Futurizing Education

I’ve written before about the importance of “getting sober about what schools can do. Schools are places where students learn to do important things they otherwise would not be able to do. Students learn to read and write; to paint; to play sports; to become numerate; to debate; to form argument, use evidence, and join important academic conversations.  Schools do all these things and more.  We should be collectively proud; despite all their failings, the outcomes of schooling rival any other important social enterprise.

Yet, the the current narrative goes something like this: schools are trapped in the 20th century and need to embrace the future.  They need disrupting.  Throw out the old playbook.  Let the streets run red with the blood of the sacred cows of schooling.

Doubt me?  How much effort has been expended on coding in schools?  

A recent screenshot of articles on coding from a leading online teaching publication.

Granting the differences in aesthetics, and the discussion of “growth mindsets,” what are the fundamental differences between the coding craze of the 21st century and this from the 20th?

Disruption Thus Far: What Have The Results Been?

Hard to say, but let’s look at one aspect of futurizing education that we were told would revolutionize schooling: online learning, especially through large-scale, sometimes free MOOCs.  The results have been awful: students performed less well in MOOCs than in traditional classrooms.  And MOOCs seem to be especially hard on students who struggle with traditional classrooms. As I’ve written before, one of the largest studies found that roughly five percent of students completed such online courses.

Of course, schools can and should explore ways to improve practice.  We should, as Atul Gawande says of medicine, we should look for ‘positive deviants – teachers and schools that achieve more than the average – to learn what works and scale it up.  But surely that is where progress is to be made: keeping what works, improving what doesn’t, and slowly ensuring a greater quality of education for all.  

And let’s remember the negative connotations of the word “disrupt,” as well as the commercial interests involved in that project of “throwing into disorder” a schooling system that has better reliability than the industry trying to remodel it.

(Image: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F031434-0006 / Gathmann, Jens / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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)

The Power of ‘No’

“Unweeded soil undoubtedly grows wondrous things that nobody can predict. Such things we have in abundance, but it would be a rash man who would call it a harvest.” – Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, p.27.

Schools can be breeding grounds for well-intentioned distractions.  Everyday it seems, a new task is added to the list of what schools are supposed to achieve collectively, and what individual teachers are asked to do in their classrooms.  Each new problem of adolescence, or new technological product, brings a call to build new programming.

We act as though adding is more important than perfecting; a school that boasts more ought to be better, we think.

The reason for confusing more with better is not obvious.  My guess: it seems disloyal or lazy (or worse, opposed to the success of children) if one suggests a reduction in programming.  But I think those most loyal to the core principles of a school are often very careful about cluttering up our practice.

It’s likely we could achieve more of what matters by doing less of what doesn’t.

We do ourselves a favour if when we walk around our campus each day, we ask ourselves:

– Do we need to do X?

– Is X advancing our mission, or is it merely a well-intentioned distraction?

– What does it take to do X, and what could we be doing instead?

– And maybe most important: How can we tell the difference between core practices and distractions? (Sadly, I think even in the best schools, faculty and leadership would not share a coherent idea of what the school’s core mission is.)

The Power of ‘No’

Sometimes we need to say “no”; doing so is often the most loyal, committed thing a person can do.  We would do well to heed the lesson of opportunity cost, and ensure that we don’t succumb to conspicuous program inflation that sometimes grips our schools.

We need to beware our voice finding expression only in the celebration of mere increase rather than the slow and steady perfection of teaching and learning.

If you could drop three things from your schools, what would they be? And what could we spend that energy on instead?

Smart Boards or Smart People?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the usefulness of educational technology lately, and I don’t mean to belabour the topic. But this is an interesting, if very unscientific, discussion from Jerry Brodkey writing in Larry Cuban’s blog:

A front page New York Times article on January 20, 2010 was headlined: “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online”. The article details the results of a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation that the typical 8 to 18 year-old spends more than 7.5 hours a day on electronics, plus another 1.5 hour texting and another half an hour on the cell phone. Students are immersed in their electronic world.

Many schools are integrating more and more technology into the curriculum. At the school where I teach, many teachers are switching to “Smart Boards”, a sophisticated piece of technology that looks like a white board but is actually linked to a computer and the Internet. Our school district has invested heavily in technology and the trend is exploding upwards.
As a veteran teacher, the trend bothers me. In my opinion, what should happen at schools, what can makes school valuable and unique, is to provide young people experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Instead of more technology, let’s use less. Instead of emphasizing technology that is often expensive and soon outdated, perhaps schools can take a different, newer (really older) approach.

Schools offer teachers and students an opportunity to do what is almost never done in society. In schools we can gather together a group of twenty to thirty people and have them listen, discuss, analyze, and share differing points of view. Schools provide a rare chance to read, debate, write, and quietly think. We don’t need expensive technology to learn how to ask excellent questions, articulate ideas, and be forced to defend our thoughts.

School hours are precious. My students and I need to learn and consider and develop together. This is what makes my students’ and my school experiences unique. This is what makes my calculus class in room D-10 at Menlo-Atherton High School different than a calculus class students could easily take online. In the classroom the students interact with me and with each other. My students see what happens when people are frustrated, or tired, or thinking creatively. They see what happens when people laugh together, learn together, are confused together. They spend real time with friends and individuals who are like them, and also different than them. They listen to me and to each other, they ask questions, they have to communicate clearly in a real setting. They respond directly to me and to each other and see the effects of their words, the power of their tone of voice, the inflection of a comment or question.

Technology can, of course, do amazing things. Any tool can be used properly or improperly. Unfortunately, with devices like Smart Boards, images come and go, and the teacher is often looking at a computer screen for part of the class. Smart Boards and similar technologies reinforce the idea that knowledge resides in things. We don’t need Smart Boards, we need smart people. Answers to all questions do not reside in the Internet, even if it is just a click away.

In my math classes, starting at the Algebra II level, we use graphing calculators to graph functions. They are a remarkable tool, a mini-computer students hold in the palm of their hands. Graphing calculators can graph complex functions in an instant. I do use them in my calculus classes, but I use them sparingly. When I use them, I like to slow down and ask students the following:

What does this graph represent? Is this a good graph? What makes a good graph? How could it be made better? Why are we even bothering to make a graph of this function? What are the limitations of this graph? What are the assumptions? How much data do we need to make a good graph? If we have a certain number of data points, can we assume the rest of the data follows this pattern? What are the limitations of the electronic graphing calculators we use?

Do these limitations come into play in this problem?

If all goes well, we have a very good discussion.

We don’t need more technology in my classroom. I have a precious 50 minutes with them each day for 180 days. That is time when real, not virtual, relationships may grow. Each moment I am looking at my computer screen or Smart Board takes away from the time I am directly interacting with my students. Each time I walk down the hall and see a teacher at a computer, or each moment when I am at mine, I feel it is an opportunity lost. For me, more technology is not the answer. It only detracts from what I am truly trying to achieve as a teacher.

Jerry Brodkey teaches at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California. He has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. This year he is currently teaching ninth grade Algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus. He continues to find teaching to be challenging, enjoyable, and always intense. His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and with graduate work at Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).

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.”

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:

Set Your Confusometer to Stun

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…

Flip this Video

I’ve recently written with some suspicion about the promised revolution the Flip the Classroom folks like Salman Khan have been preaching. I said that while the videos are interesting, and promising, the evidence of a revolution is hard to see. I think the word revolution should be saved for actual revolutions.

A colleague passed this video onto me this week.

It is a beautiful and inspiring video. It is the clearest explanation of the value of this kind of resource. Or is it? In fact, it seems to imply the premise of flipping – the practice of having students watch videos as homework to allow more higher-order tasks in class – is something altogether different. As the folks at TedEd put it:

“Flip” is meant to indicate that teachers of all stripes can propel/catapult/slingshot the video to a wider audience. And “flip” is also a reference to a nascent and evolving teaching method called Flip Teaching.

I smell a revolution in trouble. Their own buzz word now has two meanings.

Of course, the videos are often superb. And who could complain about some beautifully created lessons by some of the world’s great minds? (Its stated mission: “To capture and to amplify the voices of the world’s greatest teachers.”) I have shared many dozens of these clips with friends, and yes, used them in class – and as homework.

But let’s call it what it is, at least for now: better filmstrips than a generation ago. The evidence to prove me wrong would be simple: let’s examine the usage stats for the videos. If the usage is high among 14 year-olds, then I’m wrong. It is a bona-fide revolution. Young people clamouring for videos of middle-aged intellectuals doing Power Point presentations in front of other middle-aged intellectuals.

I think you’d find something else in the usage stats, though: an incredibly low number of young people visiting when not prompted by their teachers. And when they are prompted, a huge number of them watching the first few seconds, finding it boring, then clicking away.

It might just be, as I’ve argued before, we expect a revolution because the videos speak to us as adults. I’m not completely convinced they speak to those we want to reach. If they do, why aren’t the masses of teenagers showing us the videos, having found them the night before, on their own, as they do with memes? Why aren’t Ted Talks memes for kids?

Khan Academy – Again

Once again, the media has fallen all over themselves to praise Khan Academy – the internet sensation I’ve written about before. There’s nothing new in the clip, really, except the praise is even more extreme than before, the promises more grand.

Their motto? “A free world class education for anyone, anywhere.” A while back, I was more starstruck that this experiment could yield results. But now I’m moving towards skepticism.

Done watching helpful mini-lessons online constitute and education? No. Are these going to change how schools are structured? I find it hard to believe.

Why? There are lots of reasons I’m skeptical. A few simple ones: the format is suitable for rule-following exercises (calculus, economics), but I think the format would invariably suffer when dealing with any material that requires judgment (literature, history, and actually much of what schools teach). Student motivation is often the most powerful impediment to success, and watching videos in isolation seems as likely to succeed with many kids as traditional homework. It downplays the importance of reading, independent thought, and (despite what Khan says) human interaction. As a general panacea, it seems very unlikely to succeed in the terms Khan and others imagine it will.

There’s no textbook! And no teachers lecturing at a blackboard!
Aside from the problem of students not reading as much when they watch Khan’s videos, it suffers from the exact problem textbooks do – it is one way, one-size-fits-all, static communication.

But Khan’s a revolutionary!
Except there have been very similar methods of presenting concepts – remember filmstrips? – for two generations.

But it lets teachers ‘flip’ the classroom!
Perhaps. But by providing readings, teachers in most fields – history, geography, English, etc. – have been flipping the classroom since school began by providing low-order material for future higher-order tasks.

But Khan’s videos are engaging!
Perhaps. But I think this is likely a classic example where adults think technology is more important than young people do.

But Khan has measurement on his side! His online modules provide feedback teachers can use!
I fail to see how this is (very) different than giving math worksheets. And academic studies in measurement (very legitimate, powerful studies), involving millions of students over decades, already exist.

But, while the Khan academy is currently mostly about math, the modules could easily be about history of English!
Again, perhaps. But most of the fascinating aspects of many fields involves an interpretation and expression (essay writing, for example) that surely defies computational assessment.

But Khan says it will allow teachers to be coaches and mentors, not just transmitters of facts through lectures!
Anyone who has casually strolled through schools, or glanced at pedagogical texts, knows Khan is no revolutionary on this front.

I want to know the effect size of Khan’s work. Just because it seems cool to thirty-and-forty-somethings who did incredibly well in school does not mean it will have the desired effect among the students we most worry about – are the low-income, disengaged students clamouring for YouTube videos about fractions? Where is the promised revolution? How is this not just a better version of what many teachers have been doing since the 1960s?

Not to be outdone, John Green of young adult fame created a video set similar to Khan’s – but it is more interesting to watch. And more humorous. But it suffers from the same problem – when it strays from math, it proposes a relatively static view of interpretation.


One of the most interesting stories to come out of the world of technology relies on nthing more complicated than YouTube. 

Last year, the founder of Khan Academy, Salman Khan, won a $2-million award for his work in providing schooling to the masses.  In order to help a relative across the country who needed some tutoring with school, he created a series of videos posted on YouTube – while he was working at a hedge fund.  Since then, his more than 1,200 clips have attracted over 53 million views.  Last September, Google awarded him a prize for changing how schooling can occur.

But more important than simply providing a place for students to get extra help, these sorts of initiatives point to a fascinating set of possibilities.  People like my school’s Director of IT, Charles Fowler, points out that we might be able to use techniques like this to shift our classroom practices.  If students came to school having seen simple-but-powerful clips like these, what might be possible in the classroom? What other interesting things might we do in class, things to extend and deepen our understanding, if the comprehension bit is already taken care of at home?  Imagine: get the basics at home, do something interesting with it at school.

Here’s a great clip from PBS on Khan: