A VR classroom is still a classroom

Still wearing his headset, Greene opens up the floor for questions. One student, from Denmark, asks, “How does it feel to be teaching in the next step of education?” As Greene answers—about how it’s so wonderful that people from around the globe can gather and share complex ideas like this—a student flings a virtual tesseract at the teacher’s head. Next step, indeed.

https://www.wired.com/2017/06/string-theorys-weirdest-ideas-finally-make-sense-thanks-vr/

A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74

On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

A Successful Online School is Based On Relationships

By Arnoldius (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“Students do the bulk of their learning independently. They make their own way through online lessons, digital texts and multimedia, and follow links to extra, explanatory resources. They upload all their work. Yet the students and parents interviewed for this story said that they have more one-on-one interactions with teachers than they did in traditional schools.”

—Chris Berdik, “Inside the Online School That Could Radically Change How Kids Learn Everywhere” on Wired

Unsurprisingly, one of the few virtual learning schools that demonstrates success is predicated on forming relationships between teachers and families. The competency-based aspect of its curriculum is also intriguing and worth keeping an eye on.

For students with disabilities and other students for whom more traditional schools can present significant obstacles, this form of learning holds great promise.

Lighting Systems as Interventions

“Lighting is really not about a fixture in the ceiling anymore,” said Mariana Figueiro, who leads light and health research at the Lighting Research Center of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “It’s about delivering individualized light treatments to people.”

. . . At Brown University, researchers are looking at both spectrum and intensity to design a system to help adolescents stay alert in school.

“If we just did blue enhanced light it might be better for the circadian timing system, but it might not be as good for the alertness and the academic needs that they have,” said Mary A. Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior who studies sleep in children, adolescents and young adults. “We want to see if we can hit on the best combination that will enhance those features.”

—Diane Cardwell, “High-Tech Lights to Help Baby Sleep, or Students Stay Alert” on the NY Times

A School Building as Curriculum

“On a cloudless summer day, sunlight touched nearly every corner of the building with the help of vast windows and sun tubes; experts say that students learn better when they are exposed to natural light.

The building, too, is designed to be incorporated in lessons. With a rooftop full of solar panels and a geothermal-well system to heat and cool water, it will be a “net-zero” building . . .

The school will feature a rooftop solar lab with a moveable solar array, allowing students to learn about the photovoltaic panels fueling their school. Signs will teach them about the geothermal wells.”

Even the school’s layout is intended to be built into lessons.

—Moriah Balingit, “More sunlight, moveable walls: New Va. school reflects new teaching ideals” on The Washington Post

Stepping Outside of Ourselves to Help Ourselves

By User:Viogfernos in English Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Doubles2x.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been tracking an interesting theme developing across multiple articles recently that may be relevant to educators: by viewing ourselves from a third-person perspective, we can better empower ourselves to tackle psychological or emotional obstacles.

This approach seems worth bearing in mind as we work with our students—and ourselves—to try to break negative habits and mental models and instill positive ones. For example, when working with students to set goals, we can help them word their goals in the third-person. Or when working with children that struggle with self-control and crisis management, we can teach them to use positive self-talk that refers to themselves in the second or third-person (e.g. “You can do this! You just need to take some deep breaths.”)

Here’s the articles that develop this theme [some items bolded for effect]:

Need to Solve a Personal Problem? Try a Third-Person Perspective” on Association for Psychological Science’s Observations blog

Participants considering their own romantic problem from a third person-perspective scored higher in wise reasoning than those considering their own problem from a first-person perspective. Stepping back from their own problems, psychologically speaking, led them to reason more wisely — to think more like they would if they were giving their friends advice.

Pronouns Matter when Psyching Yourself” by Ozlem Ayduk & Ethan Kross on Harvard Business Review

We found that cueing people to reflect on intense emotional experiences using their names and non-first-person pronouns such as “you” or “he” or “she” consistently helped them control their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

For example, in one study we found that participants who silently referred to themselves in the second or third person or used their own names while preparing for a five-minute speech were calmer and more confident and performed better on the task than those who referred to themselves using “I” or “me.”

The effects extended beyond the task, too: People who had used non-first-person pronouns or their names felt more positively about their performance on the speech once it was over. They also experienced less shame about it and ruminated about it less. Those are big pluses — ruminating endlessly over past experiences can hurt not only your psychological well-being but also your physical health.

It didn’t matter whether the research subjects were anxious or calm at baseline; both types of people benefited from the subtle shift in language.

Nor were there different effects for use of the second- or third-person pronouns or their own names. All that mattered was whether the participants did or didn’t use first-person pronouns.

Want to learn a new skill more effectively? Stop thinking about yourself!” by Christian Jarrett on BPS Research Digest

A common assumption is that an internal focus is harmful to performance because it directs unhelpful conscious attention to bodily control. But what if the costs of self-focus are more general and profound than that? Perhaps merely thinking about ourselves in any way is harmful to performance and learning because to do so activates the “self-schema”.

The self-schema is “more than a philosophical construct” argue Brad McKay and his colleagues in a new paper, it is in fact a “functional neural network located anatomically in cortical midline structures.” Their theory is that anything that activates this network – be that over-focus on bodily movements, memories of past performance, or the scrutiny of an audience – will be detrimental to skilled performance and learning.

. . . McKay and his team said their “experiments are the first to show that self-reflection alone is sufficient to interfere with motor skill activation and performance.”

Me, Meet Virtual Me” by Sarah C.P. Williams on Medium

What happens next, as you’re immersed in a virtual reality, could change your behavior for hours, days or even months to come. Researchers like Blanke have started to pull back the curtain on how the brain responds to simulated realities, and they’re finding that taking off the headset, or flicking off a screen, doesn’t end the effects of the technology.

Watching an avatar of yourself exercise makes you more confident in your ability to work out — and more likely to exercise in the days to come. Likewise, watching your own avatar comfort a child lifts your mood, seeing your avatar quickly gain weight after overeating can temper your appetite, and meeting an old-you avatar can inspire you to save more money for the future.

. . . “The patients’ experiences were really like biological avatars,” Blanke says. The patients would feel that their body was located a few feet away from their vantage point; they’d see themselves in the third person.

. . . Called the Proteus Effect by researchers, it’s the idea that someone’s behavior can be affected by the appearance of their avatar (rather than the environment) in a virtual setting. This is where Yoon’s ideas are rooted: identify with a villainous avatar and you’ll act slightly more nefariously, identify with a healthy avatar and you’ll want to be healthier. It has less do with the virtual environment and more to do with that other-you.

Found other research or articles that further develops this theme? Please share with our community in the comments!

School Reform and the Borg Complex

I had never heard of the Borg Complex until I stumbled across it on The Frailest Thing, a fascinating blog that focuses on people and technology. According to this blog, the Borg Complex “is exhibited by writers and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile.” The blog goes on to define eight symptoms of the Borg Complex:

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate

7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for past cultural achievements

8. Refers to historical antecedents solely to dismiss present concerns

Right away, I was struck by how closely these symptoms match the public behavior of advocates of corporate school reformers. From points 1 (advocating reform with grandiose, unsupported claims) and 2 (ridiculing anyone who argues that many community schools function quite well) all the way to point 8 (referencing historical context only to suggest that the community school model is antiquated), the Borg Complex appears to be at epidemic levels in the world of corporate reform.

In future posts, I’ll examine manifestations of the Borg Complex in the world of education. For now, I’ll quote the original post on the dangers that Borg rhetoric– which aggressively promotes a very narrow vision of progress as if there were no alternatives–  poses to discussions about schools, or about anything:

Marshall McLuhan once said, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” The handwaving rhetoric that I’ve called a Borg Complex is resolutely opposed to just such contemplation when it comes to technology and its consequences. We need more thinking, not less, and Borg Complex rhetoric is typically deployed to stop rather than advance discussion. What’s more, Borg Complex rhetoric also amounts to a refusal of responsibility. We cannot, after all, be held responsible for what is inevitable.

Getting Our Children Addicted

Brownsville

During the week, when I have a few moments to scan Twitter or Feedly or newsletters, I’ll save interesting things to read in Pocket. And sometimes, I’ll get a few moments on the weekend to read some of these articles (sometimes; most of the time I just end up with an endless collection of remarkable things I won’t get to read until months later).

This morning, after reading a NY Times report on the lives of teenagers in Brownsville, I happened to read a Nautilus article on the effort to build non-addictive painkillers, and I found an interesting point of connection between the two.

When you read the NY Times report on Brownsville, “On the Brink in Brownsville,” by Mosi Secret, there is a clear sense that for some teenagers in Brownsville—one of New York’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods—boredom seems a primary cause for turning to violence or crime. For example, in a moment in a local park, the highlight of the day occurs when a man beats up his former girlfriend: “The fight was the most thrilling thing to happen in a long bore of a day.”

In the article on painkillers, “Building the Perfect Painkiller” by Maia Szalavitz, there is a statement, generalized from research, that stands out to me as significant when we consider the lives of our children:

Research has found repeatedly that the longer a drug lasts and the slower it is to reach the brain, the less addictive it is; a short, intense high produces more compulsive behavior.

When I read that, I thought about the general meaning of this as it could apply to education and learning, rather than drugs and highs. For example, turning our children “on” to reading—getting them “hooked” on reading—is an incredibly difficult task, as reading itself is a “high” that is slow burning. And for those of us that love to read, we know that the effort and time is well worth the investment—that in fact there is no better method for learning. But for those of us that don’t love struggling through the words and narratives to discover the deep treasures therein, we may find more intense and immediate gratification in TVs and movies, or online videos of cats, for that matter.

Toy bears playing a desktop video game. Author: Mattinbgn Source: Wikimedia Commons

And when I thought back to Mosi Secret’s report on teenagers in Brownsville, it seemed to me apparent that our society has failed these children and many children all across our nation, not simply because of the tragedy of their being raised in an unstable environment with little access to the wealth of greenery, diverse sources of food, and other benefits of living in richer areas, but furthermore because we are so busy harvesting from, capitalizing off of, and perpetuating their compulsions and addictions, rather than offering them healthy and rich sources of learning.

By Stefan B., Thyras husband (GNU Free Documentation) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0
In that report on Brownsville, you’ll notice that Shamir and his friends are well-versed in the lore of fashion and consumer culture. Something’s working here, in some sense. Any distinctions made between high brow art and street life are largely fatuous at this point. These barriers have been broken. The only barrier that remains, as Shamir points out, is one of simply having the money to buy stuff: “Nobody in Brownsville is paying a thousand dollars and change for a [Hermès] belt.”

So our children have access to knowledge of all the things and stuff they want, and sometimes they’re able to acquire the latest sneaker or gaming system. But they have little access to knowledge of the things that make life so much more than a neverending series of a questing after shallow highs.

Why is this? And why is our society so adept at providing access to “stuff” that perpetuates yet more compulsive behavior, but so terrible at providing access to the knowledge and resources that make life worth living?

Only One Road to Mastery

Statue of Bruce Lee | Chintunglee

A blog I recommend putting into your Feedly or NewsBlur lists (or sign up for the newsletter) is Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Eric Barker provides insights gleaned from research and experts on productivity, leadership, and life fulfillment that are often relevant to the classroom.

In an interview with author Cal Newport about how to become an expert, for example, I found this particular passage interesting, especially in its relation to education:

I think when people want to get better at something the biggest mistake they make is seeking flow. It’s a very enjoyable state. It’s where you’re lost in what you’re doing, you’re applying your skills seamlessly and fluidly, and you feel like you have control. 
But we know from research on how people actually gain expert levels of performance that the actual state in which you’re getting better is one of strain, and that’s different than flow. It’s a state where you actually feel like you’re being stretched. It’s uncomfortable. You’re doing things beyond your current abilities. It’s not fluid. You’re not necessarily lost. Your mind might be saying, “This is terrible. This is terrible. Check your e-mail. This is terrible. What if there is something on Facebook?“ 
We avoid that for the most part, but we know that if you just keep doing what you know how to do already, you’ll hit a plateau almost immediately. So I think the avoidance of strain is the biggest mistake people make in trying to get better.

In terms of education, another way of saying this is that learning, with an eye towards mastery, is not always fun. It requires hard work and going beyond one’s comfort zone.

This is something I’ve written about before in relation to constructivism and the current edu babble about digital natives and 21st century skills. Teachers are under great pressure to magically instill mastery of rigorous academic content in students who may lack essential foundational skills, or don’t yet see any value in education. In general conversations about public education, we all too often infantilize students to the point of subtracting any burden for learning from their shoulders, thereby placing the burden entire on that of their parents or teachers when they fail.

The reality is that in order to go beyond superficial exposure to knowledge and edge towards applicable mastery, students must work hard. And they must not merely work hard in the confines of the classroom, but put in work on their own time.

A simple example of this is mastery of the utterly essential yet hugely complex ability to read. Students might read while in school, but some consider reading a burdensome task that they are unwilling to engage in when not “forced” to. Instead, they opt for activities that require little mental strain, such as Facebook, button mashing video games, facile Hollywood movies, and TV sitcoms. But to become more than a barely proficient reader, in order to become a masterful reader, with an understanding of the world beyond one’s own neighborhood, one must read constantly, one must devour books, sit focused for hours in place, immersed in the struggle with a narrative or informational structure that will, over time and across multiple books, cumulatively, broaden and challenge complacent interpretations and shallow stereotypes of the world.

A great teacher is a gateway to such expansion and challenge, but they cannot substitute for the effort and work which must ultimately come from the student themselves. There is no mastery without hard work.

Right now in the edu sphere there is much talk of instilling “grit” and providing students with the opportunity to learn to “fail.” Indeed. Yet parallel to this conversation, there hovers a mirage of innovative edtech gamification: this idea that if we design the perfect learning experience, students will learn without even knowing that they are learning. They will be fooled by gadgetry and wonder into learning, despite themselves.

Yet all that glitters is not gold. There is only one path to knowledge and mastery — and that is through hard work.

Disagree with me? Great! Provide your rebuttal in the comments, or write your own blog post and post the link! I’m always game for a good debate.