Education Evolutions #129

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

This week is a mix of articles that lean a little more into the teacher’s perspective, although there is plenty of wider perspective here too. There is an undercurrent of the profound inequities that exist across our nation’s educational landscape, but I am not sure that it would qualify as a full-fledged theme for the issue.

I have reached back a bit with some of the articles included here. I never feel entirely bound by sticking with the latest published material. Limiting this newsletter to three pieces means that a lot of really good items might not make the cut immediately after I read them. Also, I may encounter something a little later than when it first appeared or simply wait to see how it ages. Mainly, I am hoping that the selection is high-quality for anyone reading. 

This week’s “If you read only one article…” as usual is the last one. The last article in the list often is the longest read, which remains true this week, meaning it is also the most in-depth. This exposé on the College Board and the dubious force it has been able to impose on students and education across the country. It is difficult to learn almost anything about the College Board as an organization and not leave a little repulsed.

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

Why Landing On The ‘Best Schools’ List Is Not Something To Celebrate – WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog – Neema Avashia (3-minute read)

I have to admit straight-away that I abhor all league table efforts regarding schools. Any endeavor to rank and sort schools is not only a woefully misguided but I would argue destructive and damaging to kids and their communities. In this piece, a veteran Boston Public Schools teacher takes aim at Boston Magazine‘s annual list.

While Avashia undermines this particular publication’s claims of measuring academic quality with the reality of “measuring other factors: segregation and inequality. Opportunity hoarding and exclusion,” she could be commenting on almost any publications impulse to publish these kinds of complete fabrications. What is compellingly effective in this takedown is how she does a side-by-side comparison between her own school, Madison Park Technical Vocational, with current number one Acton-Boxborough High School. To compare the two at all exposes the hypocrisy of the entire effort to compare them at all. Aside from the fact that both institutions are schools and serve students, there is not a whole lot in common between the institutions.

For decades, if not the entire history of American education, the “good schools” always seem to be found in the wealthiest zip codes. What is more disheartening is just how much stock people of means put into perpetuating a system that profoundly enables them to continue to benefit at the expense of other people’s children. I share the call for new lists that celebrate a different set of values, like equity and inclusion.

Virtual engagement strategies that don’t require webcams – Dismantling Mathematics – Xi Yu (12-minute read)

There are so many problematic issues with schools demanding that students have webcams on during live, remote class sessions that I could probably spend an entire newsletter issue devoted to the topic. However, this is a great reading list for anyone interested in exploring. Having taught an all-online course for ten years and never once using a video-conference, there is no shortage of means to operate without webcams that seem to have been ignored in favor of policing students. This list offers some strategies most relevant for those using Zoom, specifically breakout rooms.

While the blog is a math specific one, these strategies are pretty discipline agnostic. The favoring of Google’s Jamboard as a tool makes a lot of sense in a math sense because it makes digital hand-drawing quick and simple, which often makes performing mathematics a whole lot easier in a digital context. The pen tool alone makes it a nice way to capture input from just about anyone regardless of technical skill. In general, Jamboard, a whiteboard application, does make for easy group interactivity, works on a variety of devices, and being a Google product works well in their ecosystem.

Using other shared, synchronous tools like the Google Suite allows as much, if not more, live student interaction that does not require video-conferencing at all, let alone a webcam. While the writer clearly likes Jamboard, other tools in the suite offer slightly different or specific options. Shared slides, in particular, offer a range of multimedia possibilities in this area that can exceed the narrower range of options in a document, and this post offers some interesting ideas. Even something as simple as enabling screen sharing for students allows them to take a more active role in a real-time video-conference without the need to be on camera.

How The SAT Failed America – Forbes – Susan Adams (18-minute read)

I am admittedly no fan of the College Board, so this article immediately caught my attention. Plus, Forbes magazine has upped its education coverage considerably in recent years. The headline suggests that the SAT only recently failed America while I would maintain that it has been perpetually failing America for decades. Despite any of the positives it may have generated, and even I would admit there are a few, the College Board is a con operation preying on the fears and desires of both students and parents alike.

There is a lot of known information woven into this piece, yet it does reveal more about the College Board’s business practices, especially under David Coleman, than may have been widely known previously. It’s safe to say the College Board is a cash cow masquerading as a non-profit enterprise, hoovering up money from the desperate and affluent as fast as it can while dangling empty promises of university entry and long-term life success for children. All the while, Coleman widely believed to be an arrogant elitist with plenty of evidence to support that claim, operates like any ruthless chief executive, keenly aware that the College Board’s economic success relies on not only maintaining but perpetuating profound systemic inequalities. He does this all for the humble compensation of nearly $2 million a year, selling “opportunity” to children.

When Coleman moved to the College Board after architecting one of the other major educational millstones of our times, the Common Core, I was amazed there was so little controversy about the decision. It turns out to have been an absolute boon for the College Board, as their growth accelerated even more than I realized, as he orchestrated a massive market grab, fostering the surging colonization of classrooms through the Advanced Placement program and its accompanying “fee bonanza.” So, as much as the SAT may seemingly be on the ropes, reading this piece suggests it might not quite trigger the deepest existential crisis for this lucrative leviathan. Like all corporate efforts, management may be its ultimate undoing. In fact, the best line in the whole piece is the last, comparing Coleman to an “arsonist complaining about an out-of-control fire.”

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.