Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Education, teaching, trends, and resolutions

As I write this, it is past noon in the Chicagoland area on New Year's Eve Day. It is already January 1, 2015 half a world away.

The time of trend analysis and resolutions has begun, or will when the bleary-eyed and more clear-eyed and can think more clearly about how they resolve to live 2015.

I've been following what others purport are the trends to watch but also what some believe are the considerations of 2014 that will directly and indirectly inform the direction of some of those trends. Let's begin with a look back at a few things reported in Education Week about the teaching profession.

 First we have the chart that suggests why teachers are leaving the profession: too little prep time and a teaching load that's too heavy are the two primary reasons, according to the research done by Richard Ingersoll. According to Ingersoll, the issue is about teacher retention. And that, quite frankly, shouldn't come as any surprise to any administrator.

Comparatively we have the chart that exhibits how hard teachers are working. In the Education Week article, this chart is listed as Chart #8. This chart claims to be "teaching hours," which could mean time spent only in the classroom but could also include prep time. It's really hard to say without thumbing through the entire OECD report and examining other charts and reading the information about the data actually reported and collected. So take this chart with those very extensive caveats. Having said that, however, those of us who know, are, or were teachers and at any level (including higher education) know that a 40-hour work week in education is a myth. Most teachers, unionized or otherwise, work more than 40 hours a week, whether for grading, their own learning, prep, or just taking care of administrivia.

I juxtapose these two charts because my anecdotal research and experience tells me that time that teachers try to allocate for prep gets sucked up by administrivia or other ill-planned or badly executed attempts for PLNs, grade level meetings, or just "other duties as assigned." For some the actual teaching load is to great, but for many the teaching load is compounded by "other duties as assigned" or whatever phrase might be used to camouflage the expectations.

We also know the majority of teachers want to learn, want to learn from and with each other and/or those who have been brought in to coach and mentor them. The majority of teachers want to improve their craft, but they also want time and opportunity to reflect on their teaching, to get feedback on their teaching, and to develop a plan to improve with the kind of support, feedback, and coaching that will offer them a reasonable chance to succeed.

As we look back at the trends and issues of 2014, we should take a peek ahead at what might be influencing education in 2015. These three trends are as good a place as any to start. There has been a tremendous amount of conversation regarding competency-based learning (CBE), and not just for higher education. I see this popping up in K-12, too. My concern is that people blather a bit about CBE without having any understanding of what it is or could be, or its implications. It's worth considering some of the drivers listed in this article and discussing their viability and potential implications, thoughtfully and purposefully.

Towards the end of 2014, there were more conversations about "informal learning" which has morphed for some to "social learning," which is fed, in my opinion, by the resurgence of constructivism as seen in personalized learning, which is influenced by blended and flipped learning, which was influenced by our continuing evolution of thinking about differentiation.

Mobile learning, or learning-on-the-go, continues a trend of just-in-time (JIT) learning and job-embedded professional development. An idea that continues to gain traction is combining CBE with developing learning and skills as students need them rather than teaching students a lot of stuff in the hopes they will store it up until they need it, and then be able to figure out what stuff they need for that situation. Is it reasonable? Practical? Efficacious over time? Good questions to which we can't and won't know the answers for a while which is also problematic as many of us no longer (or never did) have the patience to wait a realistic period of time for a realistic answer.

But if social learning, CBE, and mobile learning are going to be realities of 2015 (and beyond) learning, then we need to have thoughtful and purposeful conversations about how to implement changes sooner rather than later and to provide our teachers with the support, time, and coaching they need to try to keep up with the actual changes, not the possible changes, for which their students need to be prepared.

And that means, in my opinion, that changes are implemented in waves. What high school students will need to prepare for college or be better prepared for the work force most immediately is different from what middle school students will need to prepare for high school and then to be preparing for college some years out. All of that demands thoughtful and purposeful planning, and realistic resolutions for change.

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, December 1, 2014

In defense of college

All universities have commencements: that ceremony of graduation during which, in due course, graduates are both celebrated and exhorted to go forth and do something useful, and not just so they can pay back all of those student loans.

Some universities have convocation ceremonies, literally a "calling together" ceremony, to mark the start of the new school year. It is a commencement in the sense that students are about to commence a new chapter in their lives.

The speeches at any of these events are rarely memorable, but several years ago I heard a provost speak at the beginning of the school year and reminded students that college is not a parenthetic in life. It's easy to think of college as a sort of bridge between high school and "real" life. But in Dr. Anderson's speech, she encouraged students to see their experiences in college as stepping stones through higher education, and to strive to recognize all of the disparate opportunities for learning they were about to encounter. Some of those stones are a bit wobbly, requiring a bit more concentration and balance, while others are more firmly set and make the learning or life-experience transaction less difficult.

The Washington Post piece "In defense of college" prompted the reminiscence of that speech and what many of my colleagues and I sought to inculcate in our students. College is not just about the curriculum and the courses; it's not just about grades and GPAs. College is more than study skills and exam-taking skills. It's even more than problem-solving and critical thinking skills. As Vivek Wadhwa notes, college "also teaches students how to interact and work with others, make compromises, deal with rejection and failure, and learn."

Students learn who they are and what they believe. They begin to figure out what's important to them, what they value most and where they won't compromise. They begin to discover qualities of themselves and they begin to make decisions about how to use their strengths and how to mitigate their weaknesses.

I don't want a discussion of the value of higher education to get sidetracked by the ridiculous amount of student debt; however, students too often don't learn how to manage their finances, and students and their families have no clear idea of the implications of their student loans. As a college professor who taught at a relatively expensive school, I'd often advise students to go to a local or community college for their general education requirements rather than starting to build a mountain of debt. The Admissions office wasn't always happy with me, but it made sense to recruit students who could and would stay rather than get them into school for their freshman year, load them up with debt, and then stand by helplessly as they're forced to drop out for financial reasons. In my opinion, that's just dumb and borders on unethical.

Anyway, I think it's possible for many people to be successful without going to college. But I agree with Mr. Wadhwa that there are opportunities at most universities that students simply will not be able to match if they do not go to college. Having said that, I think students need to be judicious when they start to research colleges and universities. I get being loyal and following the family legacy, but I also think that making a decision about a college is one of the first major decisions a student can make about deciding who they are and what they think they want to become. Perhaps not life-altering, but certainly an important stone as they navigate through their collegiate experience.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Finding balance for change in HE

There is so much more to college than the classes students attend. Many universities have freshman experience courses with mentors for groups of college freshmen to help them manage the transition to college life. Sports teams often have compliance officers but also individuals, often coaches, to help students manage the balance of sports and academics.

Higher education is changing, again. Universities are constantly having to adapt. Those that do not adapt will eventually fail. Those that no longer have relevance to potential students will eventually close.

I like tradition and I like history. I appreciate the value of some things that have been in place for years, even generations, and that still function as they need. I don't mind change but I do mind change for the sake of change. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Leslie Silvey wrote about technology and its value to and for higher education in her Echo360 blog post titled How Technology Can Tip the Scales for Higher Ed. At the risk of stealing her thunder should you read the entire blog post, Ms. Silvey closes with
It’s an exciting time for institutions to leverage technology to enhance teaching and learning and create a more satisfactory experience for students that doesn’t involve shuttering doors, losing the valuable knowledge of tenured professors, or rendering the value of a college degree obsolete.
Balance. I think so much of any hand-wringing and verbal jousting is about balance. I see articles and posts all the time about the latest and greatest "best" practice in education, one of the primary reasons I'm dismissive of the phrase "best practice." It can't be the "best" practice if something else trumps it. Anyway, I see article and posts touting the newest and most spectacular technology tool, resource, or strategy. The One True Thing that will make All of the Difference in the World! Which, of course, it won't or can't, and not just because the next one true thing that will make all of the difference in the world is just now being released by someone else. It's exhausting.

And so, balance.

In some classes, in some disciplines, for some professors the lecture may be effective, perhaps even the majority of class time. Even I doubt that, but it is possible. Because what we don't know without surveying and/or observing every single college educator, including adjuncts, is what they ask their students to do outside of class.

In some classes, in some disciplines, for some professors it may make sense to use a preponderance of technological whiz bang gizmos and gadgets. Because of what they're teaching and what they expect their students to learn.

For some universities, administrators working collaboratively with their faculty will help find that balance. And when administrators and faculty work collaboratively with the communities and businesses most served by their graduates, the balance will be even better because the faculty and the administrators will have a clearer communication feedback loop of what graduates will need to know and be able to do when they graduate.

If I were a faculty member today, I would want community and business leaders to keep me informed of the true trends they are experiencing and how those trends are informing the changes they need to make in their businesses to keep those businesses viable and valuable. To that end, I'd want opportunities to meet occasionally, formally and informally, with the folks and types of folks who are likely to hire my students.

So part of finding the balance is not just what the universities are doing--not just the changes that faculty are making in how they teach or their learning objectives or what and how they expect their students to learn; not just the changes that administrators are making to recruit, support, and retain students; not just the changes administrators and faculty are making to programs and curricula--but changes implemented by local and national businesses, and influences of global businesses and policies.

Successful, viable, relevant universities are not stand-alone entities. Their faculty are involved in their disciplines and the expectations of the direction of their disciplines; those changes and influences are not a surprise to them and, in fact, some faculty are informing those changes and are those very influences. Administrators are well aware of the faculty who are movers and influencers, even on smaller or more discrete levels, and also recognize that the university is part of the community in which it operates as well as part of the businesses and organizations that hire its graduates.

Universities are, or should be, part of an intricate web of individuals, communities, and other outside organizations. They are, or should be, constantly in flux and they will struggle to maintain balance when those outside organizations try to exert more than their fair share of influence.

Technology is a significant part of the university story, but only part of it.

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.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Women and STEM: Changing the World

As with many trends and fads in education, there has been a great deal of breathless handwringing over the lack of women in science, math, engineering, and technology. Could there be more women in STEM? Absolutely.

Rather than worrying about the women who are not in STEM, perhaps we should celebrate those who have been and are in STEM roles and careers. Perhaps that celebration will encourage other women and girls to brave the remaining misogynistic biases and prejudices to follow their heads, hearts, and dreams.

What they face today may be no less cruel than what the STEM pioneers face because the barriers and obstacles can be less obvious. Even so, there is often nothing less satisfying than being able to become a success in something others told you was impossible.

Years and years ago I was working as a bookkeeper for a small software company. I was fascinated by the work they did and started asking a lot of questions. I even took a couple of programming courses to learn more. There was one female programmer on the team; she and I became and still are good friends. But even some of the guys encouraged me and explained some of what they did. Then came the administrative coup and the new president of the company delivered an ultimatum that I could become his administrative assistant or clean out my desk. When I opted to clean out my desk, he told me I'd never be more than an administrative assistant and I should have been more grateful for the opportunity. Fast forward only a few years when I attended a company picnic, invited by my friends who still worked there, and got to talk with that now more humbled and wiser president as a programmer/systems analyst for a much larger company. We just chatted, but he acknowledged my success with grace.

When I think honestly about it, I might never have taken that path had he not delivered that ultimatum. And when I think more honestly about it, the biggest challenges were from other women who seemed to be threatened or intimidated by me. I never let the guys who made "little lady" comments bother me because that just fueled their comments.

We need to continue to celebrate the women who influenced changes in STEM.  We need to talk about the women in STEM--not just the prejudices they encountered and the setbacks they should not have experienced--but the work they did, the breakthroughs for which they were responsible, and their dedication to the spirit that drove them to persevere.

We should be inspired and moved by the women who did and those who continued to do.

We should continue to encourage and provide support for those women and girls who face setbacks, prejudices, and obstacles that should not be part of their lives in 2014 but are. These are the women who will continue to change the world.

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:

Friday, September 12, 2014

The stalled MOOC revolution: Not over; not yet

I've signed up for about a dozen MOOC courses. I've a Master's degree and a doctorate. Why would I take a MOOC course? Several reasons: 1) I like to learn; 2) they're free, so why not?; 3) I don't really have to do anything to "take" the course but I can learn some new things and gather some new resources; and 4) I'm curious to see how some educators are translating their content for a MOOC. I mean, what or should an instructor do differently if there are thousands, even millions, of students in a class? How do you assign groups? How do you grade student assignments? How do you provide any kind of meaningful feedback?

Dan Friedman (@DNFriedman) asserts the MOOC Revolution is over; well, that it never really happened. He could be right. Mr. Friedman believes the key factor is engagement.

Dror Ben-Naim asked if the those "born digital" can "save" MOOCs in his August 21 post. Ben-Naim reports that MOOC completion rates are in the single digits and suggests that the reason is that "MOOCs combine a set of existing tools that can be useful instructional supports, such as online lectures, social networks, and quizzes. But few professors would consider these technologies, together, as a substitute for the course experience."

Ben-Naim goes on to tell us of a professor at Arizona State University, an institution long known for its forward thinking. Professor Ariel Anbar decided to "smash the disciplines" and his science course focuses on a single big question. That in itself is reason to pause for contemplation, but do that later. 

When you're done with this blog post, go read the linked article. Not now, later--because there are a few things I'd like you think about including some observations by Dr. Jeff Borden who published in WIRED and told us that MOOCs are dead, but not really. Dr. Borden asserts that "the fact that so many people took MOOCs not for the course, but for a section of the course is telling," and I agree. That kind of learning is truly personalized learning because the students made the choice of what part of the course was valuable to them. I think it's also important to note that many MOOC students are folks like myself: people who have college degrees and are looking for additional learning. This is an important distinction.

An instructor of a MOOC, Robert Wright (@robertwrighter), a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, had 59,000 students sign up for his "Buddhism and Modern Psychology" course. But that doesn't mean the majority of those 59,000 students who expressed an interest in his course had any intention of completing the course. Keep in mind that MOOCs are free. There is little incentive for anyone to participate in the forums, to do any of the reading or watch any of the videos, to do any of the assignments. Mr. Wrights notes that participation did, in fact, decline. But he also relates a social experiment conducted in 1985:
Mike Kinsley, who later founded Slate, did an experiment to test the hypothesis that “much-discussed” books in Washington, D.C, don’t actually get read. He had an assistant visit local bookstores and insert, about three-fourths of the way through various books, a card with Kinsley’s phone number and the promise of a cash reward to anyone who called him. No money changed hands
Mr. Wright later states that
Lots of factors will determine whether MOOCs wind up being important—and MOOCs will in any event evolve, maybe to the point of being barely recognizable descendants of their current selves. But in the near term their viability will depend very heavily on whether students want to take them and whether capable professors want to teach them. 
In my opinion, MOOCs have already changed the way we think about higher education. Coursera offers various proof of participation and/or completion through its Statement of Accomplishment, Verified Certificate, and Specialization Certificates, though the option is not available for all courses. I imagine this is an instructor choice. Yes, for some options there is a cost to the student and yes, the student has to do some actual work rather than just download the content and read some stuff or watch a few videos every now and then, if ever. But it also gives the student a "try before you buy" option so if the student really likes the course, the student can sign up for the certification options well into the course.

What we have yet to do, though, is think differently about how we teach and how students learn. Yes, it goes back to engagement. Yes, it relates to how we expect students to show us what they've learned. Yes, it relates to professors who believe they have to determine if students have learned the "right" stuff and quite possibly the "right" way.

Professor Anbar's courses use Smart Sparrow (@smart_sparrow), a company Mr. Ben-Naim represents. Smart Sparrow is an adaptive learning environment; check it out.

Pay attention now. There are K-12 schools that have adopted systems that use adaptive learning environments and, by the way, adaptive learning is really nothing new but the technological possibilities are quite incredible; the implications and consequences yet to be discovered. Adaptive learning and deep learning (not to be confused with deeper learning) will continue to influence our educational and our consumer worlds.

In Mr. Ben-Naim's article, he stated that Professor Anbar chose to "smash the disciplines." I think there are a lot of teachers who have been smashing the disciplines, flattening their classrooms, and shredding the boxes. Like Mr. Wright and Dr. Borden, I think the MOOC revolution has really only begun. Inventive and thoughtful educators will learn from what works with MOOCs and adaptive learning, and what can influence personalized learning, growth mindset, project-based learning, and a host of other educational trends and practices to continue to expand and shift the way we think about learning and teaching.

I don't think the MOOC revolution is close to being over, and I think we are seeing a leading edge of what education can be and how it can help ensure today's students are prepared for the world in which they will work and live.

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.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Standardized tests are bunkum?

Standardized tests are probably bunkum. Many of us have known this for a while. Even if we haven't been able to prove it with barrels of data, we have anecdotal evidence. Administrators and politicians alike chortle when test scores increase even a nanometer. Should the test scores go down, even by the same margin, those same administrators and politicians scurry for excuses and schedule blathering rampages framed as press conferences to divert attention from the test scores to scores of possible scapegoats--usually teachers--to explain away that bad scores. It's never ever the test. It's never ever that that particular test could have been chock full of poorly written or just bad questions. It's never ever that any standardized test measures mostly how well prepared students are to take a standardized test.

Before I pile on (again), I would like to try to make something reasonably clear even at the risk of provoking different howls of frustration from the anti-Common Core throng. Common Core swept
into the spotlight the generally misunderstood concept of "rigor." [Check out Barbara Blackburn's work on rigor, please.] Let me sum up: not "harder" and not more. What has tagged along with Common Core, and nearly unnoticed by many, is the concept of "proficiency." Sure, plenty of teachers are part of the conversation about "mastery" and "'proficiency" and how to grade for either and the complications associated therein. But that's a different topic of conversation. The reason I mention it is this: educators know there is a difference between knowing how to do something and being able to do it.

I had this conversation just last night with a former student of mine who is a teacher and who going through this very same frustrating conversation. It is, for example, one thing to be able to explain how to do a push-up, perhaps even replete with details about muscles and other stuff. It is, however, quite another to be able to complete 10 push-ups. So is the score for mastery being able to do 10 push-ups or knowing how to do a push-up and why it matters? The answer is that it depends on what I'm scoring for mastery and why.

A standardized test asks a student to fill in a bubble for an answer. The student may have guessed or may have tried to complete the task. Unless students write in their test booklets (which they're not supposed to do) or in the margins of their tests, or unless students allowed scrap paper which is collected with their tests and reviewed along with their tests, there is no way to know if a student guessed or tried to complete the task. Even the multi-part multiple choice (selected response) questions designed to require students to provide evidence for one or more prior questions can be gamed. Students can guess at every part and still have a chance of guessing a right answer.

Given that, a standardized test really cannot measure true mastery nor proficiency, however one might define those terms and assess whatever students might do to demonstrate their levels of knowledge and/or skill. But that's just my opinion.

. . . in June 2012, the Texas House Public Education Committee did what elected officials do when they don’t know what to say. They held a hearing. To his credit, Committee Chair Rob Eissler began the hearing by posing a question that someone should have asked a generation ago: What exactly are we getting from these tests? And for six hours and 45 minutes, his committee couldn’t get a straight answer. Witness after witness attacked the latest standardized-testing regime that the Legislature had imposed. Everyone knew the system was broken, but no one knew exactly why.
Except Dr. Walter Stroup, University of Texas College of Education.
Stroup argued that the tests were working exactly as designed, but that the politicians who mandated that schools use them didn’t understand this. In effect, Stroup had caught the government using a bathroom scale to measure a student’s height. The scale wasn’t broken or badly made. The scale was working exactly as designed. It was just the wrong tool for the job. The tests, Stroup said, simply cannot and do not measure what or how much students learn in school.
People have been saying this for decades, and no one has been willing to listen. Why?

In general, the linked article gives some wonderful context for the abysmal performance of standardized tests, but then it becomes a less-than-shocking expose of how Pearson has and continues to strong-arm educators at all levels to accept its will. But it also indicates that as a result of having had the temerity to expose the absurdity of standardized tests and poking the Pearson assessment bear, Walter Stroup was denied tenure.

If this is the case, it is appalling that the University of Texas College of Education took Pearson money and then rationalized its treatment of Walter Stroup. Failing to get tenure is devastating to a college professor, personally and professionally. While I completely sympathize and empathize with Walter Stroup, the point really has to be that standardized tests are still bunkum.

However, if we were to pull the plug on standardized tests, then what? Lee County made history by opting out of all state-wide standardized tests. A few days later it reversed itself. Yes, in our zealousness for whatever (and I really don't know what it is), we test too much. 

Last year CPS reduced the number of tests its students would have to take from 25 to 10. You read that right. They eliminated 15 standardized tests. Fifteen.

I think we think we know why we give students standardized tests. And I think we think we do something with all of that data. But if we also know that the results of the standardized tests don't jibe with what classroom teachers are seeing in their classrooms and across their grades, then something is not right. The confusion of data cannot tell us if student performance in the classrooms is an accurate measure of what they know and what they can do because, along the way, we have learned not to trust the professional judgement of our teachers. That, however, is a topic for another day.

As for these standardized tests, if we insist on giving them, let's be selective about which tests we give and when, let's be realistic about why we give the tests, and then let's be realistic about what we do with that data. Let's be proactive about how we aggregate and examine the data, and how we use that data to inform something that helps teachers do their jobs more effectively and truly helps students demonstrate what they know and what they can do, not how well they can guess.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Academically adrift, or a dash of apathy?

I saw this article, "The Economic Price of Colleges' Failures" and chose to move on rather than read, yet again, about the alleged indifference of college faculty and administrators.

But then a friend of mine, Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher), posted about the article and expressed her concern and so, with a sigh, I read it.

In 2010, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift. An excerpt from the promotional copy on the web site reads:
According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.
I know just enough about statistics to wager the numbers provide some statistical weight, but I have questions, lots of questions, about this study. But the questions aren't really relevant because, quite honestly, I'm not surprised.

I've taught at a few different institutions of higher learning, some more selective than others, some larger than others. This is what I know: college kids tend to have no clue that they don't know what they don't know and they are often too overwhelmed by college, by work, by a freedom they'd never before experienced, by all sorts of things to pay attention to learn.

I taught freshman English for a number of years. It's a course I loved to teach and would teach again in a heartbeat. Somewhere fairly early in my teaching experience I stopped co-editing and I stopped putting grades on papers. Why? Because kids wouldn't read my questions and notes in the margins, and because I wanted them to learn to think about their choices and their reasoning and to become better writers because of it.

This "problem" of being academically adrift, and/or apathetic, doesn't start in college. It continues in college.

I coasted through high school. I was bored out of my ever-lovin' mind. I could have graduated early except back in the dark ages when I was in high school, such was not permitted, especially for a girl. I loaded up on English classes and student assistantships to pad my schedule after I completed the required one-half credit course I needed to graduate. I was never much of a student anyway. I did homework, but mostly in a desultory fashion.

Anyway, I graduated (yawn!) and went off to college. I was working three part-time jobs, commuting, and carrying a full-time load. And really enjoying being in college! At the end of my freshman year, I was on academic probation with a 1.7 or 1.9 GPA. So I transferred to a different school and was able to reboot. Being away from home created its own challenges. I was not a disciplined student and way too interested in everything else that was going on. But I managed to pull a 3.5 my first semester, which told me I could do it, so then I relaxed. I realized I could do well enough without working too hard, so I had time for my part-time job, for my sorority, and for whatever other nonsense I was getting into.

The difference for me might be that I was already reasonably adept at critical thinking, problem solving, and complex reasoning, although for many wrong reasons. And I was already good at writing. But the classroom teachers and professors who kept me on my toes and probably enabled me to be a marginally successful student were those who saw through the masquerade and didn't put up with my feigned insouciance (if I flunked out of school, my mother would have flayed me alive). For them I worked harder; for them, I tried. For everyone else, meh.

So I don't blame the faculty nor their administrators for their students' lack of success. Not entirely.

I understand the fatigue that makes them wonder if it's worth it to try to care about those who don't seem to care themselves. I understand the weariness and the wariness that accompanies a decision to allow a bit of grade inflation. Oh, I have stories. The pressure from a coach to make sure a really valuable player remains eligible. The real and perceived threats from parents, from students, from administrators. That doesn't start in college either.

Higher education is a business. Actually, higher education is a collection of businesses, often with conflicting mission statements and core competencies. One of the many questions is whether or not those missions and competencies are for the benefit of the students. Who is the institution's customer? The alumni association? Its donors? Or maybe, just maybe, it's the students.

Some students will work hard to learn no matter what, some will game the system, and others will go through the motions of learning because that's what they've learned education is all about. And that doesn't start in college.