Education Evolutions #117

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

Apologies to all as last week was one of those rare instances where I failed to get an issue of this newsletter out. Occasionally, Sunday slips away from me and I send something out late. Yet, last week I completely spaced sitting down and putting things together. I think the season just got me a bit busier than normal. I think that has only happened one other time in the 118 efforts. Sorry about that.

All that being said, this will be the last issue of this year. I will resume in a couple of weeks after the holidays.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. The Internet has a long memory, changing the way we live and creating a host of new challenges for young and old. This story is a look into another evolution in the kind of propagandizing efforts that can be unleashed across the web if you have enough money that is. How tech companies can continually be allowed to remain unaccountable on these fronts boggles the mind.

Continuing the effort to add some videos to this newsletter, here is one from EdWeek’s series on student motivation. This specific one is Why Autonomy Matters. Allowing students autonomy to make decisions is an excellent way to exercise their agency, which is always good to me.

Here’s hoping everyone enjoys the holidays and festive season.

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

Is Writing to Text the Only “High Quality” Curriculum? – Inside Higher Ed – John Warner (5-minute read)

First, full disclosure, I like John Warner a lot. The writing instructor and author wrote the recent titles Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, both of which are practically must-reads for anyone charged with teaching writing. Of course, I would require that English and language arts teachers from grades 6-12 read them but everyone would benefit immensely from those two books. Additionally, Warner was gracious and willing to interact with one of my students last year, before the student swerved and went in a different direction.

In this piece, Warner shares his frustration with the results from a recent report by the Fordham Institute. The fact that anyone takes any evaluation from the Fordham Institute’s edreformy agenda seriously at this point is an issue that Warner politely avoids, instead using the report as a platform to comment on the profoundly flawed consequences of the Common Core debacle regarding writing instruction. He squarely focuses on writing to text as an indicator of “high quality” curriculum. Since every standardized test makes almost exclusive use of writing to text, it has now nearly become the exclusive writing occasion in English and language arts classes.

If ever there were a perfect way to distort and destroy any chance a student might enjoy writing as an activity, let alone truly understand writing as thinking, David Coleman seems to have found it in developing the Common Core, as Warner cleverly suggests. Read this article for no other reason for the shortlist at the end, where Warner proposes his own criteria for a piece of high-quality writing curriculum. His criteria is considered, caring, and ultimately consequential for students and teachers alike. For anyone that thinks, “Right, I don’t have time to read a book about teaching writing,” read this article and spend some time rereading the list. Not doing so and continuing to focus almost exclusively on writing to text at the expense of any other occasion simply to serve standardized testing is tantamount to malpractice.

Tech companies monitor schoolkids across America. These parents are making them delete the data – The Guardian – Lois Beckett (8-minute read)

Student data privacy is an enormously under-reported and undervalued element in education today. While there are organizations and systems that are taking things seriously, I remain stunned at just how unaware schools, parents, and students remain about these issues. Worse still is when schools are complicit or actively seeking student surveillance. Yet given the range and depth of surveillance that is conducted on adults, it should not surprise anyone that that would pervade schools. On some level, education technology means surveillance, which is why a story like this needs wider availability.

I am fortunate enough to work with people that are taking student data privacy seriously and part of a growing effort to address this issue. However, the wider efforts are not large enough or growing fast enough in my estimation. There really is a need for legislation on this front, which seems unlikely at the moment. This is the first major effort I have seen primarily driven by a group of parents. It is inspiring. Still, I find it fascinating that I found this story about an American educational issue in a foreign newspaper. Perhaps I missed local coverage but I do not see a whole lot of mainstream media outlets focusing on these kinds of issues with any real focus. As far as I am concerned, all schools should demand that all student surveillance data be deleted every year.

How the 1% Scrubs Its Image Online – The Wall Street Journal – Rachael Levy (10-minute read)

This is a fascinating journey into a side of the web few likely knew even existed. Stories about gaming Facebook and other social media sites have been surfacing for a while now, especially in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal thanks to the like of investigative reporter Carole Cadwalladr, but I don’t know how many people were aware of how to game Google beyond the basics of search engine optimization. However, this article highlights just how it can be done by those willing and able to pay for it.

Essentially, there are firms that are able to engage in a blunt force, denial-of-service-style tactic by flooding the Internet with a favorable news blitz to overwhelmingly mute negative stories. What is exposed is a whole new flavor of “fake news” that puts the notion of public relations spin into hyperdrive. It is both enlightening and frightening. Furthermore, it exposes the make-believe notion that a company like Google can control, let alone prevent this kind of manipulation. The pretense that tech companies claiming to be platforms and not publishers can prevent bad actors on anything but the most superficial level is essentially myth.

Unless some major changes are enacted, this is another harrowing glimpse into the future of a world where artificial intelligence and algorithms distort reality, especially if you can pay for it. The fact that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos makes an appearance in the article as a client for these kinds of services is peak irony. Here is the pubic figure charged with stewarding the nation’s public education system actively trying to rub facts from public view as if they never existed, including who her own brother is. It is just another reason her appointment casts such a long and continually expanding shadow. It is some kind of intersection between technology and education.

Education Evolutions #116

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

After a week in New England that saw snow days and disruptions on the heels of a long holiday weekend, I hope this issue finds you well and comfortably warm. Sifting through last week’s reading was difficult and it carried over into this one, making my selection process a bit more challenging.

This week’s group of articles is a mix of high-quality, interesting material that ended up being included because they were all loosely connected by a theme about the quest for the quantifiable in education. Whether it is student data being collected by black-box commercial enterprises, misguided attempts to measure the unmeasurable in a classroom, or the obsession with ranking and sorting using data collected (regardless of quality, accuracy, or means of collection), these articles have it covered.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one, as usual. As remote as the PISA scores might seem to classroom educators, the results of tests like PISA and NAEP have profoundly outsized impacts on education policy in our country. Yet, they are deeply flawed efforts with a whole host of baked-in biases that oversimplify and parade fiction as fact, leaving educators in the field to deal with the consequences. Wow, that reads even more jaded and cynical than it did in my mind as I wrote it, but there it is.

In an effort to promote some more positive thoughtful reflection and because I am trying to add some videos to this newsletter with more regularity, here is a great video I came by courtesy of literacy professor Ian O’Byrne. It is How to Simplify Your Life (6:34) from The Book of Life made by the people at The School of Life. It is definitely a lesson we all need some reminding about from time to time, and end of year is one of the best times.

Here is hoping you can carry the afterglow of Thanksgiving into the rest of the holiday season.

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

The Data Aren’t Worth Anything But We’ll Keep Them Forever Anyways. You’re Welcome. – FunnyMonkey – Bill Fitzgerald (4-minute read)

The writer of this post, Bill Fitzgerald is a former teacher, tech director, and now software developer with a commitment to openness. He is impressively knowledgeable and had made some impressive things too. This post is a strong summary of an important discussion that emerged out of the sale of Instructure, the company that created the learning management system Canvas. The sale sparked a significant sense of alarm by a number of professors in higher education, many I follow and read regularly. Fitzgerald encapsulates one of the core issues – data.

In full disclosure, I gave up on using Canvas for a whole host of reasons, despite it being available. I am not a fan of learning management systems, generally, also for more reasons than I want to go into here. Moreover, I now feel like there is not a whole lot of difference between products like Canvas to Turnitin. Both charge serious money to educational institutions for a service that primarily benefits from harvesting all kinds of data from users, most of which are students essentially coerced into using the products by their educational institutions, with few, if any, alternative tools for classwork from the institution, as well as no opt-out opportunities within the products. Yet, we are supposed to trust that any of these edtech companies will be good stewards of the data they collect and use, despite their complete lack of transparency and unwillingness to delete it.

I Am an English Teacher. Rubrics Are No Way to Teach Writing – EdWeek – Peter Machera (5-minute read)

Being an English teacher explains a lot about why I selected this piece. I am also a teacher that has a long, bristly, and complicated history with rubrics. I firmly believe that rubrics are this educational era’s grading curve, a practice that makes sense in a particular context misappropriated into another one with profoundly problematic results. Thus, I found myself nodding my head a whole lot as I read this piece.

Machera captures a number of issues I have had with rubrics for some time and presents a few that made me think as well. When I use rubrics I often spend time trying to explain to my students that the best work breaks any rubric. That is pretty well in the spirit of much of what is suggested in the question, “Could you grade Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony according to a rubric?” He then mentions the illusion of assessing something artistic in a way that appears to be scientific. In that way, rubrics contribute to the fetishization of the quantifiable, a pseudo-science mirage. Yet, I had not really considered the rubric “anti-intellectual bias against the aesthetic experience of reading and writing” but I am definitely on board with that take. If you use any kind of writing as an assessment tool, even non-English teachers, this is worth a read.

The PISA Illusion – Yong Zhao blog – Yong Zhao (14-minute read)

Since the PISA, as well as NAEP, scores were recently released there has been a run of stories in mainstream media about the results, as well as policymakers lamentations over how poorly American students compared to others around the world. It is pretty distressing how easily journalists take the bait on this test scores trope, signaling the alarm about education in this country. Still, there are plenty of truthtellers within education that not only comment sensibly but also back their commentary with sound evidence and warrants not more marketing and soundbites. Yong Zhao is one of those academics with some keen insights about the PISA myth. I would throw NAEP in with PISA as the Romulus and Remus of the main standardized testing mythology.

I have read a lot of criticisms about PISA over the years but Zhao’s is one of the best. He frames the main issues that undermine the test with enough depth of explanation to make his case but not so much as to get lost in the weeds and lose a casual reader. The piece was also published in The Washington Post, which is noteworthy and provides a clue as to the approach he took as a writer. He even breaks down his argument in three parts, false claims, a Western-centric point-of-view, and distorting the point of education. It all offers a compelling reason to be suspicious, if not downright entirely dismissive of this international effort at a league table for national education systems. Many of the points in this piece are directly applicable to NAEP, especially how it tends to lead to a “homogenization of education and celebration of authoritarian education systems,” which is not just a terrible idea on a global scale but equally foolish in a nation as large and diverse as the United States.

Education Evolutions #115

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

I was not sure that I was going to actually put this issue together. With the Thanksgiving weekend and lot so family time at the forefront, I had originally planned on skipping this week but forgot to mention that last week. Plus, as things settled down and I waited for the snow to arrive, I couldn’t help myself. So here it is, issue 115. Maybe you will have a chance to peruse some of these links over the week to come.

This week’s selection of articles really caught a wave that started last week but didn’t quite hit shore until this one. As I mentioned, I had been reading so much high-quality, interesting material, I had more than enough to share. So I had to make some hard editorial calls, a point that is repeated in the final selection. This week another loose theme emerged, involving some myths about data and empiricism, the notion of objective scientific truth, and perpetual problems with interpretation that are at the heart of being human. That sounds a little grand even as I write those words but there is definitely a thread that can be pulled through these pieces.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. It is not as long a read as last week’s but presents some awfully important ideas. While it is easy to look for quick answers to such a big question suggested in the title. There simply are no easy answers and there is no shortage of factors involved. Some things are definitely different but not everything is. This article does a nice job of drawing the distinctions and helping craft a multi-faceted answer that at least helps answer the question it poses, even if it may not be able to do so completely.

Hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving.

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

The Wrong “Scientific” for Education – radical eyes for equity blog – PL Thomas (6-minute read)

Whenever the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are published there is a predictable cycle of nonsensical claims across the media of how awfully inadequate our public education system is. The whole event sparks a tired trope that is both inaccurate and ill-conceived. For one, the whole NAEP phenomenon remains a bit of a farce. Back in issue #111, I shared the Peter Greene article The One And Only Lesson To Be Learned From NAEP Scores. Greene reminded everyone NAEP proficiency does not mean grade level, as well as the folly that data will somehow settle anything. In this piece, PL Thomas takes down the foolishness of calls for “scientific” research in education.

There are so many reasons why I love this post. My main reason is that it takes direct aim at the “narrow type of quantitative research” that “scientific” research is supposed to mean. He explains quickly and clearly why even beginning with that approach is flawed. Apart from being expensive and time-consuming, it would simply leave an enormous number of students behind. What is appropriate for medical research may not necessarily be appropriate in another context. Quite simply, teaching is not diagnosis, even if they might share some commonalities.

Thomas then goes onto advance the idea of action research, which is the kind of research that more teachers should be encouraged to conduct and more administrators and policy-makers would do well to grow more acquainted. So much of the current fetishization with “scientific,” quantitative approaches to every problem is predicated on the false notion that there can ever be a single solution or prescription that will address student learning. This flawed view is deepened by the desire for scale, the market-think equivalent of this quantitative privilege. As Thomas points out rethinking what “scientific” means and how it applies to education would benefit everyone.

Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing – Creative by Nature blog – Christopher Chase (5-minute read)

This post is a few years old now but remains relevant. It is the most popular post on Christopher Chase’s blog, an American teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan. It features an interview with Noam Chomsky from The Progressive Magazine with a number of quotations by other prominent education professors on the subject of standardized testing.

I have been fond of Noam Chomsky since I was a college student. While I am not exactly an aficionado of his work, I have read quite a bit of his writing and watched plenty of films where he appears. Still, I am surprised I had never seen this before now. I know for some people, he is almost immediately dismissed on political grounds. Yet, I rarely read or listen to him without thinking there is quite a bit of wisdom to what he has to share. For me, he represents America’s general cultural discomfort with intellectuals.

Chomsky’s comments about standardized testing are as insightful as ever. The whole accountability regime is ultimately about ranking and sorting, which we continue to see overwhelming evidence in real-time observation of the damage that it can cause. Again, it is an expression of this strange desire to want to make everything a data point, especially a numerical one, so it is easier to count. Yet, ranking students, teachers, or even schools by this kind of metric is all a lie, based on misleading and even false oversimplifications. The worst oversimplification is the very concept of the economic man. As Chomsky asks, “What kind of human being is that?” my answer is not one I would ever want to be or even want to know, to be honest.

Here is the video version of the interview.

Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more? – The Guardian – William Davies (20-minute read)

As usual, the last selection is the longest. However, this piece is exceptionally insightful and important. Being published in The Guardian some of the finer details make it a bit more Brit-centric but it speaks to a much wider context that more than includes America. It is a well-crafted and researched piece by sociologist and political economist William Davies that makes strong claims and backs them with well-reasoned and compelling warrants. It is a valuable read for anyone trying to make sense of the current mediascape.

One thing that I try to explain to students all the time is that all media is a construction. Everything that we see or hear is the product of design, be it conscious or unconscious. Implicit in all design are certain biases. It is the province of human beings and we are incapable of escaping all bias or point of view. Davies essentially explains how this is at the root of the problem that we now face. Add the sheer volume of information now available and some of our own human frailties and we wind up right where we are in the present moment. Davies explains much of these phenomena with detail and nuance.

For decades, we have been seduced by the idea that our journalistic media is impartial or unbiased. While that might be a worthy goal, it can never truly happen. Human beings are always making decisions about what to include and what not to include in any story that they are constructing, be it fiction or non-fiction. Journalists pursue the truth, not some abstract truth that cannot be reached but journalistic truth, the story as it develops supported by evidence and verified by multiple sources. Unfortunately, that means that a story changes and evolves over time as more information is sifted and included.

As Davies, explains much of this is down to framing. Even that fact seems to be lost on a lot of people. It seems that there are plenty of people that have fallen for the lie that there is some ultimate scientific objectivity, unmediated truth or reality, free from human perception desperately trying to make sense of it in conjunction with others for some shared understanding. That is a dangerous fantasy that seems to be catching. Davies’ piece reminds us all of some the changes that have accelerated that fantasy, as well as ways that we might be able to fight it.