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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NEPC’s 2018 report on virtual and blended schools

The NEPC has just issued its  6th annual report on virtual education, which you can get here. This study examines both full-time virtual schools (429 schools, 296,000 students), and full-time blended schools — those with a substantial on-line component as well as “traditional” face-to-face instruction  (296 schools, with 177,000 students).

I think this is a valuable series to follow, because in many states or regions, the push for increased school “choice” has revealed the basic problem that if I decide I want my student to move out of a poorly-performing school, I may actually have no place within practical reach to move her to.  Many choice advocates, in response, suggest that virtual schools are one good answer — and so, like charters, virtual schools are encouraged in many states — one way they are encouraged is by having less oversight than “traditional” schools (See here for a story on the tension around regulation, de-regulation, and school quality in Indiana.  h/t to again).

Meanwhile, blended schools are being encouraged in many states as part of the move to personalized learning, as well as to provide access to otherwise unavailable content for students in isolated or low-resourced schools.

In both cases, while private (nonprofit and for-profit) “Educational Management Organizations” (EMOs) are in the minority numerically (a little more than a third of the virtual schools for example), they have higher numbers of students per school (on average), and as a result have almost 2/3 of the students in such schools.  For profit schools tend to have higher class sizes — for example,  for blended schools, “Blended schools enrolled an average of 394 students, but blended schools managed by for-profit EMOs had a far larger average enrollment of 1,288.”

The authors believe that the trend towards poor teacher/student ratios in virtual schools is an area for urgent attention and remediation — three of their policy recommendations are related to this, including one that surprised me, because it suggests some issues worthy of deeper investigation:   Policymakers should

Require that teachers employed by virtual schools, and not parents, take primary responsibility for students’ education. The widely practiced corporate model instead largely relies on the parent as teacher and provides contracted teachers with insufficient time to interact with students and to provide support for those who struggle or drift away.

In the case of both virtual and blended schools, NEPC continues to find relatively little research on the innovations, but what information is out there, they have once again collated and examined.  Moreover, even at the basic level of data collected by the licensing agency, data are hard to come by: “Many states continue to have frozen accountability systems or to have implemented new systems that do not include an overall rating.”

What data there are, are sobering:

Virtual schools continued to underperform academically, including in compar- ison to blended schools, although the margins were much closer this year than last. Overall, 36.4% of full-time virtual schools and 43.1% of blended schools received acceptable performance ratings…. On-time graduation rate data were available for 247 full-time virtual schools and 152 blended schools. The graduation rates of 50.7% in virtual schools and 49.5% in blended schools fell far short of the national average of 83%

It is interesting to note that when districts are responsible, performance measures are more encouraging:

Among virtual schools, district-operated schools performed far better based on school performance ratings (53.8% acceptable) than charter-operated schools (20.7%).

The largest proportion of virtual schools are secondary (26% high school), while an even larger proportion of blended schools are high school (41%), and in both varieties, an uncertain but additional proportion are actually K-12 schools.  Virtual schools tend to be whiter (66% of students are “white non-hispanic” vs. the national mean of nearly 50%) (blended schools have a compostion much more similar to the national averages, both with respect to ethnicity and to special needs) .  The authors’ comment on the demographic characteristics of virtual schools makes clear how complex the story may be, and how much more data are needed to really understand what’s going on:

The fact that minority low-income families may have less access to technology may help explain underrepresentation of these groups, even though many of the virtual schools loan their students computers and often pay for internet access. There are other possible explanations for the overrepresentation of White students in these schools, such as White flight by urban families or the fact that virtual schools often pres- ent the only viable form of school choice in rural areas where minorities are less prevalent. These possible explanations warrant further exploration to determine whether they can ex- plain underrepresentation of some ethnic groups in virtual schools.

As for measures of academic performance, the news continues discouraging for virtual schools, based on the available studies:

The first decade of the new millennium provided little research into full-time virtual and blended school student achievement at the K-12 level, and results of existing research were not positive…To date, the second decade hasn’t produced much research either, and the scant research conducted has produced mixed results, with most findings being either neutral or negative…This report has consistently found virtual schools not performing well.

Although the indicators for blended schools seem better, the authors note that our ignorance about the performance of blended schools is extensive, with the lion’s share of research focusing on virtual schools.  I expect that this may change, with the increasing investment in “personalized learning,” since it seems more and more common for schools to provide at least some of the personalization through the use of on-line course work and other resources.

The authors make several recommendations for policy, and specific areas in which further research is needed.  Their final conclusions, however, lead this reader, at least, to the conviction that in this as in many aspects of the current “reform” measures, we are conducting “experiments,” but not well-designed ones, and proceeding in the faith that this is a good way to go.  The kids, the parents, and the teachers are enlisted (both in the virtual schools, and in the real schools), with varying degrees of informed consent, but too much of the insight being gained is provisional, post hoc, or anecdotal.    The study’s final recommendations:

Given the rapid growth of virtual schools and blended schools, the populations they serve, and the relatively poor performance of virtual schools on widely used accountability mea- sures, four final recommendations are offered.

  • Policymakers should slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and in the size of their enrollments until the factors responsible for their relatively poor performance have been addressed.
  • Policymakers should carefully and continuously monitor the performance of full- time blended schools since the evidence base is still weak.
  • Authorities charged with oversight should specify and enforce sanctions for vir- tual and blended schools that perform inadequately.
  • State agencies should (1) ensure that virtual and blended schools fully report data related to the student population they serve and the teachers they employ, and (2) make every effort to assign all virtual schools an overall school performance rating and explain each missing rating.

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

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Learning on the land in the city or out of it

Nature-study, then, is not science. It is not knowledge.  It is not facts  It is spirit.  It is an attitude of mind.  It concerns itself with the child’s outlook on the world.   (Liberty Hyde Bailey, The nature study idea. pg 6)

In the early years of the 20th century, a widespread “Nature-study movement” arose, from several sources.  Its advocates included  both teachers and scientists (for example, the great botanist LH Bailey);  its most famous text is still available, the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Comstock, and I have referred to it often over the years — even for work in subjects not embraced within Nature-study — precisely because of the outlook — the pedagogical outlook, which see such importance in the outlook of the child. 

It has been suggested that Nature-study arose in reaction (conscious or not) to the increasing urbanization of American life — though in the early 1900s, fewer Americans were urban  — about 35% — than now (according to the Bureau of the Census, 63% of the US population in 2016 lived in cities on 3.5% of the land area).   But sensitive observers 100 years ago were seeing the trend, which included more rapid transport, more mobility (and therefore less stability and a change in place-identity), more ethnic diversity with immigration — there was a general sense of big changes under way, which was costly in terms of spirit and morale.  Already by 1877, Gerard Manley Hopkins could write

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wear’s man’s smudge, and shares man’s smell:  the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

In the early 1900s, John Dewey was advocating an approach to education that embraced children’s engagement with ideas and skills in authentic contexts that had meaning for them, not as preparation for some future envisioned by adults.  Children’s knowledge and skills were stretched and enriched by purposeful, context-rich inquiry, and Dewey recommended that such inquiry be situated in meaningful life activities, such as building, or the growing of food.  The Nature-Study advocates were well aware of this philosophical approach and argued that the whole child (the whole person) was educated by Nature-study, which responded to something deep and fundamental in the growing, learning human. (See here for a nice overview of the history and current relevance of the movement).  Bailey again:

Nature-study will endure because it is natural and of universal application.  Methods will change and will fall into disrepute; its name will be dropped from courses of study; here and there it will be incased in the school master’s “method” and its life will be smothered;  now and then it will be over-exploited; with some persons it will be a fad;  but the spirit will live. (pg. 6)

So the important movement recently stimulated by Richard Louv (The last child in the woods), who diagnosed “Nature deficit disorder” as a characteristic malady of our times, has deep roots.  With all the passage of time, new questions have been asked and some answers found, about the benefits of getting “more green” into children’s (and other humans’) daily lives.  E.O Wilson “thickened” the story with his “biophilia hypothesis.”    People are inquiring into the existence and mechanisms of “nature” for well-being on many levels — health, stress, cognition in young children as well as aging children, and more (the links provide links, and this is far from an exhaustive survey!  For more, just go to Science Daily and search for e.g. “cognitive benefits of nature.” )

The movement in its current form, as in the past, is a response to social developments that its advocates (count me in!) see as deeply and systemically harmful.  It’s not only things such as the intensification of urbanization, with the accompanying intensification of resource exploitation and waste production.  There are also the many drawbacks to the last several decades of public education policy, often seen as kicking off with A Nation At Risk (whose anniversary is attracting some comment in the blogosphere, as here with links).

I recommend two interesting stories on aspects of this current surge.

First, Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog has a story about the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, which has been included as a “school of opportunity,” a program that seeks out encouraging progressive models of school innovation;  Strauss often features stories about such schools in her blog.  Strauss writes,

The Schools of Opportunity project started in 2014 as a pilot in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-16. Several dozen schools have been honored in the program, which assesses a range of factors, including how well the adults in a school building  provide health and psychological support for students as well as judicious and fair discipline policies, and broad and enriched curriculum.

Kevin Welner and Linda Ann Molner Kelley,  guest bloggers, write

CHSAS is a public school operating on 72 acres of Chicago’s last working farm, and it offers its entire diverse student body a first-class college-preparatory curriculum that integrates learning with a solid career-technical education.

Students at CHSAS choose between six agricultural pathways grounded in rigorous learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). These include animal science, food science, agricultural mechanics, horticulture/landscape design, agricultural education and agricultural finance. Well-resourced laboratories and facilities mean students have access to real-world tools and practical applications of their studies.

The whole post is good reading.  You can find out more at the school’s  website.

I should mention that this Chicago project presented a video in the STEM for All 2017 video showcase (you can see it here) which won a “public choice” award and engendered a lively discussion during the event (archived on the conference site).  Allow me to plug this year’s STEM for All Video Showcase, coming up May 14th-21st.  Find out more here

The other story I wanted to recommend to you is this article in The Atlantic, on “the perks of a play-in-the-mud educational philosophy.”  (h/t to Hackeducation again).   The author starts off with one of those simple, “Emperor has no clothes” questions:

Why is it odd for 4-year-olds to spend the bulk of their time outside? When did America decide that preschool should be boring routines performed within classroom walls?

This sets the stage for an exploration of the benefits and critiques of an educational approach that —true to the Nature-study vision that LH Bailey predicted was indestructible — stands in marked contrast to current favored trends in early childhood education:

There [at the school Conor Williams visited], every day, dozens of children ages 3 to 5 come to have adventures on Irvine’s more than 200 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and meadows. These muddy explorers stand out at a moment when many American pre-K programs have become more and more similar to K–12 education: row after row of tiny kids, sitting at desks, drilling letter identification and counting.

Sounds good to me.  We spend so much time, within the confines of school walls and progressions and tests, seeking to find ways to support “authentic learning” in “authentic contexts,” when there is, after all, a world out there, which is itself our context. Curious.

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

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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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