Wendell Berry’s Questionnaire

I was in a meeting of the board of trustees of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, and one of the farmers offered this as an opening topic for reflection.  As I start to revive this blog, I appreciate the challenge this piece presents to think about moral commitments not divorced from their concrete, personal consequences…



by Wendell Berry

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

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Do this!


this (all 10 minutes!),

and pass it on.
Many of you have heard of Greta Thunberg, but you may not have watched this.

If you have watched it, you may not have passed it on.You may have watched and passed it on, but you may not have talked with anyone about it, or started quoting from it.
These are all things you could do today.

Some of us, some of you, may  have been saying such things for a long time, and even taking some action. So what? Greta Thunberg is a new, welcome, powerful voice, saying some very basic stuff — basic, as in fundamental, foundational, cornerstone…
And just because I’ve heard music in the key of A before doesn’t mean I can’t get something out of hearing Beethoven’s 7th symphony.

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Makerspaces as education and novelty, and a farewell note

A few weeks ago, the MSP News featured some articles and videos on “making” and “makerspaces.” I followed up on the links, and learned about all the interesting work going on (and the fun being had), and began to wonder about “making” as an activity, versus “making” as a fad.  For me, this means “making” as a human activity (and possibly educative) and “making” as ed-biz (and not ncessarily educative as long as profitable).  One of the problems with this tension (educating vs selling) is that marketing and propaganda are quicker, more nimble, and more voluble than research.  The only process that can at all compare in speed (though not in scope) is professional gossip — anecdote and evaluative chat within networks of friends and colleagues.   (Hence the value of something like MSPnet, not to mention teacher-lounge conversations, and all the other ways people network about their craft.)

“Making” has intrinsic power to engage and evoke intellectual and social/emotional activity: When someone says “Let’s give kids a place and some time to create, build, imagine and design things,”  it just makes sense that it should be good.  Our species, after all, has sometimes been called (informally) Homo faber, Earthling the maker, the crafts-person (See here for a philosopher’s take on this).

The power of things, objects to evoke curiosity, ingenuity, purpose, and delight has been noted and deployed by educators since forever.  As Sherry Turkle wrote about Seymour Papert:

He bridged the thinking/feeling divide by writing about the way his love for the gears on a toy car ignited his love of mathematics as a child. From the beginning of my time at MIT, I have asked students to write about an object they loved that became central to their thinking.   A love for science can start with love for a microscope, a modem, a mud pie, a pair of dice, a fishing rod. Plastic eggs in a twirled Easter basket reveal the power of centripetal force; experiments with baking illuminate the geology of planets. Everybody has their own version of the gears.

So what does it mean that “making” is somehow an innovative discovery?  For example, one of the videos from the 2016 Stem for All Video Showcase tells us that “There is growing interest in Making as a new approach to STEM learning.”    New?  Such a statement invites reflective critique.

Perhaps there is something in the Spirit of the Times that makes such a thing more appealing or compelling than it was 20 years ago?   An interesting article about maker spaces and libraries by Rebekah Willett (here) points out that

A culture of making as a political response to mass production and industrialization  can be traced back to the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s

This is reminiscent of the way that the Nature Study movement arose about a century ago, in response to the accelerating urbanization and nature-impoverishment of modern America. (Joni Mitchell:  “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”)

Or is the Maker movement getting new impetus from the powerful Ed Tech marketing enterprise?  Although many observers and advocates make it clear that “makerspaces” need not involve digital tools, somehow computers, robots, 3-D printers, smart technologies etc. almost inevitably creep into the story.  Makerspaces.org illustrates:

A makerspace is a collaborative work space inside a school, library or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools.  These spaces are open to kids, adults, and entrepreneurs and have a variety of maker equipment including 3D printers, laser cutters, cnc machines, soldering irons and even sewing machines.  A makerspace however doesn’t need to include all of these machines or even any of them to be considered a makerspace.  If you have cardboard, legos and art supplies you’re in business.

When “technology” (that is, software and hardware) gets involved in an educational space, the marketplace finds a way in, with its tendency to sell promise out of proportion to evidence, and its rhetoric of innovation (See here Audrey Watters’s classic essay, “The best way to predict the future is to issue a press release.”).

It seems to me that in these days when the education “market” has been targeted for economic exploitation, we need to make sure that our questions are not only of the sort “Is this cool?”  “Do kids respond?”  “Is there potential for STEM learning or social learning or… ?”

We should also be asking about hidden (perhaps unintentional) messages being conveyed. There have been, for example,  some interesting critiques (here and here, for example) of  the “making movement” relating to power-relations and social justice, gender stereotypes, and the privileging of objects over people.

I always like to ask about learner agency:  Who’s in charge?  Who’s asking the questions?  Whose purposes are being followed?  What kinds of sense are being made, and by whom?  Where is the freedom, and is there room for everyone at the table who wants to be there?

I have long thought that STEM teachers need to be “amphibious” — to know and love their field, and to know and love learners and learning.  But when we are also being asked to use, adopt, implement, or purchase stuff that someone else tells us is New and Great, teachers also need to be philosophers, asking “Who benefits?  Whose capacity is broadened or deepened here? Do the claims of New and Great arise from enthusiasm and hope on the learner’s behalf, or delight in the materials themselves, or is it hope that by Reaching Scale a marketing goal will be achieved?”

Popular doesn’t mean wrong, and Commercially Exciting doesn’t mean uneducative —but if we educators  don’t ask and discuss the deep questions, the hard questions, then education can too easily become merely a branch of economics or public policy.

A Farewell Note

As recently announced in the MSP News, MSPnet is in transition.  As part of this move, this blog will be discontinued.

It has been a great gift to me to have the challenge of writing for you about science education — and related topics — for the past few years.
It’s been so educative, and fun, that I don’t plan to stop.

The first drafts of my posts on the MSPnet blog have been written in a WordPress blog,
Bloghaunter.”  After a little break for proposal writing, I will carry on writing there starting mid-February.  I’ll probably broaden the range of themes, and speak a little more personally.   If you are interested, you are welcome to follow me there (and post comments)— the URL is   https://bloghaunter.wordpress.com

Note that the blog will no longer be associated with MSPnet.

Wishing you all the best for 2019 and beyond,
— brian drayton

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

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Science teachers as participants in the culture of science

A recent MSP News included a recent paper by Matthew Kloser entitled “The nature of the teacher’s role in supporting student investigations in middle and high school science classrooms: Creating and participating in a community of practice.” This is a very helpful and extensive literature review, written for a National Academies commission.  (You can find it in the MSPnet Library, here).

As I was reading it, I was once again struck by the size of the challenge that science teachers face (and of course teachers in other STEM disciplines have analogous challenges). Joseph Schwab long ago wrote about “the impossible role” of the teacher in a progressive classroom (see his article here), that is, a classroom that takes seriously the instrumental nature of knowledge, the task of the meaning-making learner, and the social nature of learning. One fundamental challenge to the teacher who is reshaping her/his pedagogy to reflect how knowledge comes to be — and to convey that “theory and practice” are two strands in a single fabric:

science, like practical knowledge, is fluid and dynamic. This last fact has explosive meaning for the conduct of the school. It points to the pervasive place of reflection in all educative experience. The pervasive dynamism of things and knowledge, practical and theoretical, means that at no level of pragmatic space can education rest on inculcation only. There are no dependable patternsof reaction, no permanent catalogue of means and ends, not even apermanent body of scientific knowledge, which, once known, can be the unreflective basis of all other action and reflection. We need to reflect on our acts in the light of knowledge of means and ends and to reflect on this knowledge in the light of what science has to offer (pg. 153)

But this is hard to do, and hardest to do by precept alone.  Kloser’s review article discusses many ways that teachers can work — alone, but better when situated in communities of other practitioners who are grappling with the same questions of pedagogy and content — to relearn the science they are teaching with this “instrumental” nature of science in mind, and at the same time reshaping their pedagogy to help their students engage with science as a “way of knowing,” and from that understanding learn about the world  — and some of what we’ve learned about it.

With this challenge in mind,   I have always thought that a solid experience of research is essential to the kind of science education that visionaries and policy-makers have been calling for, in various tones, for the past several decades.  After all, we expect music teachers to be able to play music… Of course, many good teachers have not had much opportunity to engage directly in research;  but should we not find a way to fix that, and make sure that fewer and fewer teachers are without that kind of experience?

There are various benefits that would accrue from ensuring that reflective teachers such as Schwab envisions, in communities of practice such as Kloser’s paper advocates, have some personal experience of science in practice.  Maybe one of the most important is the costliness of scientific findings.  I mean costliness in terms of effort, time, patience, and so on — even the most tentative scientific findings are the tip of an iceberg of activity (an iceberg sometimes astonishingly large).

The sociologist of science Leigh Star once described her experiene in a beautiful library, reading the lab notebook of a neurological researcher, and being rapidly immersed, in imagination, into a very lively scene of “science in the making”:

 I turned to one experiment where Ferrier records his attempt at trying to measure the effect of a lesion he produced earlier in the day, on the brain of an ape. The ape is less than cooperative—Ferrier’s handwriting occasionally flies off the page, wobbles, and trails off in what clearly is a chase around the room after the hapless animal. The pages, in sharp contrast to my chapel-like surrounds, are stained with blood, tissue preservative, and other undocumented fluids.

By contrast, the report on the results of this strenuous inquiry hints not at all about the day-to-day experience of the work:

 By contrast—and this is a finding repeated in sociology of science through the 1980s—the report of the experiment is clean, deleting mention of the vicissitudes of this experimental setting.

Star’s comment on this contrast is, I think, important to for teachers, and teachers of teachers, to bear in mind:

 This anomaly drew my attention to two things: the magnitude of invisible work that subtends any scientific experiment or representation and the materiality that acts to mediate the conduct of science

(These quotations are from pg 606 of  “This is not a boundary object: Reflections on the origin of a concept,” which can be found here.)

The making of science is about the world we live in, and so at bottom it is a physical act, though to become knowledge must be part of a flow from question to conclusion, with reflection being the life-blood streaming through all.

Mark Kloser makes a related point, when he says

Participation in an authentic [research] community allows teachers to see representations [of science] that are not sanitized, such as those that might occur through selecting only exceptional cases, or the best videos of an investigation.

He then continues with a valuable discussion about the work that teachers need to do if they are to make this kind of rich personal engagement useful in the classroom — they have to be able to figure out, beyond the particularities of the specific techniques,  “What just happened here? How did it work?” so as to understand the lessons about knowing, learning, asking, showing,  in a scientific way.   This can’t be left to scientists: “As scientists are deeply immersed in their practice, they may be unable to help teachers understand the most important elements of conducting  high-quality investigations.”

What a huge enterprise, to recast teacher learning and classroom practice in this way!  The NGSS standards can be said to advocate for it, part-way, as the NRC 1996 standards did as well (and NRC’s  “inquiry book” from the year 2000).   But I don’t know of anyplace, or any policy documents, that take seriously enough, or articulate fully enough, the need to accept  teachers as true participants in the scientific culture, just as any piano teacher or school band director, or home guitarist, is part of the culture of music.

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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Citizen science and teacher learning

A recent MSPnet News focused on different aspects of citizen science as a learning experience — design, assessment, and outcomes or benefits. The papers took a broad view of the field, and so the K-12 sector was one among many citizen groups considered. It is refreshing, actually, to have questions of learning design and assessment of outcomes not focus on kids, but instead place the younger citizens alongside older ones, who might benefit as much as the students from authentic science experience — gaining science knowledge, understanding of and experience with scientific practice, increasing their scientific literacy or identity, or overcoming to some extent their alienation from nature, or the “extinction of experience.”

Every year, the STEM for All video showcases have featured videos of several citizen science projects — giving evidence of the popularity and appeal of the idea.  In addition, though, since most of the projects are funded as research projects, the videos demonstrate that there is still lots to  learn about design, impact, implementation, and evaluation.   Since most of my experiences with citizen science have relied much on teachers for success in all these dimensions, I was stimulated to look at the 2018 videos with teachers in mind.     Knowing that there’s a limit to what can be packed into a 3-minute video, I also read all the (archived) discussions, in case “teachers” emerged in the give-and-take. Probably a broader picture would emerge from a look across all the Videohalls, but this may serve as a first assay.

My questions were:  Do teachers appear as a topic or constutuence in these presentations (or their discussions)?  If so, in what connection?  That is, do they appear as learners (primary “target” of the project), or as collaborators (with the scientists or scienists+researchers), or as implementers?  Aside from these questions, what else arose that I did not anticipate?

I was surprised at how rarely teachers appeared — including as participants in the discussions.  A search produced 11 presentations tagged as  ‘citizen science.’  Of these, only two also show up in a search for “primary audience: teachers.”   In these two, however, teacher learning was not a primary theme that emerged — though teachers as collaborators are noted, briefly.

All the other citizen science projects had someone other than teachers as their primary audience.  If teachers are mentioned, it is as collaborators, or co-implementers.  Whenever they are mentioned, it is with some attention to their constraints or challenges (e.g. scheduling time for field work).  It seems to be taken for granted (reasonably enough) that activities, and the science of the project, are to be made available in a form suited to the learning situation — whether classroom or informal setting,

Though there are mentions of teacher professional development, they are nowhere the primary concern of the presenting projects.  I do not mean this as a criticism, but rather an pointing out an interesting gap in the research (as represented in these presentations, as well as in the papers added to the MSP library:  What in fact are the teacher learning challenges?  Do they differ depending on what kind of science is being done (e.g. ecological field work. vs. laboratory work, vs. work with simulations or visual data sets such as those involving molecular structures or astronomical photographs).  Is anyone researching this?

In work that I did with Joni Falk in the 1990s (a paper about this is here), the high school biology teachers that participated in our project, all of them well prepared in basic biology,  had a lot to learn about ecology, and about field techniques, and about research design.  Beyond this, however, there was the challenge, how to integrate “wild science” into classroom experiences, and how to evaluate individual learning in team projects. In more recent work, with the Climate Lab, we have seen that relatively few teachers are at home in the field, and not comfortable playing the naturalist role, which can do so much to stimuate student interest in a field setting.

All this makes it harder to facilitate students’ learning in these settings, including their learning of the science practices involved (or required) by the field work.  Do we need a construct such as Natural History Pedagogical Content Knowledge (NHPCK), or Pedagogical Content Knowledge for Field Work (PCKFW)?*

I trust not, but I do suspect that teacher learning for citizen science presents an interesting opportunity — the nature of teachers’ work means that they will not pattern exactly like other kinds of adult participants, and of course not as naive science learners, either.

Are you working on this?  Or are there questions you wish someone else would answer?


*And of course my own personal focus is on ecological projects, and citizen science involving molecular engineering, or asteroid mapping, or agriculture science, will have its own demands and opportunities for the teacher.


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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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