Groundhog Day

by Robert Pondiscio
February 6th, 2012

Your humble blogger was quoted in a USA Today piece about last week’s Digital Learning Day to the effect that putting an iPad in every child’s lap is not a magic bullet and that we ought to give at least as much thought to the content we teach with technology as the gadgets themselves.

Over at The Quick and the Ed, Ed Sector’s Bill Tucker says my point that ed tech is not a “magic bullet” is correct but “debating this point gets us nowhere.”  Thanks, Bill (sort of) but I disagree. It is very much worth debating. Essential, even.  The central narrative around ed reform—accountability, teacher quality, technology, et al.—tacitly assumes that the product of American education (what kids actually learn) is settled and sound, and that gains in student achievement, when they come, will be a function of enhanced delivery: better teachers, smaller schools, improved technology, etc.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

We’ve said it before:  The majority of reform efforts (including the focus on ed tech), whether by choice or indifference, seek the best possible delivery of the worst possible product.  And Tucker, a very bright and capable observer, strikes a mildly Panglossian chord when he writes that technology…

“…does provide the opportunity to shift power to educators, offering the possibility for not only more customization by teachers, but also access to a greater array of better materials. And, smaller publishers, including those who offer free content, such as Core Knowledge, may finally have a chance to enter classrooms based on the strength of their content, rather than their distribution and sales teams.

This translates into a belief that money and marketing are no match for the man who builds the best mousetrap.  I’d love to be wrong about this and see a kind of reverse Gresham’s Law take hold in schools, with good curriculum driving out the bad.  But the conditions are not ripe.  We’ve had generation after generation of teachers conditioned to believe that curriculum doesn’t matter at all, a common and misguided belief that knowledge is of secondary importance to skills, and an entire policy apparatus constructed around the idea that reading is a skill and that reading tests tell us something revelatory about teachers.  In short, the content of a child’s education–especially in the critical elementary years–and the connection between content and language proficiency remains stubbornly off the agenda.  All the iPads in the world cannot fix a fundamentally flawed concept of how to promote language proficiency in children.

Debating this point gets us nowhere? No, ignoring this point gets us nowhere.

I love that Digital Learning Day came on the eve of Groundhog Day, because I feel like I have seen this movie over and over again.  Wake me when it’s Digital Curriculum Day.  Until then, back to my burrow await the end of educational winter.  Oh, that it might be only another six weeks.

Larry Summers Calls Higher Education Stubborn and Anachronistic, Offers Suggestions

by Robert Pondiscio
January 23rd, 2012

The following guest post is from Cedar Riener, assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College  in Ashland, Virginia.   He blogs about education reform, college teaching, history and philosophy of science at Cedar’s Digest, where this post also appears.

I squirmed a lot reading Larry Summers’ recent piece in the New York Times on where he thinks and hopes higher education will go in the future. Here’s a point by point analysis:

He begins by undermining his own credibility:

A paradox of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman.

REALLY? Have you paid attention to any of the K-12 school reform of the administration you have been a part of? The encouraged emphasis on basic reading and math skills at the cost of social studies, science, physical education and extracurricular activities runs exactly counter to the template of colleges and universities in which diverse offerings, and choices of majors proliferate. But I’ll forgive this vague handwaving and move on. Summers’ point is that colleges are seen as cutting edge, but in fact offer stale education which is stuck in the past because tenured faculty (who are often in charge of the curriculum) are stubborn. Dismissed college president says faculty are stubborn and old-fashioned, the Times is ON IT!

The paragraph in which he lays out the reasons that colleges are old fashioned seemed to me to be amazingly disingenuous. Colleges are staid and stuck in the past because… departments and courses have the same names as they did 50 years ago? Students take four classes and exams in blue books? Students pick a major? So the biology major is the same as it was 50 years ago because it is still called biology? Really?

Summers wants higher education to better reflect how the mind and world works. But as someone with expertise in mental processes who works in higher education, Summers’ understanding of both the current state of higher education and the science of cognitive psychology are simplistic and off base. As a result, we shouldn’t take his six “guesses and hopes” seriously except as a warning of the perils of breezy theorizing by famous intellectuals.

1) College curriculum will become “more about how to process information and less about imparting it”.

This is the standard: “You don’t need to know any facts because you can Google them, you just need critical thinking skills of finding and evaluating facts.” It is so tempting. Information is everywhere, it is at our fingertips, and the ubiquity of this information will spare us from keeping any of it in our heads, just like we don’t have to remember phone numbers, or directions anymore. Unfortunately, this is not how the brain works. As Daniel Willingham reminds us in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” “Factual knowledge precedes skill.” Whenever cognitive psychologists look closely at critical thinking, we find that it is tightly integrated with background knowledge. Any definition of critical thinking involves the creative and rigorous application of a network of facts. It is impossible to think critically about neuroscience unless you know dopamine from acetylcholine, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex from the occipitotemporal junction. Not remembering phone numbers is not the same as facts which we will sometime need to recruit to do our thinking. Summers shows he doesn’t have certain facts about language education and cognitive psychology, which he could easily look up, but which undermine the validity of his “critical thinking.” Read the rest of this entry »

School 2.0

by Robert Pondiscio
October 26th, 2008

There’s a thoughtful and important conversation going on over at Britannica Blog about how — or if — Web 2.0 will transform education, as well as the changing roles of student and teacher in our emerging digital age.  The series of essays from boldface names in academia including Michael Wesch, Mark Bauerlein, Dan Willingham and David Cole is mercifully light on the smugness and pie-eyed utopianism that is typical of most writing on education technology.

“While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find,” writes Kansas State University cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, ”nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another.” 

We are enveloped in a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where the nature and dynamics of knowledge have shifted. We can acknowledge that most of our students have powerful devices on them that give them instant and constant access to this cloud (including almost any answer to almost any multiple choice question you can imagine). We can welcome laptops, cell phones, and iPods into our classrooms, not as distractions, but as powerful learning technologies. We can use them in ways that empower and engage students in real world problems and activities, leveraging the enormous potentials of the digital media environment that now surrounds us. 

Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein, the author of The Dumbest Generation and a reknowned digital skeptic responds that “no generation has experienced so many techno-enhancements and produced so little intellectual progress. Still, in spite of these underwhelming numbers, pro-tech advocacy continues. The disappointing results come years after the initial launch, and so people forget the promises put forward about how technology would transform learning. But with school budgets tight and student writing in critical condition, we need more accountability in the initiatives and more hard skepticism about learning benefits. And we need a lot less fervor for tools and screens that have only existed for a few years and whose human consequences are yet to be determined.”

The genie has long since left the bottle argues Steve Hargadon, founder of the Classroom 2.0 social network.  “What is abundantly clear is that no matter what our schools are currently doing, most of our students are already actively involved in this content creation and conversation outside of school.”  University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham, with his singular gift for separating the transformational from the merely trendy notes:

At the heart of Hargadon’s vision—and Michael Wesch’s—is the collaborative student project, and this idea has been prominent in American education since 1919, when William Kilpatrick published his classic essay, “The Project Method.” Kilpatrick and his followers would recognize most of Hargadon’s list of advantages for Web 2.0 learning: engagement, authenticity, participation, openness, collaboration, creativity, personal expression, discussion, asynchronous contribution, and critical thinking. Most or all of these advantages accrue not from Web 2.0 in particular, but from its collaborative nature, and from the fact that students have a significant voice in selecting and shaping the project.

“The question is really whether Web 2.0 makes the student project more likely to succeed than project-based learning did before Web 2.0,” Willingham writes. 

The most persuasive point in the series so far arguably comes from Michael Horn, the Executive Director of Innosight Institute and co-author of the recent Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. 

If we hope for computer-based or online learning to have a positive impact and fulfill its transformative promise at scale, we need to implement it in a counterintuitive way by deploying it disruptively — that is, by allowing it to compete against non-consumption, where the alternative is literally nothing at all. Once there, it will predictably improve, and at some point, it will become good enough to handle more complicated problems and supplant the old way of doing things.  This is how all disruptive innovations transform their field.

Horn cites examples of education non-consumption advanced courses that many schools are unable to offer, small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer breadth, home-schooled students and those who can’t keep up with the regular schedule of school, and those who need tutoring, among others.


Deep in the comments section of one of the essays, Karin Chenoweth of the Education Trust offers a thoughtful coda to the entire conversation: “The last thing we need is a generation of students who are able to synchronize their dance moves with millions of other people on YouTube but still have no idea of their roles as citizens in the most powerful democracy in the world–or, for that matter, what a democracy is and how democracies differ from the other ways humans organize their societies.”