Prepare for the Online Rapture?

This week, a lively piece on educational technology by Michael Godsey appeared in the Atlantic.  It is wide ranging, but the central premise is clear and familiar: technology will fundamentally change the way teaching and learning is done.  Godsey, when describing what he tells college students interested in teaching, is bleak:

I tell this college student that in each classroom, there will be a local teacher-facilitator (called a “tech”) to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the “tech” won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and that “tech” will earn about $15 an hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the American public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the “techs” can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore “individualized”); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system.

His main concern is that teachers will be displaced by the tremendous amount of teaching resources easily found online.  From both free and pay channels, from Silicon Valley tech firms and traditional publishers alike, there is already a greater volume of educational material, more expertly designed, than any individual teacher could hope to create in a thousand lifetimes.  The conclusion: teaching will be so thoroughly disrupted that in a decade or so, only teaching “techs,” like those described above, will exist.

But despite his concern for the safety of his profession, it seems clear that he thinks such a system might produce excellent results:

I think to myself: These resources are already good for education, and they’re only getting better. Part of me is really excited that in two decades, the giant interactive classroom computer screen that I foresaw is going to be far more sophisticated than I can possibly imagine. Why should I stand in the way of crowdsourced lesson plans and professionally edited video tutorials? Shouldn’t I stop trying to compete as an individual “sage on the stage,” appreciate the modern efficiency of today’s resources, and re-invest my time as their enthusiastic “guide on the side”?

Tempting to think so, and somehow the fear carries within it optimism: optimism that such a system would ever work as well as our current models do.  The most fervent promoters of MOOCs, of Khan Academy, of blended learning, of a thousand things meant to improve student outcomes, have a rapture-like faith in these technologies.

They will arrive!  They will be better!  It is only a matter of time!  Prepare!

Yet the evidence hardly merits such optimism.  In a recent large-scale study of one million students taking MOOCs, only 5% actually completed their courses.  They didn’t persist very well when facing challenges.  They stopped doing on-line quizzes to rehearse the things they were learning.  They had one of the highest failure rates of any educational setting – ever.

The reasons for the massive MOOC failure are likely many, but I think a large part of it is the essentially social nature of teaching and learning.  We learn from those who we respect, who hold us to account, who we look forward to seeing, and sometimes those we look forward to challenging.  When students are given the tremendous freedom platforms like MOOCs are imbued with, many of the traditional mechanisms of student engagement and accountability disappear.

Last week’s Planet Money tells the story of a young man, Demetrius, who goes away to community college: only to find that independence is harder than it looks:

CHACE (Planet Money): There are a few classic reasons why only 1 in 3 students makes it through community college. A lot of students run out of money and quit. Some have a sudden family problem. Their kid gets sick or a spouse loses their job. Demetrius had another issue that everyone talks about – motivation.

 

Nobody was in Demetrius’ life to say, hey, maybe you should go back to studying. This was the biggest difference between high school and college. No one is collecting your homework. No one’s making sure you’re keeping up with the reading. And as Demetrius went to fewer and fewer classes, nobody seemed to notice, at least according to him. Then a relative died. He had to go back to New York City for the funeral, told everyone in the family school was going great, went back to college, but he never went back to class.

 

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: I thought I could get it together, but I couldn’t. I basically checked out. I stopped going for the most part. There’d be times where I would just be in my room, like, I would just sit in there and cry. And at the same time, it made me feel worse ’cause I knew I was failing. I knew I screwed up in my first semester.

And the independence required and offered by the technological rapturists is many times more extreme.  Even the founders have acknowledged the disappointment.  Maria Konnikova, in an excellent piece in the New Yorker, quotes Sebastian Thrun, one of the pioneers in the field, on what happened to MOOCs:

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished,” he told Fast Company in an interview. “We have a lousy product.”

I agree.

At my most generous, I see the insistence on the impending technological rapture as yet another attempt to find a silver bullet, or worse – to “revolutionize” a field that is already fairly successful, to “disrupt,” as if we forgot the negative connotations of the word.  At my most cynical, I see it as the dream of those in the world of educational technology to increase sales.

But in the plainest view, the least judgmental view, we need to acknowledge what is thus far the provisional truth about online learning: for the average student, it does not offer what traditional schooling does.  It has not succeeded.  Teaching and learning are likely too relational, the average human brain too reluctant to engage in deep thinking, for students to, on a large scale, benefit from online platforms as well as they did – and do – from traditional means.

It might be possible to imagine a future where the technological classroom is run by a teacher-cyborg, able to do what the ed tech folks have been promoting.  That rapture might come.  But then, I doubt it.  And why not just build better schools through improved teaching, something we know a tremendous amount about, is practical, and will likely work?

To borrow an analogy from my spouse, we now have more fitness technology than we ever had – from wearable technology like Fitbits to virtual trainers to YouTube videos on workouts – and yet people still hire coaches and trainers.  We want something only another human being can provide.  What’s wrong with that?

105091321_6bbb2cf7c2_z(Photo: RedCraig)

‘Get Sober and Stay Sober’

The late Jacques Barzun was a hero of mine. I discovered two of his books, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, and Teacher in America, while in education school. He was a witty and firebrand salve to what I then saw as the well-intentioned silliness of much of the curriculum.  He argued for literacy, that reading was central to knowledge, and that complexity always trumped superficiality.

There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t find myself wondering if my actions would please the old man.

While I think his arguments would carry more weight with empirical evidence (a project that, while imperfect, is gaining steam), I have not really lost my love for Barzun.  Of course, having spent years in the field and earned a PhD performing social science research, I think he would say I’ve become brainwashed – or, as he liked to say, brain soiled.

His frequent writing on teaching and learning revealed many passions. Two that persist in my mind are his hatred of verbal inflation (“teaching” becomes “education,” for example), and his insistence that schooling be concerned with clear, achievable aims.

In his own words, as perfect as always:

“Teaching is the art of the possible… Give up utopianism, get sober and stay sober, and think of all the released time at your disposal, clear of committee meetings and the reading of reports.  Think of all the restored energy, free from wild or platitudinous guidelines.  The serious energy crisis of our day is that with so much human effort expended, the nation gets so little work done – in business, in government, in the schools.  We are busy bodies and low achievers.” (Jaques Barzun, Begin Here, p. 109)

(Image by Adrian Pike)

What Invisibilia Teaches Us About Schooling

Just this week, NPR launched its newest program, Invisibilia.  Billed as a show that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions,” it is another in the Radiolab and This American Life mold.  It might not get the listeners that Serial did, but it is a thoughtful addition to the stable.

The inaugural episode is about dark thoughts – the disturbing thought impulses all of us have like imagining jumping in front of a subway train.  For most of us, these thoughts are mere curiosities.  But for a few, dark thoughts plague and haunt, and can ruin lives.

Interesting enough, but what does Invisibilia, Episode One, tell us about schooling?  Lots.

1. First, the Mission of Schooling is Aided by Considering Thoughtful Examples from Other Fields

Schooling, like any complex human endeavour, is a challenge requiring a wide range of skills developed through a wide range of human inquiry: meeting the needs of students relies on psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, social work, and a host of other fields, in addition to subject knowledge.

The practice of schooling is a kind of compound craft.  When teachers are alive to helpful examples outside the schoolhouse, powerful insights can follow.  I make no further conclusions except this: maintaining interests in a diverse set of fields if likely to pay dividends for any classroom teacher.

2. It Establishes the Indescribable Helpfulness of the Helping Professions

An effective set of helping professions – include medicine, social work, psychiatry, and schooling, to name a few – is the mark of a civilized society.   Rightly so.

This particular episode focuses on mental health interventions.  But any teacher could see parallels: teaching is an act of help, first and foremost; some methods work better than others; and our job as teachers, individually and collectively, is to find ways to match the best practices of the field with our individual students (or, in the case of the podcast, patients); and, most important, these professions are, at their best, life changing.  We should not forget that.  Not every day, maybe, and not for every single person, but on the aggregate, yes.

Schooling matters.  Hilarious critiques from the writers of The Simpsons aside, schooling, like the other helping professions have turned human existence from what was often a dreary, dull, or downright awful affair into something remarkable.

3. It Shows that Practice is Often Lacking Evidence

The episode traces the historical development of one helping profession: psychotherapy.  They point out that there have been successive phases of what was considered effective practice.  If you had walked into a therapist’s office in 1950, you would likely have received some version of Freudian therapy.  This therapy might have delved into “root causes” of emotional disturbances; probably, it would have involved fairly long explorations of childhood or family trauma, all in the name of looking for insights.  It took a long time.  And, as it turned out, worked no better than pretty much any other treatment (including no treatment at all; we get a little better with time, anyway).

In the 1960s, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, working independently, and finding Freudian therapies unhelpful, developed variations of what would turn out to be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  The truly short version: they decided that perhaps instead of searching for root causes, they could instead ask patients to dispute their negative thoughts.  Using inspiration from the ancient Stoics (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus especially), these two developed a system where patients use reason and evidence to challenge their negative thoughts.  And, as it turned out, it worked – so well, they developed a coherent system of therapy that has helped millions.

Beck and Ellis now reside at the top of the most influential psychologists of all time.  More important, CBT has been validated in thousands of studies and systematic reviews.  It works.  Better than Freudian approaches.

The tale is an example of this maxim: evidence matters.  If we are to improve the lives of people, we need the best treatments, rooted in evidence.  The parallels to schooling could hardly be more obvious.  So many of our most celebrated practices – take, for example, the more complex and esoteric forms of cooperative learning – are rooted in insistence, not evidence.  And others, which have been thoroughly maligned – direct instruction, for example – have been shown in the largest systematic studies to be near the top of the list of effective practice. (See, for example, John Hattie’s work synthesizing 800 meta-analyses of teaching practice).

4. It Shows the Importance of the Research Cycle

Research, especially in social sciences, often proceeds like this: an idea is proffered, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined… The history of treatments for mental health issues reflects this cycle, so do those in medicine, and I would argue the history of schooling does, too.  At least, when it is at its best, it does (and at its worst when it assumes something to be true without good reason).

The point: Treatments in mental health have not reached their zenith, and neither have schooling practices.  Improvements will likely come with a heavy dose of applying the best practices with diligence and care, and on the margins, testing new ideas.  Cognitive behavioural therapy was once one of those new ideas.  With large-scale testing proving its superiority over other forms of talk therapy, it is now the norm.  Until a discovery on the margins has been shown to be superior, which in my view it has not, it offers the best hope to improve people’s lives.

Technical improvements in schooling will come, and we should greet them smilingly. But proceeding with a keen eye for evidence and an understanding that most new research produces results less effective than most current practice will help us from innovating our way to an inferior system.

Unschooling – Again

It’s that time of year again. By “that time of year,” I don’t mean the insidious back to school displays to tide over retailers until Halloween and Christmas, though that is also true. It’s the time of year when we ask ourselves: why bother with schooling?

I’ve written before about what some call the unschooling movement, a loose collection of folks who hold that we deprive kids of authentic, meaningful, and creative experiences in our grand confinement of young people in millions of schools across the world. The cousin of unschooling, homeschooling, has similar issues with modern school systems.

Here is an interview from yesterday’s Globe and Mail. It’s with Zander Sherman, “Home-schooled until the age of 13, he was the odd man out when he finally joined a public high school, a vegetarian who played classical guitar, read his grandfather’s Marxist literature – and found himself wondering about the strange entity called ‘school.’”

I’d like to take on Sherman’s central claims. Of course, Sherman is a well-meaning, intelligent, and insightful person. But he repeats claims often trotted out about the schooling system, and I think they need some exposure.

Claim: “Most people look at the specifics – standardized testing, the number of homework hours a week, teacher tenure – but not the bigger issues. What is an education? What are we supposed to take away from it? As a home-schooler, though, I felt like an outsider, like I didn’t necessarily belong. At the time, it was kind of excruciating, but in retrospect I was able to look at this thing called “school” with fascination and curiosity.”

I think many people do obsess about what we supposed to take away from formal schooling. There are heated policy debates all the time (full year kindergarten, anyone? Homework policies?), politicians running on education platforms (Ontario’s premier styles himself along educational lines first and foremost, as did Davis and Robarts to a lesser degree before him), and discussions around dinner tables every day. As for the claim that he felt like an outsider, I grant that schools can be mean places – and to their detriment. But so can any important public institution. The remedy is not the destruction of schools.

Claim: “Schools have historically turned out citizens and voters; today, though, you could say we’re focused on human resources – schools have become standardized, and that’s because it makes for a good labour pool, it’s convenient for the economy.”

Writers like Michael Apple have made this case, too. But in response I want to develop a line of thinking that suggests the school-as-training-for-jobs is more complicated than both of them suggest. First, schools are usually accused of not preparing students for the world of work; usually, schools are seen as irrelevant wastes of time, a theme Sherman himself flirts with. I think the schooling system, in its insistence on the importance of literacy and numeracy, with mandatory exposure to liberal arts, physical education, and science is a good balance of the exact kinds of things nearly any parent would like his or her child to experience. I would like more specific examples of instances our schooling system is “convenient” for capitalism. Second, to the extent that schooling is directed at employment (there is a half-year course in grade 10 in Ontario, Careers, that helps students prepare for interviews and make resumes), it is quite reasonable.

Claim: “Education should be about instilling a sense of wonder and a love of learning. If people aren’t galvanized by curiosity, what’s the incentive to go to work?”

I grant that there is a difference between formal schooling and education, and that not all moments of schooling are about nurturing curiosity. Though, the system has been stressing a sense of wonder and curiosity for a long time – and has, at least since 1950, lamented the perceived lack of it (see the Introduction to the 1995 Royal Commission, For the Love of Learning, for a brief summary of both the Hope Commission of 1950, and the Hall-Dennis Report of 1968). Our many Royal Commissions and reports over the past 60 years indicate we aren’t as unthinking as Sherman would argue.

Claim: “Finland is a great example. They don’t value standardized tests (although they perform well on them) and there’s less schooling-per-year than elsewhere. Students learn, then bundle up and go skiing. It’s a wonderfully eccentric system.”

There has been quite a bit written about Finland and its “eccentric” system. It’s hard to separate the truth from the hype, but let’s grant that it’s a high-performing system that serves its students well.

What concerns me is the general opposition to a systematic and standardized approach. In all professions, practitioners have benchmarks and protocols and standards bigger than their own offices. In medicine, doctors follow international guidelines; why should teachers not benefit from the collected work of a hundred years of research into teaching and learning?

If we didn’t collect standardized data on student performance on reasonable and accurate measures of our major priorities (literacy and numeracy), how would we know if we were doing a good job? Teachers in individuals classrooms (including yours truly), often lack the perspective to be able to objectively determine their students’ success. In Ontario, our approach to gathering data across the whole system allows us to see if students are learning or not. How would we ever improve the system if we didn’t know such basic data as how many of our students can read?

Claim: “Teachers in Finland are venerated above doctors and lawyers. Why can’t we look at our own teachers the same way? It’s totally baffling.”

A lot of studies have pointed to the lack of respect in the teaching profession as a reason lower-performing undergraduates enter the field, and I think there is a lot of truth to the lament that teachers aren’t esteemed enough. But surely the appropriate response is not to get rid of system-wide data collection and merely increase the amount of nordic skiing. The path to greater respect, at least if medicine is any guide, involves greater transparency, rigorous standards, and the dedicated pursuit of meaningful goals – in the case of teaching, goals like literacy and numeracy. I think teaching is where medicine was in the 19th century; on the way to professionalization through the increasing use of evidence-based techniques, not snake oil.

Claim: “I think a growing number of educators are disillusioned with international comparisons. They often put the economy first – these are not necessarily the subjects that make for the best education. These countries are at war to be economic superpowers, and math, technology and engineering are the sectors that generate the most capital.”

First we should emulate Finland because of its high performance on international standardized tests, but we should also abandon international comparisons. Which is it?

And again, a variation on the claim that the economy drives the curriculum – at least, more than it should. In Ontario, the highest number of high school credits needed is in English, hardly a capitalist bastion. The second highest? Math. Then science.

Is it the case that math and science have been turned over to General Electric? Hardly. Corporations continue to complain that our school system is not geared enough to the needs of the economy.

Claim: “I’m currently working on an article about the importance of Latin and Greek. In the schools of yesteryear, knowledge of the classical languages was part of a pedagogy known as ‘formal discipline.’ The idea was that the human brain is a muscle; learning Latin and Greek gave the brain a workout, students’ minds were toughened, sculpted.

“In the 20th century, the curriculum no longer focuses on simple knowledge and wisdom, but what’s required for the work world.”

How would we define “simple knowledge and wisdom”? While I adore the classics, and have taught ancient history and philosophy throughout my career, the path to greater relevance is teaching Latin and Greek?

Claim: “I was home-schooled for creative reasons. But many home-schoolers are from religious families, and I think the temptation there can be for parents to indoctrinate instead of developing inquiring minds.”

So, his parents taught out of a love of creativity, but the rest can’t be trusted to. In light of this claim against homeschoolers, what’s to be done?

“I like what I see at the local level, when teachers take things into their own hands. One of my best friends is a public high-school teacher. Every day he practices what I preach: He chooses material that engages his students – that gets them excited and curious. He also avoids an emphasis on testing, grading and data in general. That’s what excites me most.”

All teachers can currently do this. There is no prohibition against it, nor has there been much restriction over day-to-day curriculum for several generations (in Ontario, at least). There are no daily suggested lessons in the slightest. Teachers have a tremendous degree of latitude over their daily practices. And of course, no student goes to school at a system-level – every last one is in a local school and the daily experience is made up of relationships with (mostly) caring teachers and peers. (Teachers, a highly unionized bunch, are unlikely foot soldiers of creeping capitalism.)

I still object to the treatment of “data” here. I think it’s important to know how your students are doing, ideally every class period. But that does not mean – in the slightest – that this data collection is only in paper-and-pencil tests. Talking, as any psychiatrist or journalist can tell you, is also data. So is debating. So is conferencing with a small group of students. As is when a student paints in art class. This is all data towards the same aim: namely, to know how we are doing.

If we’re not assessing our students, how do we know if they can read or write, or have the wisdom that Sherman is fond of?

(And again on standardized tests, Ontario has a standardized test – with no individual accountability for individual students or teachers – in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Hardly every day are the students exposed to the dangers of these insidious tormentors.)

School is there to do what not every parent can: instill in young people the skills that we have deemed important through our democratic process. Currently, that is literacy, numeracy, with some exposure to science, and a smattering of liberal arts and physical education courses. Evidence of the undue influence of capitalism is hard to find.

And while alternatives to the current system exist, of course, how could they be efficiently deployed? Can everyone be homeschooled? As I’ve written before, the wholesale opposition to modern schooling is the prerogative of the wealthy. Universal, government-funded schooling has been transformative for those not born into wealth. I say we celebrate that success, while dedicating ourselves to improving the system further through a systematic approach guided by – gasp – the most trustworthy data we can find.

A Contagious Vagueness

Last year, Salon ran an interview by Alice Karekezi with a New York City public school educator and curriculum advisor Diana Senechal. Senechal had recently released a book, The Republic of Noise. Her critique of some standard educational practices is intriguing, and while not empirically verifiable, rings true. (I am definitely going to be stealing the phrase, contagious vagueness.)

Below is an abridged version of the interview. (The whole thing can be found here.)

What’s your definition of solitude?
The idea of solitude as an attribute of the mind goes back to antiquity. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus distinguished between a negative sort of isolation (helplessness, removal from others) and the strength that comes from relying on one’s own mental resources. Quintilian wrote about the importance of overcoming distractions through mental concentration and separation. “In the midst of crowds, therefore, on a journey, and even at festive meetings,” he wrote, “let thought secure for herself privacy.”
Solitude is not about being in a hut out in the woods or being out in the desert or living without other people around. I define solitude as a certain apartness that we always have, whether we’re among others or not. It is something that can be practiced — maybe to think just on one’s own, even when in a meeting or in a group and so forth — but that also has been nurtured by time alone. So there’s an ongoing solitude that’s always there, and there’s also a shaped or practiced solitude, which requires both time alone with things, to be thinking about things and working on things, and time among others when you nonetheless think independently.

You’re critical of certain educational philosophies in practice in schools today, especially the workshop model. Why?
The workshop model has an emphasis on group work and a de-emphasis on teacher presentation. What happens is the teacher is supposed to give a mini-lesson which is about 10 minutes long. From there students are supposed to work in groups on something related to that mini-lesson, sometimes independently, but most of the time in groups. At the end they are supposed to share about what they learned. This was mandated across the board, across the grades and subjects, in many schools. Every lesson is supposed to follow a workshop model. (Of course some schools were a little bit more flexible about this than others.)
The problem with that is that the workshop model is very wonderful for certain lessons and topics, but when you apply it across the board, you are constraining the subject matter. You need a variety of approaches in order to deal with a topic. You may need a lesson where the teacher gives an extended presentation to give the students necessary background. Or an extended discussion. For instance, the students may have a project that they will have to do together, but they have to work on their own to build up to that point.
Also, schools have put an enormous emphasis on skills – or what are called skills – at the expense of content. This has been going on for decades. No one wants to specify what students should read, but they say that they should be analyzing and comparing and contrasting. Well, none of this has meaning unless you know what it is you’re comparing and contrasting or analyzing. What happens is, students write essays that show that they haven’t read very closely, and yet this passes because it meets the checks on the checklist: that it has the right number of paragraphs; it has an introduction, body, conclusion; it seems as though they’re comparing something with something. There is a contagious vagueness because we don’t specify what we’re talking about and what students should learn. We then encourage in them a certain vagueness and carelessness. The problem perpetuates itself, and it turns up much later when students enter college and don’t know how to write a coherent essay. Well, the reason this comes up is that they’re in courses where they’re expected to read on specific topics, and that’s where things fall apart and it’s no longer about the rubric.
So the problem lies in the idea of putting the model above the actual subject. You have to think about the subject and think about how you’re going to bring this to the students, and think about the type of lesson that will do that best. Often you’ll find that you need a combination of types of lessons.

You write that we “mistake distraction for engagement”? How so? How does it affect even mental cognition?
I’m not a psychologist, but in the classroom and in many discussions on education, what I see is an emphasis on keeping the students busy from start to finish. Not letting a moment creep in where they don’t have something specific to do, something concrete where they are actually producing something. So if you keep them busy, busy, busy, and doing something at every moment, then supposedly they’re engaged. And when supervisors walk into classrooms and look and see the students writing and turning and talking, their conclusion is “Oh! What an engaged class!” The problem with that is then students don’t learn how to handle moments of doubt, or moments of silence, or moments where they have to struggle with a problem and they can’t produce something right on the spot. So, the students themselves come to expect to be put to work at every moment. If you want to give them something more difficult, you have to expect a little uncertainty.

Educational Technology – Revisited Again

I was recently listening to a very seasoned, very articulate head of an independent school discuss the role of educational technology. He said, “If someone can show me one study that demonstrates that technology improves student achievement, I’d like to see it.” And while it’s a little hyperbolic, he points out something we all know but rarely say: as with most areas of education, we do what we do (in this case, spend billions of dollars on educational technology), not because we know it has an impact, but simply because it seems like a good idea.

The following was written by Paul Thomas, former high school English teacher-turned professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. It is as negative as one could get on the potential of educational technology to improve instruction, but I find myself not disagreeing with it. Sure, it’s a little overreaching. And yes, the one study he points to does not really address his main thesis (if educational technology has been used imperfectly, the solution might be better training, not less technology). But if I think of the truly important lessons I learned in school, none involved technology. They usually involved feedback, my own investment, and what Barzun refers to as student and teacher grafting their minds to one another. Can technology improve the chances this will occur? I’m agnostic. (The value of SmartBoards would deserve a posting all on it’s own…)

People will often say, “It’s not the technology that’s important – technology is just a tool to use to make learning come alive -” or some such. Perhaps. And you can find lots and lots of interesting schools with passionate teachers doing interesting things with technology. But we have to ask: if we resources for education are scarce, and they are, why bother with technology? Are there simpler ways to achieve the same ends? And given that all adults learned contemporary technology (iPhones, new operating systems) as adults and not in school, I see little reason to teach explicitly technology for its own sake (save for computer courses which require specialized knowledge like programming).

We need a reason to use technology. Too often, in the language of a cherished colleague of mine, it is a solution in search of a problem.

Paul Thomas:

Reforming education in the U.S. often includes seeking new technology to improve teaching and learning. Instead of buying the latest gadgets, however, our schools would do better to provide students with critical technological awareness, achievable at little cost.

We rarely consider the negative implications for acquiring the newest “smart” board or providing tablets for every student. We tend to chase the next new technology without evaluating learning needs or how gadgets uniquely address those needs. Ironically, we buy into the consumerism inherent in technology (Gadget 2.0 pales against Gadget 3.0) without taking full account of the tremendous financial investments diverted to technology.

Technology is a tool to assist learning. School closets and storage facilities across the U.S., though, are filled with cables, monitors and hardware costing millions of dollars that are now useless. Notably, consider one artifact that’s covered in dust — the Laserdisc video player (soon to be joined by interactive “smart” boards).

Chalk board, marker board and now “smart” board have not improved teaching or learning, but have created increased costs for schools and profits for manufacturers. There is little existing research that shows positive outcomes from technology. One study found that “most of the schools that have integrated laptops and other digital tools into learning are not maximizing the use of those devices in ways that best make use of their potential.”

Reading a young adult novel on a Kindle or an iPad, or in paperback form, proves irrelevant if children do not want to read or struggle to comprehend the text. Good teachers, however, can make the text come alive for the children whether it’s on a glowing screen or a piece of paper.

Schools should not be blinded by the latest trends and the inflated costs of new technologies. Rather, we should empower teachers and divert resources into their classrooms in more meaningful ways.

We’d do well to heed Henry David Thoreau: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Neuroplasticity and Schooling – The Thing that Hurts is the Thing that Helps

While classrooms are about as far from brain surgery as a person can get, it hasn’t seemed like that in the past few years. Increasingly, the world of teaching is infused with seminars, books, techniques, and staff room banter about neuroscience. Most of this activity is just the usual idle chat, but to the extent that we really listen, our world is about to change. For the better.

Few writers in the field have had the impact that Norman Doidge has had. His book, The Brain that Changes Itself, has (beyond selling millions of copies) began to alter the way we think about our brains. Beyond Doidge, there are few issues of important periodicals like the New Yorker that go by without any reference to neuroscience. And in our age, romantic notions of ‘mind’, the ethereal, intangible version of consciousness has all but died. The brain is our mind, the consensus goes, and we just use sentimental language when we speak otherwise. All of this might be true, but the relationship between consciousness and our brains is not one way: our brains are often subject to the power of our directed, conscious thoughts. We are not computers that merely respond to our programming.

An example: the placebo effect has always bedevilled medical researchers. In order to determine whether or not any particular medication has the desired effect, it is important to establish a double-blind study – neither the subjects nor those administering the medication know which is getting the placebo, and which is getting the real medication. In this way, we can determine if the medication is having the desired effect. When the study is concluded, we take a list at the patient lists, see who got better, see who didn’t, and we can determine if the drug works. The placebo effect – the tendency of patients to report better symptoms even on a sugar pill – can be separated from the ‘real’ effect.

Setting aside the sometimes unscrupulous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies, this double-blind system works quite well. There’s no way to game the system. We can tell if real change has occurred. There are, in addition to patient reports, observable data we can draw on to know if the drug worked or not. Did the tumour shrink? Did the cholesterol decrease?

But with matters of brains, this isn’t so neat and tidy. There has been a remarkably high placebo effect in anti-depressant medication trials. Sometimes nearly as high as the group who got the actual medication. So what, we might say. So some people convinced themselves that they were feeling better – the underlying reason for their depression must have remained unchanged.

And yet, that is sometimes not the case. Generally speaking, brains of patients who suffer depression look different under an MRI than those who are not suffering depression. You would imagine that those in anti-depressant trials who received the placebo medication would see no physical changes in brain operation, and yet they sometimes do. Not only have they ‘tricked’ themselves into feeling better, but by doing so they changed the physical operation of the brain. Recent research into mindfulness meditation has hinted at the same thing: those who meditate begin to see changes in the physical and electrical and chemical structures of the brain. And the list goes on: those who have suffered strokes and lost a capacity (say, the use of their left arm) because of brain trauma (the area of the brain responsible for the activity) find that with the right therapy, other areas of the brain change and grow to take over for the damaged area. The oldest evidence of all: London cabbie’s brains have overdeveloped regions of the brain responsible for spatial awareness, having had to memorize great swaths of one of the most labyrinthine cities in the world. And then there’s the remarkable story from Atul Gawande in the New Yorker about scratching an itch.

If we are a computer, we are a computer that can reprogram ourselves.

And yet, in schooling, we continue to do something that has often puzzled me. When a student presents with a difficulty in one area (say, writing), we often reduce that very activity. The thinking goes like this: if Steven’s brain is wired in such a way as to make him a kinaesthetic learner, not a verbal or logical-mathematical learner, then he should do more dancing and running and less reading and writing.

The following has no support but resonates with me, at least.

The oldest paradigm: just try harder. If that doesn’t work, ‘you must not be built right’. Give up. This led to a tremendous amount of unused human capacity.

Now: You are a visual learner? Don’t even try listening to your peers or teachers in your classes. Hard time reading? We’ll get you the audiobooks for all your texts. A second-language seem tough? We’ll exempt you from it. After all, if you were paralyzed, we would never ask you to run the 100m dash. Asking you to violate your unique brain is potentially abusive.

Except that if stroke victims can repurpose areas of the brain to speak again and to walk again, why can’t the same logic work on remediating dyslexia? (It does, as it turns out – dyslexics who have been exposed to the right sorts of interventions have fundamentally different brain processes after the interventions.)

Perhaps the simplest conclusion is this: Our brains are more similar than they are unique. To the extent that they are unique, most of that variation is a positive good and leads to interesting, creative possibilities. For a smaller group of us, our brains don’t do as easily what other brains can do. When those areas overlap with skills our society prizes, like reading(!), we ought to do more of that hard thing, not less, to remediate, to actually change our brains for the better. The model of physiotherapy applies well, I think. When our backs are stiff, we stretch and exercise. We no longer advise bed rest for (the majority) of sore backs. The thing that hurts is the thing that helps.

Of course, we need to do so in ways that are suitable (more of a useless remedy does not achieve the desired result), but I worry that the vast majority of our interventions are akin to taking someone with a sore back and putting him in wheelchair until his legs atrophy to the point where we validate the very thing harming him.

Here’s Norman Doidge on Allan Gregg and Company.

Solutions Looking for Problems?

All fields have their shop-worn phrases and clichés, and education is no different. And while there are lots of them in education, the one that chafes me most is the well-meaning: innovation.’

Good teachers, the story goes, change everything all the time. They change books, they change approaches, they change seating arrangements – everything needs to be different than before. Much of this pressure comes from (again) well-meaning administrators who praise certain teachers for “never doing the same thing twice”; more of it comes from those teachers themselves. But I’ve always wondered: what if the way you were doing it before was best?

A gifted colleague of mine recently put it this way. Imagining a discussion with his wife later that night, “For dinner tonight, let’s eat in the ditch. Or, the dumpster. Always changing!”

People will scoff and say, but wait – when we say innovation, we mean improvement. And that’s the rub: not all new ideas are better than the ones that came before. In fact, some of them (lots?) are bound to be worse. And if we adopt them before we know if they are indeed better, really know not just have a hunch, then we do our students a disservice in the name of our own boredom.

I generally don’t tire with the comparison to medicine. We would not want our doctors ‘innovating’ protocols for assessing heart attacks, or the general method of removing a liver. There might be better techniques for those, and research ought to go into it (it does), but at the level of practice, I want my doctor to do what is generally known to create the best results, novelty be damned. Our classrooms should, in the main, follow the same example.

Here’s one of my professors, Ben Levin, on a similar topic:

Physics reformed

An old friend of mine, Chris Meyer, a Toronto-are physics teacher, has been passionate about reforming the way physics is taught. Working from research of physicists like Eric Mazur, he has moved beyond lecturing and towards a deeper level of engagement. (His collection of articles on PER – physics education research – are worth the look on their own).

Check out his work, and if you’re feeling like it, it seems he’s willing to let teachers (and teaching candidates) drop in.

His work raises many good questions – the one I’m most interested in currently is whether there is a universal grammar of good instruction underlying all of the best teaching practices, or if the subject taught determines the approach.

Set Your Confusometer to Stun

Understoodit.com
Understoodit.com
From The Toronto Star:

“U of T grad Liam Kaufman has designed a website a prof and students can go to that lets students click on a red button if they get confused. The results show up on the prof’s laptop, registering what percentage of the class is feeling baffled, so he or she can stop to explain. When students get it, they hit the green button that says Understood.”

An excellent idea, and I would like to know the contents of my students’ brains as much as the next teacher, but the skeptic in me wonders: most students who suffer confusion don’t know what they’re confused about. In fact, often the ones who are most misguided have the strongest sense of being correct. Also, the app assumes that all learning unfolds in a linear fashion, and that all students would be confused by the same thing (when it’s likely that they are confused about very different things, on the aggregate). Last, I wonder if we need yet another screen to get in between the organic – and crucial – social interaction between instructor and pupil.

But I would like to give it a try…