Education Evolutions #85

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Well, I had a feeling that it would happen at some point but I am amazed that it took until issue 85. My apologies for failing to get last week’s newsletter out. Between the end of the semester, and a nagging cold, my weekend evaporated before I even realized it. My hopes of sending something out late, unfortunately, went bust too.

Hopefully, this week makes up for it a little bit. It is a bit of a mix as usual. Having taken a few weeks off I still have a lot bookmarked.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. While it is long we have a day off courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr. So have cup of coffee and settle in for a fascinating read. Audrey Watters will not be quite as prolific as she has been for a while. Of course, all three are good. Giving them all a look is always encouraged.

Here is hoping everyone enjoys the football on championship Sunday. It remains the best week in the NFL schedule. Go Patriots.

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

What if schools focused on improving relationships rather than test scores? – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution –  Peter Smagorinsky (5-minute read)

I like Smagorinsky. He is an English educator that jumped from high school to university and written a number of titles that I have found useful. He is also an acolyte of late great English educator and theorist George Hillocks Jr.

In this op-ed piece, Smagorinsky makes a strong case for something that sadly is routinely overlooked in public education. As more and more schools get hoodwinked by futile accountability efforts, both teachers and students get lost in the shuffle. While this article focuses more on a single teacher’s experience of being hamstrung by a prescribed curriculum, it also offers insights into how that is a bad deal for students too.

I have been reminded a lot lately of just how much talk of curriculum is profoundly flawed by its lack of attention to the students in the room. All curriculum is a plan but a classroom rarely ever goes according to plan. Students are at least half of the plan or more, making them a major aspect of the curriculum, but one that cannot be accounted for in advance. Teachers can only teach the students in front of them not some idealized versions of students when writing all those plans and curriculum to meet the demands of administrators.

The McNamara Fallacy and the Problem with Numbers in Education – chronotope – blog – Carl Hendrick (5-minute read)

This is an old blogpost that resurfaced in my online reading but I think it remains beyond relevant. We may already be too far down the path of fetishizing measurement in education but I remain hopeful that there is still a chance that we will see the error of our ways. It is reading posts like this that give me that kind of hope.

While I was familiar with Robert McNamara, I was not as aware of the depth of level of value he placed almost exclusively on empiricism. Moreover, I had never heard of the McNamara Fallacy. Yet, I certainly understand the concept, despite not knowing it had a name. In fact, the notion that everything can even be measured has always struck me as “deeply hubristic arrogance.”

Still, I think that this piece provides some nice balance. As much as Hendrick focuses on the shortcomings of McNamara’s approach, he does not negate the value of measurement entirely. The real trouble is in valuing that which can be easily measured at the expense of that which cannot. Learning is far too complex and far too human to be easily measured or reduced to an algorithm, despite extremely smart and successful individual’s efforts to do so. This post is an excellent reminder of that fact. I just wonder why we keep chasing such a fool’s errand.

Fables of School Reform – The Baffler – Audrey Watters (19-minute read)

Everyone in education should read Audrey Watters from time to time. Her work keeps a critical eye on the edtech world like few others. Unfortunately, as she has recently decided to focus more of her attention on a forthcoming book means that her regular online publishing will seriously diminish for the foreseeable future.

Here she unfolds some of the history and hysteria involved in edtech. There is a lot here, all of it good. For example, I knew Bill Gates has poured money into education to fund all of his latest great ideas and innovations. However, I had no idea that he alone accounted for one-sixth of all funding in the sector. More important than his money however is the ideas that he peddles without much consequence. How soon we forget the failures or damage wrought by his foundation, like his all-in bet on teacher evaluation schemes to name just one.

More than anything, this is an excellent who’s who of edtech elites that network with key policymakers and continue to drive flawed agendas while making repeated trips to the bank. What is more disconcerting than anything is how often these individuals get cozy jobs in government. It also pulls the veil back on all the marketing mumbo-jumbo that keeps creeping into everyday education vernacular, like the complete co-option of the phrase “personalized learning.”


Education Evolutions #84

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

It has been a few weeks off from the newsletter but happy New Year! Well, I am back at it.I hope everyone had a pleasant festive season. Hopefully, I will be able to keep this little effort going well into the new year.

This week is a bit of a mix as usual. Having taken a few weeks off from compiling this passion project, I bookmarked a whole lot of items that culled through. I probably have enough articles since the last one to write at least a months worth of issues. The end of the year tends to be a pretty busy period.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the first one, if your interest is primarily technology, and the second one, if your interest is primarily education. All three are good and relatively short this week. So giving them all a look is not without possibility by any stretch.

Here is hoping that the new year is off to a cracking start for everyone.

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

How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually. – New York Magazine –  Max Read (9-minute read)

This is a sobering read. Part of what makes it so is how true it all rings, despite all of the insistence on counterfeit. Anyone paying close enough attention would find it hard to disagree with most of the claims in this piece. Considering that the Inversion has already taken place without too much resistance, it does make for a far more challenging problem to solve.

Most insightful is that it is not really truth that has been lost as much as trust. It reminds me of an old Internet saw that “content was king,” when in fact contact has always actually worn the crown. For as much as the Internet drowns in content, email was the original killer app. Plus, I would suggest that the reason Facebook has not completely imploded yet is that it serves as chief digital means of contact for a whole lot of real people, despite being absolutely awash in bots. Real people continue to want an easy place and means of following the lives of friends and family in an undemanding way.

Maybe most fascinating is how Read signs off with “we’ll all end up on the bot internet of fake people, fake clicks, fake sites, and fake computers, where the only real thing is the ads.” We may already be there. In the funhouse fantasia of social media people voluntarily morphed into ads. Nearly everything posted online is a construction, usually, one that favors the narrow selection of best hits from someone’s existence.

A Modest Proposal: Teaching without Students – radical eyes for equity – blog – PL Thomas (4-minute read)

I like PL Thomas quite a bit. He is an academic writer that I revisit often and have been even reading one of his books recently. This post raises a paradoxical premise with real insight. Granted the perspective is coming from a higher education perspective but Thomas has taught at the high school level too. SO his perspective is not just that of the detached research professor that has never been in charge of a K12 classroom.

The earnestness with which Thomas riffs on Swift’s satire is part of what makes this so compelling, not to mention the premise itself. Students being trapped in behaving like students happens a lot earlier than university, sadly. Students have been brought up to believe that there should be a rubric for just about everything, which might as well be a de facto prescription for “fulfilling assignments versus engaging with authentic behaviors.” As standards and rubrics have proliferated education, school has increasingly become a compulsory box-ticking exercise.

Focus and attention are finite. Greater focus on accountability means focus on actual learning or inquiry often becomes blurred. When greater value is placed on that which can be measured, we find what we are looking for at the expense of those things that defy measurement. How can curiosity, autonomy, and agency, among a lot of other traits be measured anyway?

Baltimore County schools spent $147 million on laptop program. Four years in, it’s showed little results. – The Baltimore Sun – Liz Bowie (7-minute read)

I expect that there will e a lot more articles like this in the mainstream press in the next couple of years. I also like that you can watch a kind of summary video version of the article at the top if you like. As more and more school systems have decided to pour millions of dollars into laptop programs, there will be an impulse to look for a return on investment. This is particularly going to be true in urban areas where resources are already at a premium and accountability efforts are hawkish. While some of the most progressive school systems have had laptop programs for a number of years now. In fact, Maine’s pioneering effort is now over 15 years old.

First, the notion that standardized test scores measure learning on any level is seriously suspect for more reasons than I can count. Yet, that never stops any politician from using them as a cudgel to beat public schools. Second, adopting a laptop program should never even be sold or justified as a way to improve test scores. They are not compatible efforts. At best they might be coincidental. The best argument for students having laptops in the classroom is more about current classrooms reflecting the world around them. Any other grounds are even more debatable, if not downright dubious. However, that will not stop mainstream media from quoting disgruntled policymakers, lamenting about the costs of these programs, because that kind of thing will always be news.

Moreover, it should be no surprise that test scores do not increase but that students misbehavior with the devices does. Anyone that works in a school for a single day should have the wherewithal to recognize that a laptop can serve as the ultimate distraction device, should it be allowed and a student is so inclined. And what teenager isn’t, exactly? Also, what never really gets mentioned in these pieces is how the influx of computer distribution came on the heels of increased teacher accountability measures across the country.

So schools all over the nation simultaneously cracked down on how teacher demands and how they would be evaluated while handing students the ultimate distraction devices and then regularly wonder why it is so difficult to see any change. Why would a teacher faced with an already challenging student population want to take instructional risks with the kind of potential chaos that every student with a laptop invites? Not to mention, if teachers are under any pressure whatsoever to raise test scores and it is nearly well-established fact that computers are not likely to help in that endeavor where is the motivation to use the devices in any particularly progressive or innovative way? Why that kind of understanding never seems to make it into these kinds of articles frustrates me a great deal.

Education Evolutions #83

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A quick note about the next few weeks. I will be putting this newsletter on a brief hiatus until after the new year. So this will be the last one until we are into January. I am halting things a little sooner than I thought but already know next weekend will present some problems preventing me from assembling this thing.

This week is a bit of a smorgasbord of stuff. The reading and exam articles deal with some common issues that proved pretty timely for me personally, while the other one is about Finland. Like a lot of educators, Finland fascinates me. Essentially, they have been a leader in education my entire career. My fascination has led me to read a lot about their schools, probably more than most people. The Scandinavian nation’s education system has become one of my pet research interests, which usually means there are definitely some books about Finnish education on my shelves.

That means this week’s “If you read only one article…” is the middle one about Finland. One of the most fascinating things about Finnish education is the more I learn about it the more I realize we do almost the diametrically opposite things in the United States. Then the press and policymakers wring their hands and wonder why our system fails to measure as high as theirs on tests. Yet, the Finns routinely comment on how inspired they were by our system – our system long ago, however.

Enjoy all of the various holidays you celebrate as we close out the year with the festive season.

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

Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It? – The New York Times –  Daniel T. Willingham (4-minute read)

I must admit, I read Willingham with a critical eye but I do often read things he has to say. As a psychology professor, he has a lot to say about issues of literacy. In their op-ed piece from the Times, he discusses the difference between traditional print reading and audiobooks. Given that I was just discussing this issue with my students, it proved a timely article for me at least.

Relaying the results of a handful of studies about reading, his conclusion is not exactly unexpected. Comprehension results may vary between audio and print but not always as much as we might expect. The primary difference is revealed by the purpose of reading. The more demanding the purpose of reading the more the advantages of print begin to show.

With more difficult texts read for different purposes, say academic ones, the differences become more pronounced. Overall, I definitely agree with the notion that listening to a book certainly is not cheating. Yet, as I told my students it is awfully hard to talk about an author’s style if you only ever hear it and never see how the words are sequenced on the page.

Educator: In Finland, I realized how ‘mean-spirited’ the U.S. education system really is – The Washington Post –  Mary Tedrow (5-minute read)

This is a guest post in Valerie Strauss’ education column, highlighting even more differences between Finland and the United States. This time is from the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project Director. As a Writing Project person myself, I was immediately curious what Tedrow had to offer. Her conclusions are quite revealing.

Presented with detached clarity, Tedrow is right. The American education system is mean-spirited for all the reasons she shares but perhaps even more. America has long celebrated the cult of the individual. We tend to eschew community benefits for the rights of individuals, so much so that we even view the collective of corporations as legal persons. This concern with individuals has a dark side, allowing us to blame individuals too while avoiding systemic inequities that privilege some individuals over others.

In education, we see this kind of myopia on full display. If a student struggles, it is usually their fault. If they fail for any reason, there are not a lot of safeguards to help them turn from the difficulties that can quickly drag them even further down. Penalties compound. Contrast that with Finland where another chance is always available. Yet, we ratified a law called No Child Left Behind – no short of ironies there.

What Is the Purpose of Final Exams, Anyway? – The Chronicle of Higher Education –  Kevin Gannon (5-minute read)

I came across this piece and thought to myself, I certainly have asked this question more than once. So, seeing it being wrestled with at the collegiate level made it even more interesting. I will confess that I have grown to think that final exams have far less value than I did earlier in my career. Like the writer, I began thinking that it was what was done. Also, like the writer, I would not suggest that they have no longer have any value. In certain circumstances they make sense but they certainly should no longer be a requirement for any course at the high school level or beyond.

For one, final exams only serve to further feed the high-stakes nonsense that is already replete across the field of education. Even if the potential value of the exam is reduced the purpose should be questioned. The idea of a single comprehensive exam does seem pretty antiquated. Yet, exams remain a part of life even beyond schooling. There are loads of tests that need to be taken for licensure, certifications, affiliations, and a range of other professional credentialing.

A course exam that serves as preparation for another required exam makes sense to me on some level but it also seems like a self-perpetuating death spiral. At least outside of education, most tests can be taken as many times as desired, until a person passes it or simply gives up. Sadly, in places where learning is supposedly the chief concern, that option is not typically available.