Education Evolutions #116

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

After a week in New England that saw snow days and disruptions on the heels of a long holiday weekend, I hope this issue finds you well and comfortably warm. Sifting through last week’s reading was difficult and it carried over into this one, making my selection process a bit more challenging.

This week’s group of articles is a mix of high-quality, interesting material that ended up being included because they were all loosely connected by a theme about the quest for the quantifiable in education. Whether it is student data being collected by black-box commercial enterprises, misguided attempts to measure the unmeasurable in a classroom, or the obsession with ranking and sorting using data collected (regardless of quality, accuracy, or means of collection), these articles have it covered.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one, as usual. As remote as the PISA scores might seem to classroom educators, the results of tests like PISA and NAEP have profoundly outsized impacts on education policy in our country. Yet, they are deeply flawed efforts with a whole host of baked-in biases that oversimplify and parade fiction as fact, leaving educators in the field to deal with the consequences. Wow, that reads even more jaded and cynical than it did in my mind as I wrote it, but there it is.

In an effort to promote some more positive thoughtful reflection and because I am trying to add some videos to this newsletter with more regularity, here is a great video I came by courtesy of literacy professor Ian O’Byrne. It is How to Simplify Your Life (6:34) from The Book of Life made by the people at The School of Life. It is definitely a lesson we all need some reminding about from time to time, and end of year is one of the best times.

Here is hoping you can carry the afterglow of Thanksgiving into the rest of the holiday season.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

The Data Aren’t Worth Anything But We’ll Keep Them Forever Anyways. You’re Welcome. – FunnyMonkey – Bill Fitzgerald (4-minute read)

The writer of this post, Bill Fitzgerald is a former teacher, tech director, and now software developer with a commitment to openness. He is impressively knowledgeable and had made some impressive things too. This post is a strong summary of an important discussion that emerged out of the sale of Instructure, the company that created the learning management system Canvas. The sale sparked a significant sense of alarm by a number of professors in higher education, many I follow and read regularly. Fitzgerald encapsulates one of the core issues – data.

In full disclosure, I gave up on using Canvas for a whole host of reasons, despite it being available. I am not a fan of learning management systems, generally, also for more reasons than I want to go into here. Moreover, I now feel like there is not a whole lot of difference between products like Canvas to Turnitin. Both charge serious money to educational institutions for a service that primarily benefits from harvesting all kinds of data from users, most of which are students essentially coerced into using the products by their educational institutions, with few, if any, alternative tools for classwork from the institution, as well as no opt-out opportunities within the products. Yet, we are supposed to trust that any of these edtech companies will be good stewards of the data they collect and use, despite their complete lack of transparency and unwillingness to delete it.

I Am an English Teacher. Rubrics Are No Way to Teach Writing – EdWeek – Peter Machera (5-minute read)

Being an English teacher explains a lot about why I selected this piece. I am also a teacher that has a long, bristly, and complicated history with rubrics. I firmly believe that rubrics are this educational era’s grading curve, a practice that makes sense in a particular context misappropriated into another one with profoundly problematic results. Thus, I found myself nodding my head a whole lot as I read this piece.

Machera captures a number of issues I have had with rubrics for some time and presents a few that made me think as well. When I use rubrics I often spend time trying to explain to my students that the best work breaks any rubric. That is pretty well in the spirit of much of what is suggested in the question, “Could you grade Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony according to a rubric?” He then mentions the illusion of assessing something artistic in a way that appears to be scientific. In that way, rubrics contribute to the fetishization of the quantifiable, a pseudo-science mirage. Yet, I had not really considered the rubric “anti-intellectual bias against the aesthetic experience of reading and writing” but I am definitely on board with that take. If you use any kind of writing as an assessment tool, even non-English teachers, this is worth a read.

The PISA Illusion – Yong Zhao blog – Yong Zhao (14-minute read)

Since the PISA, as well as NAEP, scores were recently released there has been a run of stories in mainstream media about the results, as well as policymakers lamentations over how poorly American students compared to others around the world. It is pretty distressing how easily journalists take the bait on this test scores trope, signaling the alarm about education in this country. Still, there are plenty of truthtellers within education that not only comment sensibly but also back their commentary with sound evidence and warrants not more marketing and soundbites. Yong Zhao is one of those academics with some keen insights about the PISA myth. I would throw NAEP in with PISA as the Romulus and Remus of the main standardized testing mythology.

I have read a lot of criticisms about PISA over the years but Zhao’s is one of the best. He frames the main issues that undermine the test with enough depth of explanation to make his case but not so much as to get lost in the weeds and lose a casual reader. The piece was also published in The Washington Post, which is noteworthy and provides a clue as to the approach he took as a writer. He even breaks down his argument in three parts, false claims, a Western-centric point-of-view, and distorting the point of education. It all offers a compelling reason to be suspicious, if not downright entirely dismissive of this international effort at a league table for national education systems. Many of the points in this piece are directly applicable to NAEP, especially how it tends to lead to a “homogenization of education and celebration of authoritarian education systems,” which is not just a terrible idea on a global scale but equally foolish in a nation as large and diverse as the United States.

Education Evolutions #115

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I was not sure that I was going to actually put this issue together. With the Thanksgiving weekend and lot so family time at the forefront, I had originally planned on skipping this week but forgot to mention that last week. Plus, as things settled down and I waited for the snow to arrive, I couldn’t help myself. So here it is, issue 115. Maybe you will have a chance to peruse some of these links over the week to come.

This week’s selection of articles really caught a wave that started last week but didn’t quite hit shore until this one. As I mentioned, I had been reading so much high-quality, interesting material, I had more than enough to share. So I had to make some hard editorial calls, a point that is repeated in the final selection. This week another loose theme emerged, involving some myths about data and empiricism, the notion of objective scientific truth, and perpetual problems with interpretation that are at the heart of being human. That sounds a little grand even as I write those words but there is definitely a thread that can be pulled through these pieces.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. It is not as long a read as last week’s but presents some awfully important ideas. While it is easy to look for quick answers to such a big question suggested in the title. There simply are no easy answers and there is no shortage of factors involved. Some things are definitely different but not everything is. This article does a nice job of drawing the distinctions and helping craft a multi-faceted answer that at least helps answer the question it poses, even if it may not be able to do so completely.

Hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

The Wrong “Scientific” for Education – radical eyes for equity blog – PL Thomas (6-minute read)

Whenever the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are published there is a predictable cycle of nonsensical claims across the media of how awfully inadequate our public education system is. The whole event sparks a tired trope that is both inaccurate and ill-conceived. For one, the whole NAEP phenomenon remains a bit of a farce. Back in issue #111, I shared the Peter Greene article The One And Only Lesson To Be Learned From NAEP Scores. Greene reminded everyone NAEP proficiency does not mean grade level, as well as the folly that data will somehow settle anything. In this piece, PL Thomas takes down the foolishness of calls for “scientific” research in education.

There are so many reasons why I love this post. My main reason is that it takes direct aim at the “narrow type of quantitative research” that “scientific” research is supposed to mean. He explains quickly and clearly why even beginning with that approach is flawed. Apart from being expensive and time-consuming, it would simply leave an enormous number of students behind. What is appropriate for medical research may not necessarily be appropriate in another context. Quite simply, teaching is not diagnosis, even if they might share some commonalities.

Thomas then goes onto advance the idea of action research, which is the kind of research that more teachers should be encouraged to conduct and more administrators and policy-makers would do well to grow more acquainted. So much of the current fetishization with “scientific,” quantitative approaches to every problem is predicated on the false notion that there can ever be a single solution or prescription that will address student learning. This flawed view is deepened by the desire for scale, the market-think equivalent of this quantitative privilege. As Thomas points out rethinking what “scientific” means and how it applies to education would benefit everyone.

Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing – Creative by Nature blog – Christopher Chase (5-minute read)

This post is a few years old now but remains relevant. It is the most popular post on Christopher Chase’s blog, an American teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan. It features an interview with Noam Chomsky from The Progressive Magazine with a number of quotations by other prominent education professors on the subject of standardized testing.

I have been fond of Noam Chomsky since I was a college student. While I am not exactly an aficionado of his work, I have read quite a bit of his writing and watched plenty of films where he appears. Still, I am surprised I had never seen this before now. I know for some people, he is almost immediately dismissed on political grounds. Yet, I rarely read or listen to him without thinking there is quite a bit of wisdom to what he has to share. For me, he represents America’s general cultural discomfort with intellectuals.

Chomsky’s comments about standardized testing are as insightful as ever. The whole accountability regime is ultimately about ranking and sorting, which we continue to see overwhelming evidence in real-time observation of the damage that it can cause. Again, it is an expression of this strange desire to want to make everything a data point, especially a numerical one, so it is easier to count. Yet, ranking students, teachers, or even schools by this kind of metric is all a lie, based on misleading and even false oversimplifications. The worst oversimplification is the very concept of the economic man. As Chomsky asks, “What kind of human being is that?” my answer is not one I would ever want to be or even want to know, to be honest.

Here is the video version of the interview.

Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more? – The Guardian – William Davies (20-minute read)

As usual, the last selection is the longest. However, this piece is exceptionally insightful and important. Being published in The Guardian some of the finer details make it a bit more Brit-centric but it speaks to a much wider context that more than includes America. It is a well-crafted and researched piece by sociologist and political economist William Davies that makes strong claims and backs them with well-reasoned and compelling warrants. It is a valuable read for anyone trying to make sense of the current mediascape.

One thing that I try to explain to students all the time is that all media is a construction. Everything that we see or hear is the product of design, be it conscious or unconscious. Implicit in all design are certain biases. It is the province of human beings and we are incapable of escaping all bias or point of view. Davies essentially explains how this is at the root of the problem that we now face. Add the sheer volume of information now available and some of our own human frailties and we wind up right where we are in the present moment. Davies explains much of these phenomena with detail and nuance.

For decades, we have been seduced by the idea that our journalistic media is impartial or unbiased. While that might be a worthy goal, it can never truly happen. Human beings are always making decisions about what to include and what not to include in any story that they are constructing, be it fiction or non-fiction. Journalists pursue the truth, not some abstract truth that cannot be reached but journalistic truth, the story as it develops supported by evidence and verified by multiple sources. Unfortunately, that means that a story changes and evolves over time as more information is sifted and included.

As Davies, explains much of this is down to framing. Even that fact seems to be lost on a lot of people. It seems that there are plenty of people that have fallen for the lie that there is some ultimate scientific objectivity, unmediated truth or reality, free from human perception desperately trying to make sense of it in conjunction with others for some shared understanding. That is a dangerous fantasy that seems to be catching. Davies’ piece reminds us all of some the changes that have accelerated that fantasy, as well as ways that we might be able to fight it.

Education Evolutions #114

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Thanksgiving is now definitely upon us as we prepare for this shortened week. It looks like the weather is going to be plenty awful nearly nationwide, which will likely make all those holiday travelers a little extra thankful when and if they arrive at their destination.

This week’s selection of articles proved tougher than most. So much high-quality, interesting material has been coursing across my radar lately. However, this week kind of coalesced around a loose theme about the health of students and more generally schools. Simply put, schools are stronger when the foster community rather than competition. Quite honestly, we might all benefit from that in wider contexts than schools.

As much as I want to label this week’s “If you read only one article…” the last one, I recognize that a 33-minute read is a big ask of anyone. As much as I say it is worth it, which it is, I also recognize that more people are likely to read the first and second articles. So, I suppose the more likely “If you read only one article…” choice is the second piece. There seem to be a lot more students struggling for all kinds of reasons around the country than many might realize.

Have a great holiday of gratitude and giving.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Failure Found to Be an “Essential Prerequisite” for Success – Scientific American – David Noonan (4-minute read)

Just this week, I posed the question “Do you believe struggle is essential to happiness?” to my students as we dug into a text that certainly entertains the idea. This article suggests that struggle certainly is essential to successful, at least in some basic way. This analysis of a recently published study shares some of the fundamental findings that point to the role failure plays in eventual breakthroughs.

Looking at sample sizes in the hundreds of thousands across the areas of grant applications, start-up investment, and terrorist attacks, this study sought to understand the dynamics of failure. Noonan’s review of the study also captures a fantastic line, “‘Every winner begins as a loser,’ says Wang, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, who conceived and led the study.” Of course, it is a little more complicated than all that but that is a winning quote for sure.

This study has some potentially remarkable implications for educators. If as the study suggests, failing at a faster rate increases chances of success, how might that impact teachers who are less willing to give students repeated chances on any kind of assessments. Moreover, it strengthens the case for rich and rapid formative feedback. Helping students understand how they are struggling, how they respond to those struggles, and where those struggles eventually lead looks even more important. It also sounds a lot like coaching. I believe the best educators have intuitively operated in this space for some time. Now it looks like there is some more critical research supporting that intuitive understanding.

Schools keep hiring counselors, but students’ stress levels are only growing – EdSource – Carolyn Jones (6-minute read)

While EdSource is a site that focuses its reporting on education in the nation’s largest public school system, California, this article certainly has much wider applications than The Golden State. The title alone is telling, although this piece focuses a bit more on the plight of school counselors. Yet as I read this piece, I kept thinking how little the piece addressed the complicity school might be having in the growing stress levels of students.

Clearly, the role of counselors has grown significantly over time. As one of the sources, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors Loretta Whitson, said, “School counselors are first responders.” Working in a high school, I witness this fact on a regular basis. Still, maybe the chase to find solutions may simply be addressing individual symptoms and not the actual disease. I cannot help but regularly wonder if there are not systemic problems that contribute to schools becoming unhealthy environments. Whitson further supports this notion when suggesting that counselors sometimes feel like they are putting “a band-aid on an arterial wound.”

As this article suggests, increases in poverty and homelessness do not seem to be slowing down. Those are factors that have a massive impact on schooling and yet the accountability demands placed on schools seem only to punish the systems dealing most with those social challenges. What’s more, communities with greater affluence are also forced to deal with increased student stress levels too. The individual factors may be different, although maybe not as different as it appears, the environment is the same, school. It might be time to take a much harder look at that environment with a wider focus and abandon the desire to turn every aspect of society, especially ones involving children, into a neoliberal rat race.

Can You Really Be Addicted to Video Games? – The New York Times – Ferris Jabr (33-minute read)

This article is no doubt a pretty long read but it is exceptionally well-written and highly informative, especially to anyone that has wondered about the question in the title. The topic of video game addiction has fascinated me almost as long as I have been in education. I became aware of the idea after seeing an article many years ago about treatment beginning at the nearby McLean Hospital, the renowned psychiatric hospital. Since then, the video game industry and area of medical inquiry has exploded.

One of the most fascinating things about this article is that Jabr does an excellent job of explaining the shifts and controversy in defining addiction as a disorder. I suspect that for quite a few people that section alone would be new and illuminating. Another great aspect of this article is how human the reporter makes the story, not only following a subject who struggled with the video game addiction but venturing into the temptations themselves. The journalistic approach alone is a reason worth giving this a read.

What this piece mentions but does not develop significantly is how video games continue to evolve and increasingly use mechanics more like slot machines. This recent story from WBUR’s Endless Thread sheds some more light on the idea of “loot boxes” and other related issues to gaming, as well as including McLean Hospital’s Dr. Alok Kanojia psychiatry faculty member at Harvard Medical School. I also went to high school with UCLA’s Dr. Timothy Fong who started out specializing in addiction treatment for gamblers but has expanded his work into video games and is quoted in this article. I am not sure how it is even possible to ignore this topic anymore. Plus, couple the ubiquity and instantaneous access of mobile phones with video games and it becomes harder to understand how more is not being done on an array of levels.