. One of the courses is History of Civilization, which requires a lot of reading. She learns her professor for that course is one who requires a lot of writing. She hopes she can keep up with the work because she has to have a part-time job to help pay for college. Elise feels anxiety gnawing at her when she goes to her first class.

Maria M takes both the ACT and the SAT. She does reasonably well on one and okay on the other. Maria isn't accepted by any of her preferred schools so she decides to go to her local community college to get her AA. That way, because Maria, like many undergraduates, has to work to help pay for college, she'll be able to work and go to school with a clear focus on doing well. She knows her local community college has a good reputation and that she'll be able to get tutors as she needs. Maria starts school with confidence.

And so it goes.

Carol Burris, an award-winning principal, writes compelling about the failure of the current college remediation model. As indicated in her writing and the studies to which she refers, remediation is no guarantee of success in college. Shouldn't be. But the mechanisms by which students are diverted to remediation or choose to take remedial courses are not consistent, and they are not foolproof.

As a freshman writing teacher, I had students whose test scores permitted them to sign up for ENG 101. With the very first writing assignment I knew which of those students needed to go to the Writing Center every single day and/or who would need lots of coaching from me. By the same token, I had an inkling of which students could have skipped ENG 101 and gone straight into ENG 102. Because of add/drop policies and in fairness to students and professors once the semester got underway, we had to act fast if we were going to move students anywhere.

It's important to recognize that remediation is a real problem. Nearly 60% of all high school graduates need some remediation. According to some data, as many as 80% of high school graduates are not ready for college in one or more content area.

It's also important to recognize that the slide towards remediation begins in elementary school. This is NOT to blame any level of K-12 teacher or administrator. It is to acknowledge that the gap between what kids know and are able to do when the graduate from high school is substantial.

It's also important to remember that community colleges were once the epicenter of remediation as well as other educational options that were typically not part of the university offerings. As community colleges have shifted their missions and their roles, remediation has proven to be of less interest to many institutions and for practical as well as other reasons.

Figuring out how to remediate remediation is no small task, but one I'm going to try to tackle in one (or more) of my next blog posts. Your suggestions and insights are welcome!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Kids (and Grown-ups) Who Code

I worry about a lot of things and just now I'm worrying about the pressure we're putting on teachers, parents, and students about coding. For teachers who don't really know what coding is and are feeling additional pressure to learn about coding and to figure out how to integrate coding in their classes. For parents who are in the same boat with teachers but don't know if they should be pressuring teachers to make sure their kids learn how to code because they don't know what they don't know. For kids who may be pressured to learn how to code right NOW as though it's the last opportunity to do so.

Let me say that I'm not against kids learning how to code. I think it's a great idea, but I also think kids should be exposed to it and then given the opportunity to explore it further. Kids coding seems to be on the verge of an expectation that somehow kids aren't cool or with it or smart enough or something enough if they're not on the coding bandwagon. Deep breaths, people.

I discovered coding after I graduated from college with a degree in English and American Studies. Of course, I'm old and I used card decks and had to write elegant code because memory resources were limited. No gigabytes in those days. I learned how to write overlays and how to manage cache. It was cool. It was a giant and spectacular puzzle to be solved.

I still think coding is cool and a spectacular puzzle to be solved. In my opinion, the way we present coding and the possibilities is what will entice kids. If it becomes a "learn how to code or you'll be destitute and unloved the rest of your life" kind of message, kids will be turned off and not just because they won't understand. It's the pressure to do something to be like everyone else that will make it less interesting.

Minecraft is a huge portal for kids to talk about math (and other stuff) and to learn about coding. It will be until the next new shiny thing attracts the attention of some who will flap their hands and insist with breathless anticipation that this new thing is the thing that will make a difference for kids and their futures.

Coding is couched in terms of "STEM" and "computer science." Kids who aren't included towards STEM or computer science may think that coding isn't for them. But coding is a skill; in fact, I'd say coding is a craft. An article in the Wall Street Journal echoes my thinking about coding and reminds us that majoring in computer science isn't necessary for a talented coder. There are plenty of options and opportunities for someone who enjoys coding and is good at it.

We've crossed some sort of border in human history where everything we touch now has software in it," says Mr. Carson, echoing the common Silicon Valley refrain that the future comprises two types of people—those who know how to program and those who must obey the machines created by those people.
As Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal also notes: "As technology becomes ever more widespread, it's creating programming jobs as diverse as the types of knowledge workers it has displaced."

There is, however, a caveat: coding is not for everyone. Folks in the MakerSpace movement and elsewhere want you to think learning to code is a snap. Fundamental "Hello World" coding is easy, but good coding requires good reasoning and logic skills. Good coding requires outstanding problem solving skills and, I think, the ability to imagine a result. Good coding requires patience and the ability to work through dozens of "what if" scenarios to make sure the worst worst-case scenarios have been tested just as well as the best best-case scenarios.

For more information on coding options and possibilities, check out:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Math, math, and more math

Last week was my own sort of math week. Seems like everything I read and posted about on Scoop.it was about math.

In February I read an opinion piece, "You Never Did Math in High School." The course that was the source of the author's ire? Calculus. Hang on to that.

Now why did this writer think students never did math in high school? Mr. Kun asserts "The problem is that American high school students are taught something named 'math' for four years which is not even close to math." Eyebrows raised. Say what??? After offering an insightful analogy using music, Mr. Kun quickly asserts that it is NOT the content. Math is very fine content. The issue is the way it is presented to students and the expectations most teachers seem to have for proof of student learning. He observes that most students who believe they are good at math are really saying, "I was very good at following obscure steps to manipulate mysterious symbols, without any real understanding of what I was doing." Let's go with that, shall we?

Then there was a series of article published in The New York Times.

July 23
"Why Do Americans Stink at Math?" asks Elizabeth Green. Well, maybe we don't stink at math. Maybe we stink at remembering which steps go with what. I remember scribbling formulas in the margins of a test and then seeing which one seemed to work out the best for each problem. I knew which formula to use for some problems, but for others I'd just try to plug in numbers and see if the answer seemed to make sense. Yea, I stunk at "math."

Ms. Green observes that Americans are constantly "reforming" education. Yes, we do re-form it. Various bureaucratic agencies become alarmed and then with typical hair-on-fire reaction, toss something on the educational flames and hope it doesn't explode into something worse. Without fail, teachers get frustrated because they aren't prepared and/or don't have enough PD and/or don't agree with the mandate so students get confused because the new shiny thing doesn't connect with last year's shiny thing. Because they are confused, they shut down and begin to hate math. Parents go beyond frustration because they don't see the correlations either, can't help their kids, and can't get an answer from teachers or administrators because there really isn't a good answer.

In all seriousness, Ms. Green reports on lesson study, an educational teaching and learning process that was and just might be in the process of becoming significant. Again. Lesson study is a very practical concept though difficult for most Americans to implement precisely as initially designed. However, with well-formed PLCs, lesson study is quite accessible and can make quite a difference across content areas. For more information on lesson study, you can explore the work of two of the godfathers of lesson study, Bill Saunders and Ron Gallimore. You can also explore the work of Brad Emerling, a protege, if you will, of both Dr. Saunders and Dr. Gallimore. Brad has another piece on lesson study here.

Just for kicks, you might want to read this piece by Ron on John Wooden.

July 24
"Don't Teach Math, Coach It" is published. Jordan Ellenberg equates learning and doing math to play, and uses his kids as great examples of math as a game.
What does it mean to coach math instead of teaching it? For C. J., it means I give him a “mystery number” to think about before bed. “I’m thinking of a mystery number, and when I multiply it by 2 and add 7, I get 29; what’s the mystery number?” And already you’re doing not just arithmetic but algebra.

For his little sister, who’s 4, that’s too formal. But say we’re at the grocery store and we need four cans of soup and she brings me two, and I say, “So we need three more, right?” and she says, “No, Daddy!” That’s really funny when you’re 4. It’s a game, and it’s math.
But Ellenberg also states that math is a skill that requires practice. He doesn't say that math is a content area that requires pages and pages of worksheets. While the example he gave for C.J. may not be sufficiently "real life" for some while the situation he presented to his 4-year-old daughter is. On the other hand, I'd say the mystery number that either put C.J. straight to sleep or kept him up for a while is an exercise in problem-solving. C.J. had to figure out how to figure out the mystery number, so he had to make sense of the data he had. He had to determine if he had enough information to solve the problem. Now that is real life.

July 28 (2012): "Is Algebra Necessary?" Yep, two years ago Andrew Hacker asked this question. And it is one that is asked all too frequently.

In Feb 2009, Arthur Benjamin asserted that students should be learning statistics before they learn calculus.

In 2012, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) issued a position statement about calculus with the Mathematical Association of America. The general statement reads:
Although calculus can play an important role in secondary school, the ultimate goal of the K-12 mathematics curriculum should not be to get students into and through a course in calculus by twelfth grade but to have established the mathematical foundation that will enable students to pursue whatever course of study interests them when they get to college. The college curriculum should offer students an experience that is new and engaging, broadening their understanding of the world of mathematics while strengthening their mastery of tools that they will need if they choose to pursue a mathematically intensive discipline.
 The statement is a bit passive aggressive but suggests calculus is not the course in which all students must aspire to secure a passing grade. However, the background statement clarifies the position statement and makes it clearer that the MAA and NCTM understood the implications of the calculus situation.

Business Intelligence reported in 2013 that MBAs can't stop with calculus because of the high value of statistics in business. Noting the usual progression from algebra to calculus, Manyika and Chui, the article's writers, state that "This time-honored curriculum seems increasingly out of touch in a world that is flooded with noisy and voluminous data." Understanding of and capability with statistics is clearly more valuable.

Last but not least, an article in Forbes asked "Should We Stop Teaching Calculus in High School?" to make way for statistics and computer programming. In other words, encourage students to take math courses that are more relevant to them.

Provided, of course, the foundational courses are more than just drills for skills rather than actual learning to understand the beauty of the mathematics.