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)

Schools as (Cheesecake) Factories

I’ve written before about the truly superb work of Atul Gawande, a surgeon who often appears in the New Yorker. Previously, he has drawn comparisons between schooling and medicine by arguing that in both fields practitioners would benefit from coaching.

Recently, he appeared in the New Yorker touting the benefits of standardization across the medical world. After a visit to a local Cheesecake Factory, he wondered why his meal was more reliably delivered and the quality higher than we could expect from routine surgeries. And he writes with awe about the standardization methods used by the chain – and suggests surgery results could improve with a similar mechanism in medicine.

Of course, the debate about standardization in schooling has been raging for some time. While he can seem glib about the topic, Gawande asks some great questions: why do we expect greater reliability from a restaurant than from our most important institutions?

Gawande in his own words:

It was Saturday night, and I was at the local Cheesecake Factory with my two teen-age daughters and three of their friends. You may know the chain: a hundred and sixty restaurants with a catalogue-like menu that, when I did a count, listed three hundred and eight dinner items (including the forty-nine on the “Skinnylicious” menu), plus a hundred and twenty-four choices of beverage. It’s a linen-napkin-and-tablecloth sort of place, but with something for everyone. There’s wine and wasabi-crusted ahi tuna, but there’s also buffalo wings and Bud Light. The kids ordered mostly comfort food—pot stickers, mini crab cakes, teriyaki chicken, Hawaiian pizza, pasta carbonara. I got a beet salad with goat cheese, white-bean hummus and warm flatbread, and the miso salmon.

The place is huge, but it’s invariably packed, and you can see why. The typical entrée is under fifteen dollars. The décor is fancy, in an accessible, Disney-cruise-ship sort of way: faux Egyptian columns, earth-tone murals, vaulted ceilings. The waiters are efficient and friendly. They wear all white (crisp white oxford shirt, pants, apron, sneakers) and try to make you feel as if it were a special night out. As for the food—can I say this without losing forever my chance of getting a reservation at Per Se?—it was delicious.

The chain serves more than eighty million people per year. I pictured semi-frozen bags of beet salad shipped from Mexico, buckets of precooked pasta and production-line hummus, fish from a box. And yet nothing smacked of mass production. My beets were crisp and fresh, the hummus creamy, the salmon like butter in my mouth. No doubt everything we ordered was sweeter, fattier, and bigger than it had to be. But the Cheesecake Factory knows its customers. The whole table was happy (with the possible exception of Ethan, aged sixteen, who picked the onions out of his Hawaiian pizza).

I wondered how they pulled it off. I asked one of the Cheesecake Factory line cooks how much of the food was premade. He told me that everything’s pretty much made from scratch—except the cheesecake, which actually is from a cheesecake factory, in Calabasas, California.

I’d come from the hospital that day. In medicine, too, we are trying to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, we haven’t figured out how. Our costs are soaring, the service is typically mediocre, and the quality is unreliable. Every clinician has his or her own way of doing things, and the rates of failure and complication (not to mention the costs) for a given service routinely vary by a factor of two or three, even within the same hospital.

It’s easy to mock places like the Cheesecake Factory—restaurants that have brought chain production to complicated sit-down meals. But the “casual dining sector,” as it is known, plays a central role in the ecosystem of eating, providing three-course, fork-and-knife restaurant meals that most people across the country couldn’t previously find or afford. The ideas start out in élite, upscale restaurants in major cities. You could think of them as research restaurants, akin to research hospitals. Some of their enthusiasms—miso salmon, Chianti-braised short ribs, flourless chocolate espresso cake—spread to other high-end restaurants. Then the casual-dining chains reëngineer them for affordable delivery to millions. Does health care need something like this?

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.

Coaches for Teachers?

Atul Gawande, one of the New Yorker’s most celebrated writers, currently inhabits one of it’s most venerable spaces: the Annals of Medicine. I came across him a few years back in an article he wrote on the increasing industrialization of childbirth. Since then, I’ve devoured his insightful and sometimes contrarian pieces.

Recently, he wrote “Personal Best” – about his experiment using a coach to improve his surgery practice. In it, he makes comparisons between various pursuits – pro sports, singing, surgery, teaching – and wonders if they key to greatness isn’t necessarily talent or education but ongoing, conscious, coach-driven improvements.

Perhaps the reason I like it so much is that I delivered a similar line of thinking in an interview for a position I didn’t get. I made the same comparisons to musicians and medicine – it wasn’t clear to me at the time what the panel thought, but their actions indicated they didn’t share the theory. I still think the idea is correct – and it was lovely to see it in a more capable set of hands than mine.

Here are the highlights of Gawande’s thinking – as it applies to teaching, especially…

Our Current Conception of Learning a Profession
“The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself.”

Whereas, in Sports…
“Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”

What about in Teaching?
“California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.”

In a school board where teachers coach other teachers…
“To find its coaches, the program took applications from any teachers in the system who were willing to cross over to the back of the classroom for a couple of years and teach colleagues instead of students.”

An Example of How Coaching Can Help Teachers
“Novice teachers often struggle with the basic behavioral issues. Hobson told me of one such teacher, whose students included a hugely disruptive boy. Hobson took her to observe the boy in another teacher’s classroom, where he behaved like a prince. Only then did the teacher see that her style was the problem. She let students speak—and shout, and interrupt—without raising their hands, and go to the bathroom without asking. Then she got angry when things got out of control.”

The Coaching of a Veteran teacher, Jennie Critzer
“Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.
At lunchtime, Critzer and her coaches sat down at a table in the empty school library. Hobson took the lead. “What worked?” he asked.
Critzer said she had been trying to increase the time that students spend on independent practice during classes, and she thought she was doing a good job. She was also trying to “break the plane” more—get out from in front of the whiteboard and walk among the students—and that was working nicely. But she knew the next question, and posed it herself: “So what didn’t go well?” She noticed one girl who “clearly wasn’t getting it.” But at the time she hadn’t been sure what to do.
“How could you help her?” Hobson asked.
She thought for a moment. “I would need to break the concept down for her more,” she said. “I’ll bring her in during the fifth block.”
“What else did you notice?”
“My second class has thirty kids but was more forthcoming. It was actually easier to teach than the first class. This group is less verbal.” Her answer gave the coaches the opening they wanted. They mentioned the trouble students had with their math conversations, and the girl-boy pair who didn’t talk at all. “How could you help them be more verbal?”
Critzer was stumped. Everyone was. The table fell silent. Then Harding had an idea. “How about putting key math words on the board for them to use—like ‘factoring,’ ‘perfect square,’ ‘radical’?” she said. “They could even record the math words they used in their discussion.” Critzer liked the suggestion. It was something to try.”

And How Did Critzer Feel?
‘I asked Critzer if she liked the coaching. “I do,” she said. “It works with my personality. I’m very self-critical. So I grabbed a coach from the beginning.” She had been concerned for a while about how to do a better job engaging her kids. “So many things have to come together. I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”
She told me that she had begun to burn out. “I felt really isolated, too,” she said. Coaching had changed that. “My stress level is a lot less now.” That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.’

Details Matter
“Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. In sports, coaches focus on mechanics, conditioning, and strategy, and have ways to break each of those down, in turn. The U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, at the first squad meeting each season, even had his players practice putting their socks on. He demonstrated just how to do it: he carefully rolled each sock over his toes, up his foot, around the heel, and pulled it up snug, then went back to his toes and smoothed out the material along the sock’s length, making sure there were no wrinkles or creases. He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. “Details create success” was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships.”

This sort of thinking is exactly the kind of thing advocated by Doug Lemov, teaching and learning guru from the US profiled in the New York Times and elsewhere. In the clip below he highlights the “microtechniques” used by the expert teacher. The details matter; the results, impressive.