Integrating technology: Some class visits

Last week I posted an introduction to Larry Cuban’s current, “live blogged” research on technology integration. By the time I’d written that post, Larry had already posted some classroom observation notes from several different subjects — AP history, AP physics, intro Bio, Spanish, and others.   I was looking especially for cases of STEM classes, but of course couldn’t help scanning the others.  I have to say that I was hoping to find, in AP US History or Spanish or AmLit, some stellar new approach to the subject that clearly was an improvement on earlier technique, impossible without the computer.  IMHO, there were no such surprises, alas.

I hasten to say that I am not judging the teachers here — Larry pays attention to the students’ attention during the class sessions, and notes whether there are students “off task” or perhaps distracted by Internet access.  There are really few instances of this.  The students are paying attention, engaged or at least cooperative, almost all the time.  So the classes are “working.”  When students use computers for language drill, for example, or to write their answers to a “document based question” in US History, the technology perhaps affords a small improvement in efficiencies of various kinds.  Yet the work that they are doing — reading, writing, practicing, etc., — are bread-and-butter tasks that get done in classrooms that have no technology at all — well, except for paper and writing instruments, books, perhaps audio recordings…

In the bio class, the students do a lot of visualization and model-building as they learn about DNA and related subjects — but it’s done in the head, or with pencil and paper.  The principal digital technology used is the whiteboard, and it is used essentially as a screen for projecting slides presenting some content, guidelines or supports for activities, etc.  The students also post analogies they have constructed for chromosomes, genes, and DNA, and can look on the class website to see what other classes have suggested as analogies.  This seems engaging enough, and the work is going on in the students’ heads — reasoning and imagination — where it has to happen in the end anyway.  The technology is not obtrusive, and appears to me to be mildly helpful, but not irreplaceable.

Perhaps the most demanding task using digital technology was reported in the Physics class, and involves creating student reports as simple videos.  For example, in the  physics class, the teacher

 segues to [the] second and last activity of the 90-minute lesson: students making instructional videos to show how the class, divided into pairs and trios, will solve problems about different projectiles’ velocity, range, etc. that teacher had assigned to them.

Teams of students will be given a problem to solve; they need to solve it, and then create their instructional video about how their solution.  All these videos will be posted online, so that the students can use them in preparing for the unit exam.

For the next seven minutes, Hine, standing at the white board in the front of the room, reviews each of the five steps in making a problem solving video: diagram their solution of problem, write the necessary formulas, do the story board, take photos of what they have done, where they put their names, and doing voiceovers…

The teacher here is doing some tech support, for a generic technology which of course they can use in other contexts as well (and maybe have).  And here I want to flag a consequence of technology integration as it seems to occur in the wild:  tech support  becomes a pretty large part of the teacher’s work. For example, earlier in this same classroom, an activity involved students reviewing each other’s lab reports posted in a class area on-line, and do some peer-to-peer critique using a shared rubric.  The reports in digital representations are (I expect) probably legible because typed, and accompanied by data representations of some kind, and perhaps photos taken during the lab, etc.   So there will be some benefit in having them in online form. But again, tech support is needed:

Accessing the rubric,,,from the mixed set of devices and operating systems students have such as Apple tablets, laptops, Windows and other devices including Chromebooks, is cumbersome. The district mandated a Bring-Your-Own-Device program two years ago and students bring in Apple, Google, and other devices. The school makes available Chromebooks to students who lack a tablet. Each type has its own operating instructions and sharing documents from one device to another becomes an oft-repeated procedure in the class.

Hine gives three sets of step-by-step directions to students with different devices. Expressing frustration , the teacher gives another set of directions for students using Chromebooks. In asking students to share lab reports across computers, Hine gives more instructions for how students can share.

Obviously, these are single observations in each class.  Over the course of the year, the classrooms are likely to show a broad variety of activities, participant structures, learning tasks, and tool use (digital and otherwise).   These vignettes, however, are just what I would expect to see, on any random drop-in on a science classroom these days. The technology is there, and is used naturally for writing and communication.  The activities do not seem to me to be different in kind from activities in a classroom from 25 years ago — you may say that making an instructional video is an advance, or at least a notable difference.  I’d be interested to hear, in that case, how it differs from the team of students working up the problem, and presenting it to a class discussion viva voce?  The benefit of re-use (posting the videos for others to refer to) is also of interest, but again there are interesting questions to ask about how to support students’ learning from each other in substantive ways.

Perhaps these quotidian uses of technology are beneficial because digital tools and environments constitute something of a common language in our culture these days.  Moreover, they might (when one is in an optimistic mood) constitute the tip of an iceberg — and below the water (or out of sight of these observations) there are the spectacular, deep, breakthrough things — spreadsheet modeling, student inquiry driving digital data collection and analysis, collaboration across classrooms or schools, access to remote instrumentation…

But all those exciting possibilities represent pedagogical and curricular innovations, towards scientific inquiry and authentic practice, which (with the necessary teacher supports and administrative arrangements) are still the critical, rare, precious ingredient of school reform worth the name.

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Integrating technology: What does it mean?

A remarkable amount of policy around education (teaching, learning, and assessing) is interwoven with “technology,” by which is usually meant “digital technology” and most often something Web-based — and commercial.  As you know well, our Information Age is said to have transformed the way people learn (or “consume knowledge”) and therefore the role of the teacher has to change (or, has changed).  Moreover, the infiltration of the Web into every nook and cranny of life is generating Big Data, which will provide unheard of insights into the education process, putting Utopian tools into the hands of schools, bureaucracies, and teachers (or whatever they will become).

There is, however, still nowhere near enough research to enable us to critique such claims, or even decide which widgets to buy. Moreover, most technology innovations — getting a classroom connected to the Internet, for example— are in fact more than one innovation in parallel, making it pretty hard to make rigorous or even well-formed claims about impact. Such work takes time and lots of careful analysis, and time is a commodity that is rarely lavished on research once the sales have been made, the machines or software is installed, and actual people use the new system for a solid length of time (something our team at TERC spent some time exploring a few years ago with respect to 1-to-1 computing).

Allow me, therefore, to direct your attention to a growing series of posts at Larry Cuban’s blog.  Larry is (sort of) live-blogging a recent research project trying to get at the mysteries of technology education, and just what kind of impact it is  having.  In the first post, Larry makes the case for a series of closely observed case studies of integration.  His research questions are:

How have classroom, school, and district exemplars of technology integration been fully implemented and put into classroom practice?
Have these exemplars made a difference in teaching practice?


In his second post, Cuban discusses how he decided to describe varying degrees of integration, a notoriously vexed term, and takes a bottom-up approach to creating a definition, asking practitioners to direct him to examples of “best cases”.  From these, he derived a set of indicators for tech integration:

District had provided wide access to devices and established infrastructure for use .
*District established structures for how schools can improve learning and reach desired outcomes through technology.
Particular schools and teacher leaders had requested repeatedly personal devices and classroom computers for their students.
Certain teachers and principals came regularly to professional development workshops on computer use in lessons.
 * Students had used devices frequently in lessons.

In part 3, Cuban, noting that integration is not “all or nothing,” discusses some “stage models” for integration, reflecting on some of their assumptions about what is happening in each stage, or what enables the shift from one stage to another (such as the popular but debatable notions of PCK, or even TPCK) .  Most importantly, he notes that these models tend to assume that when these various levels of use are reached, each can enable us to infer what it is the student is doing — and especially what she is learning.  As he says (in post #4), just because you see lots of functioning technology, being used by the students very often, this does not tell you anything about student learning, nor even about the pedagogy of the class.

Cuban fans will not be surprised that it’s for this reason that Larry asks (his question #2) Has the integration of technology actually changed teaching in the classroom, and in what ways?  As he writes,

Far too little research has been done in answering this question about changes in teaching practices. So in researching and writing this book, I, too, focus on the process of classroom change and not yet how much and to what degree students have learned from these lessons. Once changes in classroom practices can be documented then, and only then, can one begin to research how much and to what degree students have learned content and skills.

Our “wireless high school” study  examined teaching practices in high school science in our case study work, looking at dimensions like curriculum content, pedagogical practices (with a particular interest in student inquiry) and assessment; all in relation to the intended goal of the technology innovation.  We could not look at change in practice, since we had not done a “pre test” on these classrooms, though we did ask teachers to report changes in their practice that they were aware of.  Given how many kinds of instrumentation and technologies (including things like microscopes, multimeters, and glassware) science teachers have, the process of integrating the Web into all that is pretty formidable, and represents not just “teacher learning,” but in a broader sense, teacher growth, as they make choices about what is most important for their students to encounter and wrestle with; the student experience, and the design of tasks, is constantly being revisited.  It takes time to figure out your pedagogical values again, especially when the technology keeps changing.  As Cuban is quite aware, case study work is still pretty important, because our models of the challenge posed by technology integration, and the learning and experimentation needed to make good use of it are quite incomplete

Larry follows his 4-part reflection on his study design with a guest article by Mary Jo Madda of EdSurge, entitled “Did that edtech tool really cause that growth?”  In this post, Madda makes some recommendations for how to evaluate studies claiming student learning impacts from new technology.

First, for educators, she recommends

#1: Look for the “caveat statements,” because they might discredit the study.
#2: Be wary of studies that report “huge growth” without running a proper experiment or revealing complexities in the data.

Then, for tech companies:

#1: Consider getting your “study” or “research” reviewed.
#2: Continue conducting or orchestrating research experiments.

Each of these recommendations is accompanied by a helpful discussion, and all the posts in this series include many links to research and other resources.  In coming weeks, I will review at least some of Larry’s cases.  I encourage you to at least check out the posts I’ve described here (and the vigorous discussions accompanying them!).

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Teacher blog: Doyle

High time for another teacher blog. Allow me to recommend the blog called “Science teacher,” whose subtitle is: “Breaking out of the classroom into the world.” The blogger calls himself “Doyle.”  His profile describes him as:

Very briefly a longshoreman, briefly a lab tech in a booze plant, more recently a pediatrician in the projects, now a high school teacher in my hometown.

He appears to post on no fixed schedule — the most recent one is dated Aug. 26, but sometimes there’s a flurry of posts, then a break.  So despite the long lag (perhaps a result of the onset of the school year), I intend to keep checking in on him.  The voice is distinctive, and as with other good blogs, the subject matter ranges widely. Science is always there, and the kids;  but so is a lot else  (as seen from Bloomfield, New Jersey).

“Why teach?”  he asks, and then answers his own question:

A few children chasing butterflies, mucking in the pond mud, and otherwise doing their best to confound our educational system remind me teaching matters.

His Aug. 26 post, however, tells us more.  It’s entitled “Why I left medicine to teach,” and opens thus:

I used to be a doctor, the kind with a stethoscope, the kind licensed to hurt you for your own good. It puzzles children to learn that a physician would walk away from medicine in order to teach, and there are days I am baffled myself. I liked medicine. I love teaching. I did not know that this would be true when I left medicine, so while it is true, it is not enough to explain why I left. Why leave something you like, especially when it pays ridiculously well? Every year children ask me this, and so far I have not quite gotten it right. I thought I had it right, but high school sophomores would kind of shake just a little bit sideways. I wasn’t fooling them.
I think I got it right now.

Doyle, like the other teacher-bloggers I most enjoy, is both realistic (and often funny) and (com)passionate about his students, but also highly engaged with the world, and gives some evidence that his pedagogical stance, and his mission, is shaped fundamentally by curiosity, delight, and awe.  His June 18 post starts out:

I am going tadpole hunting with my aunt and uncle in an hour. We’ll creep along the edge of a pond, muck around our ankles and nets in hand, dodging poison ivy and biting bugs, because it brings us joy.  Between the three of us we have over two centuries of living and hours to play on weekends, and this is what we chose to do, even in the 21st century. We have evolved little in the past few thousand years, despite what the futurists would have you believe.


He continues with reflections on the importance of children becoming acquainted at first hand with living systems in all their complexity, and of how different such knowing is from the bloodless abstractions of eduspeak:

Without a background in natural history, without a childhood immersed in the natural world, a child in our culture has little chance of realizing the lives of the living beings around us. Without this knowledge, all the talk of “interdependent relationships in ecosystems” is like the love song of a twisted psychotic stalker–not just meaningless, but passionately dangerous.

and concludes

NGSS promotes the practice of science; it does little to promote natural history. This matters. It’s like learning the mechanics of sex by using a mannequin–it can be done, but really, what’s the point? If a child doez nort fall in love with the natural world, with its deep nuances and rhythms, with its internal beauty, then pushing her to become a scientist becomes a cruel exercise. Benchwork is a hard, lonely business.  Take a child tadpole hunting–you’ll do more good for America than anything I can do within the cinder block walls of my classroom.

Doyle keep track of the seasons and their cultural resonances (see his post on Lammas, for example), as well as many other topics that matter (his posts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki days, or Black Lives Matter, for example), and of course science teaching, as in a widely-read post, “The microscope “e” lab kills science”:

Every year students learn the parts of the microscope, and every year we drag them through the infamous “e” lab. Cut out the letter “e” from a newspaper, mount it correctly on a slide, look at it in the scope at various mags, figure out its orientation.
The most interesting part of the “e” lab may be seeing the “e” move left when you push the slide right, up when you push the slide down. But we don’t talk about the why, that’s for physics, and they haven’t had that yet.
We trade stories in the lounge–Can you believe she thought the air bubble was alive? That he cut out an upper-case “E” from a headline? That she couldn’t see anything because he forgot to turn on the lamp?
And then we wonder why a few children don’t even pretend to care when we finally bring in some pond water full of wiggly aliens, full of life, full of wonder. There’s just no reaching some kids.

He continues with suggestions for a first introduction to the microscope, which elicited a lot of thoughtful comment from readers (some of the best blogs are worth reading just for the commenters). As I have wandered through his backlog, I have been refreshed by my encounter with a generous and probing teacher, and I encourage you to wander there, too. And check out a very interesting blogroll on his profile page!

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Pygmalion, Frankenstein, and the rhetoric of “reform”

Proliferation.  Every month sees new plans and blueprints and pathways and strategies for fixing the education “system” (scare quotes mark a vexed question). To try to read them all, and unpack their rhetoric and intellectual antecedents, I would have to quit my day job to read full time — and I’d need to be part of a team of dozens.

Oh, wait —   So I am!  since there are so many sharp and dedicated folks keeping watch and bringing back report:  we have a nationwide observation network, united by cross-posting and overlapping  blog-rolls.  Of course, the edublogosphere is massive in its own right, but it does do some filtering and focusing, and there’s less of an echo-chamber effect than one might imagine, given how different the voices are, and the perspectives from which they are critiquing, reading, and writing.  I am grateful!  All I have to do is resist the urge (rooted in some kind of scholarly compulsion, integrity, or nerves) to follow every single link in every single linked story….

My title this morning comes from reflections on blog posts by Peter Greene that you should read, if you are seeking to keep track of the flows of ideology that are shaping the educational landscape in our times.  Also because Greene’s writing is both trenchant and fun.

The first one is about a new “vision” document from the Center for Education Reform (very neoliberal and pro-charter). The second post from the Curmudgeon is about a blueprint from the Gates Foundation about engineering post-secondary success.  I use “engineering” advisedly here, because in this document we breath the pure technical atmosphere characteristic of much foundation-driven ed reform:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy is built on the belief that significant, sustained, and student-centered change is required for higher education to live up to its potential as an engine of economic development and social mobility. The strategy is dedicated to building human capital by closing attainment gaps, focusing on three levers for bringing about that change

Both the documents Greene reviews take it as “gospel” that we need to set higher standards for our students, which will improve their performance, and this is the way that their lot will be better in life, they will all get Better Jobs in the New Economy, and on the rising tide of test scores and Innovation the whole society (that is, the US economy) will be better.

The term “education gospel” and its content have been dissected in detail many times, perhaps most trenchantly and famously in the book of that name by Grubb and Lazerson (nicely summarized in an EdWeek article here by Lazerson). Lazerson speaks with measured but palpable anguish in his conclusion:

The central dilemma of the belief system we call the Education Gospel is that it wants to use education as a substitute for other social policies to reduce unemployment, to alleviate poverty, to narrow the distribution of earnings, and to end racial differences. This substitution is self-defeating. We cannot moderate the enormous inequalities in our society simply by improving education.

As I was reading all this stuff, I suddenly realized that as I dug down, link by link, to philosophical underpinnings, I came into the presence of a Myth, that is, a deeply grounded explanatory narrative that is exerts its power (as so much in culture) regardless of its correspondence to reality.   This is the Pygmalion myth.  In the story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the (apparently very lonely) sculptor Pygmalion is so smitten by the beautiful statue women he’s created that he beseeches Aphrodite to give him just such a mate.  Upon returning to his studio, his statue has been transformed into a living woman (Galatea), and they live happily ever after.

As it has been applied in educational psychology, Pygmalion is the teacher, the unformed ivory to be shaped is the student, and education is the technology to produce the desired shape.  More directly:  Teacher expectations can make students into better students (and therefore, the story goes, more successful people, etc. ).  Although the classic study Pygmalion in the classroom (Rosenthal and Jacobson) has been much debated (see a lively and methodical review here), the conviction persists that if we only mandate outcomes more precisely, and assess them more intensively, it will all come out as we want.  (But who is “we,” and what is it “we” want?).    Although Jussim and Herber’s review of the controversy suggests that there is a small but discernible teacher effect (under some conditions), it doesn’t seem to work as reliably (nor as cumulatively) as policy-makers seem to think.   Nevertheless, the myth unexamined and over-extrapolated continues to do its own shaping of educational policy thought and action, for well and for will.

Of course, one notes, another version of the Pygmalion myth is that of Dr. Frankenstein and his tragic monster, who once he comes alive undertakes, as far as in him lies, to shape a life according to his own imperatives.  It seems to me that something of the sort has been happening for decades now, with all the incoherence and unforeseen consequences that one might expect from a statue sculpted by committee.

Lazerson makes the point (in one form) concretely, as he speaks about misdirection of effort, opportunity costs, and what happens because of our intent focus on one little part of a very complex fabric:

What is hardest to take is that as the rhetoric of the Education Gospel continues to ratchet up, the social policies essential to make it work have been eviscerated. The fact is that we cannot fix schools without fixing inequality, and we cannot fix inequality without fixing schools. We cannot choose one or the other and expect that either inequality will diminish or education will get substantially better.

The Education Gospel then is a trap, because it turns us into believers that schools can accomplish everything, and therefore we have to do little else. The world does not work that way, no matter how loudly we play our music, no matter how many silver bullets we purport to have, no matter how hard we play the game. The game is played at lots of sites, under quite different conditions, and it does not end when the whistle blows, the buzzer sounds, or the school bell rings. To believe that education is our way to salvation is to live a terrible lie.


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Guest post: Engineer schools for equity and integration

This week, we offer a piece that Arthur Camins posted on Huffingtonpost, which he thought readers of this blog might find interesting. Arthur is Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology, and is one of the leaders on the PISA2: Partnership to Improve Student Achievement in Physical Sciences MSP. Arthur’s writings also appear on his website

He writes:

Across the United States, students have returned to schools that are engineered to be inequitable and segregated. They are designed to protect the privileges of some at the expense of others. They have been that way for a very long time, but that is an intentional decision — a human-made arrangement — not a natural unalterable occurrence like the rising and setting of the sun each day. Equity and democracy demand a different design. The education designs we accept, ignore, and reject for our children are a window into the soul of our nation, revealing what we care about most deeply.

Look around. Think about your life. Except maybe in a remote virgin forest, almost everything else has the imprint of human interaction, of design. Everything is either natural or engineered- that is, designed by humans who were guided by their goals, values, and by judgments about criteria and constraints.

From an engineering perspective, design begins with identifying the criteria and constraints that frame the problems that are chosen to solve, which features of those problems are selected to address, and the conditions or limits that are imposed on possible solutions.

As I write, I am thinking about the view from my desk where I work at Stevens Institute of Technology. I hear my colleagues at the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education talking in the background and sounds from the street — cars, trucks, lawnmowers, and construction noises. I am lucky to have a view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. The scene also includes boats, trees, grass, electric wires, and campus buildings. The river is natural, although the water that flows certain bears the mark of human design. Everything else is the result of human decisions.

The southerly flow of the Hudson River is a natural occurrence, but inequity in funding and achievement are the outcome of design features of our government and economic structure. Wealthy students attend schools that have more resources than those attended by poor students who live in neighborhoods that are the result of decades of intentional housing policies. Academic achievement is highly correlated with family income and mothers’ educational level. These outcomes are not natural occurrences, but rather the inevitable result of design decisions.

The natural world imposes constraints. Objects do not fall up. If we want an object to go up — to counteract the unalterable force of gravity — we must expend energy. Energy use is a zero-sum game. Spend it in one place. Lose it in another. As we have learned, if we are not careful about design, there is a price to pay. When we take the potential energy out of fossil fuels, some of it is spent on generating electricity, but the rest is spent on heating the atmosphere.

Design decisions about the engineered world of social interactions, such as schools, are different. Those decisions reflect our countries goals and values and judgments about criteria and constraints. For example, design criteria for public schools attendance can either specify acceptance of all children who apply within a designated geographic area or alternatively, enable some of the children to compete in a lottery for entry into a charter school. Similarly, whether or not a school’s zoned attendance area makes it diverse or racially isolated is a design criteria decision. Constraints related to how schools are funded in the United States are the product of a design decision too. Supporting schools through inequitable local tax revenue rather than progressive income tax is a decision based on goals and values. Federal and state aid to schools do not make up for differences in the tax capacity between states or between local districts. As a nation, this reflects a decision to protect the privilege of the wealthy at the expense everyone else.

I know that the term “social engineering” has come to be used as a pejorative to attack government action to advance progressive issues such as equity and diversity. However, to be clear, existing inequity and segregation are also the products of engineering — albeit without transparency about means and goals.

In the current political climate, everyone claims to be on the side education that provides access to the middle class with little talk and even fewer real policy proposals to eliminate poverty or inequitable school funding. There is virtually no discussion about promoting integrated neighborhoods and schools. From a systems engineering perspective, this is a doomed approach that restrains greater equity or education improvement. Inequity and segregation have long been inextricably linked. Segregation — and the economic and racial isolation that accompanies it — are the means by which privilege is protected. Segregation maintains and promotes unchallenged distrust at a distance that allows the “other” to be dehumanized so that common cause on behalf of equity can be thwarted. Alternatively, daily proximity and interaction across perceived difference tend to humanize and provide the potential for a common struggle for equity.

It is long past time to start engineering for equity and integration. Education policy is a great place to start.

We should:

  • Enact and fund housing policies to promote integrated neighborhoods and schools;
  • Adopt equitable school funding formulas with revenue from graduated state and Federal income and corporate taxes with increases on the most privileged;
  • Mediate the effects of income-related disparities through government-supported services, such as universal health care and pre-school;
  • Provide funds to reduce class size;
  • Fully fund services for special education and English language learners;
  • Enact laws that require employers to pay workers a living wage;
  • Fund job-creating investments in infrastructure and research.

Let’s engineer a different future.

Arthur H. Camins is the Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

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Are projects problematic?

Larry Cuban in recent weeks has been  blogging about “project-based learning”  — and bringing in other voices as well.  (Start here and follow the links back to earlier posts.)

Larry, with his finely honed sense of history, sees the rapid spread of talk about, and experimentation with, PBL, as a re-emergence of a favorite idea of progressive education.  His instincts are to be cautious, to beware of pitfalls and detours that may arise for the unwary and the unprepared.   All three of the voices he brings in, as guest posts, voice caution, even while they say positive things about PBL.

PBL is good, because “we learn by doing.”  It gives students “voice” and brings authenticity to classroom work.  It can lead to real depth of understanding, and build up the student’s understanding that knowledge-creation is a social function, with public as well as private dimensions (Cuban’s blog is not focused on STEM alone, and PBL is seen in history and other subjects as well.)

But there are problems.  Ronnie Estoque, a high-school junior whose guest post led off the series in Cuban’s blog, worries that PBL is not a good preparation for college — college students she knows report that the social, group-based approach of PBL is not a big feature in college work, where individual accountability is the key.  Estoque notes also that in teamwork, there’s often a “freeloader” dynamic at work — some do most of the work, some do little, and yet all get credit for the whole — and the do-nothings may get little learning out of the experience.

Then there’s the concern that “depth” may come at the expense of breadth — the students may learn deeply about the subject of their project, but the time spent on it means that they can’t get the coverage that is required for true 21st century education.

Giselle Huff, another of Cuban’s guests, worries that PBL “Is not as personalized” as its advocates might think, and that it’s more about process than content – sure, skills are important, but how good is PBL for knowledge acquisition?

Then there’s the worry that PBL may be deployed only on special occasions, or for selected students.  This worry is surely akin to the attitudes that I’ve encountered with respect to “inquiry”: Sometimes you do it, and sometimes not, depends on the students and the topic and the schedule… This stance, that inquiry is a technique that, like flash cards, has its place, and the educational decision about it begins with the judgment that “now’s the right time for this tool.”   It is not so common to find a teacher who knows that inquiry is a stance which can pervade the culture of a classroom — even when the teacher is giving a talk, or the students are being trained in a technical lab skill or computational method.

Related to this fear of “PBL lite,” as John Larmer of the Buck Institute of Education (the most recent guest blogger on PBL for Cuban’s site) is the concern that not all teachers are equipped or prepared to guide truly educational PBL in their classrooms.  The Buck Institute has a short,reasonable piece on what it calls the “gold standard” for PBL, and they describe fairly well the key features of solid PBL implementation.  The piece also notes the roots of PBL in Dewey’s thinking (which has its own roots), with nods to Piaget — all under the general rubric that it’s good to “learn by doing” — if it’s done right.

I would be surprised if all these considerations come freshly to readers of this blog.  Dewey wrote trenchantly about the great demands of progressive teaching for experiential learning (which goes far beyond “learning by doing” as over-simplified by friends and foes of progressive education) — Much of Experience and Education is aimed at correcting misunderstandings, glibness, and oversimplifications (romantic or ill-tempered) in this arena.    The Dewey Group at TERC, now entering its 11th year, recently read Joseph Schwab’s challenging essay “The ‘impossible’ role of the teacher in progressive education” which explores with great insight just where the challenges for a teacher lie in adopting and implementing this principled stance.

All the cautions voiced in Cuban’s columns are well known— though that’s no reason not to say them again.  What’s curious to me is the sense of urgency in the writers’ tones — as if PBL is being pushed as the next panacea, and is likely to be widely adopted, but in adulterated form, with resulting damage (to whom?  Students?  Teachers?  Ill-advised policy advocates who push PBL without realizing how  hard it is, leading to another 30 years in exile for the idea?).  I also note an interesting subtext about teachers as the problem.

Maybe there is a renewal of interest as a healthy reaction to the reigning orthodoxies of ed policy. Indeed, as a result of policy churn over the past 30 years or so, educators and parents can be pardoned for a sense of exhausted confusion about whom and what to trust.  I note that at least one of the guest posts (Huff) suggests that the problems with PBL can be fixed if only we adopt a competency-based approach– an oxymoronic vision, or Pushmi-Pullyu, if ever there was one.   It seems to me that, unavoidably, there are systemic issues not being examined.

How, if at all, do you incorporate PBL into your work?  What are the drawbacks?  What structural factors in your school or district inhibits the growth of a culture that can foster rigorous, inquiry-rich project learning, as opposed to highly constrained interludes that hint at the possibilties but can only rarely deliver?

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Blockchains, ledgers, and the engineering of education

Some of my favorite edublogs are exploring different aspects of a new fad in educational policy and engineering.  It has a lot of different names, but perhaps the most general “container” for the various components is “personalization.” (I’ve had my eye on this for some time, and written about it in this space, as Constant Readers will know.)

I say it’s a “fad,” but it may well be more than that, because “it” is being advocated by a lot of influential people and institutions.   (I say “it,” but its name is Legion, because of the various bits being developed or favored by different champions. Only from certain vantage points can one see how all the different pieces fit together.  Synergy is, for once, an appropriate term here.)

Key terms include “anytime-anywhere learning” (and its variants), competency-based education (the 2016 version), along with “competencies and skills,”  “micro-credentialing” and “badges” (as in Hillary Clinton’s proposed College Compact, which seeks to incorporate ” badges, specializations, certificates, or Nanodegrees” into the education-funding universe.)

The promise is that you can build up a record of educational attainments independent of any “traditional” educational institution, whose value is warranted by some version of the (admittedly decrepit and unsatisfactory) accreditation process.  “Life-long learning,” coupled with the (as they claim) unprecedented new freedom we now have to learn on our own time, logically “demand” that society develop new ways to get credit for all that learning, in ways that can be used to increase your value in the market.

The rationale for this includes [1] accepting the “hell in a hand basket” view of education; [2] buying into the ideology of the market, and [3] the claims about the “new economy,” 21st century skills, etc.;  [4] equating “knowledge” with “information”, and the tendency to an analytical atomization of “what you need to know and be able to do” which is (unintentionally, for the most part, I think) encouraged by the latest round of standards;  [5] buying into the vision of “gig economy,” everyone-an-entrepreneur, and other fashions which build on the view of people first and foremost as economic atoms whose mobility and transposability is a key virtue for the New Economy.

There is a variety of implementations for this general approach (theorized or actualized), but as the deep thinkers confront the issues of quality assurance, and the development of portfolios or other records of one’s life-long nano-accomplishments, a lot of attention has been focused on the “blockchain” technology underlying “cyber currencies” like Bitcoin.  With the blockchain, personal data (including “assets” like “badges” or “nano-accomplishments” become part of a distributed, permanent, unalterable record.  The benefit is that it can (at least) serve as an always accessible “portfolio” (anytime, anywhere!);  but there remain important issues of privacy and property rights — whose data is it, anyway?  Audrey Watters, at HackEducation, has a very valuable primer on the technology and various proposals for its use in education.

One vision, which is being touted by the ACT Foundation (a foundation that is a spin-off of the testing agency) is “the Ledger,” whose key theme seems to be “learning is earning.”  Peter Greene, of, has a thorough and, well, critical review of a video which seems to be designed to build awareness of, and a market for, this particular blockchain project.  If you follow the links, you quickly get a sense of how broad the coalition is that is trying to create this future for education;  as far as I can tell, it represents a new (another) version of business-based education design, intended (to quote the “National Network” website) to “connect what America learns to how Americans work”  through a competency- and skills-based approach to education and learning.

In a related post (the latest of many on this topic), Emily Talmage asks, “Will public education survive the next administration?”  She points out that the new ESSA act includes provisions that open the door to a wide range of “alternative credentialing,” of the sort envisioned by ACT Foundation and other blockchainers:

The new system is designed to expand the education market by allowing out-of-district providers – including  online programs, non-profits, local businesses, and even corporations- to award credit for student learning.  At the same time, it doubles down on workforce development by aligning educational outcomes to the needs of industry leaders.According to the U.S. Department of Education, students will “no longer [be] tethered to school buildings or schedules.” Instead, the system will require students to earn “digital badges” that they will display in individual competency-profiles accessible to potential employers and investors.

Groups like the Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg,  and other mega-philanthropist education players, organizations like KnowledgeWorks and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not to mention “education industry” players like the publisher (or whatever it is) Pearson Education, are getting very excited about this general approach.  Talmage quotes from a Pearson publication:

“By collecting skill-based badges, the record of achievement begun in secondary school becomes the foundation upon which workers build their capabilities and tell their stories to employers,” …. Pearson Education.

Following up on this, to track all the voices singing in this choir, you’re not just going down a rabbit hole — it’s entering a whole warren, whose inmates are ramifying interconnecting tunnels so as to reach further and further beneath the educational landscape.  Dissatisfaction with institutions of all kinds, and schools in particular;  the denigration of teaching as a skilled profession;  the increasing acceptance of education as essentially an economic enterprise, and the drive to incorporate ever more technological sophistication for command, control, and monitoring, under the guise of “choice,” “freedom,” and “personalization, all are converging on this model of the future of education.

Of course, the policy dialectic is still in motion, and other, competing,  visions are out there as well, but there is much to learn about educational values and framing in our society, and the machinery by which new policy is incubated and propagated,  by a few hours’ ferreting through the personalization labyrinth.

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Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner, one of the key figures in the “cognitive revolution,” died on June 6th, 100 years old. You will not get much of a feeling for Bruner’s stature from the inept NY Times obituary, but really it’s hard to convey the dimensions of Bruner’s accomplishments and a among them the contributions he made to our understanding of education as a process. Howard Gardner is quoted saying, ” “He was the most important contributor to educational thinking since John Dewey — and there is no one like him today, ” and this comment hints at some of the dimensions of Bruner’s legacy. (See here for some personal reflections from a range of former students and younger colleagues.)

Bruner was famously diverse in his interests, starting out as a psychologist and ending as a “law professor”, but this diversity was a consequence of a powerful, inventive, and searching intellect’s engagement with the problems of  mind.  Bruner played a key role in the debates of the 1950s, through which new pathways into the black box of mental processes were devised (a retrospective account by  one of the other seminal figures, George Miller, can be read here).  Bruner and colleagues published A study of thinking, which provided evidence that rigorous laboratory methods (of the sort espoused by behaviorism), acute clinical studies (such as Piaget’s and the Geneva school’s)  could be combined with models of the learning, cognizing brain, to provide fresh insight into many mysteries of cognition, growth, and psychology.

Bruner’s work was one of many foundational contributions in a time of intellectual ferment (which included the rise of Chomsky’s generative grammar, and the convergence of fields constituting “artificial intelligence,” with names like McCarthy, Selfridge, and Minsky), as part of the intellectual movement later called the “cognitive revolution.”  Bruner (like Roman Jakobson) was in dialogue with many of the pioneers in this welter of ideas and emerging fields, but also with other streams of thought in psychology, most notably Piaget and Vygotsky.

Bruner’s interest in education crystallized in the early 1960s.  His first and perhaps most influential programmatic statement was The process of education, which argued that education could be — and ought to be — informed by the growing insights of cognitive psychology, and moreover could make its own contributions (of interesting problems and insights) to the cognitive sciences.  Bruner reflected in 1971 on one of the most challenging and productive ideas arising from this period of our educational history:

During the early sixties, in various projects, it was discovered again and again how difficult it was to get to the limit of chidren’s competence when the teaching was good… No wonder then that we concluded that any subject could be taught in some honest form to any child at any stage in his development. This did not necessarily mean that it could be taught in its final form, but it did mean that basically there was a courteous translation that could reduce ideas to a form that young students could grasp.  (from The Process of Education revisited. In  Phi Delta Kappan, 53, 1, 18-21, Sep 71)

This insight opened the door to the development of the “spiral curriculum,”  as well as many of the most experimental curriculum projects of the 1960s and 1970s, which increasingly reflected the constructivist (Piaget et al. ) and sociocultural (Vygotsky et al.) ideas which Bruner  championed.  Not all the experiments were successful, though often this had less to do with the curriculum itself than with the political/social setting within which schools operate (See Peter Dow’s Schoolhouse Politics, and Jonathan Zimmerman’s  reflection on Bruner’s legacy in The Atlantic).  My own apprenticeship in curriculum development (and much else) at TERC, in the late 1980s,  took place in a climate that was deeply imbued with this optimistic and ambitious view of curriculum.

(Pro tip:  If you want a fun way to learn a lot about cognitive psychology, education, philosophy, and a dozen other related topics, I encourage you to collect some colleagues to compare and contrast  (based on a few key texts) Bruner’s approach to education with Dewey’s.  This should keep you agreeably and growthfully busy for a few years. )

But while Bruner was in many ways a major figure in education (across the curriculum), like Dewey he himself saw education always as one part of his broader concerns (though an essential part in multiple ways), which explored mind in (situated) action (indeed, he titled his “essays in autobiography” In search of mind).

His clear and graceful style invites one to wander through his own many works more technical (e.g. Beyond the information given) to more general  (e.g. In search of mind, Actual minds, possible worlds, Acts of meaning). One of the pieces that I have found most provocative is his essay on “two modes of thought” in Actual Minds, possible worlds.  The two modes he is reflecting on are “story” versus “argument,” and he reflects widely on the ways that that these modes, deeply rooted in our organism, are experienced, and the way we act (individually and socially).  He sets out the core idea thus:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought….Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.

Bruner spent a couple of final, productive decades in a law school because, I think, he saw law as one place where these two modes of thought are both fundamental ingredients.

I encourage you to read Maria Popova’s essay on  It’s an inviting and broad-ranging entree into the mind palace of Jerome Bruner, in which to wander is to be instructed, irked,challenged, and sometimes delighted.




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“Education reform”: Rorschach test

I first came to TERC in 1986 (August first). In “school reform years,” this is many “waves” ago. In those days, long before the sound of the “www” was heard in the land, “reform” meant things like: developing pedagogy that reflects how children learn; remembering that teachers’ pedagogical wisdom is built through their own continuous learning; that in order to get a true estimate of the complexity of students’ learning, you had to use many methods….

But already, A Nation At Risk had opened the door to the Era of (selective) Accountability, in which we still labor.  (Aside #1:  ANAR sounds a range of notes, but interestingly it defines the aims of education pretty broadly, emphasizes the importance of personal and civil purposes as well as vocationl/economic purposes of education, advocates strong arts and language teaching as well as the “money subjects” that now receive so much emphasis.   It mentions international comparisons and competition, but does not speak about “market  solutions” or similar buzzwords later dominant in reform language).   (Aside #2:”Selective Accountability”  — enforcing accountability on students and teachers, rather than departments of education, school boards, or legislatures, who control so many environmental elements within which teaching and learning happen.)

Since then, “reform” has taken on myriad nuances and forms, and I watched with astonishment as people like myself were transformed into “opponents of reform.”   Putting aside hurt feelings, it is interesting to see how “reform” and “education” have been changed, in their “mainstream” forms, by a narrowing or restriction of application.  One such restriction is the definition of education (and indeed citizenship) in economic terms.

A related restriction can be seen in separation of schooling from the society within which it is situated (this is often paradoxically accompanied by a push for “anytime, anywhere learning,” if mediated by technology).

Case in point:  A recent blog post by Robert Pondiscio from the “Flypaper” blog of the Fordham Foundation expresses outrage that discussions about “education reform” have been invaded by issues of race or economic inequality.  Pondiscio writes:

At the opening plenary session of the New Schools Venture Fund meeting in San Francisco earlier this month, CEO Stacy Childress promised attendees that the meeting was going to “push” them to explore issues of race, equity, and education.

Pondiscio (and he is not alone) sees this as evidence that left-wing ideologues are pushing conservatives out of discussions of education reform:

Signs of the leftward lurch are unmistakable. Senior leaders within ostensibly mainstream reform organizations like Teach For America are comfortable publicly embracing controversial movements like Black Lives Matter. TNTP’s CEO Dan Weisberg wrote in a blog post last year claiming that “organizations like ours have not been vocal enough about the obvious—that issues of racism, poverty, justice, and education are interconnected.” Henceforth, he promised, TNTP would “speak up more loudly about the many barriers—inside and outside our schools —that stand in the way of success for too many American children.”

This passage provides a hint about Pondiscio’s diagnostic lens:  the problem is incorporating talk about social conditions, the societal context within which education occurs, as part of discussion about education.  The hint is confirmed by this further comment:

“There were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we going to talk about anything but personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?’” asked [an] attendee, a senior executive at a national education nonprofit. “When are we going to talk about education?”

This blog post engendered many interesting responses, heated and otherwise. I note three of these voices here.  First, Marilyn Anderson Rhames wrote a powerful “open letter to white education reformers”.  She writes:

In your post, you referenced a recent piece I wrote about how the elite NewSchools Venture Fund Summit took a drastic turn this year by abandoning the rich, out-of-touch approach to education reform and instead empowered Black and brown leaders to address the systemic racism that ravages the education of students of color.I was inspired by this shift toward diversity and inclusion, a sign that you were finally open to hearing voices from the marginalized communities you purport to serve.

Nope.Instead, your leadership chose to squander this opportunity for racial unity to call me a four-letter word.  Left.

While being labeled a leftist isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, it’s not who I am. As the founder of a national nonprofit called Teachers Who Pray, I am not ashamed of my deep Christian convictions, even on controversial issues like religious rights, abortion, marriage and school choice.

Derrell Bradford, in a later Flypaper post, helps clarify some of the terms of the debate from a point of view that is sympathetic to Pondiscio’s.  For Bradford, a core element of education reform is in the reliance upon market mechanisms, rather than government mandates, which (apparently) are the hallmark of leftist solutions to inequity:

Back to Pondiscio’s original point: Does and should the market perspective—one focused on choice, pluralism, and opportunity as the prime drivers—continue to have a place in the education reform movement, effort, confab, or whatever you want to call it? The answer is yes. Competition and innovation are essential and may be the best way to level the playing field for kids of color. (I write this as a person who is deeply skeptical of government’s ability to create schools that liberate low-income black and brown kids from academic outcomes that ensure their economic servitude).

Pondiscio’s language suggests that “education reform” is to be a different discussion than “social reform.”  This comports well with the rhetoric of many reformers about schooling can compensate for any social or personal burdens that a child may bring into the school environment, as long as the standards are high and uncompromising enough, the teachers are consistently of the very highest quality (as determined by circular reasoning), and the Market is allowed to provide all the choices that educational consumers can desire.

But Bradford, sharing many of Pondiscio’s assumptions, nevertheless sees that “education” is linked to “society” because (my words) children are not one thing in a school, and other thing outside — they are whole beings, as their teachers and parents are, and so “education” and “the rest of the world” are part of one continuum.   This, it seems to me, is a wiser position to start from, in discussing ways and means.

Another voice from within the “mainstream” as Pondiscio would define it,  Erika Sanzi comes to his defense, and worries about “leftist” suppression of dissent (as if the “left” is the regnant view in our society), yet strikes a blow for reality, as she writes:

Race cannot be ignored when we talk about education in America. And racism is different from other “-isms.” My students, colleagues and friends have opened my eyes to the unique history, the unique pain, and the unique frustration of racism that could never touch me the way it has touched them. They don’t yet feel free in a nation that is supposed to be free.

Reading these debates among “conservative” (0r “mainstream”) reformers, I am reminded of the title and message of one of Eleanor Duckworth’s great papers (Alas, behind a paywall!!!): Twenty-four, 42, and I love you: Keeping it complex.

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Teacher blog: Colin Purrington

Time to take a break from the heavy issues, and get back to another teacher voice. The blog I have been captivated by this week is by Colin Purrington, an evolutionary biologist who left academia some years ago to pursue free-lance work of various kinds (the story of his decision to go on permanent leave from Swarthmore was told here in Nature in 2012

The thing that brought me to this blog was a link (from the website of a conference  for which I’m preparing a poster) to Purrington’s very helpful essay on “designing a conference poster.”  This was so helpful and cheery that I started poking around the site, and came across his entry on laboratory notebooks, a literary genre I find endlessly fascinating.  While he was perhaps writing primarily for undergraduates, the discussion is well worth reading no matter what your experience.

There are several other thoughtful “geek tips,” based clearly on Purrington’s experience as a working scientist+teacher+preparer of interpretive materials of various kinds.

There is also a very extensive essay (with references) on preventing plagiarism.  He considers this topic from the point of view of various people who are in strategic positions to address this issue, starting with public school teachers:

If you teach first grade, your potential contribution dwarfs everyone else’s. The reason is that you teach the nation’s children how to cut and paste from the Internet, so you are in a position on that very day to give guidance on whether it’s OK to steal words and thoughts from others. If you opt not to give this moral guidance, they will assume that plagiarism is OK.

The dozen suggestions that follow are cogent and include inventive activities to build up a culture of attribution in the classroom.  He then goes on to consider the matter as it might be addressed by principals, parents, college professors and students, librarians, web-page owners and “internet dudes/dudettes” among others.  Educative and more lively than a simple list of Dos and Don’ts.

The site includes also a photo gallery (my favorite title is “courting slugs being watched by a millipede”) including natural and nonnatural scenes, and of course the blog itself.  The entries include a lot of great photography, and some interesting reflections on science (sweet potatoes, for example, or jackal flies, a new one on me) or science and society ( for example, the understanding of antibiotics).  This a curious, participative, playful, reflective voice.  I encourage you to check it out!



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