Education Evolutions #43

IMG_4227 flickr photo by Jemimus shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Select Readings and Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in the Digital AgeApologies for the late delivery, it has been quite a long week, to be honest. My reading habits took a bit of a hit, as a result. So the breadth of articles that came across my navigation of the internets was not what it normally is.

Still, these three pieces have a distinctly historical tone. There are some reflective looks into the past of varying depth and perhaps a glimpse of the future that may be already racing upon us. In some ways, however, these are the kinds of articles that made me want to start this newsletter. I try to include the kinds of pieces that a teacher might not necessarily notice or take the time to read but nevertheless help explain and give their context deeper understanding, in hopes of inspiring motivation and maybe even a positive change.

Interestingly there were some notable responses to the MCAS piece I included last week. They included two short letters that call the whole apparatus into question. One is a response from a teacher that might be more easily dismissed in the current climate, which is as frustrating as it is foolish. The second, however, is from a policymaker, which is refreshing and offers a glimmer of hope.

If you read only one article, take a look at the last one, How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party. As usual, it is the long one but it the kind of curated how-we-got-here article that is both introductory and informative with a heaping of insight.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

What 150 Years of Education Statistics Say About Schools Today – Education Week – Sarah D. Sparks (10-minute read)

This is a fascinating window into an organization I reckon few teachers knew existed, the National Center for Education Statistics, as well as a nice primer on just how long some of the current tensions in the field have existed. The need to compare ourselves to other schools around the world has existed almost since the creation of our system, long predating things like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Also interesting is just how much equity has played a central role in our nation’s efforts at public education. The shape of the problem may have changed somewhat but so many of the same populations remain affected. These are just two strong reminders of how much some of these problems may be bigger than education itself. They may never completely disappear but they might be at the core of what education attempts to forever address.

Stop shooting silver bullets and learn to trust our teachers again – The Guardian – Rebecca Allen (9-minute read)

This is a piece from England and may not seem quite as relevant but, as I have often mentioned in this newsletter, so much of the kind of failed edreforms called for in the United States have already floundered in England. In that sense, England could easily serve as our canary-in-a-coal-mine harbinger of what not to do if only we were more thoughtful.

So many of the facts and figures itemized in this article look very familiar to a teacher in America. Ever-increasing demands “to create a paper trail that proves learning has happened, for people who were not present in the room at the time” have been felt as acutely on this side of the Atlantic. Endless curriculum reforms, initiatives, and accountability measures have negatively impacted our profession for some time now. As Dr. Allen so insightfully points out, “auditing teaching isn’t actually possible.” Anyone suggesting otherwise is simply peddling pseudo-science and politics not what is in the best interest of students and certainly not teachers.

How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party – The Baffler – Jennifer C. Berkshire (21-minute read)

Berkshire is a local education journalist who has built quite a reputation over the past few years. Her work is excellently researched and insightful. This piece is no different. If you want a deeper understanding of the history and forces that currently shape the nearly the entire education conversation in our country at the moment, you can not do much better than this read. It weaves together a number of threads that have been mentioned at times in this newsletter and more that I has been affirmed by wider reading (here is just one example).

As much as this should be read by teachers it remains a hard read. Teachers and their unions are often the single largest line items on any municipal budget. That makes a large target for blunt instrument cost reductions. Still all cuts come at a cost – somewhere. The real challenge is deepening understanding of history and politics in the context of public education without feeling a sense of bleakness. Yet, teachers, unions and all, are capable of becoming enormously powerful platforms for political grassroots movement, enlisting parents, other municipal workers, and more. And contrary to billionaires and neoliberal Democrats insistence, that teacher-led platform has never been terribly interested in perpetuating poverty, discrimination, or limitations on social mobility, at least in any way that I am aware.

Education Evolutions #42

IMG_4227 flickr photo by Jemimus shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Select Readings and Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in the Digital AgeWell, autumn is truly upon us. The days are shortening, the leaves are nearly gone, and we are on the march toward the holidays. All the more reason to curl up and do a little reading, even if it is on a digital device. Hey, the heat from the battery can provide a little warmth too.

These articles echo sub-themes that have made more than a few appearances in this newsletter, beyond the broad categories of education, technology,  evolutions in teaching. The addictive aspects of technology, standardized testing, and personal learning are all issues that catch my eye on my reading travels. The first topic is gathering quite a bit of attention lately, as is the leviathan power of companies like Google and Facebook. We certainly live in interesting times.

I have included an MCAS article, which got me a bit wound up but I tried not to get too carried away. The opinion piece seemed like a natural extension to me, although I am not sure that it would be for everyone. It is just that single test wields a lot of control over our entire educational process. It impacts curriculum and content, amplifies costs and competitiveness, and students do not really have a whole lot of say about it. Students can have more say in our individual classrooms but it requires a resistance to the control we cede to standardized tests, be they from the state or The College Board, for that matter. One thing I think gets overlooked too easily in education is the simple fact that standardization is anathema to personalization, in the truest sens of the word.

If you read only one article, take a look at the last one, ‘Our minds can be hijacked’. It is long but it is a fascinating mix of information that is underappreciated and deeply important. Plus, it is really well-written.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Schools struggle to explain MCAS changes as parents receive scores – The Boston Globe – James Vaznis (8-minute read)

Having recently received MCAS scores for one of my children, this was a fascinating and not altogether surprising article. It should come as no surprise to anyone that there might be something slightly amiss when it comes to standardized test scores, even in Massachusetts. It may be spun as all part of the revamp of the test but make no mistake about it, it is not in the interests of testmakers or even departments of education to stop “resetting” tests. North Andover Superintendent Jennifer Price is exactly right when she explained, “The state moved the goal.”

Doing so is what keeps the whole machine working. We can’t have too many students do too well because that would mean the test was too easy. It is right there in the article even, “state education officials have suggested that the old MCAS was too easy because so many students scored “proficient” and “advanced” and that the new results, which showed about half of students meeting or exceeding expectations, are a better reflection of reality.” Whose twisted reality considers only half of school-age children meeting expectations? That is the PROBLEM almost in a nutshell! Yet expectations are always about politics on both the micro and macro levels.

Plus, this idea that in part drove the revamp about teacher expectations at one grade level being “consistent with what teachers at the next grade level expected” strikes me as profoundly problematic. Anyone that has been teaching long enough knows how quickly these kinds of conversations degenerate into complaints about what the previous teachers should have done. It feeds a blame-down culture that is already foolish. Objectively speaking, students are asked to do more earlier than ever before in their schooling. We have all those standards and these tests to thank for that. And I am not even going to start on the flaws with NAEP.

It’s Not About a Pen, It’s About the Bigger Issue – EdWeek’s Work in Progress blog – Starr Sackstein (7-minute read)

This piece by Sackstein is kind of the coda to a previous column and the responses to it. So much of how we school students is a behaviorist cycle of rewards and punishments. While I would not immediately dismiss behaviorism entirely as a theory, I have long thought there has to be better ways but not always. LIke Sackstein, I think of all the stupid practices I have had to outgrow and it is hard not to feel a little bit of shame. I only hope that I continue to outgrow that kind of foolishness.

What strikes me most starkly about this column is not so much what, the explicit content, but the how, the implicit consequences. Perhaps that is another column but even efforts like the ones advocated are not without their consequences. On some level, for all the head-nodding that might occur in reading a column like this, I fear there is far more “valuing compliance over learning” as Sackstein states in a reply from the previous column’s discussion thread. The compliance goes beyond students too. Too often teachers that question the kind of things Sackstein does here, as well as notions of going gradeless, are considered radical and it is the teacher who is met with expectations of compliance with their colleagues.

Personalizing learning, the real personalizing that is tailored and involves people, not the co-opted, corporatized edtech version that is being advanced as the next silver bullet, is not just for our students. Teachers benefit from it too. Perhaps if the wider system truly honored the principle of personalized, or perhaps better phrased, personal learning there would be less need for compliance from all parties. There might even be more learning happening, but it would probably be way too hard to measure. So that doesn’t really count, does it? Too radical. Too messy.

‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia – The Guardian – Paul Lewis (27-minute read)

I have included articles on this topic before but this is perhaps the best one I have read to date. It is thorough, just look at the reading time, but also exceptionally well-researched. Who knew the names of engineers and designers of things like the pull-down to refresh touchscreen action? Well, Lewis does and he talks to them directly and their thoughts should be taken with greater scrutiny.

The consequences of addictive behaviors being baked into the devices that we use every day are enormously consequential. In fact, this article resonated with me unlike many others as I continuously considered how I curate and create this very newsletter simultaneously while reading. This piece weaves together a number of important themes in an exceptionally well-written way.

While the first person profiled, Justin Rosenstein, points out that humans create things without full consideration of the potential unintended, negative consequences. We may need to do a much better job of anticipating or at least responding to them once they are identified. As one-time colleague, Leah Pearlman said, “One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before.” Perhaps it is a byproduct of aging but that is a sentiment that turns over in my mind with more regularity than most.

Video Refreshes Elementary Art Classes

“Hello, Elmwood artists!” sings teacher Bonnie Gaus, greeting students in each of her new video demonstrations prepared for her second and third-grade art classes. This year Gaus has begun producing short videos for her students to communicate directions, demonstrations, as well as a whole lot of creative fun. Meeting 23 classes of second and third graders in a single week means a whole lot of students make their way through her art classroom. Working with every one of the more than 500 students at Elmwood Elementary poses a different kind of challenge. Veteran art teacher Gaus was inspired to try something new this year and making videos for her students has reignited her teaching. “I saw other teachers doing it on YouTube. And I thought this would be great when I introduce choices because this is a choice-based classroom,” Gaus said. “I teach skills, not specific projects. I show them how to use the different tools and then they choose their subject matter.” The videos Gaus has already produced have changed her classroom. Part demonstration of artistic techniques, part explicit direction about getting started and cleaning up, Gaus’ foray into video production has already had some significant benefits. “I am able to show everything visually and write it down, so they can watch and read it. Each kid gets the same exact information. And they just retain it better. With the video, I don’t know what it is, but they are completely enthralled,” Gaus explained. Third-grader Elena noticed some other advantages, as well. “You can turn up the volume and hear it better. Since the screen is so big, everyone can see it. If she is sitting right there and trying to show us, some people won’t be able to see or hear her.” Photo: Art Students WorkingAnother factor that has helped Gaus involves time management. Each art class only lasts forty minutes, once a week, which means time is particularly precious. The video production process has helped Gaus revisit all her demonstrations with an eye squarely focused on duration. “I can look at the video and it helps me to make things concise. Since art is so short, I want to keep the demos between 4 and 7 minutes,” Gaus said, maximizing the time that students have to be creative and engage in making art. “It forces me to make information as clear and concise as I can.” Third-grader Lila has enjoyed the new effort, “They are funny and they teach you new things. It is kind of easier to understand, instead of her talking directly. When you watch the videos you can tell better what she is saying, because before she might have to repeat if some kids are talking over her.” “I won’t forget to tell them something. They are all engaged and they are not raising their hands to give comments because they are watching,” Gaus added. “There is a lot of information for them to retain, especially when they are excited to get started.” Photo: Art Students Watching Another student Mia explained, “I feel like it is really helpful. She makes the videos fun and interesting to watch while explaining the directions to do. I like how she uses materials to help. She draws stuff to help us get ideas.” “Mrs. Gaus can be in like twelve places in five minutes. Then, she can have materials she can use that are not in the room,” classmate Zach said of the videos. “They are interesting, so more kids want to pay attention. So, it is easier to follow directions.” Not only are the students gaining from the new experience but the teacher has become the student again. “I just wanted to get excited about something new and I wasn’t really using technology. So I am teaching myself new things,” Gaus said. The art teacher dove straight into teaching herself how to make the videos from start to finish. Preferring to work alone, he spends considerable time planning, shooting, and editing her productions. “I write out what I want to do. The most challenging thing is when I watch myself and make it interesting, and the editing,” Gaus said, minimizing the time and effort she has put into learning how to edit video with iMovie. “Each one is getting better but it is fun for me.” Very soon, she also will be integrating a set of iPads into the various centers around the classroom, increasing her personal and professional learning and use of technology even more. Still, the true charm is Gaus the teacher. Her classroom persona is filled with character but the videos amplify her playful nature and comic qualities. She revels in the character she assumes in the videos, exaggerating with energy and doing a number of voices with all kinds of improv puppetry. As another third-grader, Sophia said, “She has funny voices with her puppies. And the puppies are really cute. She uses them to tell us things and get us happy and excited.” The students are not the only ones delighted. Gaus said, “It’s exciting to me and it has made teaching fresh for me again!”