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 Instead of emphasizing technology that is often expensive and soon outdated, perhaps schools can take a different, newer (really older) approach.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).

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.

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:

A Philosophy of Educational Science

“We really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science… The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

As long as I’ve been exposed to educational research, I’ve been turning over in my mind the advice of Richard Feynman given to the Caltech graduates in his 1974 address. Feynman, one of the most influential physicists of his age or any other, made it his goal to question silliness in both the scientific and wider worlds. Thirty-eight years after the advice was given, educational research is much better but still the words bear repeating.

After noting, throughout his life, that the world is filled with nonsense, he spoke about ideas that could be called his philosophy of science:

But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to cheek on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down–or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress–lots of theory, but no progress — in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way–or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn’t do “the right thing,” according to the experts.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Though there was no recording of Feynman’s speech, there is a rereading of the whole thing:

(You can read the entire speech here.)

His critique of educational research is true (and I’m glad he included psychology – the parallels to education are overwhelming). I say this not because I think all educational research is bad, but because most of it is. And most of it, the part that is bad, pushes us in often-fruitless directions. It is no better than gut instinct – probably much worse.

I adore his insistence on replication studies. We need more of those. (I think he would approve of good meta-analyses like Hattie’s.) And of bending over backwards to craft fruitful, rigorous methodologies to ensure the best fidelity to truth. And the publication of negative results. We can’t allow ourselves to be fooled by our own preconceived notions. We can’t just go looking for positive results.

I recall a conversation I had with a well-meaning colleague. I had been maligning Action Research because of its (usually) poor methodology. When he asked me to explain, I said, “Well, every Action Research project I’ve ever seen has a positive result. That’s crazy.” And he said, “Well, no one would do Action Research on something they didn’t know well.” When I persisted and made the point that something worth investigating will certainly have surprises in it, and that a large minority of our present ideas are likely to be wrong, or at least much more complicated than perviously thought, he gave me the usual look a person gets in these situations: that the skeptic is somehow at odds with good education. To express doubt in bad methodologies, and the conclusions that spring from them, is to be somehow disloyal to children, or worse, just another lazy teacher unwilling to examine his practice.

On the contrary, skepticism is the most loyal state of being for an ally. We need more skepticism and less mushy-headedness, nonsense, and pseudoscience in education. There is excellent work being done, but to allow the awful to enjoy the same stature as the excellent is dangerous and irresponsible.

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.

Art and Copy

I’ve argued before that teaching, to borrow the title of a Seymour Sarason book, is part performance art. The title of this blog is a testament to the personal nature of it, the performance aspect it benefits from, and the central role creativity plays in the teaching and learning process. I think these statements are held as self-evident by most practitioners, and by many researchers in the field, too.

But recently I saw a documentary, Art and Copy, about creative types that made me reflect on the latter term in the blog title. The documentary – centering on the advertising industry – is a joy to watch, but suffers from an adoration of all things creative. It seems to suggest that advertising is mercurial; that success or failure is resting (solely?) on the genius of the creative superman. And moreover, that you would have a hard time measuring ‘success’ even if you wanted to.

But I wonder: isn’t there some way to determine ‘best practices’ of advertising beyond the ego of those creating it? Aren’t most fields a mix of technique and inspiration? If we applied the creative superman myth to all fields, what would the results be?

We’ve all seen the results in teaching – and through that looking glass are occasionally troubling images indeed.

On Knowing, Not Just Saying

Readers of this space know of my obsession with philosophical (really, epistemological) issues. Mostly, I am concerned with separating the wheat from the chaff in ideas – isolating the truly silly, from the potentially true, from the probably true, from the certain. In education, these categories tend to get tossed around together, without much reference to the important question: How Would We Know?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing John Hattie speak at the University of Toronto. To say it was refreshing is an understatement. I’ve been drawn to his work for a while now, and before I found it, was convinced such a project was possible.

(Here’s Hattie giving a similar talk.)

His interest is in measuring the effects of various inputs in the education system – inputs and interventions like team teaching, outdoor education, whole language versus phonetics, and practically every question in pedagogy. His premise: we can determine the effect size of all of the things we do in schools – how well they work. His conclusion: as a profession we should move towards those things that work well (have a large effect size), and away from those that do not.

Simple enough. I’m not able to provide a census of his detractors, but I know lots of people who critique his philosophical assumptions. They say that teaching practice cannot be reduced to such certainties. They argue that to strive to capture the subtle human interactions and nuances in teaching quantitatively is absurd. They sometimes argue that to gather such data is to take aim at low-performing schools and groups within them – they sometimes argue it’s culturally imperialist.

Obviously, they have warm hearts. All of us want students to do well, and most of us root for the disadvantaged. But until we gather reliable data on what works and what does not, we are continuing to impoverish our students. And what better way to ensure fairness in our society than by providing all students with the best possible teaching techniques and the best possible practices? And how else to do that then by measuring in the most precise way possible the effect size of what we do in schools?

Like Hattie, I am hostile to the idea that we are not professionals with something special to give. I reject outright the notion that “all teachers have their own way.” If an old-timer said, “Well, I hit the students; that’s how I get them to learn,” we would be outraged. I don’t see how it’s much different to say we are all equally successful using whatever techniques and approaches we “feel” are right. (Also, if teaching were so much based on whim, we would let absolutely anyone walk in and teach our classes; we do not, evidence we think it matters who teaches and how it is done.)

But perhaps the most satisfying element of the whole thing is the humility its adoption would bring to our field. Teaching suffers from a strange paradox of ego: on the one hand, most teachers feel like imposters, and denigrate the value of their practice; on the other, many teachers act the role of Superteacher, where everything he or she does is magical. What teacher hasn’t bristled in the staff meeting where one of their colleagues bellows, “Well, in my class, students love doing X,” or “I’ve never had that problem in my class…”, or “My students learn best when…”? I always want to ask, “How would we know?” and get a response more fulsome than “Because I’ve been teaching for 19 years, and I just know.”

Measurement projects like Hattie’s sweep all that nonsense away by asking, “What is the effect of our labours?” We can know, within some margin of error, what works and what doesn’t. At least, if we can ever know at all, it will be with an approach like Hattie’s, not our gut feelings and egotistical rantings. And in that kind of regime is comfort – it can depersonalize teaching somewhat, diminish the notion that teaching is a cult of personality, or a kind of mystical alchemy. Some approaches work better than others; let’s determine those, reliably, use them more often than not, and continue to measure the effects of our work – forever.

I dream of a rigorous measurement approach in a school setting, a unit of organization too small to hide in. You would probably need to set up long-term measurement indicators – perhaps a few basic assessments used for years within each grade or course, evaluated with clear rubrics and exemplars, and copies of old student work kept for years – and determine if students are improving by virtue of our efforts, and of course, by how much. (It isn’t enough to merely improve: as Hattie points out, we need to know the magnitude of the improvement. A student in any class will achieve some level of improvement over the year just through maturation.) Other indicators I like: success after high school, student feedback,

We could finally, without reference to our own whims, begin to address genuine “best practices” in our schools. Does team teaching work at our school? Let’s check this year’s assessment and see. Are students benefitting from the Advanced Placement regime? Let’s see how our graduates have done over the past 10 years and compare that number against our graduates from the pre-AP days. Is our program rigorous enough? Let’s gather data from 1st- and 2nd-year students in post-secondary studies. It is for these reasons I’m, in principle, a fan of large-scale assessments like the EQAO.

A proper measurement regime would provide some justification for the claims we make about our schools, our classes, our practice. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has, and ever will. Without it, merely the loudest voice in the room wins.

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?