Progressive education’s rocky road

If someone had asked me in 1986, when I first came to TERC, what my “educational philosophy” was, I would have had no real answer. I would, however, have dredged up notions that felt in the right direction — student interest, authentic subject matter, learning as an apprenticeship, and education as an interdisciplinary, intergenerational community process.

In the years since then, during my educational apprenticeship with wonderful colleagues and mentors, I have come to see that the principles that feel best to me basically fit in the category of “progressive education.”  Though I regret that admitting to a humane and constructive philosophy now feels akin to waving a battle-flag, at least it connects me with allies from the past 150 years or so, and thus opens the door to some interesting lessons from history.

The foregoing is occasioned by a valuable series of 3 posts by Larry Cuban on “The arc of progressivism in schools.”  I encourage you to read it.

In Part 1, Cuban sets the stage thus:

historically, progressive efforts to improve public schools have  ebbed and flowed time and again. Between 1900-1940, progressive ideas and practices flowed across the educational landscape as they did during the 1960s and 1990s, and even now.  Yet progressives’ determined efforts to move classroom practice from traditional, teacher-centered forms of teaching and learning to student-centered approaches ebbed making few inroads into most classrooms (see here and here). To better understand this ebb and flow of efforts to alter the organization, curriculum, and instruction of public schools toward progressive ends, I am writing this three-part series.

He starts by laying out the enduring core ideas of “progressive education, as expressed by the Progressive Education Association in 1919, and reiterated in other words and other eras ever since, down to the recently formed  Progressive Education Network:

Seven Principles of Progressive Education (1919)

  1. Freedom for children to develop naturally
  2. Interest as the motive of all work
  3. Teacher as guide, not taskmaster
  4. Change school recordkeeping to promote the scientific study of student development
  5. More attention to all that affects student physical development
  6. School and home cooperation to meet the child’s natural interests and activities
  7. Progressive school as thought leader in educational movements

Sounds good to me.  On the other hand, to a lot of people over the decades, some such list as this raises all kinds of alarm bells, and has served as an effective “demon” upon which to blame all the ills of public schooling, real or imagined, since at least the 1960s (See a relatively low-key sample, from the Hoover Institute, here). To be fair, anyone reading this list sympathetically in our own times will have in the back of their mind the cautions, correctives, and alarms that John Dewey first sounded in Experience and Education (It’s short.  If you haven’t read it, you can get the text in various formats here.)

Cuban summarizes the push and pull around educational philosophy thus

the arc progressive reforms have followed has been an uneven curve. Past and current reformers had to contend with the existing system of schooling. They had to grapple with the “grammar of schooling” that was in place since the mid-19th century.

Compare this with Ellen Lagemann’s famous line:“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.”  Cuban tells a story of successive waves of rising progressive influence, followed by reactions from the critics, who nevertheness coopt some of the terms, techniques or ideas of the progressives in the course of re-establishing a more system-centered, tradition-centered system (the Hoover Institute article is a fair example, as it quotes a “traditionalist” thus: “In his zeal for the tried and true, the traditionalist should not overlook the many sensible aids to teaching and some of the sound guiding principles undoubtedly contained in progressive education.”)

Part 2 of Cuban’s series continues to examine the fate of progressive reform movements (successive waves of them).  He paints trends with a broad brush (these are blog posts, after all, not journal articles), but provides enough links to supporting material that anyone interested in digging into the history can make a fair start.

A pattern that he sees over and over is that as progressivism comes into favor, there is a surge of innovation in curriculum, in classroom management (e.g. small group work), in architecture (“open classrooms,” schools without walls, etc.) and in teaching practice.

After the hullabaloo of the these reforms quieted and researchers looked at the results of progressive reforms, they found that curricula had changed becoming far more connected to the lives of children and youth…see here and here….But when it came to changes in classroom practice, that is, actual shifting instruction and learning from teacher- to student-centered, only marginal modifications had occurred (see here and here).

Cuban, with his colleagues David Tyack and William Tobin, explain this as a result of the highly resistant “grammar of schooling,” whose  cornerstone is the age-defined grade and classroom. They argue that this, with its attendant structures for scheduling, for assigning credits based on time elapsed in a course, and many other features, have become,in the American mind,  unshakable assumptions about what school is supposed to be like. Therefore, rather than adopt a radical alternative (no matter proofs of concept), if schools are seen as not working, the right thing to do is make targeted adjustments, or apply more regulation on teachers or curriculum — hence the title of Tyack and Cuban’s famous book Tinkering towards Utopia (1995).  Cuban in his blog post puts it this way:

If the “real school” is not working well, even failing as determined by test scores, then improve it, not dump it. In short, the age-graded school and the “grammar of schooling” that is embodies is sustained by most Americans’ social beliefs in its efficacy. This durable model of schooling is now embedded in the culture of the nation.

In Part 3 of this series, Cuban refers to a study by Gerard Guthrie of the fate of progressive innovations in developing countries around the world.  Guthrie’s book’s subtitle is From progressive cage to formalistic frame. The book raises the question of the “progressive education fallacy”, which assumes

that inquiry-based classroom practices are necessary to promote academic learning among non-western school children. He also lays out the strengths of traditional and didactic teaching. He concludes that the primary reason for continuity in traditional ways of teaching and learning in these nations spanning continents is the abiding cultural context of these nations favorable to teacher-centered instruction.

Guthrie (as Cuban reports it) details cultural contexts in many countries which make “student centered” methods, as we think of them here in the Developed World, difficult or impossible to enact.  Cuban sees similarity to the US history at least at the very high level of comparison, that “cultural factors” outweigh attempts to graft on progressive ideas by fiat or the sheer force of reformers’ enthusiasm. Guthrie recommends a “tinkering” approach to make incremental changes where there is general receptivity to some new solution to a persistent problem of practice.

Cuban feels that Guthrie overlooks the importance of two other factors for which Cuban finds historical evidence:

The first omission is flawed implementation of these top-down reforms. Researchers have pointed out (see here and here) the complexity of putting policies aimed at classroom instruction into practice. Moreover, that complexity often leads to some policies being inadequately and partially implemented…The second omission is instances of teachers creating mixes of old and new ideas and practices. Hybrids of traditional and “progressive” practices have happened among U.S. teachers over the past century (e.g., spread of small group activities in teacher-centered classrooms)

As always, Larry Cuban’s reflections are provocative and historically informed — and his blog features a series of very interesting pieces both before and after the “Arc of progressive education” triad.  Yet I can’t help feeling dissatisfied with the analysis.  That is, while the “grammar of schooling” is certainly one “force”  at work, my own hunch is that it is embedded in even wider or deeper-seated assumptions about the purpose of education, its service to the economic sector, beliefs about social mobility and class boundaries, and what Ehrenreich diagnosed as the “fear of falling.”  Education, and even more narrowly STEM education, is a tiny tip of a very big iceberg.

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Cavalli-Sforza and since: “educational genomics”

The population geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza died last month (see here for links to some brief obituaries), at the age of 92. The passing of this stimulating scholar sparks some further reflections on recent fads/trends/frontiers in the biology of behavior — including education.

Cavalli-Sforza made his greatest contributions through his research on human genetic diversity, and its relation to cultural diversity and history. Most especially, he sought to correlate genetic patterns with archeological and linguistic data (for example, the geographical distribution of language families) to build up a rich account of the history of human migrations.  He argued strongly (more here if you read Italian) for the importance of cultural evolution in human history, and its interweaving with biological evolution.  He proposed daring and plausible hypotheses, daring enough to stimulate much creative science in response — which has often proven his conjectures wrong, but never trivially so (see here for a concise review of his contributions by John Hawks).

The search for biological dimensions to culture (and behavior) has flowed along several  lines — sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, not to mention the study of “memes” a la Dawkins– and more.  Cavalli-Sforza was pretty cautious about most of these, for example regarding E.O. Wilson’s imaginative leap extending his findings on social insects to social primates to be quite unjustified.

Nevertheless, the search for gene-behavior continues, and very often these lines of research are seen as potential breakthroughs for education.   Quite aside from the long-running IQ debates, we have seen widespread excitement about “brain-based education,” or educational neuroscience for example (Wikipedia’s entry on this topic provides a useful scan of the basic ideas and debates in the field.  John Bruer’s 1997 “bridge too far” article here still is useful in its consideration of some key conceptual challenges for this line of investigation, from an educator’s point of view) .

Recently, however, a new line of exploration has arisen, which seeks to deploy findings from the human genome for educational purposes.  “Educational genomics” (see here for a widely cited “vision piece”) would be the ultimate in differentiated learning, one would think, and the link with “personlized education” is unavoidable. There is a great pull, for some people at least, in the idea that the wisdom locked in DNA can be  harnessed in diagnostic techniques and related “treatments” to provide technical solutions to the Problem of Education.

For a comprehensive review and reflection on recent developments in the field, I recommend a post on Ben Williamson’s blog “Code acts in education.”  He starts off by briefly describing a recent study in which genetics researchers use a very large data set to identify

over a thousand genetic variants linked with educational attainment, particularly those involved in brain-development processes and the formation of neuronal connections in foetuses and newborns. These biological factors, the scientists claim, influence psychological development, which in turn affects how far and for how long people continue at school.

The chains of inference here seem tenuous, or at least to beg lots of questions. As Williamson points out, the researchers don’t claim that their findings could be used to predict “educational attainment” for individuals. He points out that

The research also found that genetic variants have a far weaker effect than environmental influences on educational attainment, and was restricted to analysis of a homogeneous sample people aged in their 40s and 50s of white European descent (the study failed with a sample of African-Americans).

The cautions, limitations,  and caveats, however, will not restrain a tidal wave of research, and “research,” aimed at designing educational interventions more widely.  As Williamson points out,

Already, scientists are beginning to propose new multidisciplinary experimentation and intervention under the heading of “precision education.”

(See his earlier post here on this new “field.”)

There is great rhetorical power, even in these days of anti-intellectual fervor, in claims that something promises a “scientific solution” to some persistent problem.  The power comes from the proven track record of science and its sisters (technology, engineering, etc. ) over the past few centuries.  The increasing promise of medical therapies enabled by genomic research is exciting and moving.   (We have not really reckoned, as a society, with the ‘shadow side’ of many of our solutions — two that come to mind right away are antibiotic-resistant bacteria and ocean acidification, but the list is long. of course.)

But the treatment of education as an enterprise “just like” medicine (an equation made before in educational history), amenable to big-data methods and the rapid propagation of solutions not well critiqued, requires that we accept that education is a “problem” or set of problems to be solved technically.  And since education in action involves actual students, this means that “the student” and her/his growth must be represented for the purposes of the Big System as a problem — a problem so defined that the solutions being devised can be applied to it.  There’s something in here that I think demands great caution and, dare I say it, wisdom — a commodity not easy to reconcile with our current ways of operating.

Williamson draws up a thought-provoking list of implications:

The intimate data analytics of precision education raise a few key themes for future interrogation:

  • The emergence of bio-evidence-based education policy, as data captured about the biological–genetic, neural and psychophysiological–details of students’ bodies are turned into policy-relevant knowledge and targets of intervention
  • The translation of students into bioinformational flowsof numbers and scientific categories, bringing about new ways of understanding learning processes as biologically-centred, and erasing other perspectives
  • The accumulation of biocapitalby companies that are able to market products, collect, analyse, and then exchange and sell students’ biodata, whether directly to schools and parents or by less direct means
  • The development of bioeconomies of educational dataas genetic, neural and psychophysiological technologies and assessment tools become new competitive marketplaces (including scam outfits looking to exploit interest in student biodata)
  • The sculpting of new student biosubjectivities, as students are addressed and begin to address themselves in quantified, biological terms, and are incited to undertake activities to improve themselves in response to their genetic, neural and psychophysiological data

Brave New World, or brave new world? How can the rest of us — citizens, educators, students, parents — participate in these conversations, grapple with these definitions, apply a little wisdom?

 

Note:  The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 

 

 

 

 

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Broadening participation in engineering: key ingredients

Corlis Murray, the chief engineer at Abbott, is the only African-American woman holding such a position in a fortune500 company. As she writes, in a guest post at Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet,

With the world’s population made up of half men and half women, just 15 to 25 percent of people work­ing in STEM are women, and only 1 in 7 en­gi­neers is a woman. And just 1 in 50 is an Af­ri­can American woman.
The issue is not a lack of in­ter­est or de­sire. The prob­lem is that many young women and mi­nori­ties with an ap­ti­tude for math and sci­ence nev­er ex­plore re­lated fields and nev­er con­vert to work­ing in them, be­cause they are not ex­posed or en­cour­aged in a way that helps them see what could be pos­si­ble.

Murray tells how, as a high school girl,  she was encouraged to take an internship at an IBM summer program, and there found a mentor who helped her imagine herself as an engineer:

The Af­ri­can American man who took me out in the field to troubleshoot main­frame com­puter sys­tems — the same ones you may have seen in the mov­ie “Hid­den Fig­ures” — at a time when most female en­gi­neers stayed at their desks showed me that people who looked like me could suc­ceed. He dem­on­strat­ed how my nat­u­ral a­bil­i­ty for math and sci­ence could be put to use in a deep­ly mean­ing­ful way.

The combination of this mentorship, added to Murray’s own drive and talent, and to the coursework and other study she undertook, engaged her imagination and the impact was to set her on quest to turn her newly recognized possibility into her reality.  The rest of her post tells something of how she’s working to offer similiar opportunities to other young people — and, in true engineer fashion, argues that the present gap in participation of women, people of color, and women of color in STEM,  ” is trag­ic. It’s also mend­a­ble.”

Her blog post reminded me of some of the projects that have presented videos over the past 3 years in the STEM for All Videohall, and I revisited a couple from 2016, each addressing a different point in the “pipeline” or pathway from curious childhood to purposeful young adult in STEM.

Shabnam Etemadi’s survey of under-represented grad students found that a a range of factors affected these students’ perssistence through their graduate programs:

Results indicate that time management, communication skills, motivation, and support system are all what we term as “hindrances” in students being able to successfully complete a STEM graduate degree.

In the “support” category, something like 80% mentioned the importance of mentoring, and nearly as many mentioned peer support as key factors in their persistence in their studies.  The people whom you meet, who help through  problem solving, encouragement, and example, have a powerful nourishing effect, “even” at the graduate level, where one might imagine that one’s identity as an engineer or scientist has been settled enough to get you into the program in the first place.  No decision is irrevocable, no future is assured, until it’s made a present actuality, and help of many kinds along the way can be decisive.

Yet getting on the path is the first step, and maybe the biggest — through a realization like Corlis Murray’s that something you find delightful or exciting could be part of your future.

Another video from the same year captures some of the excitement of kids on the verge of that discovery — as one girl says, “All these steps that we did, it helped me like, think about how I might want to be an engineer.”  Who knows where she’ll end up?  Even if her dream changes, it may well be different because she could one pathway that led her to STEM,  a pathway she might not have seen if she hadn’t been given a chance to think, argue, tinker, design — mess about with others engaged in the serious play that the world can offer.

The discussion that followed the video, even though it’s frozen in 2016, still makes lively and engaging reading — as the participants engage in their own serious play with the ideas from the Engineering is Elementary video, and from their own research and experience.

This is fantastic. I love the testimonies of the students. Utilizing the design process to guide their learning is a great step towards developing metacognition! …Awesome.

Corlis Murray’s article had sent me into the archives, and a search for “engineering” and “broadening participation” brought me to many stories that reinforced hers — the chance to do the stuff is critical, but not enough. Who you do it with, what kinds of agency you are given, and what the setting can tell you about yourself (now and future) are also essential ingredients — enriching the mix that feeds imagination.

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

 

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Anxiety-based education policy: trying to future-proof the kids

Much education policy, and much education merchandise, is ‘pitched” as a solution or response the dire warnings that our kids will face a job market dramatically different from today’s.  “Sixty-five percent of the jobs these kids will  have don’t even exist yet.  Our education system is not designed to prepare them for those jobs, this is bad!  You should take our advice/implement our policy/buy our stuff (or all 3).  Disruption is the way of the future!”

Dewey, that old disruptor,  long ago argued against the “education as preparation for real life,” or “education as training” models of schooling, but in an era when being a successful business leader, or media personality, or digital entrepreneur makes you an expert in education, the framing of schooling as job training is perhaps inevitably the dominant one.

Is it futile to point out that much of the rhetoric of this kind is just that– rhetoric, artful persuasion, often masquerading as expertise?

In the past week, I have come across several blog posts that explore this important “65%” meme, and show that [1] it has been circulating for decades, [2] once embedded in a message of faith in and empowerment of our children’s futures, it has become an alarm or a sales pitch, and [3] it is not based in any discernible factual evidence.

Derek Newton’s guest post on Larry Cuban’s blog tipped me off to this chain of essays.  He sets the context concisely:

A fairly loud chorus knows for sure that three things are true – that technology is going to deeply and massively change the nature of work, that our schools, and colleges and universities in particular, aren’t preparing future workers for those future jobs and that a failure to quickly adopt massive changes in the way we teach will result in certain doom for future workers, businesses and the global economy.

Newton had noticed that in May, IBM, that noted educational expert had

released [a] report called, “The six new competencies Industrial companies need on their path to digitization.” The first statistic in that report is, “ … sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.” IBM highlights the figure and used it in social media ads to promote the report.

A chain of links showed how people have passed the meme along without ever asking themselves about its validity:

The footnote in the IBM report leads to this 2016 article in Fortune Magazine…The World Economic Forum.. says, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” And that statement footnotes to “McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, “Shift Happens.””  ShiftHappens is a series of viral YouTube videos from 2007….Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D. and associate professor, Educational Leadership, University of Colorado Denver, one of the creators of the videos, told me that the 65% stat, “ … indeed, is not a statistic we ever used! .. Not sure where it came from.”

Ben Doxtdater, in his excellent blog “A long view of education,”  takes up the search for the original source of the mysterious 65%.

It takes some work to find out that the claim is not true. When I tried to find an original source for the claim, I was surprised to find out that versions of it date from at least to 1957…While the claim is often presented as a new and alarming fact or prediction about the future, Devereux C. Josephs said much the same in 1957 during a Conference on the American High School at the University of Chicago on October 28, less than a month after the Soviets launched Sputnik.

The second half of his blog summarizes a BBC story from 2017 that debunks the 65%, and includes some commentary from Cathy Davidson of CUNY (who reflects on the story, and on the message in additional depth here).

There have been many discussions of the factuality of claims like this one, whether they include the 65% or not– basically arguing for this or that innovation or disruption — here’s one by a British blogger (the “future jobs” meme is an international one in our “flat world”).  Others more US focused are not far to seek. Doxtdater comments:

we actually have good statistical projections about the future of jobs, and it’s bleak… The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections for numeric job growth from 2014-2024 indicate that four out of the top five growing jobs pay salaries that are less than $21,400 per annum. With the exception of Registered Nurses (#2), who on average earn $66,640 and require a Bachelor Degree, the other top five growing jobs require no formal credentials

I’d like, though, to lift up another and perhaps deeper point that Doxtdater made me think about: the line of thinking that is called “future-proofing,” the notion that we can control our future or that of our children.  As he writes, the reports and sales campaigns that take this tack assert that

education has failed to keep pace with, and prepare our children for, an ever changing world of work. In the face of this known unknown, the only answer is to instill flexibility and adaptability along with ‘skills’ like creativity.

Keri Facer gives us a helpful term for this narrative: the ‘future proofing’ narrative “suggests that there is only one question about socio-technical change that the ‘future-proof’ school needs to address: namely, how successfully will the school equip young people to compete in the global economy of tomorrow?”

Doxtdater notes that Josephs’s emphasis, in 1957, was on what the rising generation would do to create the future — or rather, its present:

Our young people will fill many jobs that do not now exist. They will invent products that will need new skills. Old-fashioned mercantilism and the nineteenth-century theory in which one man’s gain was another man’s loss, are being replaced by a dynamism in which the new ideas of a lot of people become the gains for many, many more.

This optimistic view of our children’s potential and power has largely been replaced by the  “prepare our children now for the scary future (that we are creating for them)” meme.  This is not new, and it has often been seen in synch with a rise in economic anxiety, and the recurring belief that education should better serve the economy.

Doxtdater points out that

A century ago, the logic of future proofing went under the name ‘social efficiency’…Now, social efficiency in the language of ‘future proofing’ is embedded in the neoliberal ideology that equates freedom with free markets, and makes the individual solely responsible for her own fate. As much as the claim is an indictment of schools, it also serves as a warning to individuals. Be a ‘lifelong learner’ or else. When Andreas Schleicher of the OECD repeats the claim (with no source), he makes clear that only our imaginations and not material circumstances might hold us back in life

We are once again, however, at bottom, confronted with the question, What are the aims of education?  or rather, “What aims shall we accept for education?”  Rhetoric is a powerful and valuable art, but persuasiveness is not the same as wisdom;  and we should resist the constant temptation to treat children and their teachers as instrumental factors, rather than active, purposeful beings, whose learning and growth is the way they find out (or even create) the future that starts right now.

I conclude with this from Doxtdater’s piece:

John Dewey …said that as a matter of politics, the “education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.”

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

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Two strategies for in-service teacher learning

It is telling that we still need to make the argument that teacher professional development (PD) (for teachers already in the workforce) is not effective if it’s short and episodic. Indeed, it is possible now to state “best practices” for teacher learning programs (see here for NSTA’s statement, for example) which show a lot of sophistication — bearing the student in mind, making sure that the PD is aligned constructively with other school improvement efforts, and so on.

One key “best practice” that is still far from universally implemented, however, is investing enough time in it (“sustained duration,” as Darling-Hammond et al. write here).  Another key principle is that teachers, like their students, thrive on “active learning.”  When I was first working in this field 30-some years ago, the phrase “teacher training” was more common than “teacher professional development”  or other terms widely used these days.   The name’s not so important as the nature of the experience:  are teachers being talked at, or are they being given a chance to develop the kind of rich, connected, flexible learning that we hope they’ll help their students have?  For me, the pivotal ingredient is time (and support) for teacher reflection — on their own learning and on their students’.

I was browsing in the 2018 STEM for all Videohall earlier this week, and found a pace in which I suggested that the project on whose video I was comnenting might have fun talking with another project also presenting this year.  I don’t know if the two teams ever got the chance to compare notes, but I found myself doing it in my head — and I invite you, Dear Reader, to join me in the comparison. Neither strategy is “new,” but the projects are trying out new features, and gathering evidence about what works.   The nice thing about this pairing (I’ll get to the specifics in a minute!) is that this not a matter of either/or:  each project represents an effective and challenging strategy for teacher learning, and an ambitous district could even do BOTH to good effect.

The first general strategy is lesson study, developed in modern form in Japan, imported here in the 1990s (I believe), and tried in many forms within the US educational system.  The challenges that American educators have encountered with Lesson study reflect important differences between the Japanese and American education systems (noting, of course, that there is much variation in both countries).  Perhaps most important is the time that is allocated in each system for teacher learning and preparation (Japan patterns with many other developed countries in requiring fewer hours-in-classroom than the US does — see this report from OECD).   So Americans working with lesson study have spend a lot of ingenuity on dealing with the challenge of no-time.  Is it worth all the struggle?

The video by the ACES project (see video here) argues that it is, and what I find most compelling about it is that a key benefit they cite is that ” lesson study slows down the process of teaching, providing time and support for teachers to examine their practice in depth and to develop new skills in a supportive environment.”  The method integrates content learning with pedagogical learning, in the context of a design challenge that teachers identify and want to work on together.  It’s not a way to quickly revamp a curriculum, but rather a way to steadily and strategically strengthen curriculum and teaching over time.  The discussion at the video is helpful, as more than one issue is raised and examined in the dialogue.

Another strategy, which also has a long history in this country, and perhaps originated here, is “action research,” in which the teacher is also a researcher (see here for a 1993 summary of the idea, and here for a more in-depth article by C. Ballenger and A. Rosebery– pay wall warning!).  Once again, the learning is shaped by purpose and intent:  it’s not just that I want to learn something, but I want to learn something that gives me insight into something in my classroom  — something or someone.  As Ballenger and Rosebery write, for teacher-researchers, the

goal is to better understand and delve into something they perceive as problematic, confusing, perhaps even unsuccessful. By documenting students’ talk, activity, and work, they make the busy world of the classroom stand still as they probe beneath standard explanations for problems and listen for their students’ ideas about what they are doing. They question what they themselves know and assume in their active attempts to see the sense each child brings. They use the theories of others to illuminate and deliberate on what they know and want to know about teaching and learning science and mathematics.

But the Milwaukee Master Teacher Partnership combines this purposeful learning with another powerful idea:  the development of teacher leaders. (See their video here). The project has created a series of learning modules based on the notion of “microcredentials,” but it doesn’t seem to me that this element adds much value to the work the teachers are doing (though they may well find it motivating)

The point is that the teachers are given time and collegial space to gain skill in their research, moving from problem to researchable question, and then to data and analysis/reflection.  The collegial space is important — this is a cohort of 25 teachers who are meeting together over the course of several years.  As one of the presenters writes, “This stability allows everyone to explore their practice in depth as it evolves over the project.”

But there is more, because these teachers can exert leadership not only in their enriched practice, or in their increased depth as coaches or collaborators with their peers “back home.”  In addition to all this, they can share the method itself — here is what I’m doing to learn more about my children and my subject — and their being able to present results from their studies is in some sense a warrant for the value of the method.   Once again, the discussion that accompanies the video is interesting and points to other resources, so it’s worth reading it after watching the video — and then going to the project’s website for more details.

I can’t help but point out that in different ways, these two strategies are powerful reminders that for teachers, as well as students or anyone else, inquiry is a productive stance — not a technique to be used now and again, but a way to see, to learn, and to grow.

 

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Some blogs to pay attention to

I’d like to draw your attention to three blogs that I have started checking recently, which you may find informative or otherwise useful.
1. Nature Partner Journals “Science of Learning” (here is the link).  This is really an aggregation site, bringing together contributions from around the Web.   The home page advertizes 5 article strands.  “Behind the paper” collects short accounts by authors of recent papers in the journal, providing some background on the origin and significance of the research reported.   The format of these pieces asks each researcher to describe the main aim of their work, and why it was undertaken; what the key findings were; how teachers will be able to apply the findings;  the “bigger picture” of the findings; and how these findings relate to the future of the field.  For example, the piece on “How to leverage prior knowledge to enhance learning” by M.T. R. van Kesteren, comments on an article by herself and colleagues:

There is a big future for the cognitive (neuro) science of (long-term) memory to inform educational practice. The question about how to best store memories spans all school subjects but a lot of what we know about how memory works is not yet optimally practiced in educational situations. We are learning new things everyday, and I am very excited to be involved in applying this to real-world situations

The other article strands on the website include: Findings from the field;  For Researchers; For Teachers; and News, Views, and Events in learning sciences research and practice around the world.  As with all cutting edge research, the immediate implications for  the classroom are not always clear (and the excited claims of the researchers need to be seasoned with salt), but the articles are wide-ranging and provocative, and the different strands encourage reflection and further reading.  I found my way to the site because I was following a link to a Yong Zhao story on side effects of education policy, “What works can hurt” (in two parts so far),  which I recommend.  Enjoy!

2. Peter Greene at Forbes.  Find it here.  You may know Peter Greene’s lively and indefatigable blogging at Curmudgucation, which gives a veteran high school teacher’s view of a wide range of topics, from classroom life to fads in education policy.  When I recently discovered that he has been running a parallel series of posts for the on-line version of Forbes Magazine, I was curious to see how this liberal and independent voice might be shaped by writing for a publication focused on issues of wealth and finance.  Would he cover different topics?  Adopt a different tone of voice? Pull punches?  I think the answers are, Hard to tell;  No; and No.   I found this site because I was following a link to Greene’s post, “Five rules for edtech entrepreneurs,” and its sequel, “When does ed tech become snake oil?”  I am glad to see a classroom perspective taking its place alongside free-market and digital-tech boosterism, which can very often seize on a new idea or widget as The Solution for the Education Problem, without understanding what education is, what teachers do, how kids learn, and other relevant factors.   In this case, Greene points out that

K-12 education is susceptible to this problem because purchasing authority so rarely rests in the hands of the end users. That means the sales pitch has to be tuned for an administrator and not an actual classroom teacher. This may take the form of a pitch that says, “Hey, Superintendent McBossface! With this software you’ll be able to get an exact report of how effective your teachers are in the domains laid out by state standards.” The end result may be software that actually makes more work for classroom teachers (“All you have to do is enter all these data into these fields– just a few more hours work every week”) while providing no actionable classroom data (“Look! Spreadsheets that tell me what I already learned by paying attention to my students in real time”) and in the worst cases, provide the added bonus of sending administrators inaccurate reports about teacher effectiveness.

3. My third recommended blog is one you probably have been aware of for a while — but just in case:  Rick Hess’s “Straight Up,” one of the EdWeek blogs.  Hess is a long-time scholar of education reform and related topics, and he writes from a position that would be called “conservative,” with a lot of sympathy for market-based reforms, broadening of school choice, and similar positions which I do not hold.  He is good to follow, though, because he cares about data, about good research even when it contradicts ideas he has advocated before.    So even if you disagree with many of his positions, his is a good voice to check in with sometimes.  Despite my respect for him, I have not been as regular in reading his blog as I probably should be, but I was drawn back to it by “How education philanthropy can accidentally promote groupthink and bandwagonism.”   This is a post occasioned by the recently published RAND study of the Gates Foundation’s Effective Teacher Initiative (a subject for another post here).  The short version is that, despite all the millions that Gates put into the initiative, and the many more millions that states and districts invested, the results were not at all as predicted.  Hess recalls a time when he himself brought bad news about an initiative he’d hoped would succeed, and reflects on some of the dilemmas of mission–driven philanthropy for researchers and education at large.

This brought back memories from a couple decades ago, when I was …studying how school systems in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Edgewood, Texas, responded to school vouchers…a foundation generously provided funds to cover air travel, rental cars, motel rooms, loads of fast food, transcription, and research assistants. Given my generally positive view of school choice, the foundation’s staff hoped and expected that I’d find that choice was driving systemic improvement.

After two years of analysis and hundreds of interviews, I wrote a book concluding that the story was much more complicated than that…. they judged the work a disappointment, with the less said about it the better.

I eventually learned that foundations operate a lot like Santa Claus, with goodies to give away and an attentive eye as to who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. I wound up on the naughty list, I fear, and never heard from that foundation again. On one level, that’s no big deal. It’s their money and they have every right to fund whomever and whatever they like. On another level, though, it illustrates how well-meaning philanthropy can encourage groupthink and faddish bandwagonism—even when nobody intends it to.

Worth reading the whole thing, and then browsing around his other posts.

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

 

 

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We were warned

Don’t keep silent about climate change. While there are many important humanitarian and political issues to track, not to mention the many strands of change, creativity, controversy, and chicanery in the world of education, you can’t not pay attention to climate change, I don’t mean that it’s hard to ignore — alas, it’s all too tempting to think about something else. Even the most committed environmentalist is likely to have moments of grief and exhaustion.

No, what I mean is, it’s imperative that we track the main story about climate change — that it’s here, it’s now, and we are committed to increasing climate disruption. It’s measurably bad, and it’s going to get worse. That’s the story, and we each need to be saying something about it to someone at least weekly, if not daily. This is not just a story about climate. It’s also about social justice, peace and war, refugees, disease, and impoverishment.

It’s not like this is news, to anyone who has been paying attention.

It was 30 years ago this month that Dr. James Hanson asserted, in testimoney before Congress, that the “signal” of global warming was now discernible within the “noise” of natural variability. He was speaking out during a summer that brought unprecedented heat to most of the US. (That summer’s heat so unbearable, is now not in the top 20 hottest years in recorded history.) If you have not done so, I encourage you to read some of the coverage of Hanson’s testimony, and how it has held up in the years since.

The bottom line is that Hanson’s analysis and predictions for the next 30 years (that’s us!) were remarkably accurate (you can start here, where you’ll find  a link to a video story from Yale Climate Connection, and here in the NY Times). I remember very well how the “skeptics” who joined a massive disinformation campaign about climate change dismissed the warnings because they were just the products of models — but Hanson and his peers and colleagues built those models on facts, and the models in turn led to an avalanche of research in the years since. We can say with much confidence that this is how the world is working. The sea level is rising faster and faster; temperature and preciptiation extremes are coming faster and faster. We are likely now committed to the catastrophic melting of major ice sheets — and those are just a few of the developments now under way, with living things (including Homo sapiens) drawn in tow — coping, or not coping.

Joe Romm, of Climate Progress, summed up the meaning of the anniversary thus:

We are running out of time for America to join the world in adopting the ever-stronger climate policies needed to avoid ruining our livable climates for centuries.  If we fail to act, we can try to say to those suffering the consequences 30 years from now that it was politics that stopped us from doing the right thing. But we won’t be able to say weren’t warned.

Note:  The opinions in this blog post are those of the author alone, and not ncessarily those of TERC, MSPnet, or the National Science Foundation.

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Talking, teaching, and personalization

The personalized learning bandwagon is rolling on, loaded with the usual ed-policy farrago  of interesting ideas from the past, new ideas with some potential, commercial hype, wishful thinking, and more. Research, as is usual with ed innovations, is lagging far behind implementation, but a few studies and the anecdata are accumulating.  I see one conclusion that may be worth drawing at these early stages:  where the innovations allow or encourage teachers and students to get to know each other, and talk about content, good things happen.  The technologies, the new accountability systems, the “data driven approach” and all the rest either help, or do less harm, if those fundamentals are in place.  It’s why “personalization” works very well in the absence of much technology.

“Personalized learning is difficult to do,” says EdWeek, in reporting on a RAND study of 10 Opportunity by Design schools that have been part of a Carnegie initiative.  A RAND study  of schools funded by the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative made the same discovery.  In addition to the adjustments required by teachers, students, parents, and administrators to move towards this paradigm, there are issues with how the technology fits in and actually serves the purpose of “personalizing” education.  In both cases, the “personlization” model being implemented is tech-heavy, even tech-dependent; while the majority of people (students, teachers etc.) involved are positive (or cautiously positive) about the New Way, results in terms of student outcomes (mostly achievement scores) are mixed at best.

But there are other programs that focus on student agency, relationships, and challenging projects — for example those discussed in this Hechinger Report story on innovations in Vermont, or this report on a high school in Pittsfield, NH, or this comment from an op-ed by a Rhode Island teacher:

A personalized education approach looks different for each student. In order to do this, I as a teacher have to get to know my students, find out what drives them, and use it to engage them in their learning. Like adults, kids have disparate strengths and passions. This takes time and patience; we cannot always race to the finish line.

[Note:  Parochial though I am, I did not intend this to be so New England focused, and the links will take you beyond that region.]

What works in all these classrooms, and I would argue in any classroom where teachers have respect for student ideas, and incorporate them in a reflective strategy to encourage growth, is that pedagogy is embedded in relationship, and in deep engagement in the subject matter.  These in turn support effective, deep, engaging, and fun classroom discourse — between teachers and students, and among the students themselves.  The discourse helps build meaning — qualitative and quantitative sense-making and narrative — and make ideas and questions alive and therefore flexible and responsive.

“Talk is always constitutive of some portion of reality: it either makes something already existing present to (or for) the participants, or creates something new.” (Duranti, 1988, p. 225).

It is in the voicing, discussion, critiquing, and revoicing/revising of one’s ideas that the learning culture in a classroom develops, and each one can find his or her place in it. To quote from a thought piece by Dr, Sylvia Weir and myself long ago:

When one is first exploring a knowledge domain, the novice speaks through another’s voice until she appropriates that language for herself, imbuing it with her own intention and meaning. This clearly relates to events in a classroom, where appropriating their teacher’s discourse [and I would add building together their own voice]  is a primary task of students. If one “finds concepts in talk” (Edwards, 1993), then close analysis of classroom conversation will be the principle place to seek for evidence of conceptual change and learning.

So it is entirely to be expected that such conversations, and the relationships they depend on, turn out to be essential components in a lively classroom.  “Personalization” happens where there are active, interacting, mutually shaping agents — persons, in fact — engaged in with the world together;  this is the sine qua non.  Technology may help (or hinder);  so may many other elements in a reforming school, and should be judged by their effects on the good functioning of a learning community.

 

Duranti, A. (1988). Ethnography of speaking: Towards a linguistics of the praxis. In. Newmeyer, F.J., ed., Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey. IV. Language: the socio-cultural context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 201-228.

Edwards, D. (1993).  But what do children really think? Discourse analysis and conceptual content in children’s talk. Cognition and Instruction, 11(3&4): 207-225.

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

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Are learners ‘entrepreneurs’? Says who?

Among other things, educators and others concerned with teaching and learning constitute a market, that is, a bunch of consumers sharing enough interests that it is convenient and profitable to target them for products and services.  One of the ways this is done is by shaping a sense of group identity.  A signal example of this from the past century was the creation of the American teenager.  It’s not as though people had never noticed this age cohort before.  After all, the adolescent (Lat. adulescens, one in the process of becoming an adult) represents a well-marked stage in the life-history of Homo sapiens, and cultures around the world make it a focus of initiation and special training (and restraint), from the Masai emorata to Amish rumspringa  tobthe Athenian ephebe to mention two among thousands (add the ones you went through!).

Yet we somehow ‘discovered’ the teenager in the 20th century.  By some accounts, this represented a straightforward transformation of earlier transition rituals, under various cultural influences operating in the post WWI decades — maybe at bottom it was the spread of the automobile.  Yet the amplifying power of marketing and propaganda (positive and negative) played a key role — as Derek Thompson wrote in a piece linked to above:  “Teenagers are the market’s neophiles, the group most likely to accept a new musical sound, a new clothing fashion, or a new technology trend.”  In effect, commercial interests listen carefully to the desires and interests of young people, and then aim products at them — which in turn shapes how they and their elders (and youngers) envision themselves, their norms and expectations.   This is not a thing of the past, of course, because the teen market is still large and lucrative — digital technologies come to mind right away, of course, but the list is long — though media (magazines and music) have played a key role for decades.

Well, the same thing has been happening to “learners” during the last couple of decades of school “reform,” facilitated (I would say) by the increasing availability of Web-connected computing.  While it is incontestible that these devices can offer useful (and occasionally unprecedented) resources for people trying to learn things, the marketing machinery has been hard at work shaping and propagating an ideal (norms and expectations!) learner:  the learner-as-entrepreneur.  You go at your own pace, you carve out your own path, you move forward at every step making use of new eduproducts, you are a 21st century gritty competency-based inhabitant of a learning ecology whose intricate webs of information intersect at You.

Audrey Watters introduced me to a valuable formulation of this image:  the “roaming autodidact.”  She attributes this idea to Tressie McMillan Cottom.  Cottom, in an essay on “Intersectionality and critical engagement with the Internet,”  defines the roaming autodidact thus:

A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, cultural, history, and markets.

You don’t have to look far in the ed-tech or ed-reform press to come across the use of this ideal — it is intrinsic to the “anytime anywhere” language, and the claims about new ways of learning, and “never before,” and so on, which are used as arguments for block-chain-based electronic portfolios, the various techology-centered versions of personalization, the increasing focus on badges and micro-credentials, and the finer and finer tuning of high-school and college to market requirements (the market requirements as defined now).  Anxiety about catching the wave is one reason that ed-tech so often trumps other expenditures in school budgets, regardless of the evidence behind the New Thing (see here for the latest laptop venture in LA).  Note from a recent report that

The U.S. Department of Education via the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) and other federal agencies (e.g., NSF) insists grantees use the best possible research methodologies to measure and report the impact of products and technology-inspired pedagogies on student learning outcomes…Our working group conducted a survey… of superintendents, assistant superintendents, technology leaders/specialists, principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, and teachers from 17 U.S. states responded to the online survey. Results demonstrate only 11% of 515 respondents demand a tech-based product have the type of independent, gold-standard research championed by the federal government for funding prior to adoption or purchase. Follow up interviews … corroborated that the stamp of federal funding and research excellence is desirable, but far from being a deal breaker.

The EdWeek story by Neuhaus, Oreopoulos, and Kane from which I learned about this survey  makes the case that in fact very little ed tech is subjected to any test of efficacy (they use the conventional measure, increased test scores).  You could say that our kids and teachers are the test subjects (though without much in the way of “human subjects” protections) for a whole range of products whose costs or benefits cannot be warranted — yet they are not even participating in anything like a methodologically sound process, the “tests” being those of the market place, not the laboratory, or even the field study.   (See here for a critical story on a new blend of ‘brain based’ and ‘social-emotional’ learning being touted by the Gates Foundation and other eduphilanthropreneurs).Of course, we are well-accustomed in our culture to be practiced upon without protection or evidence — you are probably aware of the staggering fact that more than 80.000 chemical compounds are in industrial or commerical use, whose safety has never been tested.

Watters, following Cottom, makes the further point that much of this innovation of products and rhetoric seems to come to bear especially on those who are already privileged, so that they are tuned in to the messages, are accessible to the image of the roaming autodidact, while studies show that many people are untouched or unaware of much of the hype, and much of the technology, that is supposed to be inaugurating the New Thing. Watters writes:

One of the themes that I come back to again and again in my work is that education technology exacerbates existing inequalities. “Those who are better off and better educated get more benefits from learning,” the authors of the Pew observe. Addressing these sorts of structural inequalities demands we do more than suggest that “lifelong learning” will be an economic or intellectual panacea. And when education technology and “future of work” proponents say that it’s increasingly up to the worker to become more “entrepreneurial,” to become a lifelong learner, we should interrogate exactly who that imagined worker might be.

 

 

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Both important and urgent: educating naturalists

You are no doubt familiar with the grid classifying tasks or decisions on two dimensions: urgent or not, and important or not.  Things that feel urgent tend to receive more attention, regardless of their importance.  As a result some important things which don’t feel like “hair on fire” priorities get neglected for too long.

On my list of things whose importance is being ignored at our peril is the education and encouragement of naturalists.  This neglect tells us something about values getting overlooked by educational policy — from “workforce development” to the development of standards and broadening participation. I will argue that this issue is not a matter of taste (noting for the sake of full disclosure that I am in a humble degree a naturalist), but rather a matter of critical concern in connection with current and future well-being on a global, regional, and local scale.

A “naturalist”  is a practitioner of natural history, which for many years now has been treated as a minor, not to say quaint kind of STEM.  It tends to connote hobbyists and amateurs, collecting and cataloguing — 19th century science, small science as opposed to Big Science.  It doesn’t pay — a leading conservation biologist wrote:

We cannot get big grants to do field work anymore. Computer modeling produces publishable results much quicker, anyway. We can have much more influence and prestige spending our time supervising research projects, writing, speaking, and attending important meetings rather than tromping around in the woods recording data. The mosquitoes, chiggers, and cold wet feet are unbearable.

But as Tewskbury et al wrote in BioScience, in 2014:

natural history is the observation and description of the natural world, with the study of organisms and their linkages to the environment being central. This broad definition is inherently cross-disciplinary and multiscaled, which reflects the span and potential of natural history activity.

There is, right now, no more important kind of knowledge. It can be called conservation biology, or the study of emergent diseases, or food security, or species invasions…In a changing climate, and with human pressure on ecosystems growing rapidly in other ways as well, it is frankly terrifying to realize how little we know about the world we live in.  Tewksbury et al again (references elided):

This knowledge may become even more vital as the rate and extent of global change increase. Integration of this knowledge is also increasingly important for translating results obtained in cellular, molec- ular, and genomic studies; for understanding and optimizing complex human–environment interactions ; for advancing human health; and for expanding technology and design from biomimicry to biology-inspired design. The benefits of careful observation of organisms in their environment and the costs of pursuing environmental poli- cies in which this critical component of science is ignored can be seen in human health, food security, conservation, and management.

I could cite a lot of evidence that suggests that our knowledge of how living systems are changing, with complex and unpredictably large  consequences for the planet’s habitability by Homo sapiens.  I’ll ignore the bad news from the oceans and coastlines, the dramatic loss of mammalian abundance, and increasing threats to plant biodiversity.  Let’s just look at the bugs.

A study published a few months ago, and discussed recently in a New York Times op-ed,  provided fresh documentation of the dramatic decline in insect abundance.  This study was conducted in protected natural areas in Germany.  The data collection required field work: time consuming, exacting, and sometimes tedious;  the data analysis, far from being totals and sums, employed complex mathematical modeling — meaningless, however, without those totals and sums from many sampling sites, compared with data from across 3 decades.  The conclusion is stark:

Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline.

This is a massive decline, and the range of conditions under which it is taking place, and the diversity of species that are affected,  suggests that there are multiple, probably interacting, causal factors. It is a kind of news that is becoming more and more frequent, with declines documented in birds, mammals, fish, krill, and more — up and down food chains, and including important guilds of organisms like pollinators (both insect and mammalian) and detritivores.

Though one can make such a catalogue, however, it is based on such incomplete information that, though the trends are undeniable, the processes, causes, and implications are far from being well understood, and there are large regions of the globe  — even in Europe and North America — for which the data are sparse at best.

And there are too few people doing the work, even as the need for people wise and knowledgeable about natural systems — in their organismal particularities — is rising fast.    The warnings about this ecological mismatch have been coming for some time (we can reach back to Aldo Leopold, of course, but the voices are multiplying):  Where have all the naturalists gone?  Natural history is dying, and we are all the losers!

As Curt Slager wrote in the New York Times article cited above,

we are beginning to realize how lucky we are that dedicated expert and amateur naturalists remain to observe and record the distinctive flash of a firefly or the soft clatter of dragonfly wings. But we need more of them, and soon.

Educators and policy makers can help — by making sure that every student has some opportunity for natural history experience — every year;  by making sure that students meet and engage with natural historians working near them — and they can be found in cities as well as remote field stations!  We can enrich our picture of what natural history is all about — it ranges from close study of organisms in the field (the foundation of it all) to molecular systematics and bioinformatics,  to scientific art and communication.  It can be basic, applied, or mission-driven, centered in agencies, universities, and communities rural, urban, or otherwise.  I have always suspected that, if given a chance, far more kids would feel drawn to natural history of some variety that is the case now. Although, alas, one thing remains true: given how policy follows short-term economism, natural history is not much of a job market.

Citizen science is gaining a foothold in more and more educational settings (see here and here for wide-ranging videos from the STEM for All video showcases of the past two years),  but too few educators — and even fewer policy makers— understand how important — and how urgent! — natural history is.   For evidence, just look at serious policy documents, from Standards to Workforce Projections and visions for the Jobs of Tomorrow, and at priorities for scientific research. NSF’s 10 Big Ideas are a fair sample, in which the key life-science challenge, entitled “Understanding the rules of life,” is focused on the very fascinating puzzle of the phenotype.  Totally cool and important — but urgent?

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