Education Evolutions #114

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Thanksgiving is now definitely upon us as we prepare for this shortened week. It looks like the weather is going to be plenty awful nearly nationwide, which will likely make all those holiday travelers a little extra thankful when and if they arrive at their destination.

This week’s selection of articles proved tougher than most. So much high-quality, interesting material has been coursing across my radar lately. However, this week kind of coalesced around a loose theme about the health of students and more generally schools. Simply put, schools are stronger when the foster community rather than competition. Quite honestly, we might all benefit from that in wider contexts than schools.

As much as I want to label this week’s “If you read only one article…” the last one, I recognize that a 33-minute read is a big ask of anyone. As much as I say it is worth it, which it is, I also recognize that more people are likely to read the first and second articles. So, I suppose the more likely “If you read only one article…” choice is the second piece. There seem to be a lot more students struggling for all kinds of reasons around the country than many might realize.

Have a great holiday of gratitude and giving.

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

Failure Found to Be an “Essential Prerequisite” for Success – Scientific American – David Noonan (4-minute read)

Just this week, I posed the question “Do you believe struggle is essential to happiness?” to my students as we dug into a text that certainly entertains the idea. This article suggests that struggle certainly is essential to successful, at least in some basic way. This analysis of a recently published study shares some of the fundamental findings that point to the role failure plays in eventual breakthroughs.

Looking at sample sizes in the hundreds of thousands across the areas of grant applications, start-up investment, and terrorist attacks, this study sought to understand the dynamics of failure. Noonan’s review of the study also captures a fantastic line, “‘Every winner begins as a loser,’ says Wang, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, who conceived and led the study.” Of course, it is a little more complicated than all that but that is a winning quote for sure.

This study has some potentially remarkable implications for educators. If as the study suggests, failing at a faster rate increases chances of success, how might that impact teachers who are less willing to give students repeated chances on any kind of assessments. Moreover, it strengthens the case for rich and rapid formative feedback. Helping students understand how they are struggling, how they respond to those struggles, and where those struggles eventually lead looks even more important. It also sounds a lot like coaching. I believe the best educators have intuitively operated in this space for some time. Now it looks like there is some more critical research supporting that intuitive understanding.

Schools keep hiring counselors, but students’ stress levels are only growing – EdSource – Carolyn Jones (6-minute read)

While EdSource is a site that focuses its reporting on education in the nation’s largest public school system, California, this article certainly has much wider applications than The Golden State. The title alone is telling, although this piece focuses a bit more on the plight of school counselors. Yet as I read this piece, I kept thinking how little the piece addressed the complicity school might be having in the growing stress levels of students.

Clearly, the role of counselors has grown significantly over time. As one of the sources, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors Loretta Whitson, said, “School counselors are first responders.” Working in a high school, I witness this fact on a regular basis. Still, maybe the chase to find solutions may simply be addressing individual symptoms and not the actual disease. I cannot help but regularly wonder if there are not systemic problems that contribute to schools becoming unhealthy environments. Whitson further supports this notion when suggesting that counselors sometimes feel like they are putting “a band-aid on an arterial wound.”

As this article suggests, increases in poverty and homelessness do not seem to be slowing down. Those are factors that have a massive impact on schooling and yet the accountability demands placed on schools seem only to punish the systems dealing most with those social challenges. What’s more, communities with greater affluence are also forced to deal with increased student stress levels too. The individual factors may be different, although maybe not as different as it appears, the environment is the same, school. It might be time to take a much harder look at that environment with a wider focus and abandon the desire to turn every aspect of society, especially ones involving children, into a neoliberal rat race.

Can You Really Be Addicted to Video Games? – The New York Times – Ferris Jabr (33-minute read)

This article is no doubt a pretty long read but it is exceptionally well-written and highly informative, especially to anyone that has wondered about the question in the title. The topic of video game addiction has fascinated me almost as long as I have been in education. I became aware of the idea after seeing an article many years ago about treatment beginning at the nearby McLean Hospital, the renowned psychiatric hospital. Since then, the video game industry and area of medical inquiry has exploded.

One of the most fascinating things about this article is that Jabr does an excellent job of explaining the shifts and controversy in defining addiction as a disorder. I suspect that for quite a few people that section alone would be new and illuminating. Another great aspect of this article is how human the reporter makes the story, not only following a subject who struggled with the video game addiction but venturing into the temptations themselves. The journalistic approach alone is a reason worth giving this a read.

What this piece mentions but does not develop significantly is how video games continue to evolve and increasingly use mechanics more like slot machines. This recent story from WBUR’s Endless Thread sheds some more light on the idea of “loot boxes” and other related issues to gaming, as well as including McLean Hospital’s Dr. Alok Kanojia psychiatry faculty member at Harvard Medical School. I also went to high school with UCLA’s Dr. Timothy Fong who started out specializing in addiction treatment for gamblers but has expanded his work into video games and is quoted in this article. I am not sure how it is even possible to ignore this topic anymore. Plus, couple the ubiquity and instantaneous access of mobile phones with video games and it becomes harder to understand how more is not being done on an array of levels.

Education Evolutions #113

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Hard to believe that Thanksgiving is just visible on the horizon already. It feels like Autumn passed in a single stormy bluster. The cold has definitely snapped and the leaves are all gone at least in New England. October seems to have come and gone apace.

This week presents another mix of shorter reads than sometimes makes it into this newsletter. Sometimes it just works out that way, although I imagine it bothers few. I do like a long-form piece, to be sure, some weeks there are just fewer options than others.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. I tend to arrange the items by reading time most often, so the last one often gets the nod. These selections are all pretty close in length, however. More than anything, I think teachers need to avail; themselves of the personalized learning trend that has been building for some time, especially when it comes from edtech. Good teachers have tried to make learning more personal for their students for as long as I can remember, well before the rise of digital technology. That is a truth everyone should keep firmly in mind.

Also, since I las week posted an educator’s response to reading, Winners Take All, I thought it might be worth including this clip from The Daily Show (I tried to embed it but WordPress did not like the code so much). It is a pretty impassioned synopsis of the book from the author Anand Giridharadas. Perhaps it might encourage some of you to give the book a look. Plus, I kind of like including some video in this newsletter. I may try to do it more often.

Have a great week, as we all make that push toward the turkey break.

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

Are teachers allowed to think — or expected to simply follow directions? – The Washington Post – Steve Singer (5-minute read)

Steve Singer writes a pretty bold blog called Gadfly on the Wall, which this Washington Post republished. He is a fierce fighter for public schools and teachers. He writes at a remarkable volume and zeal that has been at the vanguard of the wave of teacher resistance to the kind of virulent edreformy nonsense that can infect public schools. In this piece, he draws out a pretty stark but critically important question.

There are a whole lot of teachers that spend time and energy going through the gauntlet of preparation and certification to essentially be told, “Forget all that. We know what you heard and we do it differently here. Take this curriculum that we spent no small amount of money on and just follow that,” with a more insidious implication of it-doesn’t-matter-what-you-think-because-if-you-rock-the-boat-you’re-gone. Worse still, this kind of attitude can be the most strident in contexts where there are already a whole host of factors stacked against the teacher to start.

For the most part, I have been extraordinarily lucky in this regard but meet teachers all the time that suffer from the kind of lament that Singer describes in this piece. However, any attempts to undermine teachers’ professionalism, expertise, and autonomy should be met with far more than a sideways glance. That does not by any means suggest that anything goes either. Yet, compliance and control, as well as expedience and efficiency are too often hallmarks of school improvement plans be they on the surface or lurking underneath. The more schools are viewed through marketworld lenses the more vivid the edreform colors. Singer hits this on the nose with, “It’s ironic. The act of removing teacher autonomy results in dampening our effectiveness,” – always.

Why Writing Better Will Make You a Better Person – The Chronicle of Higher Education – Bob Fischer and Nathan Nobis (5-minute read)

I came across this article from a few months ago and couldn’t resist adding it. I think I may even use it in my classes at some point. The title alone was enough to catch my eye. Digging into it, there are quite a few insightful points made about the overlap between the efforts to be a good writer and good person. I will say, this piece almost makes it seem a little too simple, but it remains pretty strong on the whole. I certainly read it with interest and there are some solid takeaways.

What I like most of all about this piece is how much attention is given to audience in the points that the professors are advancing. Unfortunately, this is an area where students, at least at the secondary level, are given all kinds of mixed messages. I cannot even count the number of times I have heard a teacher give some imaginary audience characteristics when everyone in the room knows that the only audience for the work will be the teacher behind the charade. That may sound a bit harsh but I am not sure why there needs to be so much pretense. Clearly, some things will be written for the teacher to assess but that need not be everything that students are asked to write. They can write for one another, their own imagined or real audiences, general audiences with the possibilities of submission to wider publication. There are a whole host of options available once teachers stop thinking that everything needs to be graded or under the tight control of wacky templates.

While this article is clearly written with a more higher education audience in mind there is still plenty that could be applied at lower levels. Plus, any teacher could benefit from being more conscious of the points advanced here. The bullet point list at the end of this piece is pretty sound advice for just about anyone, in fact. I stress the “short sentences, paragraphs, sections, and articles” with great emphasis in my journalism classes, which is a startingly foreign concept for students who have spent a number of years trying to find ways to “fluff things up.” However, I would humbly submit that the point has a much wider breadth and that we sometimes do students a real disservice with all the templatized writing and sentence counts, which can radically distort their very sense of what a paragraph even is.

Data: Here’s What Educators Think About Personalized Learning – EdWeek – Alyson Klein (7-minute read)

A colleague sent me this article, as it relates to a project that we are currently engaged in together involving blended and personalized learning. It is an interesting read albeit a pretty superficial one, surveying what teachers think about personalized learning specifically. Blended learning is woven into things but not in an explicitly labeled way. On the surface, this article would suggest that it is a mixed bag.

Yet, there is a subtle or maybe not so subtle, indication that any reluctance from teachers is misguided or antiquated. The more suspicious and cynical part of me might surmise that could be the result of the disclaimer at the very end of the article, “Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.” Seeing that Facebook has a personalized learning platform called Summit Learning, which is not all that personalized nor all that good, couldn’t have anything to do with the framing of ay of this.

Just how mixed the results are I find to be telling. For one, the terms blended and particularly personalized learning are so incoherent that they can verge on meaningless. Or perhaps better stated, can mean just about anything. And that really should be the first sign of trouble. The harder it is to nail down exactly what these terms mean the easier it is for education companies to co-opt them and claim, “You want what? Yeah, we have that.” Similar to a sentiment from the item above, there is a considerable amount of personalized learning technology inextricably entangled with compliance and control contexts. Not to mention that those systems are seriously lacking the persons in personalized. Sitting kids in front of machines rarely even approach the kind of pie-in-the-sky results claimed by edtech. One of the best, brief polemics on this stuff is written by Peter Greene. His whole train metaphor is excellent on multiple levels.

Education Evolutions #112

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

This may find you a little later than normal but I have been taking advantage of the holiday weekend. Plus, I spent a little longer basking in the latest victory of my favorite team Liverpool FC, as they continue to chase their first Premier League title and first top-flight league title in 30 years.

This week’s options are a shorter mix of readings that cover a lot of varied topics. The variety is pretty common but the brevity of the selections is not always true. In this issue, it is a feature.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is a tough choice. The second one is a positive and refreshing read and I even included a video version of the message as well. The last one is also definitely worth a click and the book that provides the focus for the post, Winners Take All, is also something that might interest many readers of this newsletter.

Enjoy the long weekend.

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

Why it’s Time to Give Up Grades – Starr Sackstein’s blog – Starr Sackstein (2-minute read)

I have been thinking a lot about grades again recently and how much I dislike them. The first few paragraphs of this post I could easily have written myself. I too have long given up on the notion that tests are terribly informative beyond the most superficial of findings. I too feel the idea of putting a number or letter on the work of students is frustrating and more arbitrary than many teachers would like to admit.

Given a recent experience with students, I am even more convinced that it only contributes to more problems for the students. Some of the benefits Sackstein submits are agreeable. The power of feedback is inarguable. That power is almost entirely removed when a grade is included. Grades definitely can adversely affect the relationship between teacher and student, which undermines the essential goal of learning. And who could blame students for always feeling judged by teachers? As much as some might want to argue grades are feedback, they certainly seem a whole lot more like evaluation to the students.

This is an extremely short piece and there is plenty of material out there about ungrading or going gradeless, whatever phrasing might be used. PL Thomas, among many others, has written in much greater detail about this topic, In fact, he covers the difficulty that many students have with breaking away from traditional grading practice. As he explains, “A culture of grading allows both students and teachers to be lazy about the things we claim to care about the most.” Still, Sackstein asks the most important question, what is the first step to giving up grades?

A three-point plan for sleepless, screen-obsessed kids: play, play and more play – The Sydney Morning Herald – Pasi Sahlberg (3-minute read)

The internationally renown Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg has become the deputy director of the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales. In this op-ed piece in Sydney’s main daily newspaper, he presents one of the simplest prescriptions for addressing problems facing young people and smart devices – play.

Sahlberg is a fierce advocate against what he calls GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), which has infected most of the Western World, including a particularly virulent strain in the US. He has traveled the globe sharing what the Finns discovered and how they overhauled their schooling to benefit children and families, making them one of the most celebrated education systems in the world.

I like a lot of what Sahlberg has to say, having read a lot of his work over the last few years. He applies a wisdom to many problems that seems simple but can be remarkably subtle and addresses issues with keen insight. What I particularly like about this piece is that he recognizes that the device is not so much the problem as much as the behavior. Now, the behaviors may well be induced by the device but that is not automatically a given. The reality is that a lot of adults do a pretty awful job of modeling healthy behaviors for the young. I cannot count the number o times I have watched parents ignoring their children in public, while they stare and swipe at their phones. Yet, citing overwhelming evidence from pediatricians, making time for more outdoor play in school and at home might be at least part of the answer. Even stronger he advocates making it a policy mandate. Here is a video version of the same message.

Coming To Terms With ‘Winners Take All’ – Sherri Spelic on Medium – Sherri Spelic (7-minute read)

Another educator that I like reading a lot is Sherri Spelic. Based in Europe, the American ex-pat presents not only presents an interesting point of view from afar, she is a remarkably intuitive and open writer. In this piece she focuses on her personal reaction to reading the book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas.

The book is a remarkable read on its own and one I recommend to just about anyone. What I appreciate about Spelic’s reflection about her reading of it is the unvarnished honesty. She not only appreciates Giridharadas’ work but breaks down many of the most compelling bits as well. Her particular focus on the Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who makes an extensive appearance in Winners Take All, seems to have sparked something within her even more profound.

What I appreciate most, however, is how Spelic both recognizes Giridharadas’ acknowledgment of being part of the problem he writes about and, as the post title suggests, attempts to come to terms with her own place within the context of the problems that are at the core of the book. That awareness and willingness to look at herself and the privilege she enjoys is an excellent model and a great place to start after the reading.