Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where the light is

Repeating a joke:
Late one night, a cop came upon a drunk, on his hands and knees, under a streetlight.

"Hey buddy," the cop asked. "What're you doing?"

"I'm looking for my keys," the drunk replied.

"Where did you lose them?" the cop asked.

"Over there," the drunk replied, pointing down a dark alley.

"Then why are you looking over here?" the cop asked.

"Because this is where the light is."
Ron Huberman, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has made "performance management" a central tenet of his management strategy. The key metric for measuring performance is standardized test scores. Because that is where the light is.

The impulse behind performance management I think generally is okay -- what one does in the world should be based on what one observes and experiences, and not just what one cooks up based on whim. That is the best part of science. Where this falls down is when one starts confusing the observed quantified data for observed reality.

Steve Talbott, whose work I tremendously appreciate, has written quite a bit about the deep hole that a lot of modern scientific practice has fallen into. (A good collection of his writings are available on the From Mechanism to a Science of Qualities page). In "The Vanishing World Machine", Talbott argues that modern science began when people turned away from labyrinthine abstractions along the lines of "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" to observing the world around them. But science, especially of late, has made something of a U-turn.
It's true that we no longer ask, 'How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?' but we are certainly entranced with the question, 'How much data can we store on the head of a pin?' And our trance is only deepened when the answer turns out to be: 'a hell of a lot'. What many haven't realized yet is how easily our preoccupation with the invisible constructions on that pinhead blind us to the world we originally set out to perceive and understand in its full material glory.
The world ceases to be the world of dandelions and earthworms and snowflakes and becomes instead a mass of numeric data. Talbott asserts that "our preoccupation with workable mechanisms, far from contradicting our preference for abstract cerebration, is itself a primary symptom of our flight into abstraction and our refusal to see the world." Much of modern science has turned away from the dark alley of the world, back to the sterile streetlight of abstraction.

In modern education, the turning away takes the form of poring over reports of easy-to-process (thanks to computers, etc.) multiple-choice test data. The living child has been replaced with a data shadow. And teachers are pushed into interacting with the shadow, not the child.

Setting aside consideration of the political forces behind the overdrive to privatize education in Chicago, and looking at Huberman's emphasis on performance management from a strictly methodological perspective, I argue that it rests on a broken understanding of science and a disturbed view of the world.

What might be an alternative? I quote from Talbott again, this time from a chapter in his most recent book, Devices of the Soul. Talbott quotes a description of the assessment process at a Camphill community, a network of residential communities for people with special needs.
Every week the staff of a house or entire facility come together to discuss a particular child:

The child's case history is read, and then the teachers, helpers and nurses give their reports and impressions of the child in question. Many symptoms, signs and features are collected until -- usually under the guidance of one of the doctors -- the image of the child arises. His habits, achievements, faults and failures are laid out in such a way that gradually a complete picture of his individuality appears.

In this picture the staff find guidance that enables them to clear a path for the child's continued growth.
Talbott then comments:
The contrast with the mentality behind standardized testing could hardly be greater. Certainly teachers must assess student performance -- and in the most profound and intimate way possible. The problem with standardized testing is that it avoids any such rigorous assessment. It is a hopelessly crude tool, a means of studied ignorance rather than deep understanding. And, as a side effect, it removes all flexibility, the living qualities, from classroom engagement. When you know in advance exactly what knowledge the student-container is supposed to hold, there's not much incentive to attend to the particular gifts and developmental needs, or the consuming interests, of the individual learner. Standardized testing is not student assessment; it is the refusal to assess.
Let me repeat that last sentence: "Standardized testing is not student assessment; it is the refusal to assess."

The keys to making education work aren't under the convenience of multiple choice testing. They are somewhere in the dark alley. Although, when you think about it, it really isn't that dark -- there is no shortage of humane, practical, working strategies to making education work.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

I attempt to develop something with Etoys

I just finished a project for a class in multimedia applications. I used Etoys, the Squeak Smalltalk environment, for the development platform. Here is some reflection of my experience...

Etoys works best, like most things, when it is used for what it was designed for. Etoys is something of a desktop lab for exploring concepts -- check out what's on the shelf, see what happens when you mix things, hope not to blow anything up. The underlying pedagogical theme is Seymour Papert's constructionism (a play on, and an extension of, constructivism). Kids can learn by building things and trying them out and figuring out how to make them better.

So I can see using Etoys in scenarios where students are assigned a task, like "create a virtual aquarium containing virtual fish that swim around", "make a car that moves around a track" or even "display the measure of the angles in a triangle using the tools available in Etoys." In the course of constructing the goal, or exploring a concept, all sorts of learning areas are hit, including problem solving, logic, computer science, math, modeling and design.

These are not strictly multimedia applications though, at least as I understand it. To me, an application is a closed experience. The designer has specific learning goals in mind, and creates a series of paths for the user to follow, with different experiences along the way, using multiple media, that will help the user achieve the learning goals. So multimedia applications are limited by the imagination of the designer and the abilities of the software tools in creating the experiences the learner can have via the application. This is like the difference between a webquest and true open-ended inquiry. How heavily programmed is the user experience?

Trying to create a multimedia application using Etoys was ummm a challenge. I wanted to create an environment for the user that anticipated errors and provided enough feedback (which seems like 80% or more of application development). I wanted to guide the user through stages of the activity. I wanted to program the experience. And for this, I found Etoys to be a clumsy environment, dragging tiles around and opening and closing property views and right-clicking to see halos and such.

My experience was challenged by the absence, as far as I can tell, of complete documentation on the different objects available in the Etoys catalog. (I don't know how much time I spent trying to figure out how to calculate the measure of an angle!) There are various help balloons, quick start guides, and there is free documentation on the underlying Squeak Smalltalk environment and language. But the in-between documentation of various properties and what they mean and how to use them is missing (again, as far as I can tell). There is a fairly active user community, spread across forums, IRC and a mailing list. I had trouble joining the forum, the first place I usually go to find out things. I only figured out I could use IRC late in the process, and hadn't really thought of the mailing list as an option, but that might have worked as well. So support is definitely out there, but better documentation would have served me better. I could perhaps have delved deeper into the mysteries of Squeak Smalltalk to really get under the hood, but quickly getting up to speed with a new language, with the peculiarities of new syntax and operators and precedence and all of that was beyond the investment I wanted to make. There was no Goldilocks solution for me.

But again, I was trying to do something with Etoys (create a multimedia application) that I don't think it was designed for (namely, being a desktop lab for constructionist experiences). I was able to accomplish something, but my product really isn't in the spirit of constructionist learning. My foray has some opportunities for student discovery, but not a whole lot.

But... I could not have figured out the proper niche of Etoys in the classroom except by taking the tortuous route through application development using Etoys. Creating my application (zipped, with a video used in the project) turned out to be my own constructionist learning experience. Now I have an idea of where I might want to use Etoys in the classroom. And while I knew that, as far as computer learning goes, I learn best by having a practical problem that drives me to learn the tools at hand, now I have a name for that learning model: constructionism.


Note: Etoys is free and available for download from the Etoys download page. You can find my project in the Etoys Showcase at this url. I think you need to have Etoys installed on your machine to actually view the project though.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The 2009 Bracey Report

I saw a reference to this in an ISTE Special Interest Group on Digital Equity mailing:

The just-published
The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education, 2009, by Gerald Bracey, looks at what the author considers to be "three of the most important assumptions about how to reform public education", namely:
  1. High-quality schools can eliminate the achievement gap between whites and minorities.
  2. Mayoral control of public schools is an improvement over the more common elected board governance systems.
  3. Higher standards will improve the performance of public schools.

Exactly! Today these three points are usually passed on as if they are facts. Self-evident truths. Obvious. Of course. They are the bedrock of education policy in Chicago Public Schools.

And of course they aren't "facts", they aren't self-evident; and they aren't obvious. As assumptions, they are fundamentally ideological positions and essentially political.

Some points from the report that I would like to highlight:
  • Poverty is an objective factor in educational performance. Poverty has biological, social and psychological consequences that negatively affect educational performance. (The report details many different aspects of this.) Schools (and certainly not teachers) alone cannot resolve this problem.
  • The idea that mayoral control of education helps education is strictly a political assertion, and is not backed up by a serious review of its results in Chicago and New York (the most visible instances of mayoral control).
  • Organizing education around standardized, multiple choice tests and viewing education through the narrow slit of test data is antithetical both to educating human beings, and if you need a market rationale, to developing workers for the workplace of today and tomorrow.
I recommend the report. It has a great bibliography, too.

The Bracey Report comes from the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado and the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State. Gerald Bracey is also the author of Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality. Bracey passed away on October 20, 2009.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Gradebook rant #1 and #2

#1 - The first quarter ("cycle") in CPS closed last night (Friday, 11/6) at midnight. But then CPS goes and locks the online software teachers need to use, so no more first quarter grades can be entered now.

I don't get this. If the quarter ends on Nov. 6 (Friday), the next one can't start until Nov. 9 (Monday). And report card pickup this year isn't until 11/18 or 19 depending (due I think to the late school year start because of the late Labor Day this year, and Nov. 11 Veteran's Day getting in the way). So why lock Gradebook at the cycle end and prevent teachers getting last minute grades in? Not that I want to spend the weekend getting final quarter grades in, but I'd rather do it clear-headed on a Saturday than late Friday night. Why not lock it Sunday midnight?

There is an implicit understanding that teachers cannot complete their work within the standard 6.25 hour CPS workday (hence closing Gradebook at midnight and not the end of the workday). The Professional Development Day (yesterday, Nov. 6) as a day to get grades in is a joke, because it gets loaded up with, well, PD. So what is CPS thinking? Most of the teachers at my school were assuming they had some time to get the quarter grades in, and only heard Friday (yesterday) morning that the deadline was midnight last night. I'm guessing more than 3/4 of teachers will need to have their Gradebooks unlocked by the school's Gradebook administrator or heaven forbid, someone in the technology support area.

It is another example of trying to force (what looks to me to be) silly and not-thought out dictates and demands on the troops-in-the-trenches (and believe me, it is WWI out here), which ends up making more work for everybody all the way round.

I guess the good news is that the time I was going to spend today fixing up the grades is freed up now.

#2 - I attended the CPS Information Technology Services (ITS) "TechTalk 2009" event last Tuesday at the UIC Forum. TechTalk is an opportunity for the technology apparatus at CPS to talk to the "techcos" (a conflation of "technology coordinator") from the 600 CPS public schools. [Aside -- the techco position is a role, not a position. Typically a teacher or some other staff member is assigned the role of "techco", not hired as such. Techcos form a critical rubber-hits-the-road role in the chain of CPS technology service delivery, but they are stretched between multiple responsibilities. I tire myself thinking about this.] Anyway, at TechTalk 2009, attendees were treated to a talk about Gradebook, which is CPS's branding of a commercial third-party product called Gradespeed.

The presenter gave one of those classic tech talks where the end users were morons who did not read instructions. In fact users are generally smart people confronted with a confusing interface that could easily be fixed up. It is a poor technologist who blames the user for design shortcomings. Case in point: teachers can enter a numeric code to represent comments like "Is too easily distracted" (but only one for elementary schools we learned, even though there are five boxes!) . If the code is "028", you need to enter the leading zero. Why? Lazy programming. The person I was sitting next to and I agreed that this could be fixed in a couple of lines of code and eliminate untold headaches on the part of teachers who enter "28" instead of "028". Thinking about it, it isn't a couple lines of code -- it is less, just a matter of wrapping the user input in a couple of functions that check the input and clean it up for the user -- maybe 20 extra characters of code.

Example #2: The user has a row of links at the top of the screen to control options:

This is an online application, so you might think that you can click on the image, that it is a button? Nope. Only the text is a link. I have worked with computers for over 25 years and this one tripped me up. One gets in the habit of thinking how things should work, primarily a habit of life experience. Software designers design an experience, and the best ones anticipate user expectations. The user should be at the center of the design, not the designer. That's what "participatory design" and incorporating real live users in the design process is all about. Put them in a room and see what they try to do before releasing the product.

Another example is that when entering assignments, you must click an "Add" button to add a new assignment. However, after clicking "Add", you see a blank form again. No program feedback is provided to indicate that the assignment was saved. Was it saved? How would you know? Only by exiting the "Add" function by clicking "Finish" (what are you finishing?), and seeing if it now appears in the assignment list. Again, some simple code to acknowledge that the "Add" operation was successful would be a trivial enhancement.

The computer experience is often akin to stumbling around with a bucket on your head -- you have precious little feedback on where you have been or where you are or what lies ahead. The best software designers provide lots of feedback: cookie trails with trackback links, alerts, the use of color in logical places, and so on. Not so with Gradespeed / Gradebook. Instead the poor user who only wants to accomplish a task and not "work a computer" is blamed for not understanding the software.

Too much ranting? It's a beautiful day today. And now no grades to enter. Yay I think.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Charter school limit raised

I was reading through the Chicago Teachers Union newspaper (why do they print a four-color paper on clay-coated stock, especially given the financial problems the union is having?), and saw an article on Illinois Senate Bill 612, which was signed into law last July. Some highlights of the bill according to the article ("Charter school law includes wins and losses", p. 6):

  • Doubles the cap on charter schools in the Chicago area from 30 to 60 single-campus schools, plus an allowance for up to five multi-campus charters targeting drop-outs.
  • 75% of charter school teachers across the state will need to be certified, up from 50% in Chicago before.
  • Charters need to disaggregate multi-campus data (single charters running multiple campuses was
  • There can be 30 contract schools (bound by the Illinois School Code, but the CPS Board contracts out management of a school -- click here for more on the types of schools under Renaissance 2010), plus five additional contract "turnaround schools"; but the contracts go through a new authorization process.
  • A parallel bill (SB 1984) says that charters fall under the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act, clarifying that teachers can organize at charters and contract schools.
The thing that sticks out the most to me is the doubling of the charter school number. In practice this will mean the closing of 30 more public schools because after students fill up the charters, the remaining public school enrollment will not justify keeping the school that lost students open.

In other CTU news, Jay Rehak and Lois Ashford won trustee seats on the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund in Friday's (10/30) election, defeating the incumbents supported by the CTU Executive Board. Rehak and Ashford are members of the Caucus of Rank and Educators (CORE). Per their web site, "We hope to democratize the Chicago Teacher’s Union and turn it into an organization that fights on behalf of its members and the students we teach."

This sounds like a rebuke of the current union leadership. What is the CTU doing anyway? And why does the CTU president draw two six-figure salaries? How can she do both jobs effectively? Which means she is doing neither one effectively. The new charter school bill, the school closings, Huberman's rampage, etc. etc. as cases in point...


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Creativity and education

What is education for? This is a the question explored in Daniel Wolff's new book, How Lincoln Learned to Read. I confess I haven't read the book yet, but I did hear him speak at a book signing last week, and it is in the queue. This question -- what do we want out of education, for ourselves, for our children, for our community ? -- seems to fall into two broad camps. One camp (and where I hang out, or try to) sees education as a self-maximization process, the be-all-you-can-be approach. Economics is secondary, and will follow in one way of another -- more of a statement of faith I suppose, but...

You can identify people from the other camp because the words "economic competitiveness" will likely pop up early on. Education is an economic function, in Marxist terms, the social reproduction of labor power. To be economically competitive in the global market, you need to know (fill in the blank). Pablum about the nature of work today, what employers look for or need to be competitive is trotted out, and then blueprints for "education reform" soon follow. Case in point: Thomas Friedman's October 20 column in the New York Times titled The New Untouchables. The "new untouchables" are the workers who bring something special (dare I say, something human?) to the workplace, like creativity or interpersonal skills, and thus are untouchable (i.e. difficult to replace) in the workplace. This has been a common theme over the past 25 years at least -- jobs that can be done by a machine or by a cheaper counterpart elsewhere will eventually be done by a machine or moved elsewhere. Within the dismal terms of the global economy, Capital will seek out the greatest return with the lowest cost, and Labor will always be an important front in the war to maximize profit. What is difficult to replicate in technology are attributes like (per Friedman) entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.

The two camps do overlap in some areas. Friedman holds that creativity is a key feature of the successful modern worker; a humanist educator would agree that creativity is a very special human potential and should be nurtured. "Entrepreneurship" is a narrow economic term and situates education in terms of the marketplace; a broader conception is to foster initiative, forward thinking, exploration, fascination and a willingness to try things out. Nevertheless, there are common elements in both camps.

The sad irony in this is that both camps are calling for a radically different kind of education than that being forced down the throats of teachers in Chicago and elsewhere. Data-driven instruction may sound scientific and efficient, but at the heart of it, it is antithetical to the kinds of skills Friedman is writing about that today's economy needs. (And Friedman has narrowly conceived of the human being as only a worker -- it doesn't begin to touch on the full range of human possibility.)

Simply put, multiple choice is antithetical to creative thinking. In terms of either globalization (Friedman) or humanism, the approach is wrong and destructive. Our society and planet face big big problems, and time is to critical to be wasted screwing around with wrong solutions.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Huberman's vision for education in Chicago

I heard the Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Office Ron Huberman speak on September 29 to a group of principals and teachers where he once again laid out his agenda for Chicago public schools.

Huberman's plan is organized around themes of "performance management" and "data driven instruction." Like other Mayor Daley appointees, Huberman (who, for the sake of possible non-Chicago readers, came to the school system from the Chicago Transit Authority) in theory brings private-sector style managerial expertise to the sprawling bureaucracy of CPS. George Schmidt, in his front page story ("Data Driven Drivel", sprawling in its own way) in the latest issue of Substance, uses the term "narrative" to describe Huberman's pitch. The term is well chosen I think. "Narrative" captures the essential point that Huberman is telling a story about what is happening. In this case he is framing it within the too familiar story of capitalism and the market, with all of the narrow and limiting assumptions and possibilities that that dismal story allows: In his narrative-story-vision, schools are education finishing plants that add education "value" to children. Value-added is measured by the change in standardized test scores over time. Individual schools are the education providers (not the school system, which only provides infrastructure), and schools, in the Obama-Duncan-Huberman world of "choice" (another marketplace term), compete with each other for raw material to finish. In this story, parents are free to take their raw material to whichever finishing plant is going to add the most value.

Hubeman is very explicit about this. In his September talk, he described each child as having a "backpack" of money, the money collected from taxpayers to educate children. CPS collects about $10,000 per child per year, or $14,000 for Title I schools (schools with large numbers of students from poor families that receive additional Federal money). In Huberman's vision, parents should be able to take that backpack of cash to the school of their choice. Schools will have consumer report cards showing their "value-added" scores to help parents in choosing the schools most successful at raising test scores. Teachers at each school will compete with the teachers at other schools in the city, both public and charter, and through that marketplace competition, their schools, at least in theory, will become better finishing plants.

So what is wrong with Huberman's story? I think that in practice, schools doing well now will catch the best students, and struggling schools will fall further behind. It is the same process of polarization that plays out in the economy at large -- the rich get richer, etc. Likewise, charters skim off the best students, or the students with the most parent involvement in their lives (and there is some correlation there). Public neighborhood schools become the schools of last resort -- they cannot refuse to take a student in their attendance boundaries. The students with the most needs will pool up in the public schools. Their test scores will sink the neighborhood schools, feeding a vicious cycle of increasing privatization. More charters will spring up to snatch the backpack of cash; the teacher's union will be effectively broken; and the concept of public education as a great project of Democracy will die.

Management by FUD -- Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt -- is the order of the day in many CPS schools now as the pace of this process accelerates. It is questionable that that strategy works in private companies; in a school it is disastrous. Teachers feel like they are under siege. They have a difficult-enough time as it is, coping with classes with too many students, with too few resources, no recess, and a steady stream of new mandates from on high. The axe of school closing and unemployment, based on one testing event a year, now swings over their heads as well.

The marketplace model has other problems too. Certainly accountability is important, but it needs to recognize that schools are not separate from social and historic forces playing out outside of the school building. But reducing accountability to test scores is fundamentally flawed. Test scores are a convenient metric, and fit in with the overall quantification of everything that is part and parcel of the marketplace metaphysic. More on that in my next post.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

CPS moves to online assessments

I attended a briefing for principals and test coordinators on the CPS district-wide assessment plan for the coming year. The briefing was given folks from the Department of Student Assessment, a part of the Office of Research, Evaluation and Accountability. Click here for a link to the Powerpoint presentation for elementary schools. The DoSA page also has a link to the high school strategy presentation.

I was primarily interested in Grades 3 - 8, so this summary only touches on that. CPS will administer three benchmarks assessments in reading and math this year, in October, January and May. (Here's a link for the complete assessment schedule.) The district is moving towards an online benchmark assessment, and is supposed to be working to get all schools ready to move to all-online benchmark assessments in 2010-11. Some schools (if they have the technology infrastructure) will be able to start with online assessment beginning with the winter assessment in January. (Constructed response questions will still be graded by hand, by teachers, and entered manually into CIM.)

Setting aside the tremendous limitations of multiple choice as an assessment tool (and how education, like so many things today, is inverted to serve the available technology, and not the other way round, but that's another discussion) ...

The advantage to online assessment is that multiple choice results are available immediately, instead of two to three weeks later. The disadvantages: getting the students used to the testing format and software (sigh, that this should be an issue -- we train them to be multiple-choice test-takers), scheduling test time in the computer lab, the inevitable network and software and computer problems, the extra burden on technology staff, handling accommodations in a computer lab setting, and no doubt other issues not immediately popping into my brain.

CPS is also moving to a second testing format, the Scantron Performance Series, which is a computer-based adaptive testing tool. "Adaptive" means that the testing software presents the test-taker with more difficult questions if he or she answered the previous question correctly; or an easier question if the previous question was answered incorrectly, until the testing algorithm can determine a performance level for the test taker. Students will take reading, math and science Scantron tests.

In 2009-10, Scantron is available as either an addition to the district benchmark assessment, or as a substitute. In 2010-11, students will take both tests, three times a year. This flows from the new Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman's emphasis on data collection as an education management tool. See Catalyst's 9/3/09 posting "Huberman outlines strategies to improve Chicago schools" for a brief overview.

The Benchmark Assessment is a criterion-referenced assessment, and so is intended to measure student mastery of particular skills (the criteria). [The math assessment question mix is also mapped to the Chicago Math and Science Initiative (CMSI) pacing guide for the four chosen CMSI math curricula (Trailblazers, Everyday Math, Connected Math and MathThematics).] As a performance measurement tool, the Benchmark Assessment is not so useful. The best proxy in the BA data for tracking overall performance has been the ISAT Predicted Scale Score, a guesstimate of how the student will perform on the state standardized test. The predicted score is supposedly anywhere from about 75% to 90% accurate (I just got our schools numbers so haven't seen yet how this relates to our results.)

The Scantron test is a performance measurement -- it doesn't say specifically what a student knows or needs to work on (which isn't to say necessarily that the
Benchmark Assessment does, although that is its purpose), only where a student is in the mass of students, and is he or she making "progress" based on prior Scantron scores. The Benchmark Assessment is considered "low stakes" (no one's job is on the line, schools won't be closed because of scores, students won't be held back -- as opposed to "high stakes" like ISAT where all three of the above are the case).

I suspect that the Scantron test will come to be considered by school administrators and teachers as high stakes. I am guessing that the Scantron numbers will be the bottom line numbers to determine if students are "progressing", and therefore used by top-level administration to lean on principals and teachers.


P.S. Writing assessments are built into the Reading Benchmark (3x a year, scored by teachers) plus one additional district-wide assessment, scored externally, that will be used for promotion determination. K-2 students will use one of three early literacy assessment tools (including DIBELS).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Links on play + link on distraction

Here are a few links on the importance of play in learning, especially for younger children. The first is an op-ed piece from the New York Times about baby smarts, Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think.

And then some follow-up comments.

And there's this related 2008 NPR story, Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills by Alix Spiegel (thanks Roberta!)

Finally, apropos my earlier post related to attention / distraction, there's this link from Russ Revzan's "Thoughts of Russ" blog:

Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows

(Russ works with CUIP, the Chicago Public Schools - University of Chicago Internet Project, advising schools on how to make the most of their new technologies).


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Beyond textbooks

Some links from today's (8/9/09) New York Times:
In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History

Beyond Textbooks

CK-12 Foundation: "CK-12 Foundation is a non-profit organization with a mission to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the U.S. and worldwide. Using an open-content, web-based collaborative model termed the 'FlexBook,' CK-12 intends to pioneer the generation and distribution of high quality educational content that will serve both as core text as well as provide an adaptive environment for learning."


Friday, August 7, 2009

An open-ended inquiry webquest

Webquests are typically examples of guided inquiry. The webquest defines a task for the student, and takes the student step-by-step through the quest. In the better webquests, students have some leeway in terms of outcomes and procedures. Even better webquests rely on student direct observation, perhaps through hands-on experiments or observing artifacts available on the web (e.g., investigating movies, animation, old radio programs, or even webquests).

In an earlier post, I looked at the relationship of webquests and open-ended inquiry. Open-ended inquiry looks more like real science-in-practice. It requires the student to develop their own questions and methods of investigation. It also requires a more delicate role for the teacher -- guiding the student, but not telling or directing too much. The student is on his or her own path of discovery.

The assumption then is that, all things being equal, open-ended inquiry is better than guided inquiry. With that in mind, I put together a rubric for assessing the "inquiry quotient" of a webquest. I identified five parameters to assess:

  1. Allows student to generate own question
  2. Uses open-ended question
  3. Relies on direct observation
  4. Goal is to acquire concrete concepts
  5. Capable of maintaining student interest

Most webquests that I have looked at score rather low: they generally don't provide questions that aren't open-ended questions, and they often don't rely on direct observation.

Given the nature the webquest format, is an open-ended inquiry webquest possible? What would it look like?

Here is a link to my effort, called Knowledge Explorer. You also need to look at the accompanying Teaching Guide, and in particular the "Important note" to make sense of what the webquest does.

The subject matter is not so important, I don't think, as long as it is capable of attracting the interest of students. Social justice pedagogy suggests that you start with something from student popular culture (see earlier blog posting). Since the world is interconnected, the in-depth investigation of any social phenomenon will provide insight to the whole if the various connections are pursued critically. So in general terms, Knowledge Explorer is about exploring a commodity of interest to the student. In my specific case, it is a snack food of the students' choice, but I suppose this could easily be opened up to starting with any commodity of the student's choosing.

The quest begins with a focused examination of the physical commodity, allowing questions to arise from that. (This is one part of the direct observation.) This part of the investigation relates to the methods of qualitative science; you can read more about this if you want in a piece I did called Talking with History.

The student then develops his or her own questions out of the direct observation and designs a research strategy to investigate the questions. At this point the teacher must intervene in the webquest to support the student's investigation. The teacher can (and thinking about it, should) support the investigation face-to-face by asking probing questions, how-type questions and so on (see the Teaching Guide for examples taken from An Inquiry Primer by Alan Coburn).

The new part in this webquest is that support and scaffolding can also be done via the webquest. Technically this is done using a dynamic web page (specifically, some trivial PHP code). The teacher places files of HTML code snippets in folders assigned to each student group. Students select the Process page for their group; as the page loads the web server scans the group's folder for any snippet files, and displays the contents of the group-specific snippets on the group's page. Rather simple, and should not be too difficult for a teacher with moderate web page design skills. I realize that that might be too much of an assumption -- the code skills might automatically exclude most teachers from using such a webquest.

At this point, the Knowledge Explorer webquest is a hypothetical, and needs to be shaken out in the classroom. Let me know if you are interested.

I have no idea how this will go over in practice. One issue I see is true of all open-ended inquiry. Open-ended inquiry requires more effort on the part of the teacher, because it requires closer work with the students, monitoring their progress, anticipating their needs, getting into their thinking deeply enough to plant suggested avenues of investigation without explicitly telling the students. Which sounds like the way things should be. But it is a labor-intensive, time-consuming process. Time which teachers rarely, in my experience, feel like they have. The attraction, I think, of traditional guided-inquiry webquests is that they allow some measure of higher order thinking exercises with little or no extra work on the part of the teacher. Even better, teachers can use existing webquests developed by other teachers, too often I expect, with no modifications. The webquests succeed, in some little way, of automating the teaching process. To bring the teacher back to the center of the webquest in the spirit of open-ended inquiry means giving up the time-saving, automated benefit of the webquest.

This is one of the knotty dilemmas of digital technology-supported pedagogy. Digital technology offers the possibility of extending the teacher's reach (e.g., via automations like webquests), but to be used with optimal effectiveness, the wits and insights of the teacher must be brought back to the center of the teaching process.

There is no royal road -- or automated one -- to education.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Virtual science education

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

So William Gibson began his classic cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. That sentence captures the inversion -- or is it sublation? or negation? of the human-nature relationship. Human-made technology is not like nature. No -- the opposite is the case. Nature is now like our technology. Our technology has become the reference point, more real than nature. Our life around and in technology has become more primary, a more recent and ready reference point, and in that sense more real, than our experience with grass, breeze, sunlight, woods, robins, etc. etc. Quick -- can you say what phase the moon is in?

River City is an interactive computer simulation application for middle school science students. The program is hosted on the ActiveWorlds virtual world platform. Students work through different stages of a simulation of an American town in the late 1870s beset with a mysterious disease. Students adopt avatars and move around the town, "interacting" with town residents, visiting town sites, collecting data, and conducting virtual experiments. Students can chat with each other in the virtual world, collect notes, make hypotheses, and test them. The simulation was developed as part of a National Science Foundation Harvard research project.

One of our 7th Grade classes did the project last year. I can't say how much their science knowledge grew by using the project, but I was impressed by how engaged students were in the project. The silence in the classroom as 30 students focused on their laptops was ... amazing. As simulations go, River City looked varied, well thought through, and fun. The students tool on new bodies, traveled through time, flew through a 19th-century town, and investigated disease without the risk of getting sick. What's not to like? I look forward to seeing the research results (the research portion of the project officially ends this month; Activeworlds is considering keeping the project alive on a fee basis).

In a world where virtual science activities are just part of an overall rich science curriculum, with lots of "wet science" and field trips and nature walks and other real world experience -- in such a world River City-type projects could be a useful addition. Virtual worlds create certain guided experiences difficult to achieve otherwise.

But... (as Pee Wee Herman famously said, "everyone I know has a Big But -- Let's talk about your Big But") In my school we don't have a rich science curriculum, and River City was the closest that that 7th Grade came to a real world in-depth scientific investigation outside of science fair projects. This is not the fault of the teacher, or the school necessarily. The ultimate factors I think are the big ones of the polarization of wealth and poverty associated with globalization, the related processes of de-industrialization, the privatization of education, the overall destruction of the working class, the war on the poor, ... As a result: the destruction of the family unit, deep social problems transferred to schools, and in the school, shorter school days, large classes, stressed teachers, crumbling infrastructure, the rule of the standardized computer-scored test, and on and on. We know this already don't we?

These desperate times become a rationale for the expansion of technology in the classroom. Save money -- do science virtually! One of the problems in this line of thinking is that virtual reality is a poor, poor replacement for real reality (somehow, perhaps sadly, I don't think that that phrase is redundant). It also makes for poor scientists. Goethe (who considered himself as much a scientist as a poet) said that "Insofar as he makes use of his healthy senses, man himself is the best and most exact scientific instrument possible." (the quote is from Douglas Miller's 1988 translation of Goethe's scientific works, p. 311) This may sound heretical to those who have been taught to mistrust their senses in favor of the cold precision of technology. But I think it gets to the notion that scientists need to be open to the sensual world to successfully investigate the world. Science has an intuitive and imaginative dimension that comes into play in the identification and the formulation of hypotheses, and this dimension is crippled when robbed of the interaction with the real world. Science cannot adequately be done in a virtual world. Too much is not there. (More on this: Maura Flannery wrote a nice article, "Goethe and the Molecular Aesthetic"; see also Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute.)

Computer applications cannot encompass (support, yes; encompass, no) an inquiry-based learning experience because computer applications are programmed experiences. They incorporate rules of the program designers, a minuscule subset of the law system of the universe. Regardless of the possible paths of investigations that programmed worlds offer, they are nevertheless impoverished representations of the world. The learner is channeled into the limited imagination of the programmer further constrained by his or her chosen technology. Inquiry-based learning -- the heart of the scientific adventure -- is supposed to avoid the "sage on the stage" teacher model; but instead, in virtual worlds, the teacher's role has been supplanted by the programmer. And worse, the supplanting is not immediately apparent. The programmer is a hidden presence, the wizard behind the curtain.

Given the dismal funding of education and the awful pressure on public schools, teachers are between a rock and a hard place. Yes a rich set of real world interactions supplemented by developmentally appropriate technology would be ideal. But the real world is more and more out of reach of the public school. We are offered up virtual experiences instead. And in the inversion (or is it sublation? or negation?) captured by Gibson, the scary part is how compelling the virtual experience can be.

Let's hear it for the negation of the negation...


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Criteria for evaluation of educational web resources

Here is another blog posting to satisfy a course requirement. This one lay out some criteria for the evaluation of web-based educational materials.

My list starts off with criteria I lifted from a university library site. This is only natural I think, because educational web resources function much like other media resources. Librarians belong to a profession devoted to material evaluation and selection, organization and retrieval. From the librarians list, the site should:

  • be relevant to school learning goals
  • the site should have quality content. Some indicators of quality include peer-reviewed content, positive reviews from librarians, or an authoritative sponsor.
  • have a significant amount of content
  • be distinguished from sites that cover similar subjects (e.g. in ease of use, or in depth in particular niche)
  • be easy of use
  • be reliable (available), stable, without broken links

Really good sites

  • continue to be updated, and informs the visitor of what is new.
  • allows others to share their great ideas, multiplying the sites usefulness.
  • are easy to navigate
  • from a design point of view, are not cluttered, with a clean design. Visiting the site shouldn't tire the visitor. (While not an educational site, I consider the site a prime example of hyperactive clutter and difficult to use. I like the design of the Mrs. Meacham's Classroom Snapshots site -- thanks again Lindsay.)
  • have no popup ads or other ads that interfere with the content
  • have a way to easily contact the site operator
  • is supported
  • does not use browser specific features (and specifically, will work fine with Firefox)
  • use cookies responsibly
  • are responsive -- they have enough hardware and bandwidth behind them to support their purpose
  • have useful search functions
"Easy to navigate" and "clean" granted are subjective terms, and show my design preferences. I don't like frames, especially when they are poorly implemented.

The above criteria are really independent of the educational purpose of the site, and really apply to any site that intends to inform visitors.

If a site has a social networking feature, it also needs to have some protections for students. Educational sites should be free of advertising, and shouldn't be commercial sites masquerading as educational sites. I'm thinking that the most appropriate educational functions for websites should be either sources of information (search engines, online encyclopedias, archives, newspapers, tutorials, etc.) or places where students can express themselves (e.g. wikis, blogging, cartooning, digital storytelling, postering, etc.) I have mixed feelings about virtual manipulatives -- hands on is generally better. I am suspect of the educational value of role-playing sites and virtual worlds; also of testing or drill sites, and gaming sites. My next post will consider the role-playing/virtual world sites.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Inquiry-based learning and webquests

Best technology-in-education practices direct students to problem-based / project-based / inquiry-based student-centered learning models that are the hallmark of progressive and constructivist education. The student is pushed to exercise and build higher order thinking skills through the problem-solving process. Ideally, computers and other digital technologies just provide additional means of investigation and reporting.

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a method of learning where students pursue an interesting open-ended question (that's my working definition of IBL). The student is the subject of that definition, the main actor. The object of their pursuit needs to be interesting to the student, to ensure the pursuit takes place. The object of the pursuit is an open-ended question: the question may lead the student in many possible directions as part of a process of discovery. Ideally, through IBL, students develop stronger transferable knowledge and a deeper understanding of the world than through traditional educational methods of fact-delivery and regurgitation. Inquiry-based learning works especially well for developing concrete concepts as a result of direct observation. Hands-on exploration is an important component of the best IBL. Also important is allowing students enough time and space and encouragement to formulate their own questions and conjectures. I see five important categories in the measurement of the "inquiry quotient" of a lesson. The best IBL:

  1. Allows student to generate own question
  2. Uses open-ended question
  3. Relies on direct observation
  4. Has as a goal the acquisition of concrete concepts
  5. Maintains student interest

Inquiry-based learning and other student-centered approaches to learning are subtly inverted when technology takes center-stage, and the inquiry becomes centered around and dependent on the technology being used.

Educators have developed different genres of applications to try to implement technology-based student-centered models. "Webquests" are one popular example. Webquests are structured investigations oriented around a given task. Students work in teams using well-defined roles towards accomplishing the given task. Students are often expected to produce a report or deliver a presentation arguing for a position or solution that they have developed. Webquests support student collaboration, typically require the students to make their own assessments about a topic, and defend conclusions they have reached.

As an IBL application, though, webquests cannot help but fall short. First, by design they provide an already-constructed question (the task). Maybe students have a choice of possible solutions, but a webquest (in Bernie Dodge's original definition) cannot provide a truly open-ended question. Webquests are really a "quided inquiry" structure (see, e.g. QuestGarden, the site for a webquest creation tool developed by Dodge, where it is described as "guided inquiry made easy"). In Alan Coburn's spectrum of inquiry models, "guided inquiry" falls in the middle between "structured inquiry" and "open inquiry". Students are provided the problem and materials, but they must devise their own procedure. Second, as the name "webquest" suggests, webquest observations are usually observations web page content. (One can view video of phenomena, but this is a weak second-best to direct observation. Math explorations can be done using virtual manipulatives, which might come the closest to working with their real world counterparts, although something still is lost when the physical activity is sacrificed.)

This is not to say that webquests can't be valuable learning activities. Good webquests require students to be creative in assembling and combining data, and reflect and build on what they find. Students can build their collaboration skills and skills using computer applications. But as inquiry-based learning, webquests miss the important elements of student-formulated problems and direct observation.

I developed a rubric for assessing the "inquiry quotient" of webquests, and then tested it out on ten middle-school math related webquests. (You can view the rubric as well as links to the webquests and how I scored the webquests by clicking here.) The highest score I gave any of the webquests was a 14 out of 20. That particular webquest, The Dilemma of the Dangerous Meat Loaf, did use some direct observation that was brought back to the webquest, and, with a little tweaking, allowed for a high degree of open-endedness. [I should note that I developed the rubric as part of an "inquiry quotient" webquest developed by Craig Cunningham at National-Louis University, and in this case, my direct observations were observations of webquests.]

As guided inquiry lessons, webquests can be useful. A potential danger in their use is to think that they can replace direct observation. An exercise that pushes the student beyond "guided" and into "open" inquiry would push beyond the boundaries of the webquest format. Possible features of such an exercise might include heavier reliance on student collection of data via direct observations, and perhaps a relaxation of the task directive -- this is something to explore.


Saturday, July 25, 2009


I started using diigo a few months ago to keep track of links that I found. Mainly I dump them there so I can keep track of them, but diigo is nice for also sharing them with the wider world. Most of the resources relate to education or math, though I think there are some other odds and ends in there.

Before that I used Portaportal, but it's functionality (describing, tagging, sharing, listing, etc.) is limited (here is a link to my Portaportal page, but I stopped adding to it several months ago). Before that, I did my lists by hand (here is a link to my teaching math resources page), but it has been too cumbersome to maintain, and while generally available on the web, not as rich in features as a site like diigo. I tried delicious at one point, but couldn't get comfortable with it.

One of the most useful features of diigo has been its "group" feature. I am a member of the "diigo in education" group, and as a result, I receive a daily summary of new links that other members of the group have found. Links include both online activities as well as news articles on education. This has been an ongoing source of good new (to me) resources.

I have not been so good about sharing my links with others, except for whoever stumbles upon them via diigo.

I now have over 300 links on my bookmarks page organized into almost 50 lists. When I moved my Portaportal links over, the associated lists did not all transfer, so some of those links may not be in any lists. A number of the links have no description, so there is the danger of the links being orphaned in my diigo attic (now that's a rather bizarre mixed metaphor). This points to the general problem of Internet resources, the challenge of adequately indexing the material so relevant material can be quickly retrieved. Google of course is one blunt tool for retrieval. Librarians have been sensitive to this issue for a long long time. Diigo uses tags, which I have not taken advantage of until recently. The drawback with tags is the variety of tagging terms that people use.

Looking through the links, I am once again reminded first how much stuff is out there, and how the Internet is pretty amazing at making the stuff available. And second that there isn't so much a shortage of resources, but of the time to review, select and absorb the resources into one's teaching practice. That old metaphor about putting your mouth up to the firehose of information...


P.S. In case you were wondering (why would you wonder?), this was posted to satisfy a course requirement.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tech and ed spending in today's WSJ

Today's (7/23/09) Wall Street Journal reports on technology spending in education. The article is a bit confused, replicating many of the "e-lusions" that Todd Oppenheimer described in his book a few years ago. The article described federal stimulus money going into educational technology at the expense of money for teachers and other educational needs. The money has significant strings attached -- it's only for technology and tech training. So while teachers are laid off, classroom sizes expanded, and programs cut, more machines are being thrown at an educational system in crisis.

The fundamental fallacy is that machines can replace humans in education. The article repeats common dodgy research claims: a school district introduced laptops, and student scores went up over the next few years ("Sixth-graders taught with laptops the first year saw their reading and math scores rise 27% and 15%, respectively, by eighth grade, says District Superintendent Jerry Vaughn." Uhh -- they go up anyway; that's why the ISAT cut points go up for each grade level.

One North Carolina district saw signigicant gains after going to a one-to-one laptop program, but as with most tech and ed research, there is no basis for attributing causality to the laptops. My experience does support one observation by a school official: "Dr. MacNeill credits these advances in large part to the technology program, which she says has made the students 'more engaged, more active in their learning' and made school 'more purposeful and relevant to them.'" I think there is a sad statement about education and students in that statement though -- a sublation of some sort. Relevance is found in the interaction with an electronic device; and there is something in there about achieving engagement via consumption rather than self-generated. Some completely different physiological or neurological state is in play.

Some of the technology programs are accompanied by training in student-centered instruction:

Many districts receiving these funds are looking beyond simply equipping classrooms with the latest gadgetry ... in favor of rethinking the way education is delivered. In some tech-equipped schools, teachers are playing a less-dominant role in the classroom, group work and problem-solving are emphasized...

Ms. Herdman [district head of ed tech] envisions such a transformation in North Kansas City. “It’s no longer going to be ‘Turn to page 10 and look at this,’ ” she says. “It’s more collaborative work, the learning style is inquiry-based, and the teacher is guiding, facilitating learning rather than lecturing.
Which is to applauded I think, and is a responsible way to incorporate technology into the classroom. But Herdman adds, "It’s about teaching the curriculum using technology as your vehicle." I question the necessity of delivering the curriculum via technology -- it may be possible (even about that I am not so sure) -- but if so it is an expensive, and unhuman, way to do it.


Friday, July 3, 2009

What good is the Internet for education?

I am taking a course from National-Louis this summer on designing Internet resources for teaching. One of the course requirements is a series of blog posts, which I will be posting here. The first topic is a reflection on the value of Internet resources for education.

What good is the Internet for education? The Internet is so many things now that there are many ways to think about its role in education. Thinking in terms of education roles, it is a conversation space, a meeting space, a filing cabinet, a classroom, a bulletin board, a library, and many types of museums. It is a printing press / radio or TV station / movie theater (where you can be the projectionist or an audience member). It's also a shopping mall, collaboratory and playground (of sorts). Thinking of Google Docs or Zoho, It is many types of computer applications, and the metaphors that they embody. I am sure I have left out important roles, and given short shrift to some. In all of these cases, the economics of the Internet mean that the Internet is a tremendously cost-effective resource for education. So one can interpret its value in a quantitative, monetary sense (quite high), or qualitatively, in terms of (for example) surprising discovered connections, social or otherwise.

On the other hand... It is important to remember what the Internet is not. It is not "right there" -- it can only be reached through electronic devices, and those magical gateways, although not that hard to find these days, are not ubiquitous or free. It is not nature, the real natural world. It is not tactile, physical, sensual world . It is not a real room where one can enjoy the richness of face-to-face interaction. The Internet experience is mediated through electronics, a bundle of media that exerts certain pressures on experience, and so alters and shapes and constrains it. The Internet, hyperlinks notwithstanding, is a programmed experience, where the rules governing interactions are limited by the imagination of the developers or the capabilities of the hardware. And all of the social networking opportunities notwithstanding, it is still a terribly segregated space, of like communicating only with like.

So while there is obvious and real value for education in the Internet, there is also a seductive lure to it. There is the danger that education gets swallowed up by the Internet. That educators might confuse the world with its (relatively) tiny subset, the Internet. Because the digital Internet is, if you are sitting in front of a screen, right there, easier to deal with than the messiness of the analog world.

Here is a more interesting question to me: What is the value of the Internet for education, versus leaving the school building, and spending an hour investigating the empty lot across the street?


Monday, June 29, 2009

Developmentally appropriate

The term "developmentally appropriate technology" refers to the notion that children develop, with different physical and intellectual needs and abilities at different ages. Children are not mini-me's, with the same cognitive faculties as an adult minus experience, facts, memories, etc. Their bodies are going through specific changes, and so are their brains -- they see and experience the world in different ways, and have different learning needs. So everything education-related, including technology, needs to be geared to -- appropriate to -- the child's age. The idea of "developmentally appropriate technology" is related to other "developmentally appropriate practices" in education.

I think one of the most important criticisms of technology in the classroom is that, in many cases, the technology that students are expected to work with is just not appropriate for their level of physical and cognitive development. Some criticisms of educational technology, like poor software, physical dangers, online dangers, and poor integration/application can be addressed through better modeling, scaffolding, monitoring, etc. The criticism that the cost/benefit ratio of new technology doesn't justify the education establishment's infatuation with it is another big criticism, and worth a separate posting. But the idea that a computer in the hands of a, say, 6-year-old is a bad idea, because a 6-year-old not only does not have the cognitive capacity to get the most out of the machine, but that it might actually hurt the child's development is a substantial criticism.

This is a theme in the technology critiques referenced in previous posts. For example, Fool's Gold argues that the "sheer power" of computers "seems more likely to repress the development of important intellectual capacities than to enhance it." (p. 33) Jane Healy writes in Failure to Connect that "computer use, being primarily a two-dimensional symbolic activity, may simply not be developmentally appropriate before the age of seven or eight."(p. 135) The brain-science logic behind this argument, according to Healy, is that the brain "undergoes certain 'critical' or 'sensitive periods in both childhood and adolescence when learning environments exert special kinds of effects and when certain types of activities and stimulation are most appropriate and necessary to maximize mental potential... If we waste or subvert these developmental windows, the losses may be irrecoverable." (p. 27) Important and necessary opportunities for imaginative play, concrete learning, physical activity, and social and emotional interaction with children and adults will be missed while the child is busy at the keyboard. There would seem to be a steep opportunity cost paid by thrusting computers onto students too early, or in the wrong way. (For a quick summary and great pullquotes of Healy's book, see this book review of Failure to Connect).

(Aside: The Waldorf approach to education, which informs Fool's Gold, Tech Tonic, and Oppenheimer, generally frowns on the heavy use of computers before high school. By high school age, teens are cognitively ready for the heavy amount of abstract reasoning, and will quickly pick up the basic computing skills they need for post-high school. The above-reference books agree that computer use in high schools is appropriate, as long as the technology curriculum includes an exploration of how computers work (along the lines of a shop class) and technology's role in society, in addition to learning computer operation and maintenance. Setzer and Monke (2001), also building on Waldorf ideas, in their article An Alternative View on Why, When and How Computers Should Be Used in Education are at the extreme end of the spectrum of technology use in schools, arguing that "they should not be used by children in any form before approximately age 15." Setzer and Monke lay out an ideal technology curriculum, which is of interest.)

But between the primary years (say, up to seven years old / 2nd grade) and high school (say, starting at age 14), that is, from Grades 3 through 8, there is a broad period of growth and transition in the child, with changing cognitive abilities and readiness for new types of learning.

I have not been able to find a technology curriculum that explicitly references a model of child development. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) provides examples of its National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS) for students that are tiered in grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8) in its 2007 Profiles for Technology Literate Students. For ISTE, a kindergartner might "identify, research, and collect data on an environmental issue using digital resources and propose a developmentally appropriate solution." Such an example recognizes that the kindergartner is a mini-me, constrained only by his or her knowledge. For ISTE, "developmentally appropriate" means -- well the way they use it I don't know -- a solution that kindergartners could implement? That uses vocabulary a kindergartner understands? But it does not suggest that a kindergartner sees the world in different ways than older students, that he or she needs to strengthen certain faculties through tactile engagement and physical activity and active, imaginative play that older students maybe no longer need, or need as much.

Anyway, this is my quest now -- to find a technology curriculum that includes a "developmentally appropriate" dimension that is based on a model of child development that recognizes distinctive stages of development and matches technology use to those stages.

To be continued...


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Teaching social justice via science and math

These are some notes from a Teachers for Social Justice event I attended here in Chicago way back in March. Titled "Teaching and learning mathematics and science for social justice", the speakers discussed ways that social justice issues have been raised in the course of teaching chemistry and math at the Little Village/North Lawndale Social Justice High School. Again, these are notes, and may be verbatim (or close to) material from the main speakers, Daniel Morales-Doyle, Alejandra Frausto and Rico Gutstein.

What does it mean to teach social justice in science? Science is a way of grappling with identity. It provides a means for students to shift away from solely being consumers of knowledge and culture to also being producers of knowledge and culture. Science can also be used to de-mystify the objects of consumption.

In the chemistry class example, youth popular culture provides the entry point for social justice issues in the curriculum. Scientific concepts and experiments tie in with artifacts of popular culture and their production process (including environmental implications, the labor process, and the political and social conditions of production).

The (ideal) social issue science curriculum needs five components: A reference point to youth popular culture, engaging lab activities, a social justice issue, good science content, and rigorous academic skills. The successful curriculum relies on good pedagogy: clarity of purpose (to help students and their community), high expectations, caring, discipline, a good work ethic, consistency, modeling uncertainty and seeking additional information, passion, enthusiasm. [Discipline and punishment are two different things.] Good pedagogy also values student knowledge ("foreground their knowledge").

For younger science students, teachers can help students visualize what a scientist is (and help them visualize themselves as scientists). Teachers should help students maintain (or encourage in them) a curiosity about the natural world. Teachers should build student confidence in the student's observations and thinking.

The speakers handed out a diagram of "Critical Praxis in Chemistry" that portrayed a cycle on inquiry. The cycle begins with a problem in popular culture. This is followed by learning about chemistry theory to support the inquiry into the popular culture problem. Chemistry theory is supported and enhanced by experiments, conducted in series of threes, or triads. Experiment one introduces a concept; experiment two builds skills, and experiment three has students exploring and inquiring about the unit problem. The learning/experimenting stages may go through multiple iterations. The fourth stage of the cycle comprises assessment and action -- students are asked "to apply their newly constructed knowledge of nature to produce culture that may affect changes in the problems [they] have identified." This in turn may initiate a new cycle of investigation.

The speakers provided several examples of "critical chemistry" in practice. One example, "The Science of Bling", begins with the unit question, "How is the value of diamonds justified by their physical and chemical properties?" The question connects to youth culture through engagement and wedding rings, hip-hop, fashion, and films like Bling and Blood Diamond. Social justice issues include conflict diamonds and the exploitation of natural resources in developing countries. Key chemistry concepts include the chemical and physical properties and classification of matter. For an authentic assessment, students write a pre- and post-unit "Love Letter" to a hypothetical fiance(e) about the issue of a diamond engagement ring.

Social justice issues in math are introduced in a similar way. Math is used to help students understand social reality. Units begin with authentic problems that students encounter in their community. Rico Gutstein described a unit that he did with high school students on predatory lending. The impetus for the unit arose from one student's family facing foreclosure. The math component included concepts like principal and interest, growth rates, compounding, budgeting and so on. Gutstein also described an investigation students did into the 2004 elections which addressed probability and the possibility that the presidential election was stolen (students produced an editorial raising these questions as a result of their work). Gutstein has elsewhere described a unit on racial profiling which incorporated probability concepts. An important element of "social justice math" is that it should tie into the lives of students. [Personal aside - This places an additional burden on the teacher to collect the necessary data and research to ensure a productive unit for the students.]


Saturday, June 20, 2009

What a good Technology in Education program should include

I have just completed another term at National-Louis University (NLU), in their Technology in Education (TIE) program. As part of the coursework, I also finally finished Todd Oppenheimer's Flickering Mind, and it got me to thinking about what a good Technology in Education program should have (and what I think is missing from the NLU program).

First, a good technology in education program needs a solid history (and maybe philosophy or ethics) of technology class. The class would delve into the relationship of humans to their technology, the relationship of technology to social change, technology as extensions of the human body and what that has meant for social development, and some good discussion of the dialectic between technology and mind or ideas (ideas shape technology, technology shapes ideas). Some exploration of the specific relationship between capitalism and technology would be good. Students could prepare reports on the development of specific technologies and their impact. Students should somewhere in the program be exposed to the idea of "appropriate technology", this might be the class to introduce it. Readings might include Mumford, Marx, McLuhan, maybe E. F. Schumacher, also Steve Talbott. The main hoped-for outcome of the class would be for students to understand that technology is developed within a social and historical context, and affects a society in unpredictable and not always desirable ways. The class should discuss "Ten Principles for a New Literacy of Technology" and evaluate the NETS standards. The NETS standards are curiously weak on these topics.

Second, a good technology in education program should have a serious course on the history of technology in education. This class would parallel a history of education, especially in the United States, but with a special focus on technology in the classroom. Obvious authors to read would include Larry Cuban and Todd Oppenheimer. Tech Tonic might fit here also. This class would provide an important context for technology teachers to understand their role in education. The development of the NETS standards could be explored here.

Third, while educational psychology is included in the current TIE curriculum, it should have a special focus on the role of technology in learning. This would include an exploration of concepts of child development, and their implications for technology in the classroom. The fundamental question to address would be what kinds of technologies are appropriate in the classroom, and at what age. The NLU "Cognition and Instruction" course used the National Academy Press book How People Learn, which is okay, but for some reason the course skipped Chapter 9, "Technology to Support Learning" that specifically addressed research findings (which, in the context education research, might be an oxymoron) relating to technology and learning. A Jane Healey reading would be helpful here; also maybe Fool's Gold.

I'm not sure where this should go, but I think serious personal reflection on how one thinks about technology should take place somewhere. Maybe in the context of one of the two classes above. I had to develop a "personal philosophy of education" for a history and philosophy of education class which was a useful exercise; I'm thinking here of a "personal philosophy of technology in education". Or even better, a perspective written at the start of the program, and then at the end of the program. The end-of-program perspective would be an important portfolio artifact. (As a principal, I would want to know a prospective technology teacher's view of technology in education.

I am generally disappointed in the NLU Program, including its conception and its delivery. I will skip the analysis, but offer this possible enhancement. I think programs like this would be more effective if they were organized more like a "work-study" program, and the coursework more tightly bound to our work lives. Assignments in the course work would be actual projects that we would be expected to carry out at our respective school, not in addition to everything else we do, but as part of it. So the school work would also be work work. (As it is now, homework assignments are on top of an extra-heavy workload, and rarely tie in with what is happening at school.) This would require some tighter coordination between our program sponsor, the Office of Academic Enhancement (OAE), the NLU TIE program, the principals at our respective schools, and the students (and we would then really become co-creators of our education). The principals especially would need to be on board, and transcend their perception of their technology teachers as OAE-subsidized tech support personnel (aka electronic janitor). I think there are a lot of possibilities here. Our schools would become more like lab schools for discovering best practices; and our classes at NLU become more like a collaborative forum for evaluating results.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Globalization and charter schools

Below is a link to a paper I did a few months ago for a class on current education issues. I wanted to better understand the charter school phenomenon as an expression of globalization as I have understood it. Here is the abstract:

Education has always reflected the mode of production. "Globalization" is a new mode of capitalist production, capitalism in the age of electronics, with distinctive features and demands. Charter schools, as an education reform, reflect important threads within globalization. First, the reform of educational content and delivery is really a change to meet the needs of globalization for new skill sets. Second, charter schools are a form of privatization, which is an important feature of globalization's demand for new sites of valorization and profit. Third, the network form is an emergent property of globalization, which is expressed through attempts to break down the centralized public school system through charter schools. The debate around charter schools takes place within the assumption of the supremacy of the market and the inevitability of globalization, leading to a set of limited or even false choices. For a real debate on education reform, one must move beyond the narrow confines of the terms of globalization.
I need to work a more on the ideas I think. Comments welcome; here is the link to the full piece: Globalization and charter schools.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why isn't this mandatory reading in teacher ed?

I am just starting to read over the Alliance for Childhood's publication Fool's Gold (see previous post), and am surprised that I only just heard of this publication (or its sister publication Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology) after spending the past almost two years in teacher education classes, which included completing one Masters program and now being almost halfway through a second one. And I only happened across the Alliance's publications because of a reference in another book, Todd Oppenheimer's Flickering Mind.

Mea culpa: I should have been more conscious of this technology in education counter-culture. I worked on Computer Professionals for Social Responsibilities (CPSR)-Berkeley's "A Computer and Information Technologies Platform" in 1992; I have been in CPSR for as many years (okay, membership lapsed for a year+, but I just took care of that), I have read a fair amount about Waldorf methods, I have read a good deal of Steve Talbott's work (which is in a similar vein), and worked with computers long enough to know many of the risks and limitations of their use in learning. I am pretty sure I am in an emailable relationship (i.e., they would open an email from me and maybe respond) with two members of the "Alliance for Childhood Roundtable of Rethinking Technology Literacy", very fond of the writing of another member (David Abram), have read things by another member, and recognize the name of one more member. So I feel like I should have been more on top of this. Why not I ask myself -- perhaps it is because the last two years have been such a blur of switching professions, trying to get up to speed on how to teach, switching roles again, taking grad classes, etc. that I have not really taken the time to seriously reflect on, especially, the proper role of new technologies in education. But that sense of knowing better, of not being more cognizant and critical and self-critical is part of why Oppenheimer's book, and the Alliance's publications, have made such an impression on me.

And this year I am a technology teacher, with the specific charge to help teachers integrate new technologies into the curriculum and instruction. I am in a Masters program cohort with other teachers in a similar position in CPS, and we have yet to seriously discuss what is appropriate technology in the classroom. Serious in the sense of what is a proper framework, why do it, what do others say, what does research have to tell us (accepting that educational research is so mushy and inconclusive), what does our own experience tell us -- personal experience as well as experience teaching and helping others to teach. Let's step off of the train for a few minutes, and consider where it is going.

That set of questions in the previous paragraph -- those are important questions!


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ten Principles for a New Literacy of Technology

This is probably old news to people who have followed educational technology for a while. But I just came across the Alliance for Childhood's two publications on technology in education. Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood came out in 2000, followed by Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology (both publications are available as PDFs from the Alliance website). Hopefully I will be able to review them here, but in the meantime, here are "Ten Principles for a New Literacy of Technology" from Tech Tonic:

1. Slow down: honor the developmental needs of children.

2. With adolescents, teach technology as social ethics in action, with technical skills in a supporting role.

3. Relationships with the real world come first.

4. Technology is not destiny; its design and use flow from human choices.

5. Choice implies limits—and the option to say “no.”

6. Those affected by technological choices deserve a voice in making them.

7. Use tools and technologies with mindfulness.

8. To teach technology literacy, become technologically literate.

9. Honor the precautionary principle: When uncertain, err on the side of caution.
• Ask tough questions about long-term consequences.
• Make time, space, and silence for reflection.
• Responsibility grows from humility.
• Be resourceful with the tools you already have.

10. Respect the sacredness of life in all its diversity.


Monday, May 25, 2009

The limits of technology - thinking about two recent articles

Reviews of two recent articles...

I came across Sam Anderson's "In Defense of Distraction", which appeared in New York Magazine (May 17, 2009) via the main source of my education news, the Diigo in Education group email updates. The article is quite funny. Anderson considers the "attention crisis": "the problem of attention has migrated right into the center of our cultural attention." The source of the many distractions are new technologies; and the distractions are leading us into a "dark age": "Adopting the Internet as the hub of our work, play, and commerce." Anderson writes, "has been the intellectual equivalent of adopting corn syrup as the center of our national diet, and we’ve all become mentally obese."

The "doomsayers" are silly, he argues, because (a) every technological advance has had its crop of doomsayers [I'm not sure why that makes it silly, only consistent - jd] and (b) "the virtual horse has already left the digital barn", so the question is not how to stem the tide of inattentive multitasking, but how to deal with it, if at all.

New technologies lead us to "continuous partial attention" (Anderson is quoting "tech theorist" Linda Stone) -- we are never quite focused on anything, flitting from task to task, and we are less capable for it. Two quotes from his article: "People who frequently check their e-mail have tested as less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana," and "If Einstein were alive today, [David Meyer -- a leading cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan] says, he’d probably be forced to multitask so relentlessly in the Swiss patent office that he’d never get a chance to work out the theory of relativity."

As something of an aside, Meyer's quote raises an aspect of distraction that Anderson does not address. Distractions are forced onto the modern worker (especially those who process information) as part of the intensification of work. This is classic Marxist economic theory -- the imperative to maximize profit requires either the extension of the work day or the intensification of the work process, to squeeze more value out of the worker in a given slice of time. As in "forced to multitask so relentlessly". As Anderson does note, such task-switching is death to deep creativity, which reinforces the idea that most "information workers" are not there to add value as creative thinkers, but are simply meatbots routing information and making quick decisions too complex (yet) to be done by a machine. So an important source of distraction is not technology per se, but the conditions under which technology is deployed. While public school teachers are putatively in the not-for-profit sector of the economy, they face the same productivity mandate. It bleeds in from the privatized education sector and education directives emanating from the world economy. So teachers are constantly pulled from one thing to another in an attempt to produce more in the same or less amount of time.

Anderson reviews one possible solution to "the attention problem": deliberately focusing attention or meditation. He also explores medical solutions -- neuroenhancers like Adderall, intended as an ADHD treatment, which tends to "focus the mind" ("can produce, in healthy people, superhuman states of attention"); and "lifehacking", an endless quest for organizing one's life (but, "One of the weaknesses of lifehacking as a weapon in the war against distraction, [Merlin Mann, one of the "stars" of the lifehacking movement] admits, is that it tends to become extremely distracting").

Anderson then moves from possible antidotes to distraction to suggest that we should embrace the "poverty of attention". After all, an important part of creativity is allowing the mind to float so that it can "mark the before unapprehended relations of things" (as Shelley described metaphor). He remarks on the perhaps quintessential distraction in literature of Marcel Proust and his madeleine. A super-focused person would not allow him or herself to be transported by a cookie. As Anderson notes, people who take Adderall also have the sensation of losing their creativity (quoting Slate writer Joshua Foer, "I had a nagging suspicion that I was thinking with blinders on"). The ability to be distracted is a gift, part of our human makeup, that helps us in many ways.

So new technologies have created a world of constant interruption, but distraction is good. The constant stream of distractions allowed by email, text messages, phone calls, Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. maybe are good things? As Anderson concludes,

There’s been lots of hand-wringing about all the skills they might lack, mainly the ability to concentrate on a complex task from beginning to end, but surely they can already do things their elders can’t—like conduct 34 conversations simultaneously across six different media, or pay attention to switching between attentional targets in a way that’s been considered impossible... Kids growing up now might have an associative genius we don’t—a sense of the way ten projects all dovetail into something totally new. They might be able to engage in seeming contradictions: mindful web-surfing, mindful Twittering. Maybe, in flights of irresponsible responsibility, they’ll even manage to attain the paradoxical, Zenlike state of focused distraction.

There are a lot of "mights" in those final sentences. "Might and maybe", but (maybe) or (probably) teachers have a role to play here in helping make that leap from attention-switching or flitting to connection-making and solution-finding.

As any teacher will tell you, attention, engagement, focus, etc. are major issues in the classroom. Electronic media are a major part of students' lives; Anderson writes that "One recent study found that American teenagers spend an average of 6.5 hours a day focused on the electronic world, which strikes me as a little low." One of the most striking things to me, from this past school year, has been the degree to which otherwise rowdy students will focus on a computer screen, whether it be watching a BrainPOP video or floating around the virtual science investigation of River City or assembling a beat with GarageBand.

One is tempted to declare victory and leave it at that. But what are the kids learning? As I am reminded from different directions, including by our advisors from CUIP (the expanded acronym is too long to write out, check the link for more) or Todd Oppenheimer's book, The Flickering Mind, or any decent pedagogy course, we want the students to become deeper thinkers (or move higher up Bloom's taxonomy). The verbs that go along with Bloom's highest level (I am looking at "Quick Flip Questions for the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy" from Edupress, 2001) include "adapt", "build", "create", "elaborate", "imagine", "predict", and so on. My suspicion, or perhaps, my fear, is that the way we use technology (or to 'fess up, the way I have helped my teachers use technology this year) has not led to these "higher-order thinking skills" ("HOTS" in ed lingo, a field which is as fond of acronyms as the high tech field). To go further, I suspect that these skills are not attainable via technology.

Goethean science provides a useful structure for sorting out and organizing the conflicting actions of focus and "distraction". Goethe was also a scientist, and approached scientific investigation in a distinctive, rather poetic, way. Inasmuch as it can be described as a "method", it is consists of two main phases. The first phase is the focused examination of the object under investigation, including both careful observation as well as learning what past researchers have observed. The second phase is the recreation of the phenomenon in the imagination, reflecting or meditating on the object. These two phases succeed each other iteratively, each feeding the other, towards new questions and further and deeper understanding of the phenomenon. (This method is described and explored in the writings of Craig Holdrege at the Nature Institute). The concentrated focus is essential for apprehending the phenomenon; while the recreation of the object in the imagination opens the mind to a kind of "distraction" or wandering that can yield new insights, connections, and meaning, of developing a deep sensitivity and knowledge of the phenomenon. Both phases are necessary, and reinforce each other.

In this process, technology can take one only so far. The role of the imagination in the process of knowing cannot be done with technology. It is uniquely done in the mind. Technology might help in the focused observation phase (microscopes, data collection and statistical analysis, literature review) and in the reporting of results (which granted is an opportunity for additional reflection), the meaningful higher order thinking skills are cultivated away from computers, during reflection time. It might happen during walks or conversations or staring out the window or sitting with one's eyes closed, thinking about the phenomenon.

Attention-flitting has some benefits somewhere along the timeline of investigation, but for Anderson's mights and maybes to come into being, it needs to be combined with other skills and attitudes like focus and reflection. Reflection allows for a kind of gentle distraction, not the jangle of electronica. Here comes into play the role of a teacher, to cultivate the entire range of mental activities that go into deep understanding.

Another recent article also raised questions for me about the role of technology in education. Sunday's (May 24, 2009) New York Times Magazine includes an article by Matthew Crawford, "The Case for Working With Your Hands", which discusses something I have been thinking about vis-a-vis the kids at my school. I don't think the students at my school get nearly enough experience working with materials, with stuff. Partly this is a function of economics, what they are exposed to at home, opportunities, what their families can afford, etc. Partly this is a function of the economy at large, of globalization, or capitalism in the age of electronics. People are more likely to buy things instead of make them, further constraining the opportunities to work with matter. Neighborhood opportunities may be constrained, because of social marginalization. Partly it is a function of other, related social conditions. I am thinking about Richard Louv's "nature deficit disorder", and the lack of opportunities for kids to interact with nature. The streets can be dangerous, so better to stay inside. Outside of the very important opportunities in once-a-week art class, and maybe occasional hands-on science lessons, students do not have a lot of opportunity to work with stuff, to interact with matter.

Crawford's article reminds us that interacting with matter -- wood, stone, fabric, dirt, flowers, clay, paint, etc. directly is an important, direct source of knowledge. In our mediated world, "confrontations with material reality have become exotically unfamiliar." We have become world-stupid. I am reminded of a perhaps apocryphal story related by a former co-worker who had returned from a photo safari in East Africa. On a previous outing, a tourist was mauled by a lion after he insisted on getting out of the Range Rover to photograph the animal close-up. I assume that the tourist had previously encountered lions on television, with no mishaps. Nothing in his experience led him to think there was any danger in getting out of the car.

This indicates another weakness of technology's typical role in the classroom. Technology is often used to give students exposure to the world, by reading articles or watching video. But these are mediated experiences, and have lost most of the richness of direct contact. (Which is not to say mediated experiences are not useful, just that they are not a proper substitute for the real thing.) We learn with our hands as well as our eyes and ears. You can't really understand how the world works without engaging with it directly.

Crawford brings up another dimension of engagement with the world -- how we engage with it. In describing the learning process of working with motorcycle engines, Crawford describes the process as a "conversation": "Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness." This echoes what Craig Holdrege has written about doing Goethean science. He describes scientific investigation as a conversation with phenomena, which also implies an ethical respect for the object of investigation. (See also this piece I wrote: "The Goethean Approach and Human Artifacts")

Again, there is a proper place for technology in the classroom, but the material interaction with keyboard and mouse cannot replace the important interactions with everything else.

I realize I am not saying anything new