This week, the term “precision,” describing a new approach to social engineering, caught my attention. The first thing that caught my eye was this article, on “precision medicine.”  The Harvard Magazine article reports on genome-specific strategies for treating cancer, as well as immunotherapies, both informed by a accelerating mountain of information about cancer genetics, and methodologies for diagnosis of individuals’ oncogenetic profiles.  The article makes clear that there are real breakthroughs, and definite limitations to those successes, owing in large part (as I understand it) to the complexity of cancers’ genetics, especially the rapid mutations which render a patient’s last-year’s miracle intervention no longer effective.

Meanwhile, Ben Williamson at the fascinating blog Code Acts in Education posted a long, rich essay (his blog posts are typically long-form) on “personalized precision education and intimate data analytics.”   The rapidly expanding “personalization” movement is being linked more and more with the collection of personal data on learners, and used according to emerging theories about learning which are very often self-validated by the creators.  Williamson places “precision education” alongside its fore-runners and models, “precision medicine,” “precision agriculture,” and “precision electioneering.”

Williamson writes

precision education is based on enormous ambitions. It assumes that the sciences of genes, neurology, behaviour and psychology can be combined in order to provide insights into learning processes, and to define how learning inputs and materials can be organized in ways best suited to each individual student…Precision education represents a shift from the collection of assessment-type data about educational outcomes, to the generation of data about the intimate interior details of students’ genetic make-up, their psychological characteristics, and their neural functioning.

The term “educational neuroscience” appears frequently, but the advocates and researchers in this field clearly assume that genetics is a central part of their model of learning.  So also is psychological profiling through which large amounts of data taken on individuals (for example, through their use of educational technology) is interpreted for the purposes of guidance (or, in other words, control). Theory expressed as software — producing not just general theory about people, but a theory about how you work, you as an individual.

The “blog on learning and development” (BOLD), a good place to look for emerging ideas and research trends in this area, says

Proponents of EN argue for using the most sophisticated technologies to find out more about the learning brain and ensure that everyone has the best possible chance to learn. This process is a challenge, and EN offers no quick fixes. In time, EN will provide tools for educators and learners through carefully designed, well-thought-out research. EN will also lead to recommendations for policymakers, who can advocate for the use of scientifically-tested modern teaching and learning methods in schools.

The earnest author lets us know that we are not to expect “quick fixes.”  But it’s not as though the current educational “system” has been able to resist seizing on possibilities and turning them into quick fixes and even imperatives— think of:

high stakes standardized tests, or data-driven systems increasingly employed  to do everything from grade students’ essays to evaluate teachers’ performance on the basis of student test scores to implement unresearched personalized/competency/”knowledge ecology” systems that promise to solve problems that are defined by the advocates of such systems as the most urgent ones to address — such as the teaching of 21st century skills and 21st century compentencies, and the emergence of new ways of learning that must be incorporated as soon as possible and as thoroughly as possible — and introducing efficiencies into the labor- and resource-intensive process of helping our children increasingly participate in society.

When I put myself in the shoes of a researcher in “educational neuroscience” or one of the cognate fields of inquiry, I can feel the fascination of the science.  When I put myself in the shoes of a teacher, student, parent, citizen, however, I feel the need to ask, just what equivalence is there between “precision medicine” and  “precision education.”  What are the issues of agency, authority, and control in each case, and how do they apply?  So far, if I have cancer (or a head-cold), I can exercise some choice about how this will be addressed.  I may well cede authority to a physician to carry out the choice, I will rely on her recommendations for which path to try, but I can choose A or B, or neither — on the basis of probabilities, or reasoning about consequences, or feelings, or whim.

On the other hand, when “precision education” systems, informed by educational neuroscience,  emerge which (to quote the BOLD essay) ” lead to recommendations for policymakers, who can advocate for the use of scientifically-tested modern teaching and learning methods in schools, ”  how will that look?

What agency will a teacher, parent, or student have?  What level of evidence will be expected, before the new “findings” are put into practice?  What kinds of critique will be accepted — from the point of view of power relationships, moral agency, the implicit values of the technology and their effects on culture and on individual lives (I recommend Ursula Franklin‘s work as a good place to start — check out her Massey lectures “The real world of technology” here, briefly summarized by an admirer here).

There are so many ways in which our government and the economic system experiment on us without our knowledge or consent, and so little recourse for someone who suffers “collateral damage”  — it’s best that we think and feel and argue about all this soon.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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Learning styles, again

Audrey Watters, in her “weekly news,” tracks ed research and “research.” Her news post for April 13 links to an article in the Atlantic which reports  recent research  on “learning styles.” This piece is in no sense a systematic review article, as it reports principally on research that casts some shade on the concept (the title of one article on learning styles and study strategies in college anatomy students begins “Another nail in the coffin?” ).  Nevertheless, I recommend the Atlantic piece and the embedded links.  I think it provides a cautionary tale — if one more were needed — about the temptation to seize on interesting ideas, and turn them into educational dogma (in this case, held by students, teachers, educational designers, publishers, parents, and many others).

I encountered “learning styles” as an educational idea early on in my science ed career, in conversations with science teachers about why they taught the way they taught.  Some had learned some notions about learning styles during their teacher training;  some had just picked it up from colleagues or other sources.

It’s one of those ideas (sometimes labelled “neuromyths“) that has intuitive appeal for someone immersed in the complex particularities of the classroom or similar settings (they are not just a phenomenon in education.  Whether they are seen merely  heuristics — helpful rules of thumb to assist decision making — or as established findings of cognitive science, such ideas play a valuable role in imposing some manageable order on what often feels like chaos.  It’s no wonder that one study found that more than 90% of teachers from Europe to China subscribe to at least this version of the theory (see here for another study reaching the same conclusion):

Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic)

“Learning styles”  theory provides two benefits in this connection.  First, it provides initial hypotheses about why some kids are learning some material only with a real struggle.  Second, it provides some ideas for actions the teacher can take to make things better.   Moreover, since this  theory suggests that all people have such learning styles, a teacher may use the theory to reflect on their own preferred “teaching style,” in terms of visual, auditory, reading/writing or kinesthetic modes.

The problem is, there is little evidence that, if you can identify the child’s  preferred learning style (a challenge in itself), and if you address it with appropriate methods for presenting information (or eliciting it from the child), the result will be “better learning,” or other kinds of success.

Rogowsky et al. (2015) did a study of students in a college history class, comparing visual with verbal learners — taking into account the students’ self-perceptions of their learning styles, but also using a standard screening technique to sort students into the two learning styles. Their study found that personal learning style did not correlate well with actual aptitude (ability to learn with either style).  Moreover, learning with a preferred learning style did not result in improved learning outcomes.   This sort of result has been borne out in many other instances.  (See here for a study comparing print book vs. ebook learning, in which there are interesting variations even within one “mode” of learning, the verbal or reading/writing — and in many contexts print serves many students better.)

An interesting,  nuance, however, is introduced by a paper like “Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information,”  (only the abstract is accessible, here).  The authors find no difference in performance between students learning through preferred mode and those that don’t — but the students’ “judgement of learning” is that they learn better in one mode than the other.

So here, the suggestion is that you may feel more comfortable about your learning if it’s in a preferred mode.  Of course this is not a negligible benefit, but it needs to be distinguished from other marks of actual learning, such as ability to recall the material, or bring it into use.   Indeed, one can argue, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has on many occasions (see here for his resource page on learning styles), that it might be better for the learner to help them gain capacity using learning styles they are not comfortable with.

Willingham addresses comments from teachers who have used learning styles in their teaching, and believe it’s helped:

When I talk to teachers about this, I often get a question of this sort from a teacher who is clearly a little offended and/or a little angry. The teacher seems to take my point to imply that a teacher whose practice is informed by a learning styles theory must not be doing a good job.   It’s important to be clear that learning styles is not a theory of instruction. It is a theory of how the mind works. So when I say “there’s no evidence for learning styles” I am making a claim about the mind, not about instruction.

Kids are richly complicated.  Teachers are richly complicated.  Put them together in groups, working on interesting and perhaps challenging material, and the number of processes at work that result in some learning explodes.   As Willingham writes,

Lots of stuff aside from learning styles goes into the practice of teachers who ask me this question: their knowledge of kids, their emotional sensitivity, their knowledge of the content, their knowledge of pedagogy, etc.

I close by noting that even Neil Fleming, the educator who originated the V-A-R-K model of learning styles (and developed the VARK inventory for “diagnosing” learning styles), regrets the ways that the learning styles notion has been reified, and (may I say) commercialized and mythologized, even while maintaining its value.

VARK above all is designed to be a starting place for a conversation among teachers and learners about learning….I sometimes believe that students and teachers invest more belief in VARK than it warrants. It is a beginning of a dialogue, not a measure of personality. It should be used strictly for learning, not for recreation or leisure.

Some also confuse preferences with ability or strengths. You can like something, but be good at it or not good at it or any point between. VARK tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication.


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What matters in education? Rushing the littles

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed several stories related to early childhood education, providing evidence that “Kindergarten is the new first grade,” or something like that.  A paper by Bassok et al. from 2016, provides some evidence that things have indeed changed over the period 1998-2010.  By “things” they mean teachers’ beliefs that more academics in kindergarten increases the likelihood of success in later schooling.  In 1998, 31% of kindergarten teachers thought kids should learn to read in kindergarten;  in 2010, it was 80%. The majority of teachers now believe that parents should have taught their kids the alphabet before K, and indeed that kids should have already had some formal preparation in reading and math. Meanwhile, music, foreign language, dance, art — all are becoming more rare:

In 1998, just over a third of kindergarten teachers reported daily music instruction. This figure dropped by 18 percentage points in 2010, and a similar pattern is evident for art instruction, where the percentage of teachers reporting daily instruction dropped from 27% to 11%. We also document a substantial increase in the likelihood that dance, theater, and foreign language are not taught at all during the kindergarten year. For example, whereas 18% of teachers reported never doing theater activities with their kindergarteners in 1998, in 2010 that figure rose to 50%.

Lilian Katz, in a report to Defending the Early Years, draws on literature about early childhood learning to draw a distinction between academic goals for children, and intellectual goals.  If you define your goals for early learning as academic, you are going to advocate instruction which is clearly designed to begin the child’s engagement with curricular content and “skills” as typically defined these days.  Intellectual goals, on the other hand, relate to things like conversation and discussion, questions and exploration, and (as she says) “a range of asthetic and moral sensibilities” — the sorts of things that children encounter in cooperative tasks, play, narrative, and the arts.   She suggests that the literature bears out this academic vs. intellectual distinction, especially in terms of lasting benefit:

the common sense notion that “earlier is better” is not supported by longitudinal studies of the effects of different kinds of preschool curriculum models. On the contrary, a number of longitudinal follow-up studies indicate that while formal instruction produces good test results in the short term, preschool curriculum and teaching methods emphasizing children’s interactive roles and initiative, while not so impressive in the short term, yield better school achievement in the long term.

A recent report from Massachusetts —  whose educational attainment  is generally held up for admiration — looks at another dimension of this question, and for me illustrates the narrowness of much educational thinking these days.  You can read an article about the study, with links to it, here at Valerie Strauss’s blog, “The Answer Sheet. ”  In the study, Clark Fowler of Salem State Univ. (Salem, MA) examines trends in the amount of “child directed activity” now typical in MA kindergartens.  The study is a nice example of someone motivated by ‘anecdata’ to colect actual data — the original anecdotes brought to Fowler’s attention  possible contrasts between high-SES schools and low-SES schools, and his study keeps that comparison in mind.

But the study also examined an additional phenomenon — the decline in K teachers’ autonomy in the classroom (or, the rise in “administrator mandated” , often scripted, instruction).  Thus, children’s loss of agency is in many cases paralleled by the teachers’ loss of agency — this despite the fact that the large majority of principals have no expertise in early childhood education.  (Spoiler alert:  Student and teacher autonomy tend to be more restricted in  low-SES communities than high-SES ones, though the trend applies to all.)

Strauss comments:

The findings … underscore a push around the country in recent years toward more “academic” kindergartens. This is the newest evidence that the pattern is continuing — even in a progressive state, despite a new emphasis in education on “social-emotional learning.”

Now, I think there are a lot of reasons to push back against this trend, and for a science educator the core reason is that the most precious resource for children as science learners is curiosity, and related to that is the experience of wonder and delight.  Related in turn to all of these are boredom and day-dreaming,which are also important reservoirs of creativity and invention.   These are not scriptable.  Thoreau put it nicely when he wrote (in Walden) that he loved a broad margin to his life. So do we all, and we need it to stay human.

But I was discouraged a bit by Dr. Fowler’s arguments for why the trend to curtain unprogrammed time (including lunch and snack time) is likely to be harmful.

In order to benefit fully from instruction, children need frequent breaks from teacher directed tasks… requiring children to pay attention to teacher assigned tasks for extended periods of time decreases children’s motivation to participate in the instructional activities and decreases their capacity to retain and  consolidate learning…. Wakeful rest is associated with default mode processing, a form of mental activity that facilitates the development of social cognition, moral emotions, and creativity. Napping is associated with increased recall and emotional stability….

Fowler also cites Montessori and Csikszentmihaly as “first noticing”   that self-selected and self-directed activities are personally meaningful.  He then goes on to make the point that high degrees of autonomy is also good for teachers (who, in his survey, report decreasing time to reflect and learn — alarming, since that time has always been too little in the typical American school, in constrast to the practice in other cultures).

There is no sense that schooling is not, in a way, an artificial environment, in which we learn to restrain or postpone some individual business or urges, while encountering experiences, people, and phenomena that we would not even know to choose for ourselves.  Yet I can’t help but agree with those who believe that we too much ignore  the narrowing and controlling of attention, subject matter, time, and values that we have been seeing and colluding with over the past 35 years or so.

I am reminded of Ellen Lagemann’s famous statement (in An elusive science, pg 185):

One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.


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Arne sees progress. How about you?

The former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has published a column in the Washington Post (dated April 1) in which he argues that the past 30 years of education reform have been a success, or at least have produced some successes. I am curious how STEM educators react to it.  I have to admit some trouble with his claims, and his framing of the topic.   In what follows, I write as a science educator — and I hope that math, technology, engineering, and computer science educators will weigh in with their own views.

Duncan’s article, like many articles about educational interventions, is a little fuzzy on the actual time period in which “education reform” has been going on.  He mentions “the past 30 years,” so that means his start date is 1987.  What was the ground-breaking innovation that year?  A Nation at Risk (ANAR) came out in 1983.    What happened 4 years later that (perhaps in retrospect) signals the onset of modern reform?  But then elsewhere in his article, Duncan reaches further back:

Since 1971, fourth-grade reading and math scores are up 13 points and 25 points, respectively. Eighth-grade reading and math scores are up eight points and 19 points, respectively. Every 10 points equates to about a year of learning, and much of the gains have been driven by students of color.

It should be noted that the student population is relatively poorer and considerably more diverse than in 1971. So, while today’s kids bring more learning challenges, they perform as much as 2½ grades higher than their counterparts from half a century ago.

The references are to NAEP scores, whose use can be debated, but at the least it is worth noting that the largest proportion of positive change, where it occurs, happened before 2004, and much of it before 2000. This again begs the question, what “reform” are we evaluating that produced this improvement since 1987, or 1971?  Why can’t we attribute the improvements to the large investments made in curriculum materials and in teacher PD during the previous 15 years?  (Also, “10 points equates to about a year of learning”? )

Duncan heralds the establishment of  high standards as one success,

A decade ago, learning standards were all over the place. Today, almost every state has raised standards.

but here again methodology for his comparisons is not clear.  The AAAS Benchmarks, which sort of mark the onset of the era of modern standards, were published in 1993, and the NRC Science Standards in 1996.  So when are we starting the clock for this comparison, actually, and of which reforms are we considering the impact?  By 2012, the widely-quoted Fordham evaluation of state science standards gave D or F ratings to the majority of states.  Even if standards have improved in the past 5 years (on average, if you can “average” things like standards), how does that relate to his other metrics of success?

The dots are connected, for Duncan, by “accountability” and “courage.”

None of our progress happened because we stood still. It happened because we confronted hard truths, raised the bar and tried new things. Beginning in 2002, federal law required annual assessments tied to transparency. The law forced educators to acknowledge achievement gaps, even if they didn’t always have the courage or capacity to address them.

Now our timeline begins in 2002.  The reforms that made the difference (whatever that difference may actually be) were “annual assessments’ tied to “transparency, ” which seems to mean “acknowledging achievement gaps.”  I have heard this from other defenders of the NCLB strategy, and it’s never made sense to me.  Before 2002, no one knew where the issues were?  No one knew that some kids were getting short-changed, and in what ways?

A quick glance at the literature from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s (not to mention earlier) makes clear that many were aware of the “achievement gap,” though at the time “achievement” was not so narrowly construed as has now become the fashion.  School performance metrics were considered, for sure, but a lot else was included, also.  Jonathan Kozol put it pretty well in 1985:

“Someday, maybe,” Erik Erikson has written, “there will exist a well-informed, well-considered and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child’s spirit.”  If that day ever comes, American educators may be able to reflect with some horror upon the attitudes and procedures that have been allowed to flourish within a great many urban public schools.

Duncan has a list of reforms that he feels have shown success:  standards and accountability;  charters and school choice;  small schools; “teacher evaluation” (whatever he means by that).  In all cases, there is equivocal evidence for success at best — and in any case, Duncan’s assessment is that where there is success (measured mostly by test scores, but also in some cases by high school graduation rates or college enrollment rates), it is because of “the reforms,” while where success is not evident, it’s because of poor implementation or insufficient courage.

I am not the only connoisseur who finds the reasoning and the data in this piece unsatisfying and ahistorical,  and “school reform” as Duncan praises it to be incoherent, and as much a hindrance to teachers and students as a help — especially when dissatisfaction with “reform” is used to intensify “disruption” of the sort beloved by free- market idolaters.

But maybe I am being too grouchy or too skeptical? If you see things getting better, what are they, and what has made the improvements happen, in your view?


NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 

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Talking and teaching

In your projects, what role does classroom talk take, and who is doing the talking?  The typical story of STEM education’s evolution recounts an increasing emphasis on the social construction of knowledge — and that means, a lot of the time, talk, argumentation, negotiation, story-telling… A classic paper addresses the importance of “establishing the norms of scientific argumentation  in the classroom,” and much research before and since has explored how talk  — of certain kinds — plays its central role, and how teachers can learn to support STEM talk in the classroom (see here for a “primer” for teachers from the Talk Science project).

Of course, there has always been talking in classrooms, but increasingly sophisticated classroom anthropology and sociolinguistics over the years has made clear that the kinds of talk and the balance of talk —who’s occupying air time —  in the classroom reveals a lot about the model of learning that applies.  Who’s talking to whom, at what stages of the inquiry or sense-making?  Who sets the topic of conversation, asks the questions, provides or debates possible answers?  This has been seen to provide evidence about who’s really doing the thinking in the class (see here for an article by Joni Falk and myself that sets out this point of view in relation to inquiry-based science).

Larry Cuban has started a series of blog-posts on instructional patterns, which returns to the question of talk, teacher talk, and modes of instruction.  The first has the provocative title “Whatever happened to direct instruction?”  Cuban begins by setting the problem thus:

The research evidence that direct instruction (lower-case “d and “i”) and Direct Instruction (capital letters) have positive effects on student learning–as measured by standardized test scores–has been around for decades yet most educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who urge school and classroom decisions to be data-driven and evidenced-based have hardly popped champagne corks welcoming this clear direction for what teachers should incorporate in their classroom lessons (see here). This is puzzling.

He notes that “direct instruction” is the generic term for teacher-centered techniques, while Direct Instruction is a term for a kind of scripted teaching, in which (at its best) teachers are supported by the script-scaffolds to adopt or consistently maintain a pedagogy that is new to them.  Regardless, “direct instruction” has over the years acquired negative associations, as an antagonistic practice to “student-centered learning”  (a term now being appropriated for more recent fads and sales campaigns).

Good pedagogues have always known that almost any pedagogical technique can be useful under certain circumstances, and a key element of teacher wisdom is being aware of the balance among the possibilities (see here for a workshop activity aimed at getting science teachers to reflect on the balance of their practices).  As Cuban writes:

Most teachers have a knapsack of techniques they use with their students that are hybrids of teacher- and student-centered approaches. Blending high student-participation in whole group activity from a discussion to a quiz game, small-group work, and lectures, say in a U.S. history or Algebra 2 class, is common. Mixed strategies of teaching is the norm among elementary and secondary teachers (see here and here)… The mixes will differ by academic discipline, age of students, beliefs about how students learn, and other factors but hybrid approaches are dominant.

Cuban then moves from this reasonable conclusion to a question that would seem (to me) not to follow at all from it:

what is the ideal ratio between percentage of teacher- and student-talk in a lesson. Is it 80-20? 70-30? 60-40? 50-50?

I would have thought that his prior reflections would provide the answer:  “It depends.”  Rather, I shoudl have thought the correct question is, How do you decide what is the right balance for these particular students, at this particular stage in their learning a topic, under these particular classroom conditions (e.g. time, space, equipment, class size, etc.).  The question of an ideal balance seems both a wrong question and a potentially misleading or damaging one, if it is turned into canons of behavior, or even metrics for assessment.

Yet, in his second post, this question does lead him to a very useful observation:

The initial problem is that most teachers simply do not know how much they talk and how much their students talk. Do most teachers talk 80 percent of a lesson? 70? 60? 50? Historical studies put the ratios in the 65-35 range (see here and here). Individually, few teachers could tell you the ratio of teacher-to-student talk in the lesson they just taught.

And indeed Larry is aware of the complexity, or unanswerability of his “ideal quantity” question — and also that there is substantial research on the nature of classroom discourse (as hinted above):

there are many kinds of teacher-talk: controlling behavior (“That’s enough Jimmy”); getting activities started (“Count off 1 to 5 for small group work”); asking content questions (“Annie, what does x equal in this equation?”); discussion moves (“Can anyone add to Tiffany’s point?”)—readers get the picture of multiple forms of teacher-talk that would have to be parsed. Ditto for student talk…Researchers call such analyses of teacher- and student-talk, “classroom discourse” (see here and here).

I look forward to the further development of his theme — but it made me browse among recent papers in the MSPnet Library:  How do these questions about teacher talk — “when, how much, and what kinds” — show up in the recent work posted there on engineering, computational thinking, modeling, etc. as elements of the improved STEM classroom?  Granted that this question would not be a focus of attention for many papers and reports, I still wondered as I wandered.  I will report on my explorations of the past 3 months of Library articles next time.

NOTE:  Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.


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Science at home — and first things first

Valerie Strauss, in her blog The Answer Sheet, has posted a story entitled “Parents want to help kids learn science — but many have no idea how.”  The story is actually written by Shelley Pasnik of EDC, based on a new report by that organization and SRI: “What parents talk about when they talk about learning: A national survey about young children and science”  (you can get the full study here).   It is full of interest, and I’d be curious to know what catches your eye if you have time to read Pasnik’s article, or the executive summary (“Overview”) of the study, or the study as a whole.

A quick tour of the findings (my paraphrasing):

• Most parents think it’s important for their kids to learn — though science wasn’t on the top of the list: “social skills, literacy and math” were. (Interesting, in comparison with studies like this one by Pew which found that the majority included science as a key “skill/knowledge” for students’ success (the range depended on the amount of education the respondents had — for those with less education, the proportion was 50%;  for those with at least some college, the number rose to 63%).

• Most parents say they help their kids with school work — and they are confident about helping with  “social skills, literacy and math.”  While they often do sciencey things around the house, though, at least half say they’re not sure what to do, or are not confident about science. They aren’t sure what kids need to know, and would appreciate some help with that,  and suggestions of things to do.

• Most report “using science media weekly or more” — but are not confident that these have helped their kids learn science.   The authors suggest that “Parents may be missing opportunities to deepen the impacts of these experiences.”

I was intrigued that the researchers did not define science for the survey participants.  They did ask them to talk about what they meant by science, and they summarize the responses thus (page 9):

Parents talked about their children’s curiosity and questioning, particularly during everyday routines such as taking the bus, walking to school, or going to the doctor. Children ask their parents about everything they see—the sky, birds, trees, seasonal changes, the moon, the sun. Some parents’ top-of-mind descriptions involved children doing science in relation to special projects, such as making “volcanoes,” mixing colors, making “slime,” or trying something out to “see what happens,” such as planting a seed and watching what comes up or leaving food out to see if mold grows on it.

Some parents responded that nothing came to mind about science, that they did not like science, that their children were too young to do science, or that they did not know if what their children did would be considered science. In these instances parents talked about science as difficult or confusing.

It comes as no surprise that many parents feel unequal to helping their young children learn science, because of their lack of knowledge, or their worry that they are not able to explain to their kids in a way they can understand.  From the point of view of school success, young children thus move from homes that may be supportive but lack confidence when it comes to science, to elementary schools in which their teachers also lack confidence, and perhaps knowledge, about science as well.  Elementary teachers’ under-preparation for teaching science is widely documented, as in this paper in which the issue is taken for granted as a problem needing to be addressed, both in terms of content, and in terms of an understanding of the nature of science and science pedagogy.

The EDC study suggests that parents understand that science is part of their kids’ world — that is, their everyday lives:

Only 6% of parents reported that their children did not engage in science-related activities, because of age or interest, and only a few parents (4%) did not know what science-related activities their child liked to do.

One source of anxiety, though, is not feeling confident that what they can do with their kids “counts” as science — and here one sees a possible confounding of  science as a human activity, and science as an academic subject.  Parents, when they are thinking about helping their kids with learning, are likely to be wanting to help their kids do well in school.

The study offers “5 essential messages” that address the needs and desires expressed by the parents whose opinions they examined (pg 52).

Parents don’t have to be scientists or know the “right answer” to help their children learn science…Parents are crucial to young children’s science learning and science exploration can start with wondering aloud and be reinforced with materials tailor-made for families….Science is for home, school and all the places in between….Science is watchable, readable, playable and doable…What parents need to engage in everyday science with their young children doesn’t need to be a secret.


For me, the key is that parents and teachers share an understanding of the roots of science as an emotion, as an orientation, as one way that anyone can inquire about their world — and that if you want to be a practitioner, there are things to learn, methods to practice, stories to hear, authorities to consult, lives to emulate or learn from.

One of the commenters on Strauss’s blog posted a quote from E.O. Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist,which struck home for me — Thank you, Malcolm Kirkpatrick!

“Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusas, rays, and sea monsters, nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I believe, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder….Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” (p. 11-12).

“Adults forget the depths of languor into which the adolescent mind descends with ease. They are prone to undervalue the mental growth that occurs during daydreaming and aimless wandering. When I focused on the ponds and stream lying before me, I abandoned all sense of time.”(p. 86-87).

NOTE:  Opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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Truth decay and STEM education

Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution)… the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics can generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.

Wording like this  (sometimes called “the Santorum language,” originating from the quondam Senator from Pennsylvania) has been part of legislation proposed annually in many states (and adopted in several).  The goal, sometimes stated explicitly, is  to provide a justification for the introduction of “alternatives” to such well-established but uncomfortable ideas as evolution and climate change. (See here for the 2017 scorecard of what I will call science control legislation, prepared by the National Center for Science Education).

Such language, which on the surface just is encouraging students to make up their own minds, and “think critically,” reflects the current high level of relativism being propagated and exploited to serve a variety of political and social agendas. The proponents of such legislation can have no idea what it means to “understand the full range of scientific views” on a topic such as evolutionary biology or climate change, much less for K-12 students to make their own informed choices about which views  they will espouse. The purpose, rather, is to convey a notion that science is primarily a matter of opinion, untrammeled by the constraints of theoretical coherence or empirical findings.

This is one manifestation of what an interesting study by RAND corporation calls “truth decay.”  The report examines how several powerful cultural developments have combined to render constructive social discourse and critique more and more difficult — amounting to what Al Gore some years ago called “the assault on reason.” The authors address 4 features (they call them trends) defining this decay (pg xi):
1. Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data;
2. A blurring of the line between opinion and fact;
3. The increasing relative volume, and resulting influence of, opinion and personal experience over fact;
4. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

The report suggests that this syndrome of trends is being driven by multiple causes.

  1. Characteristics of cognitive processing — for example, “cognitive bias,” and other ways in which we hear or communicate selectively, in ways that support our identities, our loyalties, our fears, or other aspects of our personalities or histories;
  2. Changes in the information system — including the rise of social media, the proliferation of media information sources, and the rapid, broad transmission of misinformation and disinformation.
  3. Competing demands on the educational system that list its ability to keep pace with changes in the information system;
  4. Polarization — sociodemographic, political, and economic.

Some of these are not new (as a lengthy historical chapter discusses), but the current deterioration of shared bases for discussion and debate is as severe as it is, because  all 4 “drivers” are active at the same time, and in ways that mutually reinforce each other.

I read the sections relating to #3 with particular interest.  The authors concede that schools can’t be expected to fix the current dysfunction — but they certainly believe that schools share some fault. For one thing, the Common Core makes some positive moves towards the teaching of critical thinking, but

these changes… have not occurred at the same time or at the same speed as many of the changes in the information system.. It is this lag, and this gap between the challenge and student preparation that we argue has been a driver of  Truth Decay because… it contributes to the creation of an electorate that is susceptible to bias, information, and misinformation, and is also liable to perpetuate this information and the challenges that come along with Truth Decay.

The authors clearly feel that if Education Reform had proceeded more rapidly and completely, we would not be in the pickle we are in.  More civics education and more teaching of critical thinking are the ticket, and as soon as possible!    They advocate teaching Civics and Critical Thinking as subjects in themselves but also acknowledge that critical thinking at least can be integrated in the way that subject matter is taught:

According to one study, students who are trained to conduct higher-level critical thinking tasks as part of the course curriculum learn material more deeply and completely and are better able to engage with it and apply it than those who are trained only to memorize and supply basic facts and responses.

Of course, there lurks beneath some of the language here the common canards that “traditional education” as the authors imagine it was 100 years ago still obtains in most schools, and that if only schools would be more modern they’d be a major part of the solution to the problem of critical thinking and Truth Decay.  As for science, education in the “scientific method” is the prescription offered here; there is little evidence in the document that the authors have any acquaintance with research about science education or the standards juggernaut that has roiled and re-shaped the accepted ideas of what good science education should be…

The study is useful, and its framework of “trends” and “drivers” I have found helpful and can make use of.  On the other hand, as far as I am concerned, a more urgent problem is the widespread ignorance, motivated reasoning, and polarization of the adults currently making legislation, setting standards, and trying to make policy in the absence of critical thinking, a knowledge of civics, and an understanding about how science asks questions of nature, and sets about getting (and interrrogating) some answers.  As exemplified in some of the legislation perennially introduced to make science less uncomfortable, and to restrain the wildness of curiosity and the freedom of inquiry.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. They are not necessarily shared by MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.



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Curriculum a panacea — again?

In my career at TERC, I have been a curriculum developer more than anything else. I love that work, because it’s about the science, and about doing  my best to help teachers bring exciting and absorbing phenomena to their students — and become excited and absorbed themselves as they work with the material.  Because I have done some science, taught some science, and had the pleasure of observing many science classrooms, when I design curriculum I am intensely aware that [a] it needs to work “out of the box,” — so the teacher feels that our materials are an opportunity, not a problem, and so we communicate what our team has tried to do, and [b] good teachers must and will bring their “read” of their kids and their own experience to bear, so that the experience engages the students with something of value.  Curriculum development+implementation is a dynamic collaboration among designers, teachers, and students — one of the more complex phenomena in the universe.  Dewey’s Child and Curriculum gets it right:

The fundamental factors in the educative process are an immature, underdeveloped being; and certain social aims, meanings, values incarnate in the matured experience of the adult. The educative process is the due interaction of these forces. Such a conception of each in relation to the other as facilitates completest and freest interaction is the essence of educational theory (Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum.  Middle Works vol 2: 273)

I came into this work in the 1980s, during a second wave of major investment by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in STEM curriculum (see here for an interesting timeline of science ed events over the past 60 years or so), when the panic-ripples instilled by A Nation at Risk were only just beginning to spread disturbance throughout the education enterprise.  Very soon, the intense focus turned to accountability, standards, systemic change, and (increasingly) the modern version of “reform.” After a few years of that, the message seemed to be that we had all the good curriculum we needed (hadn’t the NSF spent jillions on it since Sputnik?).  Then the Web arrived, and we all knew that Technology (of some kind) was going to fix what was broke.

Some people, including a lot of teachers, noted that science keeps marching on, so that materials from 10 years ago might remain beautiful of their kind, but still needed updating or reframing. (I am writing personally here, and science is my sphere, not STEM, so ‘science’ it will be hereinafter, and readers with other foci can translate for their own areas of interest.)  Many of the same people noted that if we were going to continue to help students get a feel for science as a creative enterprise, teacher methods need to reflect the question-driven, reflective, and discourse-rich inquiry of science as she is done.   Curriculum materials can help there, too.

It is with mixed feelings, therefore, that I learn that the Gates Foundation, as an important shaper of the “reform” idea now in the ascendent. As one story has it,

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a new plan intended to help public schools: improve the materials that teachers use to teach…The organization’s efforts will center on three areas, [a spokesperson] said. One is making “high-quality” materials more widely available. That means funding groups that develop curriculums and then make them publicly available, offering alternatives to the big textbook companies.   Another is steering decision-makers (read: school board members and school leaders) to select materials seen as high-quality, which the foundation will do by funding rating systems and research on teaching materials. And the third is helping teachers successfully use those materials, which Gates will do by funding organizations like TNTP that provide teacher training.

As commenters on this development note, it’s not all that easy to identify what we mean by “high quality” —  because of the dynamic nature of the classroom and the students in it, because of dramatic and often unpredictable availability of appropriate resources for science, and because teachers are different, too, in ways that are fundamental to the process of education (see here for Peter Greene’s  recent passionate reflections on this point).

The research that the Gates Foundation and its allies relies upon (importantly a recent literature review by Dr. David Steiner), sets curriculum in a central role in the design of education — and therefore as a key strategic focus for “reform” efforts that have so far produced mixed results at best.

What we teach isn’t some sidebar issue in American education: it is American education. The track record of top-performing countries, early evidence of positive effects from the faithful implementation of high-quality curricula here in the United States, and the persistent evidence that our classrooms are underchallenging our students at every level compel us to put the materials that we use to teach at the core of serious education reform.

While Dr. Steiner, and the Gates Foundation, recognize that “curriculum” is something that teachers enact, I have often had the feeling, reading through dozens of stories and think-tank reports, that “curriculum” somehow is being invested with mystic powers to effect “reform” — for example, from a story cited above:

Another analysis [BD note:  in a series entitled “Economic Studies”] found that simply allocating extra money (around $100 per student) for textbooks…can bump up elementary school test scores (though there was no noticeable impact in middle or high school).

None of the stories and advocacy pieces reflect an acquaintance with research over the past 50 years on textbook/curricula (not the same things!!) design and implementation, school culture and its effects on the classroom, the impacts of policy churn, teacher PD strategies,  and feast-famine funding cycles on classroom enactments.   Must we pretend that people only started thinking seriously about education in the past few years?

Moreover, it has been noted by commentators across the political spectrum that the metrics that will be used to identify “high quality” materials and “high quality” implementations are probably pretty poor.  As Joy Pullman of the Federalist (not a source I usually consult) writes :

The metrics for success that make the most sense to Bill Gates do not actually ensure success for children.

— the metrics being “bumps in test scores” (the linked report by Jay Greene is an interesting read).  The technocratic framing for tinkering with educational systems remains dominant (despite occasional cries of “mea culpa” from former advocates of same, see Rick Hess’s recent blog post here) .

Judging educational efficacy is just tough, no doubt about it.  Douglas Simpson and Michael Jackson write:

the curriculum is best taught, if Dewey is correct, when we view it as something that is gradually learned as novices and experts create stimulating and interactive environments that engage each student with others. The environments will need to be highly varied and variable, not created by distant spe- cialists. The outcomes of such learning will be various, too, but they will include the development of educated adults who think and act on the best available and warranted knowledge. (pg 27)

What role does curriculum play in your work?  Where are the gaps you see in educational materials?  How do you judge “quality”?  In your work on educational change, did you have to change your view of the role or importance of curriculum?

Curriculum is not “the heart” of education, but it’s close to it!

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 

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SEL#the last: The way we do things now

Once you define social and emotional capacities as “skills and competencies,” as we saw in the previous post, then you can think about metrics.  Over the past 50 years or so, we have exercised tremendous ingenuity in the whole process of “operationalization” of concepts (constructs) in ed research and assessment.  All this sophistication is being brought to bear on SEL.  Among the values of this way of thinking are such scientific virtues as validity and reliability/replicability, but also such bureacratic virtues as ease of administration and of scoring and analysis.   It takes time, expertise, and (frankly) money to develop analytic measures of this kind, and as any reader of this blog knows, it also takes more than one bite at the apple — successive iterations and refinements, and sometimes false starts. It’s no surprise that The Market has stepped in energetically.  Of course, we need metrics and tools!  You know you’ve been longing for just this kind of help!  A teacher writes for Panorama Education:

Despite the fact that there’s so much consensus about the importance of SEL, there haven’t been good ways to measure these skills and continue to be limited resources for teachers and administrators about how to teach SEL skills, emotions, behaviors and mindsets. When I was in the classroom, I would have been incredibly excited about having a usable survey tool to measure my student’s SEL skills and behaviors, and even more excited about a set of resources that would have helped me develop my ability to teach social-emotional skills, mindsets and behaviors to my students.

Audrey Watters describes the trend:

These novel apps, bearing names like ClassDojo and Hero K12, promised to help by collecting students’ behavioral data and encouraging teachers to project the stats onto their classroom’s interactive whiteboard in order to keep students “on task.” It is, they claim, all part of a push to create a “positive classroom culture.”

Panorama is one of several companies that  want to help:

SEL skills are critical to school, career, and life success. Panorama helps you understand and support each student with skills like growth mindset, self-efficacy, social awareness, and self-management.

Now, as I think about persistence, respect, self-monitoring, and confidence, I would expect that the goal would be to help teachers observe and reflect about these characteristics, and talk with their students about them at a level that the kids can meet.  My first thought would not be about data collection, for example using a survey asking 3rd graders (say) to answer a survey complex series of Likert-scaled questions.  This, however, is the approach taken by several enterprises (both commercial and not-for-profit) in the development of SEL tools for what we may call “diagnosis.”

There are systems that place their focus on behavior management.  The idea is that a school-wide “solution” will create a uniform set of standards, “incentives,” and interventions throughout a school.  The best way to do that, obviously, is to install a software system that supports school-wide data collection and program implementation.  Here is stating the need:

without a digital School Wide Positive Behavior Reinforcement program in place, schools struggle to collaborate across grade levels and departments, offering little to no consistency for students. The behaviors that teachers identify and reinforce are usually varied, and students have different standards they need to meet depending on whose class they are in. Often times, these benchmarks don’t line up with administrative initiatives and school standards—they are chosen because they are important for that individual classroom teacher.

ClassDojo focuses more specifically on classroom climate — for example, if you want your kids to “learn empathy,” ClassDojo has developed a suite of tools that “aligns with teachers’ vision of the classroom as a friendly learning environment where character matters and positive thinking can lead to powerful results.”   According to one report from 2016, “Last year, 65% of U.S. K-8 schools had at least one teacher using ClassDojo. This year, the company’s reach surpassed 90%.”

It branched into video content last year, with a five-part series on “growth mind-set,” an idea pioneered by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. Then, this past fall, the company introduced its “empathy” video series.

The videos are intended to be starters for conversation in the class, and I expect that many teachers make good use of them.  The range of tools and services available for purchase or subscription to support SEL in one of its many varieties — and many are designed to collect lots of data about students, sometimes primarily for teachers’ use, sometimes for the school or district — and what about all that data?

I invite you to follow some of these links and make up your own mind about this trend.  I am uncomfortable, and my discomfort has three different sources.  In each case, the concern or objection can possibly be addressed or mitigated — there are always examples of researchers, developers, adminstrators, policy makers, who understand the issues, and have found a way to a positive, respectful, and promising implementation of  some innovated technique or tool. Yet it is only too common for an analogue of Gresham’s Law to prevail — good versions of the innovation driven out by the bad.

In this case, the first two sources of discomfort are intensified or amplified by the third. The first source of my discomfort  is the “new behaviorism” mindset  that writers like Audrey Watters address.  Children (and other humans) are seen as fit subjects for shaping and molding towards some desired product — though the nature of the target keeps moving, and is often dictated by short-term imperatives of the market or of politics (as in Frederick Hess’s “policy churn”).

The second source of concern is precisely that policy makers or entrepreneurs, seeing the need or opportunity for SEL, define SEL (or its components), the “need” or “problem” , and the solutions to the problem,  in ways that are as convenient as possible for adminstration and evaluation, and for “getting to scale”  — embodied, for example, in the quickly multiplying  SEL technologies, “systems,” and programs for sale or trial. This is a point that Peter Greene makes in his energetic manner — and his recent post on this topic has found a growing response in ed blog readership.

Finally, as I alluded to in the first post of this series, the educational “system” is now becoming highly integrated across commercial, policy, and public sectors — not necessarily to deliver long-recognized resources and services to children and teachers, but  so as to rapidly propagate new policy ideas and associated products and services.   The system has been called “fast psycho policy.” Ben Willams writes, in a very challenging essay on this phenomenon in education (using ClassDojo as a case in point)

As an educational intermediary, a curator of educational discourse, and a provider of free services that deploys strategies of user engagement to gain users through network effects, ClassDojo needs therefore to be studied and understood as the assembled product of a complex web of people and organizations that designed and maintain it; technical components; business plans; expert discourses, and the technical, social and economic concerns that frame them.

This “fast-policy” system is embedded in the increasing penetration of “platforms” as the dominant infrastructure for our culture, and ‘curators of public discourse’ as argued by Tarleton Gillespie.

When we say we’re “in education,” what is it we actually in?  How can we keep open a wider range of answers to that question than the ones created by the dominant framing of social processes — including education — in our time?







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SEL #4: The “competency” frame

I have been fascinated to see how, as  “social and emotional learning”  (SEL) has gained currency as a focus of school policy, it as been translated into the native language of modern educational policy, that of standards and accountability.  This language has various dialects, and the one that seems to be increasingly in use is that of “competencies”  and skills.

A good example of this marriage of SEL and  “competency” is the recent report from Aspen Institute’s “National Commission on Social and Emotional Learning.” (The commission is one that Aspen  created;  the co-chairs are Linda Darling-Hammond, Gov. John Engler, and Tim Shriver of CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.)  The report tells us (pg. 10) that

Decades of research in human development, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and educational practice and policy have illuminated that major domains of human development—social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic—are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior. Moreover, all are central to learning and success.

Not only that, but

 “robust and irrefutable” research has confirmed that “these skills and competencies emerge, grow, and change over time from infancy, throughout childhood and adolescence, and even into adulthood.


To facilitate student success, adults must understand the broader environmental and social context in which students learn. They must also create and assess learning conditions that give students the opportunity to activate, demonstrate, and grow the social, emotional, and academic competencies they bring to the classroom.

Now, what is a “competency” in this era?  A widely-circulated list of core characteristics of a “competency,”  developed by iNACOL, reads thus:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

There’s work going on in many states to incorporate these values into their standards.   The State of Maine has developed “developmental frameworks” that are commended by CASEL, and one can see why.  Indeed, these frameworks do a pretty good job of integrating  SEL with other habits and processes of learning, working, and collaboration.  Yet a sample (from the guidelines on “clear and effective expression”) may suggest questions about how such descriptors could be operationalized as “explicit, measurable, transferrable learning objectives”  :

Recognizes how body language, tone, and delivery affect audiences differently, when modeled and identified by others.  Reflects on own level of engagement and emotional response, with feedback.  Relies on observations and feedback from others to adjust body language, eye contact, pace, and volume of speech or technique in writing.  Notices overt body language, tone, and expression of others.   Follows expectations in attempt to convey purpose, using basic conventions.   Tinkers with new forms of expression and techniques.

Illinois has also developed an elaborated set of SEL “learning standards.”  These are laid out as learning progressions keyed to 5 points in the K-12 timeline:  early and late elementary, middle school, and early and late high school.  The progression for “Use communication and social skills to interact effectively with others includes the following:

2C.1a (early elem.) “Identify ways to work and play well with others.”  
2C.2a (late elem) “Describe approaches for making and keeping friends.”  
2C.3a (middle/jr high) “Analyze waysto establish positive relationships with others.”  
2C.4a (early HS) “Evaluate the effects of requesting support from and providing support to others.”
2C.5a (late HS) “Evaluate the application of communication and social skills in daily interactions with others.”
The school authorities seem to have some sense of  how hard such “standards” would be to measure, much less incorporate into the curriculum (though I guess they’re moving ahead with them).  They provide, among other “learning supports,” a “compendium” of SEL measures that have been developed by psychologists and other researchers over the years, with the hope that they will be useful to researchers, educators, and others who are seeking to engage with SEL.  The list focuses entirely on the young end of the range (preK-early elementary, in most cases), and most of the measures are not surprisingly very labor-intensive, and pretty technical — requiring a fair amount of training and practice before they could be used well.

So how does this all fit into the other challenges, initiatives, disruptions, and innovations that schools are supposed to be taking on?  EduTopia, in highlighting 10 of  CASEL’s guidelines for a SEL program in schools (here), makes clear the size of the challenge for a school or district, including program design and integration with the rest of the curriculum;  addressing school climate issues;  building cooperative home-school relations oriented to the SEL program; and teacher professional development.  After all, as the Aspen Commission points out, teachers can’t instill social/emotional competencies that they don’t have themselves.  (Herein, it seems to me, is a rather large can of worms.)

On top of it all, as CASEL points out, financial sustainability is an issue for a SEL program (just as finances are an Achilles’ heel for many ed-tech innovations).

As I will discuss in my next post, the multiple challenges — how to measure, how to deliver, how to integrate, how to sustain SEL as a separate strand of school policy and practice, as a remediation for recent dehumanizing trends in ed policy — are being seen as fertile ground for entrepreneurs, and of course some of these are convinced that techology will of course be a central ingredient.


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