Smorgasbord: NY State Test Results, Incoherency, and Teacher Shortages

NY State test results have been released: trends are positive

This year’s tests can actually be compared directly to last year’s, so inferences are slightly more valid. Statewide, ELA proficiency went up 1.9 points and math 1.1.

It will be interesting to see what narratives spring out of this. Even more interesting will be how anti-charter constituents spin the positive results from charters.

Look for all sides spinning these results in the way that suits them best.

State Education Department Releases Spring 2017 Grades 3-8 ELA and Math Assessment Results, NYSED

Speaking of measurement: How can we measure SEL?

Some interesting suggestions here from a recent design challenge:

  1. How quickly kids answer questions on an on-line test (too quickly means less self-control/engagement)
  2. Asking kids questions about a video to assess their perspective-taking abilities

Building a Modern Marshmallow Test: New Ways to Measure Social-Emotional Learning, EdWeek

It should go without saying that laptops alone do not a quality education make

You know, like, how are you actually using the laptops?

Do Laptops Help Learning? A Look At The Only Statewide School Laptop Program, NPR Ed

How we teach history depends on where we teach it

I’ve argued before that one of the biggest problems with what we teach students across our nation is that it’s completely incoherent, and we do little to nurture a collective sense of values, knowledge, and civic engagement.

Here’s that problem in action:

Virginia’s standards of learning for U.S. history to 1865 include “describing the cultural, economic and constitutional issues that divided the nation” and “explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions.” Alabama fifth-graders “identify causes of the Civil War from the Northern and Southern viewpoints.”

Contrast that with Delaware, where school districts set their own curriculum but a syllabus for the eighth grade suggesting what might be covered during instruction says that abolition meant that the American people could for the first time “seriously claim to be living up to their commitment to the principle of liberty rooted in the American state papers.”

In Michigan, curriculum also is decided locally, though the state’s social studies standards for the Civil War and Reconstruction in eighth grade include the instructions: “Explain the reasons (political, economic, and social) why Southern states seceded and explain the differences in the timing of secession in the Upper and Lower South.”

Civil War lessons often depend on where the classroom is, Associated Press

Teacher shortages in high needs areas, such as SPED and math, with no end in sight

One of the suggestions here for addressing this makes a lot of sense to me:

“Make teacher certification national instead of state by state. Prospective teachers must pass an exam specific to the state they want to work in. But if a teacher wants to move from, say, Pennsylvania to California, they can’t immediately apply for jobs there. By having a national certification exam, teachers would have more mobility to go where they’re needed.”

Schools throughout the country are grappling with teacher shortage, data show, CNN

One way of addressing teacher shortages in SPED: draw from the paraprofessionals

They’re already in the field. Make it easier for them to transition into teaching.

Makes sense to me. But one thing to be aware of: paras have great experience in managing behaviors and working with kids, but may not have a strong background on content.

Which is why having a strong curriculum and departmental teams that can support adaptation and implementation of that curriculum are so critical.

With principals in ‘crisis mode,’ new Washington state law taps into thousands of potential teacher recruits, Seattle Times


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.

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.

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

Stepping Outside of Ourselves to Help Ourselves

By User:Viogfernos in English Wikipedia ( [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.

The Power of Edtech: Idolatry and Pragmatism

The Power of Edtech: Idolatry and Pragmatism

(Note: if you have any trouble viewing this post due to its formatting, you can click here to go to the published Google Doc version)
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about technology and social media in education[1], prompted by my attendance at the recent #140edu conference, and conversations I’ve had with other edtech enthusiasts.

I am most decidedly an avid computer user (though I can’t claim geekdom); I am passionate about using open source-based operating systems and believe strongly in self-empowerment through tinkering and problem-solving using command line and code[2]. I am a firm believer in the emerging power of social media to break through traditional barriers between governing entities, businesses, and civil society. I’ve written about developing curriculum using open source methods and the potential it holds for disrupting monopolies by publishing companies, and I believe that technology furthermore holds great potential to break through the isolation of classrooms and connect students and teachers to a more open, self-empowered, and collaborative world.

That said, I also have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to the wide-eyed championing of edtech as a panacea for public education and professional or personal development. Part of this is that I am just naturally cynical[3]. Another part is fueled by an instinctive caution towards fervour of any sort due to its unfortunate proximity to zealotry.

Here’s an outline of a few common threads that emerge from the missionary set of the edtech crowd that I’d like to lend a dour note to:
  1. School is boring to kids who are “digital natives”
  2. Learning is based on discovery and passion, not drill and kill
  3. Kids are unique individuals who should all have personalized learning paths
  4. Technology puts power into the hands of our students, teachers just need to get out of the way
These all sound great, don’t they? It’s like we’re on the cusp of a major breakthrough in transforming education by making lessons fun and interesting, personalizing content for every student based on their interests and needs, and letting the overburdened teacher sit back, finally, to coach and mentor individually rather than dictating and lecturing to a whole class.

Thing is, all of these points are essentially a regurgitation of unbridled constructivist theory. And while that’s not inherently a bad thing — I’m not completely opposed to constructivism and I’ll get deeper into that in a moment — I want to make it clear that the underlying approach here is nothing entirely new, disruptive, nor revolutionary; it also has little to do with what is truly disruptive in edtech itself. Which isn’t an argument specifically against any of the points. Let me get to that now.

First, however, let me quickly address a question you may have while reading this:

Why am I bothering to critique the missionary zeal of some edtech proponents, if I generally support the need for innovation and creativity in education, and believe strongly in the overall power of edtech?

I am writing this not only to get these thoughts off my chest, but furthermore because there’s a lot of snake oil salesmen out there right now with dollar signs in their eyes and hymns of the promised land in their mouths. We must be vigilant.

1) School is boring to kids who are “digital natives”

Let me ask what may seem like a senseless question: is it the central purpose of schooling, or of any form of education at all, to entertain? I certainly believe that learning should be fun, but it’s not always fun. Sometimes it can be downright dreary. Come to think of it, even the educational activities that we think of as fun and creative are often in reality full of drudge work and extensive, mundane practice on the long road to mastery. Like art. Or music. Or writing stories or poems. Ever written a poem?  It’s not what most would call fun. It entails going back over it again. Then back over it again. Again. And again, and again,  each time slicing, shaping, rethinking each and every syllable and sound of every word and its placement on the page. Ever read a book on something you were really passionate about learning, like the history of Quidditch, or organizational behavior? Books with lots of information and facts in them, unfortunately, can frequently be rather tedious. Gee. Just makes you want to pick up a remote or Wii controller, don’t it?

Which leads me directly to my next question: does having been raised using tablets, smartphones, and gaming systems that have been produced specifically for the purpose of the swiftest and most convenient consumption of content possible mean that our children are “experts” in technology use?
I believe the term “digital native” is misleading. It implies that having been bred and groomed as consumers of digital goods means that our children are technological experts, possessing some intrinsic wisdom, some capacity for leveraging technology that their outmoded neanderthal parents don’t. But knowing how to swipe a screen to download the latest app, or how to swing a controller so you can accrue points, or walking crookedly  down the sidewalk hunched over your smartphone tweeting out your gastrointestinal state to the world doesn’t mean you are technologically literate. What makes for technological literacy (in my humble opinion, of course) is the capacity for diagnosing and fixing technical issues with software and hardware, in addition to modifying and creating new digital environments, with a firm grounding in “machine” language. Some kids can do this. You know, the geeks. The ones that invest a lot of time in tinkering, learning command line and code. Kinda like how some kids can fix cars; the ones that invest a lot of time tinkering, taking engines apart, changing the oil.

But talking about kids tinkering with real things is taking me towards an argument FOR constructivism that I’m not ready to delve into just yet. We’ll come back to this idea later. For now, suffice it to say that kids — and adults — don’t necessarily know much about technology simply because they consume digital content.

I, for one,  don’t want our kids to be digital natives. I want them to be life-long learners capable of manipulating existing systems and creating new ones. In other words: hackers.

Let’s return to the original point I began with here: learning facts and gaining skills can sometimes be boring, even arduous. Without domain specific background knowledge (e.g. science and history), then kids are much more liable to turn into gullible, superstitious, ill-informed adults little able to participate meaningfully in a democracy[4]. Which is more or less the issue with our body politic at the moment, in my cynical opinion — we’ve got a nation full of debt-ridden, gullible, superstitious,  ill-informed adults, run by a coterie of sheltered, short-sighted, non-empathetic  adults operating on questionable assumptions and data. The fact that in 2012 those who govern us are still debating whether climate change is even a reality or not speaks directly to this point. If all of those adults were a bit more literate in a shared knowledge and understanding of history and science, we might have a better functioning nation.

Beyond acquiring domain specific facts and background knowledge, gaining fluency and mastery of any skill can sometimes be boring, too. And that leads us directly to the next point on the agenda.

2) Learning is based on discovery and passion, not drill and kill

Yes. . . but. In order to gain fluency, let alone mastery, practice is required. Stop calling it “drill and kill”and call it “practice and application[5]” instead, and it doesn’t sound so evil. Any musician worth their salt has spent countless hours practicing boring things like scales. You don’t gain automaticity in recall of your times tables through discovery and passion[6]. What makes the process of learning through practice different than drilling, according to Daniel T. Willingham, is that it is “executed for the purpose of improvement.”

Discovery and passion are fundamental and beautiful aspects of life and learning. It’s what drives us to put in countless hours of practice. It’s what drives researchers to spend years squinting at fruit flies mating or maimed rats eating. But discovery and passion don’t infuse every day, every minute unless the learner has the self-control, persistence, and wherewithal to see learning through. In the absence of these qualities and means, discovery and passion may simply mean chasing after fleeting pleasures.[7]

Look, I’m not trying to make an argument that learning should be boring. But I believe that real learning takes a lot of hard work, and that we need to be forthright about that.  Learning activities in school should certainly be engaging, but this engagement must be derived from the richness of the content itself, not from clever tricks with iPads and tapdancing by teachers. In my opinion, part of the reason[8] why education is such a failure for so many kids is not because teachers aren’t doing a nifty song and dance with fancy tools, but because teachers and schools are failing to provide content that is sequenced, structured, and steeped in a deeper understanding of the foundations of that specific academic domain. Which brings me to our next point.

3) Kids are unique individuals who should all have personalized learning paths

Well, sure. Every individual has a completely unique set of whorls chiseled into their fingertips. We are all amazingly singular variations on a common set of genes, living divergent experiences in widely variable sets of circumstances. But does this entail that each and every human being needs a specifically tailored suite of content from their public schools, delivered just so to meet their utterly  unique learning styles and abilities? Let’s exercise some caution.

I am a special education teacher, so I’m well aware that there are real differences in some children’s cognitive development that have real differences in outcomes. Developing personalized learning paths is critical to ensuring that students with learning disabilities are given an education that adapts and modifies the curriculum to enable them to access it alongside their peers to the fullest extent possible.

But I chafe against the idea that all kids require personalized learning paths in our public schools for a couple of reasons. First, our nation can barely even agree to common standards — forget about a nationally agreed upon curriculum that establishes a least a basic guide to just half of what a teacher is expected to cover. So how is one supposed to personalize something that hasn’t ever been formalized in the first place? Second, as a result of this soupy conundrum, the call to “personalized learning paths” ends up, in our edtech age, as a sales pitch for the latest software package from a for-profit vendor, who will then get to determine what that curriculum to be adapted shall be.

That said, I don’t want it to seem like I am against student-centered teaching or differentiation — I’m not. But I also think this notion of differences in learning can become so dramatically overplayed that it distracts from far more important concerns, such as developing or following the backbone of a solid curriculum in the first place. Which requires us adults to develop a backbone ourselves and provide some guidance and direction to children.

Which leads me to our final point.

4) Technology puts power into the hands of our students, teachers just need to get out of the way

I vibe with the liberating sentiment expressed here. I agree fully that we must shift from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction, and that students need access to tools that will empower them to collaborate beyond the classroom, and develop and create meaningful student products. But my caution here is that this process of empowerment still benefits from clear and explicit adult guidance, as content experts[9], in the domain specific knowledge that will enable students to commence a more independent exploration of a topic, as well provide the school environment and structures that will best support and empower them in their journey.

However, I will readily acknowledge that indeed, if we hand over tools to students with little guidance, they can and will do and learn amazing things. Watch this TED talk from Sugata Mitra on children in India teaching themselves and each other using a “hole in the wall” computer on the street, and you’ll see that this form of technological empowerment can be convincing.

Take this idea to its logical extension, and it indeed has the potential to be truly revolutionary. The concept of teachers as a guide-on-the-side rather than sage-on-the-stage has been around for a while, but the levels of instantaneous connectivity we now possess finally offers the opportunity to realize that potential.

In his presentation at #140edu, Deven Black took this idea of self-discovery and self-teaching to its fullest logical extent, and advised students to drop out of school. Why do we keep these bumbling, oppressive, dinosaur adults around at all, anyway?

While I deeply appreciate the rebellious spirit underlying this idea, I think that there’s a serious problem with the suggestion that children can teach themselves, and it has little to do with academic content (some kids, after all, know much more than their would-be teachers[10]). I fully believe that students can teach themselves quite a bit once given some free reign. My concern has more to do with the broader idea of adults abstaining from providing the social, moral, and emotional guidance that children will need as they struggle through the stress and confusion of adolescence. By believing that children will teach themselves how to navigate the treacherous waters of the world excuses, in effect, adults from responsibility. And I think that our world is just a little too full of adults who have excused themselves from responsibility already. This applies to parents, this applies to educators and administrators, this applies to businesses, and this applies to those would govern. When we relinquish our roles as mentors and leaders, then we strand kids without the positive community of role models they desperately need.

In a school, therefore, I believe that it is the duty of the adults to provide that social, moral, and emotional guidance, in addition to academic content knowledge and expertise. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t empower students with technology and step out of the way. But we must be clear that as adults, we’ve first got to equip students with the academic knowledge they need, and provide the structures and environment that will enable them to explore and persist in their activities and learning.

OK, so what then? Would you have us return to to the Dark Ages of Catholic nuns rapping our children’s knuckles with rulers, desks in rows, and rote memorization of facts we can Google in milliseconds?

Well, actually, Catholic schools did a pretty darn good job of providing guidance (other than the rapping on the knuckles), and I’m OK with desks in rows[11] . . . But really what it comes down to is a few simple questions: what is the real purpose of school? Is it a place to find yourself? Or it it a place to discover common ground with others? Or is it both?

These are big questions, and I think I need to make something clear that I haven’t thus far in my critique: how we structure our schools must be dependent on the developmental needs of children. Many of the critiques I have been forwarding may not apply to high school, for example. In high school, I think kids are really ready to embark on their own individual pursuits based on passion and discovery — with the proper guidance and support from adults, of course. In high school, I don’t think curriculum should be as structured as I’ve been suggesting, and I think kids should be able to begin structuring their own learning paths by that point, if not earlier. But in elementary school, I believe that curriculum must be very structured in order to establish a strong academic and social foundation.

I want to close this overlong piece on edtech already, so to begin to wrap this thing up, let me outline what I feel are important things to consider in the realm of edtech:

  • The power of technology and social media lies not in the tools themselves

What is revolutionary about technology and social media is not how well-designed and amazingly small and speedy tools are, but the level of connectivity that is established between individuals. The power, in other words, is not that technology can supplant relationships or individual ability, but that it can enhance them. These tech tools are connecting us to one another in ways that we have never seen before. It’s empowering — but it’s also dangerous. Our children must understand that everything they do online leaves a footprint, and that the seeming anonymity and informality of communication can still wreak terrible effects on other people’s lives. They must also understand that if they are unable to intelligently navigate online spaces, they may well be at the mercy of political propaganda, unscrupulous profit interests, and individuals with ill intent.

Navigating this new world of hyperconnectivity, therefore, still requires the social, moral, and emotional guidance that communities and schools must be expected to provide. Schools, as I have pointed out before, are all about relationships. No matter how we leverage and scale edtech, this will continue to be true.

Thus, we must be careful to not worship edtech as a saviour — if we don’t first build the human capital and capacity within a school, edtech will do little to empower anyone.

  • The skills that children need to navigate this new world are still founded in literacy, science, history, and math

It bothers me a bit when people keep on about “21st century skills,” saying that we don’t know what jobs will look like in X many years[12]. I would argue that the gap that is occurring between what employers are looking for and the skills people on the market possess[13] has much less to do with their ability for creativity and innovation, and much more to do with the fact that many can’t write a basic paper, conduct basic research, or do any of the things that they would be able to do and understand if they had a strong foundation in literacy, science, history, and math.

As I discussed earlier, calling kids “digital natives” is a misnomer. Knowing how to swipe a screen doesn’t translate into knowing how to target a Google search to find relevant information. I took the Google power search class I just linked to, and I was struck by how the most fundamental skills of effective search are based on the nature of literacy and deeper content specific knowledge.

In Summation. Finally.

My overall point in this piece is that we must be cautious about letting what is truly revolutionary about edtech sweep us over into unbridled constructivism and the idealistic expectation that our human and social capital problems will be solved.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not wholly opposed to constructivism. The argument that I and my colleague Will Johnson have been making here on our blog Schools as Ecosystems — that schools should be viewed more holistically as complex adaptive systems — is fundamentally constructivist in its concern with the impact of learning environments and relationships on learning.

But I also believe, as I’ve argued here and elsewhere, that adults must commit to serve their natural roles as guides and leaders, and that we must approach this guidance systematically. So I am cautious about constructivism because in the jubilation and zeal for edtech, some folks are advising that adults should step aside and relinquish our leadership on content and structured learning. We should not step aside. Rather, we should step up and develop our professional  capacity for leveraging technology and social media positively and systematically.

At the #140edu conference, Principal Chris Lehmann made some great points about how the constructivist approach can be leveraged by edtech, and the one that most stuck with me was the call to let kids “build things that matter.” As I mentioned earlier, tinkering and exploring and messing around with things is how we gain expertise. This form of project-based learning, structured with the requisite domain specific background knowledge, in  a school that builds systems and structures with the proper tools to empower teachers and students to do this form of learning, I believe holds tremendous power for engaging learning that can be steeped in a foundation of content knowledge.

Another great point he made was that we must stop focusing so much on 21st century skills and focus instead on community. Unsurprisingly, this resonated strongly with me, given the skepticism I evidenced earlier about 21st century skills, but also because Will Johnson and I have been focusing heavily on the central concept of community in schools in our framework of Schools as Ecosystems. I believe that building stronger communities is central to the purpose of public education.

To close, I want to leave you with the idea that we can blend progressive and conservative ideals; constructivist and objectivist theories; visionary and pragmatic applications; and what is truly transformative in edtech, with what works in traditional schooling. It doesn’t have to be one ideal at the expense of another. We can blend these ideals together to form an evolutionary reality that works better for the ones who are our future.

Larry Cuban wrote a great series of posts recently about the power of teachers working with other teachers in a professional learning community. I’d like to close this piece with a quotation from one of those posts, in which he makes the point that there is no such thing as a “single one-best way of teaching,” but rather that effective teaching is the result of flexible yet disciplined structures of teams of teachers working together to problem solve based on the needs of their students:

When teachers work together to examine student work and analyze classroom lessons, they figure out collectively what works and doesn’t work and they build a culture of learning across grade levels in elementary schools and within departments in secondary schools. They build trusting relationships with peers  and learn from one another — a scarce resource because isolation is endemic across age-graded schools. The resulting pedagogical capital blends ambitious lessons and traditional ones of teacher- and student-centered practices, rather than a single one-best way of teaching. Such hybrids of teaching, working within adaptable structures of professional development and site-based learning communities, are tailored for complex, web-like systems like schools.”

[1] from here on out in this piece, “edtech” will serve as the all encompassing signifier for “technology and social media”
[2] though I don’t code myself–hence unable to label myself a true geek–I just ride on the coat-tails of those who do. I’m a “copy-n-paster,” not a “hacker”
[3] which made me quite the morose youngster, by the way. I’m trying to make up for it as an adult
[4] Though they will, of course, be consummate consumers
[5] I’m deliberately ignoring for the moment that practice and application can be done in innovative ways that are far more engaging and meaningful than worksheets and other rote forms of learning
[6] At least, I sure didn’t. I would certainly be interested in hearing otherwise
[7] Chasing after fleeting pleasures. . . that sure sounds like the defining pastime of a lot of Estadounidenses
[8] The other part is a failure to provide the social, moral, and emotional guidance and support kids need. More on this further down
[9] I say this knowing full well that some teachers are hardly experts, but that’s part of the REAL problem, don’t you think? We don’t value teachers enough in this country to ensure that they are picked competitively and trained extensively
[10] One student panelist and presenter at #140edu, Nikhil Goyal, memorably stated, “I learn more through Twitter than I do in class, and that’s a problem, I think.”
[11] This charade of pretending that teaching is progressive just because you force kids to sit in groups is preposterous. Some activities are best in groups, some are not. It also depends on the style of the teacher and the needs of the students
[12] Heck, with the way things are going, we don’t even know if there will BE any jobs
[13] I also think that we should be talking a lot more about getting students out of school and into workplace internships for hands-on experience and skills during high school