Poles Apart

by Robert Pondiscio
August 29th, 2012

“Are we hopelessly polarized, or are we suffering from fatigue?” legendary PBS education correspondent John Merrow asks in a thoughtful blog post. “I think many of us are just tired, worn out from listening to the rants and negativity.”

What he said.

To his credit, Merrow is saying out loud what a lots of folks in the education blogosphere have been saying privately for a while now.  “Debate” has become trench warfare, with the usual suspects saying the usual things, over and over, louder and louder.  They’re merely getting more shrill and strident.  It’s getting tedious out there.  Hearts and minds are not being won.

Merrow’s no fool or squishy appeaser pleading, can’t we just get along?  “Sometimes one position is correct, or largely correct. Sometimes people’s strongly held convictions are just plain wrong,” he writes.

Merrow lists several ways in which education debate is polarized: accountability, the achievement gap, school management and structures, assessment, technology, and our expectations for what we should expect of schools and teachers. Are we also polarized about the purposes of public education? Here Merrow hits his stride:  “The goal of school is to help grow American citizens. Four key words: help, grow, American, citizen.  Think about those words,” he writes

“Help: Schools are junior partners in education. They are to help families, the principal educators.

“Grow: It’s a process, sometimes two steps forward, one back. Education is akin to a family business, not a publicly traded stock company that lives and dies by quarterly reports.

“American: E Pluribus Unum. We are Americans, first and foremost.

“Citizen: Let’s put some flesh on that term. What do we want our children to be as adults? Good parents and neighbors, thoughtful voters, reliable workers? What else?”

“We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on,” Merrow writes.  Wise and heartfelt words from one of education’s elder statesmen.

Growing Up Gadgety

by Robert Pondiscio
November 22nd, 2010

Is prolonged, focused attention a 21st Century skill? 

“Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters,” notes the New York Times.  ”But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.”

“Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction,” a major Times thumbsucker, is long enough to challenge the attention span not just of teens but Trappist monks.  But it’s must-reading for educators.  Behind the undeniable lure of technology is a risk that “developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.” 

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” says Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School, the executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The tension, of course, is at the same time researchers are raising red flags about raising children immersed in a digital bath, education is redoubling efforts to increase technology use in the classroom for engagement, customization and efficiency.  The Times makes much of a research study, familiar to readers of this blog, that reading and academic works goes down not up, when computers arrive in the home.

The result is one of those Rorschach tests of an article, virtually guaranteed to confirm your biases  (The world is going to digital hell!  We’ll never engage kids if we don’t embrace technology!).  The most interesting section of the piece is the Times look at current research on ”what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch.” 

The researchers looked at how the use of these media affected the boys’ brainwave patterns while sleeping and their ability to remember their homework in the subsequent days. They found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality than watching TV, and also led to a “significant decline” in the boys’ ability to remember vocabulary words. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Other studies cited by the Times suggest that “periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.”  “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” observes Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

“The headline is: bring back boredom,” says Dr. Rich, who the Times points out, recently gave a speech to the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled, “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”

One Laptop Per Child? Er…Maybe Not.

by Robert Pondiscio
July 1st, 2010

Here’s an eyebrow-raiser:  Reading and math scores of middle-school students, especially those from disadvantaged homes, tend to decline once a computer arrives in their homes, according to a study by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.  Say what?!?  Isn’t putting a laptop with high-speed Internet access into every low-income child’s home supposed to close the gap between technology haves and have-nots and boost achievement?  Professors Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd say “such efforts would actually widen the achievement gap in math and reading” according to a post on ScientificBlogging.com.

“And it isn’t because they are spending less time on computers, it is that they have not been a generation raised to regard it as a productivity tool and instead see it as a social one.   The results might be even more dramatic today, because the cutoff for the study was before Facebook and Twitter took hold.”

The study looked at test scores for more than 150,000 students in North Carolina from 2000 to 2005. “The data allowed researchers to compare the same children’s reading and math scores before and after they acquired a home computer, to compare those scores to those of peers who had a home computer by fifth grade and to test scores of students who never acquire a home computer,” notes the report. “The negative effects on reading and math scores were ‘modest but significant,’ they found.”

Predictably, the study found middle school students mostly used their home computers for socializing and games, and that productive use of computers was higher in homes where Mom and Dad monitored their use.  ”In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children’s computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes,” the study notes.

The study, titled “Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement,” is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Update:  Common sense on this from Larry Ferlazzo.

Talking Fast, Not Sensibly

by Robert Pondiscio
March 24th, 2010

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”  Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I was reminded of the above quote from Walden while reading Diana Senechal’s thrilling cover story in the new issue of the American Educator.  Diana is a familiar figure to readers of this blog, but she arrives on the broader stage of education thought with her essay, “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.”  At one level, it is a skeptical look at the “clamor for newness” that marks education reform generally and the specific focus on “21st century skills.”   

           Far too often, the 21st century skills argument carries a tone of urgency, even emergency: We no longer live in a world of books, paper, and pen. Children grow up surrounded by digital media. They can communicate with peers around the world; they can find obscure information in seconds. Yet they are unprepared for the jobs of today. We still treat them as passive recipients of knowledge; we still drill them on facts that they could just as easily Google. If we do not act now, we will lose our global competitiveness—so everyone who cares about our future should jump on board. Employers need people who can create, solve problems, work together, use technology, and think critically. We must make our students critics, innovators, and team players; we should teach them to communicate in the broad sense of the word by infusing their coursework with blogging, recording, filming, texting, collaborating, and tweeting.

But Senechal’s purpose is larger, and she’s not merely raging against the schlock of the new.  The root of generations of ed reform fads is the assumption that schools’ primary objective is “to meet the demands of the day,” she writes.  And that assumption must be questioned.   

          At its fullest and best, education prepares us to be with others and apart, to enjoy the life of the mind, to survive and prosper, to bring up new generations, to act with integrity and conscience, to pursue useful and interesting work, and to participate in civic and cultural action and thought. If schools try to be up to date all the time, then they are reduced to chasing fads and obeying the whims of the market. Part of the schools’ work is to help prepare students for their future occupations, but they do not achieve this by scurrying to meet employers’ demands.

Critics will be tempted to dismiss much of what Senechal has to say as a mere defense of traditional curriculum and teaching.  But they do so at their own peril.  Creativity and innovation, the oft-cited goals of contemporary education require knowledge and practice, she observes. “When we take them too lightly, we encourage and even celebrate shoddiness.  Mediocre creation abounds, as does false innovation,” Senechal writes.  She illustrates this with a particularly pointed anecdote:

          Once I attended a professional development session where we were told about the power of the Internet as motivator for students. The speaker cited the example of a student who, as a result of a blogging project, had become excited about poetry and started posting her own poems on the school blog. I took a look at the poems that evening, Googled a few lines, and saw that all but one were plagiarized—not from first-rate poets, but from websites that featured sentimental and inspirational verse. Why was this not caught earlier? Anyone paying close attention to the poems themselves would likely have suspected that they weren’t hers (the language was an adult’s, and hackneyed at that). The presenters were genuinely excited that the Internet had motivated a student to write; perhaps they chose not to judge the poems lest they interfere with her creative process. This is the danger: when we value creativity (and technology) above the actual quality of the things created, we lose sight of what we are doing and why.

Diana’s piece reminds me that education, and especially education reform, tends to be thick with people that – there’s no nice way to say this—simply don’t much care for education.  It is a means to an end, something to serve the “larger” goals of economic, political, or social progress.  Senechal reminds us that not only is this a dispiriting way to view education, but ultimately, it’s a self-defeating one.

                When the frenzy over 21st century skills passes—and it will—students will see that their opportunities depend largely on their knowledge. Many will graduate with blogging experience, but those who can write a strong essay on a Supreme Court case will be better prepared to enter the fields of history, law, or journalism. Many will have online science portfolios, but those who have studied calculus, read parts of Newton’s Principia, and can prove Kepler’s second law (for example) will be much better prepared to study physics at an advanced level. …The ability to make a YouTube video or podcast will mean little in the long run, if the other things are absent. Moreover, those technologies may be obsolete in another few years, but literature, science, languages, mathematics, history, music, art, and drama will stay.

Ultimately, Diana’s piece is not a rebuke, but a challenge to rise above mindless fealty to the “claims of the present” and “seek out excellence, nurture it, defend it, and live up to it.”  To make change, but to do so  thoughtfully, she concludes, “may be the most daring education reform of all.”

Brilliant stuff.  On a day when most of the education world will be examining the latest NAEP scores, and using the data — the data! — to defend or decry various policies, programs and “theories of action” it is good to be reminded why we get out of bed in the morning.  Or why we should.

Trick or Tweet?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 27th, 2009

Some months ago, I challenged teachers to give examples of good classroom uses of Twitter without using the term “engagement.”  In other words, is it possible to use the micro-blogging site to extend learning or create understanding in a superior way to other teaching methods?  It led to a lively discussion, but I’m not sure I ever heard a compelling answer.

Along comes a recent EdWeek look at classroom uses of Twitter, which describes how teachers “first found Twitter valuable for reaching out to colleagues and locating instructional resources. Now, they’re trying it out in the classroom as an efficient way to distribute assignments and to foster collaboration among students.”  Kathleen Kennedy Manzo’s piece also sounds a cautious and skeptical tone, noting the educational effectiveness of Twitter “or the implications those quick, short-form communications may have for students’ thinking and learning are not known.”

The piece reproduces a series of Tweets from an 11th grade history class in Virginia:

teacher From slavery 2 White House, Michelle Obama’s slave roots revealed. Comments please!
7:46 PM Oct 8th from web

student 1 @fhsush this is really shocking that they traced it back that far and found a tie it really just amazing
8:07 PM Oct 8th from web

student 2 @fhsush thats AMAZING. times have really changed. that is amazing that they can trace back that far.
8:11 PM Oct 8th from web in reply to fhsush

student 1 @fhsush WOW! i would have never guessed that. its awesome to see such a connections to slavery in our own White House. amazing
8:19 PM Oct 8th from web in reply to fhsush

I don’t wish to be unkind, but this is not exactly a riveting exchange for 11th graders, although to be fair, 140 characters is not a lot to work with unless you write headlines for the New York Post.   Lucas Ames, the history teacher in the above exchange apparently gives students the choice of “participating in the Twitter feed or writing an extra research paper.” (Somewhere Will Fitzhugh is clutching his chest and gasping for breath.)

“These students are not always sure about how to use the Internet to find and filter information, so this is forcing them to do that,” said Mr. Ames, who requires students to submit only school-related tweets. “It’s getting kids who aren’t necessarily engaged in class engaged in some sort of conversation.”

Manzo quotes Dan Willingham extensively in the piece.  His attitude seems more agnostic than skeptical. 

Like any other tool, the way we make it useful is to consider very carefully what this particular tool is very good at, rather than simply say, ‘I like Twitter, so how can I use it?’ ” said Mr. Willingham, who is the author of the new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.  “The medium is not enough,” he added. “People talk about the vital importance of Web 2.0 and 3.0, and that kids have got to acquire those skills. But we can’t all just be contributing to wikis and tweeting each other. Somebody’s got to create something worth tweeting.”

Having started out as a Twitter skeptic, I’ve warmed to it a little.  I’ve certainly found it helpful, as Manzo writes, as a way to share resources and keep up with what others are saying and reading.  But it’s not very satisfying for anything other than one-way communication—sending or receiving.   It’s the equivalent of scanning the headlines of the paper.  When something intrigues me, I need more than the headline offers.  Thus my challenge to describe a learning activity for which Twitter offers more than student engagement may be a fool’s errand.  In the end, that might be the alpha and omega of what Twitter is good at, per Willingham.  That’s not nothing.  But engagement isn’t learning–it’s a prerequisite to learning.

Time On-Text

by Robert Pondiscio
June 19th, 2009

American teenagers pound out an extraordinary number of text messages.  We knew this.  But a poll reported by USA Today indicates that one-fourth of their texts are sent during class, despite widespread cellphone bans. 

The survey of 1,013 teens — 84% of whom have cellphones — also shows that a significant number have stored information on a cellphone to look at during a test or have texted friends about answers. More than half of all students say people at their school have done the same.  Only about half of teens say either of the practices is a “serious offense,” suggesting that students may have developed different personal standards about handwritten information vs. material stored on cellphones, says pollster Joel Benenson.

Serious offense? Haven’t you heard? Using technology to get answers isn’t cheating. Dude, it’s a 21st-freakin’-century skill

USA Today’s Greg Toppo notes the poll’s reported average of 440 text messages a week on average — 110 of them during class–works out to more than three texts per class period. “The findings also reveal a split in perception between teens and parents: Only 23% of parents whose children have cellphones think they are using them at school; 65% of students say they do,” he reports.

Concerns Over “False Transparency”

by Robert Pondiscio
June 4th, 2009

What makes two smart but small and decidedly non-athletic middle school boys want to risk life and limb to try out for the school football team?  Their teacher Bill Ferriter was shocked at their answer.  “”We’re going to be great at football,” they replied.  “We completely dominate in Madden 2008 on our PlayStations.  No one can beat us!”

These two boys who had never played an organized sport in their life—-let alone an organized sport where physicality is essential for success and where brutal hits are commonplace—-had convinced themselves that football was the right sport for them because of their video game prowess.  In their minds, mastering skills with digital players on an electronic field in their living rooms translated somehow into an belief that they would excel on a real field wearing real pads trying to tackle 200-pound kids without breaking their necks!

Ferriter, a North Carolina teacher who writes the superb blog The Tempered Radical, is concerned about the “false transparency” created by video games.  Kids claim to be good at playing the guitar because they’ve mastered Guitar Hero.  Or they express an interest in becoming soldiers because “war seems fun” after playing Call of Duty.  “Becoming more ‘realistic’ by the year, new digital toys seem to provide the ‘complete experience’for users who walk away believing that they ‘know’ just what it means to be a rock star, battlefield general, or super-jock,” Ferriter writes.

Deeply strange.  And disturbing.  Ferriter, who is typically bullish on technology-assisted learning, worries this false transparency is hurting kids.

I’m just starting to wonder whether one of the unintended consequences of easy access to electronic experience is that we’re raising a generation of children who have a flawed sense of their personal strengths and weaknesses?  Are middle schoolers—-who love fantasy and imagination to begin with—confused, failing to find the line between fiction and reality when determining what they “know” and “can do?”

Interesting and provocative insights from one of our most thoughtful classroom observers. 

(HT: Anthony Rebora)

When in Rome…

by Robert Pondiscio
April 9th, 2009

I’ve expressed the opinion on this blog and elsewhere that a good test of technology in education is whether the technology deepens student understanding.  If a technology-driven lesson would work just as well on any work of literature, bit of history, etc., then it’s about the tool, not the subject under study. 

Courtesy of my new BFF, Clay Burell, comes this outstanding example of how technology can truly add value.  Google Earth’s 3D views of Ancient Rome are eye-popping and would probably do more to help students see Rome as a vibrant, thriving metropolis than even walking the ruins.

I missed this at the time, but Google had a contest for teachers to come up with the best lesson plans using the site, reports Ed Week’s Digital Education.

21st Century Sales Pitch

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2009

A study released today shows that using cell phones in math class improves test results. Well, it seems to show improvement.  Skeptics will note the study was financed by cellphone-maker Qualcomm. The New York Times reports it’s an opening salvo in an effort to position cellphones as educational tools.

Some critics already are denouncing the effort as a blatantly self-serving maneuver to break into the big educational market. But proponents of selling cellphones to schools counter that they are simply making the same kind of pitch that the computer industry has been profitably making to educators since the 1980s.

9th and 10th grade math students in four North Carolina schools in low-income neighborhoods were given “smartphones” meant to help them with their algebra studies. “The students used the phones for a variety of tasks, including recording themselves solving problems and posting the videos to a private social networking site, where classmates could watch,” the Times reports.  “The study found that students with the phones performed 25 percent better on the end-of-the-year algebra exam than did students without the devices in similar classes.”

“Texting, ringing, vibrating,” the AFT’s Janet Bass tells the Times. “Cellphones so far haven’t been an educational tool. They’ve been a distraction.” She adds that it’s “almost laughable that the cellphone industry is pushing a study showing that cellphones will make kids smarter.”

The issue of business interests in education is thorny and tough to unwind.  The board of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for example, has representatives from Intel, HP, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Cisco and other tech companies.  While they are wise to be concerned about the capabilities of their future employees, they may also stand to benefit from building their share of the education market.  The ability to weigh the interests of sources of information, and think critically about their value is, of course, a key 21st Century skill.

A Measure of Privacy

by Guest Blogger
February 11th, 2009

Shhh…. Stop thinking, spout out some keywords, earn us some points, and be done with it! What are you waiting for? You have been sitting there for like a minute saying nothing! Say something, anything, just get some words out there for the group! Hello? Hello? What are you, a mummy or something? Come on, it’s so easy, just read these words! That’s it, we’re getting a new group member. You’re bringing down our stats! Oh, look, Miss Cameron’s coming our way! She’s onto you!

Recently Robert Pondiscio sent me a link to an article about new software enabling teachers to monitor small-group online discussion in the classroom. Developed by European and Israeli researchers involved in the “Argunaut project,” this software offers real-time statistics on students’ patterns of conversation during class. Teachers can view instantaneous data on groupwork and receive automated alerts. The new software can:

… alert the teacher when one student is not contributing, or is being ignored, or is dominating the conversation. It also renders exchanges in a graphic manner, readily describing the ongoing discussion at a glance. And teachers can program the software to signal when certain keywords occur, such as when Napoleon appears in a conversation about the French revolution.

I will leave aside the implications for the future. The present is grim enough. The software casts light on conditions in our classrooms today, for instance: (a) the emphasis on process over content; (b) the changes to the teachers’ role; and (c) the influence of technology on curriculum. All of these merit analysis, but I will focus on a problem rarely discussed: (d) the erosion of privacy in the classroom. It is not that the teachers can read students’ thoughts, but rather that students are prevented from thinking privately in the first place.

The problem of lost privacy is elusive and rampant. We have become more isolated and less private at once. On the train we are treated to rude and raging cell phone conversations. On internet networks like Facebook, users keep their “friends” informed of their latest actions: taking a sip of coffee, confronting an employee, patching a leak in the ceiling, or calling an ex-spouse. We must step back from this revelatory muddle in order to keep something to ourselves. We must teach children to do the same.

Can schools teach privacy or even honor it? For the most part, a school is not a private place, nor can it be. Students regularly submit their work to their teachers. Administrators visit classrooms and observe lessons in progress. Visitors come to evaluate schools. Schools send reports to their districts. Adults must look out for the welfare of the children; nothing should escape their eye. Yet much learning takes place in the seclusion of the mind. To think independently and well, we must think alone, removing ourselves from distractions and passing influences. We do this when solving a math problem, pondering a historical question, or memorizing a poem. Schools may have forgotten the importance of this. In their mania for “student engagement,” they blithely discard private thought with no regard for consequences.

Classrooms around the country, from kindergarten into college, have replaced teacher-led instruction with the “workshop model,” typically a short lesson followed by small-group activity in which each group member has a specific task. One member may be the note-taker, another the timer, another the spokesperson, and another the moderator. As the group busies itself, the teacher actively monitors the groups and records their behavior on forms and checklists. Is everyone engaged? Are they practicing Accountable Talk®? Does everyone have a specific role? Are they producing evidence of their work?

Teachers must submit to the same model in their professional development sessions. In a typical PD, teachers are placed in small groups with chart paper and a task to complete. The facilitator moves from group to group, looking over teachers’ shoulders and making sure they are working. The session is supposed to serve as a model for the teachers’ own classroom processes. Everyone is supposed to be active all the time; everyone is accountable to the task.

When I was growing up, teachers did not peer over our shoulders or take notes on our behaviors. We were expected to participate, but we had the option of retreating into our minds. The subject was the main focus. Class time was not task-heavy; it was mainly devoted to the learning of new concepts and information. If, on a given day, we chose to stay silent, we could. Even if the teacher called on us, that would only last a few minutes, and then we could return to our thoughts. Certain classes (such as language classes) demanded more active participation, but others let us stay quiet for stretches of time.

Of course this had its own drawbacks: some students would participate much more than others. Some might make the most of their mental autonomy; others might doodle, pass notes, or hold back from asking questions. In a large class it is hard for the teacher to call on everyone or keep track of everyone’s understanding. Some students slip behind and then have difficulty catching up. Others pull through but with little interest.

For these reasons, some believe that the “workshop model” offers something that the “traditional” classroom cannot. It promises to involve all children in the lesson and to bring out those who rarely speak. Proponents of the workshop model sincerely believe that children will come to a better understanding of the subject through small-group discussion and activity. Not only that, but they see the model improving with technology. Soon teachers will be able to keep track of everyone at all times!

This is already happening. M.I.T. has abandoned introductory physics lectures in favor of Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL), a variant of the workshop model combined with technology. According to a New York Times article, TEAL relies heavily on handheld gadgets:

One of the newer professors, Gabriella Sciolla, who arrived in 2003, was teaching a TEAL class on circuits recently. She gauged the level of understanding in the room by throwing out a series of multiple-choice questions. The students “voted” with their wireless “personal response clickers” – the clickers are essential to TEAL – which transmitted the answers to a computer monitored by the professor and her assistants.

If any students value the life of the mind, M.I.T. students likely do. Do M.I.T. students regard these clickers lovingly? The article sings only praises of the program, but some comments clang dissent. One student scoffs: “‘Personal response clickers’? Ask any student how they feel about them and discover that they’d much rather hurl them into the Charles than actually use them, if not for the fact that participation points are oftentimes given out as inducements for clicking.” Another student observes: “The clickers, which have receivers positioned around the room on the ceiling, distract students from the physics concepts themselves.”

Ah, the concepts themselves! Students of all ages need privacy of mind. It may vary by grade, subject, or student, but it should not go away. Workshops and gadgets must not take over education, even if they have a modest role in it. If privacy of mind brings some risk of failure, we need that risk. Otherwise we give up the sanctuary of thought: the slow struggle with a problem, the frustrations and breakthroughs, the questions and insights, the romance with the subject. This is too great a loss. In the classroom we need just a measure of privacy, but that measure we must defend.

Diana Senechal teaches theatre and ESL at P.S. 108, an official Core Knowledge school in New York City.  She has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale. Her translations of the Lithuanian poetry of Tomas Venclova appeared last fall in a new volume, The Junction.