Education Evolutions #128

Person looking at smartphone in the dark
Person looking at smartphone in the dark flickr photo by
shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

It has been a long time since I sat down and collected readings and thoughts about them with the intent of sharing. When everything went sideways in the spring there was just so much noise that I really did not want to contribute to it and put this project on hiatus. I could be wrong but it seemed like the last thing anyone wanted was a newsletter dropping in the email box when they were just trying to figure out what was happening.

Now that things have at least regulated somewhat, I figured I give it a go again. This is still a pet project of sorts that remains kind of an experiment, but a few people asked me about it recently which made me feel like it was worth continuing. I will try to resume on Sundays again. This week it just took a little longer to kick the rust off and get the wheels turning again.

I hope this message finds you well and in good spirits, as well as gives you some food for thought.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one, only because it might be the most practically useful for most people right now. It is a pretty quick read and offers some immediate takeaways that can be adopted or adapted. Yet, if you are not a classroom teacher, the other two articles are excellent looks into teaching and edtech on a higher conceptual level respectively.

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

All of Us Are Smarter Than Any of Us – Alfie Kohn blog – Alfie Kohn (11-minute read)

I am a pretty regular reader of Alfie Kohn and have often mentioned how much I like his thinking and work. This post is no different, offering a tightly focused insight into some of the factors that compromise our current cultural moment but have been bleeding into education for quite some time. The “conflation of achievement (doing well) with competition (beating others)” might well be the best way to frame something I have thought for a long time but been unable to articulate quite as simply or elegantly.

America has spent over a century building the concept of the individual into a cult-like phenomenon. As Kohn explains, “Most of us are no more aware of the individualistic worldview that shapes us and defines our culture than a fish is aware of being in water.” While Kohn discusses things in an educational context, I would submit the consequences are far more grave. We have now reached a point where our collective inability to see beyond ourselves and engage in cooperative learning is actually resulting in death.

However, this article exposes some different viewpoints that we have even held within our own predominant culture, even if only fleetingly. There are plenty of other ways to teach and assess students beyond a hyper-focus on the independent work of an individual, as introduced here. Of course, that would seriously impair our ability to rank and sort privilege. Plus, I couldn’t help but wonder how many wealthy, well-connected parents who can afford to line their children up with non-paying, elite internships are ever referred to as “helicopter parents”?

Ed-Tech Mania Is Back – The Chronicle of Higher Education – Justin Reich (5-minute read)

It is fair to say, the pandemic crisis has reinvigorated the edtech world in a way that no one could have properly predicted. Like so many areas of our lives, the current situation has highlighted in relief just how reliant we have elected to be on technology to simply operate on a day-to-day basis. Schools have felt this pinch perhaps most acutely. Reich’s article uses Morgan Ames’s concept and recent book, The Charisma Machine, to frame three major stances toward edtech: charismatic, skeptical, and practical or “tinkering.” It definitely offers a good starting point to think about our approaches to the extraordinary current edtech resurgence, both collectively and individually.

Reading, I have to confess that I think I have migrated through all of these individual stances at various points. Early in my career, having spent some years working at an edtech consulting company, I was much more in the charismatic camp although never entirely comfortable. There is always a nagging skepticism in me I find impossible to shake. I will chalk that up to my incessantly curious nature and having some exceptional teachers in my life. Yet, if I look closely, while I have swung between charismatic and skeptical, leaning increasingly toward the latter, I have spent most of my time on the middle tinkering path for better or worse.

What Reich does exceptionally well in this piece is offer an explanation and some background to how these stances have played out, at least at the higher ed level. I would suggest that it is pretty similar at the K12 level too. What needs to be remembered above all is that most new technology is rarely as revolutionary as we think in the near term, as research and experience proves “most teachers used [computers and digital tools] to extend existing practices.” The pandemic has seen an expansion of the proliferation of those digital tools to be sure and made skepticism more challenging but we definitely need to maintain it if we have any hope of deeply understanding the consequences and potential regulatory changes required on the horizon.

8 Strategies to Improve Participation in Your Virtual Classroom – Edutopia – Emelina Minero (4-minute read)

As more of our instructional time has been moved online, whether working in remote or some kind of hybrid model, there are definite adjustments that need to be made. Having been lucky enough to teach in an online, asynchronous environment for ten years and a bespoke hybrid model for nearly the same amount of time, as well as the traditional face-to-face environment, I have learned a number of things through those experiences. Contrary to prevailing opinion, I do not see learning online versus face-to-face in some quality battle of what is better for students, at least at the secondary level and beyond. They are simply different modes and students both benefit and suffer in each, depending on a variety of factors.

What this Edutopia article does pretty successfully is show how some typical instructional strategies that work in a face-to-face environment can be modified to work in an online one. Rarely does anything move between the environments without some warranted modification. Again, the environments are just different. Separating the strategies into synchronous and asynchronous delivery is also a nice touch.

I can personally attest to using at least three of these eight before ever seeing the article. Number two, “using chat to check for understanding” is an easy thing that anyone can do in a formative way, especially if you are unable to see all online students at once. While I have not done number four, “adapting think-pair-share to Zoom,” in exactly the same way, I regularly try to remind colleagues that working synchronously can revolve around a live document, not just a videoconference. I have seen colleagues use number six, “online forums create back-and-forth dialogue” exceptionally well in face-to-face environments for years. This year I adapted a simple check-in form that I use in all my classes (remote, hybrid, whatever) to help me address attendance issues but also as a kind of one-to-one back channel between students and me which has already proven incredibly useful. Plus, as an English teacher using writing to connect and reflect, even as a precursor to speaking is kind of bread-and-butter teaching move. Hopefully, these are useful or at least open some possibilities that can be easy to miss in all the madness.

Education Evolutions #126

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

I realized this week that the service I have been using to deliver this newsletter to many is no longer distributing things as quickly as I thought. While I post it online too, it really started in email form. So I was a little surprised when I received the email midweek for a newsletter that I had finished and published on Sunday as usual. All I can say about it is sorry and now that I am aware I will have to investigate some other possible methods for pushing it out.

This week the selection seemed to defy any notion of theme. A little bit about writing, digital life, and grades are on the docket and none of the articles is particularly long so there is a chance you could easily be enriched by reading them all. They are an eclectic mix that certainly falls under the wider remit I have set up for this newsletter.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the second one, which rarely happens. It is a quick read, slightly out of the ordinary style, and filled with some strong and intuitive observations. If you cannot remember the last time you cleaned up your Google drive or lamented the state of it, which is just about everyone I meet, then this is a good read.

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

A dirty secret: you can only be a writer if you can afford it – The Guardian – Lynn Steger Strong (5-minute read)

As an English and journalism teacher and someone who sits down and writes more regularly than I ever have in my life, hoping to generate work worth reading, I found this article compelling. At this point in my life, completely out of choice, I am generating somewhere around 3000 to 4000+ words a week, whether it be this newsletter or the articles I have been writing after every Liverpool match (now on the verge of winning their first league title in 30 years) over the last five years. Of course, I would bever claim to be a writer by profession. I am a teacher. Yet, I am a writer too, despite it not being my primary vocation.

I made a decision some time ago that I needed to be a practicing writer if I was going to be teaching young writers anything genuine or meaningful. For me, that meant committing to the discipline of writing regularly for real audiences, however many I might find. I had no illusions about making money from the work but occasionally wonder about what kind of possibilities there might be. Ultimately, I felt if there was any hope of writing anything that required a long, sustained effort, I had better prove to myself that I could put in the kind of graft that is required to do it before making the attempt. Perhaps I will one day.

However, this article is proof of something that may well be unfortunately true of nearly all creative fields. Making any kind of money via creative work is profoundly difficult in the prevailing system by which we live. Steger Strong pretty well nails it with the notion that “long-term creative work than time and space – these things cost money – and the fact that some people have access to it for reasons that are often outside of their control continues to create an ecosystem in which the tenor of the voices that we hear from most often remains similar.” While it is not exactly that every productive creative individual needs a supporting patron, we are not necessarily as far from it as we might like to think. This piece is about the cost of writing but it could potentially be about any creative or artistic field, which is not necessarily a good thing for anyone.

What the Death of iTunes Says About Our Digital Habits – The Atlantic – Robinson Meyer (6-minute read)

This is a creative and insightful commentary that uses the recent death of Apple’s everpresent music app iTunes symbolically as symptomatic a far greater shift in the way we consume and operate in digital spaces. Much has changed in the last decade regarding how we interact and use digital devices. The computer truly became as ubiquitous as all the science fiction once upon a time stories suggested. The final hurdle of ordinariness arrived with the smartphone that enabled nearly anyone to walk with a computer in their pocket at all times.

Aside from the creative structure and setup if this piece in the numbered list, Meyer also offers some penetrating perceptions about how our relationship to the various devices has evolved as we migrated to living increasingly inside a computer-mediated reality. His assessment of Gmail’s victory seems particularly keen in moving from hard drives to the cloud. In a way, looking back as Meyer has done, Google’s email app was the thin edge of the wedge needed for companies to convince customers that owning things was so 20th century and the future was leasing in perpetuity.

The colonization of the digital world, which looks increasingly like the real world, began and continues apace. All the promise of online and free would eventually give way to the subscription because nobody could find a more creative way. Meyer’s items 10 and 11 are the most critical and reflective of all. They are also the most thought-provoking and telling. Boundaries have broken down but not always in a good way. The digital world privileges timelessness and dislocation among other things. As a consequence “the clock is always running, and that the work will never end” seems right on the mark to me.

What If We Didn’t Grade?: A Bibliography – Jesse Stommel’s blog – Jesse Stommel (7-minute read)

The move towards ungrading remains one of the most interesting and important things happening in education. While Jesse Stommel works at the university level and has been one of a handful of leaders exploring the prospects of going gradeless in higher education, there are plenty of secondary teachers doing so too. I often wonder where the movement is likely to be more embraced and successful. More than that, anyone that wants to engage or explore the prospects might suffer from no clear or obvious place to begin the journey. This post seems to fill that void.

I have included a number of items on this topic and I am always on the lookout for more. Over the course of my teaching career, I have seen first-hand the adverse affects grading has had on my classroom and my students. I have often commented that I feel I have spent the majority of my time as a teacher trying to diminish grades as much as I can, although I have never gone completely gradeless. Honestly, I am not sure that it would fly. Of course, grades are a requirement of the institution. Yet, as Stommel suggests, it has never been as simple as “just removing grades.” It certainly requires a lot of reflection and entering into a wider discussion.

What is so great about this post is that he has already considered many of the questions and shares them, as well as links to no shortage of resources to investigate as part of that reflective process. Some of the resources I have seen before but many I have not. Consequently, I am encouraged to dig around in some of the readings he recommends at length, as I continually reassess how grades work in my classroom and where they might be headed. It seemed only natural to share this with more people, especially those giving grades a serious think, as well.

Education Evolutions #125

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

After a week off, it was nice to sit down and collect some of these readings and associated thoughts. Plus, this is another one of those milestone issues, number 125. Every time one of those kinds of numbers appears, I remain mildly surprised to have reached it.

This week, after returning from a week of vacation, I was definitely on the hunt for some less dour material. I succeeded without reaching too far, which was encouraging. There are so many challenges in teaching, technology, and education today. Plus, this is around the time every year when every student and teacher can start to feel a bit sluggish, waiting for the recharge that spring brings with it. Hopefully, some of these items will be restorative and informative.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the first one, for a change. Given just how topsy-turvey things can sometimes seem, I really was hoping to find something more positive and uplifting. For anyone that reads this and benefitted from the public school system as a student, may it serve as a pleasant reminder of all those working in that system who helped along the way.

While I don’t find a video every week, I came across this one and thought it was really lovely. Bloom is also a nice reminder that spring is on its way, literally and figuratively.

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

Public Education: a Love Story – Teacher in a Strange Land blog – Nancy Flanagan (6-minute read)

I am not sure it has ever happened before but the first item two weeks in a row comes from the same source. I only recently became aware of Nancy Flanagan’s blog, Teacher in a Strange Land, despite her writing a past column of the same name for EdWeek. Also, this is a decidedly upbeat and rather beautiful post about public schools. I love it when I find and read something that I wish I had written myself with the subsequent realization that the one I am reading probably is better than I would have written anyway. This is that kind of piece.

I am continually amazed by just how many people seem to buy all the hype from public school bashing. Living in the state that consistently has produced some of the best public schools by any measure, as well as being in close proximity to a high performing charter school, I continue to be stunned by how many people chomping at the bit waiting for admission into an alternative to the public schools. Of course, I am biased being a public school teacher, working in a strong school. And I understand that there are challenges and things are far from perfect but the system has endured, despite generations of attacks. I work in public schools because I too love them.

I grew up in a place and at a time where anyone that could send their kid to a Catholic school they did to avoid the public schools. My parents did not have the money and I suspect the inclination for a Catholic education. So as I was entering school age, we moved out of the big city. In some ways, I won the lottery when my parents bought a little house in an unincorporated township that allowed me to attend some of the best schools in the state at that time. I was privy to an amazing array of cagey, veteran teachers, as well as no shortage of young, ambitious ones just starting to hit their professional strides. The sheer timing of it all was incredibly lucky. When I finished high school one of the best community colleges in the country was waiting mere miles from my high school. While I eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree from a private university, it was only because I got the most money through grants and scholarships to offset the costs and keep my loan payments down after the two years I attended. I was the first in my immediate family to get a degree. There were so many teachers along the way that helped me find a path and make it all happen, all working at public schools. They are an indispensable reason why I became and remain a teacher. This post was a reminder of all that. Hopefully, it will do that for anyone that takes the time to read it too.

Report: U.S. government wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools and still fails to adequately monitor grants – The Washington Post – Valarie Strauss (5-minute read)

Anyone that may have seen Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the President’s 2021 Education Budget Request hearing may have wondered about the details of her deplorable performance in front of Congressional representatives. This article details the report that Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan cited when grilling the secretary about the financial record of charter schools and the federal Department of Education.

The article is pretty direct and straightforward about where the report came from and is transparent about the organization that produced it. However, it is fascinating how quickly DeVos dismissed the findings of the report as “debunked…propaganda,” all the while having absolutely no substantive data to support any claims to the contrary. Of course, any of her pro-charter, pro-voucher, or other anti-public school schemes are not labeled as propaganda, especially the latest edreformy term du jour “government schools.”

The brutal display in front of the representatives saw Connecticut’s Representative Katherine Clark call for DeVos’ resignation, which seems to have become a nearly regular occurrence whenever the secretary makes a public appearance in front of anybody charged with holding her or the department she heads accountable at all. While the Network for Public Education is pretty clear about its advocacy, the report looks pretty well-researched, especially given the dearth of data released by the Department of Education since its last major audit in 2015. The very fact that the current secretary has nothing but empty rhetoric to counter any claims made in this report should be exhibit A in support of the claims by the Network for Public Education, regardless of whether they are an advocacy group or not. Plus, at least they are transparent about their organization, unlike so many of the charlatans supporting and maintaining current zombie-like edreform efforts that continually are exposed as empty and ineffective.

High Stakes Tests Aren’t Better—And They Never Will Be – Boston Review – Lelac Almagor (11-minute read)

This article continues the conversation about the wrong-headed advancement of standardized tests and malignant legacy of No Child Left Behind, not to mention the more recent Common Core. While there is not necessarily a lot that is new, it remains a compelling testimony to the kind of foolishness that is routinely required of teachers, especially as school boards, administrators, and parents chase scores in a profoundly sick system.

What this piece highlights exceptionally well is how there are no private schools putting their students through the crucible of testing subjected to public school students. For all the talk of choices and vouchers, there are no commensurate demands of accountability (see the article above for a more profound example of how selective accountability measures are). Of course, falling test scores usually trip school systems into a kind of learning death spiral, as ever more time will be spent on preparing for tests that are at best hollow measures of any learning that truly matters but serve as extremely worthwhile cudgels to beat students, teachers, and whole systems.

Ultimately, this piece makes a pretty strong case about the paradox of the high-stakes, standardized testing regime. It is profoundly costly in both time and money, yields relatively meaningless or reductive data, and perpetuates a corrosive and regressive impact on public schools. Despite a massive abandonment of the Common Core assessment organizations, its influence lives on in countless insidious ways. The defective system of accountability has damaged schools and students. There are other ways to maintain a level of accountability that is more meaningful and far better for all parties involved in educating young people. However, there are no easy solutions such as the current testing regime falsely promises.