Monthly Archives: February 2019

Education Evolutions #89


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

As February break has just started in New England, it is a time for me to catch my breath after wrapping one semester and beginning another. Given that fact, I will be taking the next week off and not putting out an issue.

There is a lot going on this week, in addition to a pile of grading that I already incurred which needs some addressing, as well as all the other things that crop up during a vacation. Plus, I am hoping to revel in the break by the week’s end, to be honest.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. As a high school teacher, I see a pretty healthy share of stressed-out students that think every misstep may result in their inability to get into [insert elite university]. It is a good thing to be reminded of just how distorted some communities’ notions of normal can become. There is no shortage of universities ready to take students and brand names are highly overrated. The real trick for all but the most elite is finishing the degree and paying for it all.

Hope everyone who has it enjoys the vacation.


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

The internet is sowing mass confusion. We must rethink how we teach kids every subject – USA Today – Sam Wineburg (3-minute read)

The headline may be a bit sensationalistic but there are some sound points in this opinion piece. A critical takeaway is that the problem of mass confusion linked to the Internet is not a student issue it is a human one. This article is reminiscent of the one I recently shared, making the comparison to pollution, although it takes a completely different tack. Rethinking the way that we teach all subjects is not the worst notion. However, this piece presents things as if that is not happening. It is, just not nearly fast enough.

Where Wineburg is on point is that we all need to re-educate ourselves. It should be a massive, fully funded, comprehensive effort that reaches far beyond the schoolhouse doors. Instead of starting with kids, however, we should seriously start with some policy that takes the power away from corporations that have exploited the Internet. That would be a good place to start.

Of course, there should be a stronger, deeper curricular effort made to educate kids but it needs to expand into the adult world too. While Wineburg ends with for “public education in the deepest sense,” he cannot help himself in going to the old well of assessments and teacher professional development, as if education is the problem. That outlook is just another flavor of edreformy nonsense. The issue is so much deeper and insidious than that and there does not seem to be enough will to address it.

We need an information diet – Equal Times – María José Carmona (7-minute read)

I admit that the headline of this article caught my attention. Then it opens with a quote from the instant classic Nicholas Carr piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” My interest was piqued further. Then Maryanne Wolf was referenced and it was pretty obvious that this piece was worht sharing. While claims made by Carr have been countered, albeit less convincingly, Wolf’s claims seem to hold even more weight. How we read is at least as important as what we read, maybe more so.

What I like about this particular piece is that it widens the discussion, including neuroscientists and European professors as well as American sources. I was not familiar with Equal Times as a source but it is an outlet with a clear, declared perspective, focusing on progressive global perspectives in three languages. I always like to look at broader perspectives than those found in North America.

The metaphor of a media diet makes a lot of sense. Regardless of what anyone says consciously working to balance our information consumption and constantly assess our network are practices that must become common in order to achieve those aims. While we are now all content curators perforce, a topic I began to approach with some of my students recently. As Mike Caulfield, author of Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, puts it “The truth is in the network.” Yet professional curators have been continuously present for some time, even in the Internet age. In fact, I am trying to perform part of that function with this newsletter.

Shut Up About Harvard – FiveThirtyEight – Ben Casselman (6-minute read)

A fellow journalism teacher tipped me off to this piece recently and I was immediately intrigued. There are so many good points in this piece that still holds up, despite it being a couple years old already. Even as some of the internal workings of Harvard were opened up in the recent scandal, schools of similar stature still account for around 1% of all undergraduates.

The media manufactured myopia that Casselman points out has not ceased at all and the consequences have only accelerated. What is even more amazing to me is that barely half of undergraduates finish within six years is a statistic that has not really moved in decades. Yet, more and more students are going to university than ever before. That means that half has grown in terms of overall numbers with degrees but the costs associated have outpaced many other costs of contemporary life.

Not included in this article but also another factor is that, even with declines in international enrollments, elite private universities are global brands and students from around the world compete to attend. We would all do well in education to keep a lot of the information in this article in mind when working with young people and their parents. They need a clearer picture of higher education and they are not going to get it from mass media.

Education Evolutions #88


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

Last week, I was cautiously optimistic about New England’s chance of pulling out another Super Bowl victory and was scrambling to get the issue out earlier than kick-off. I was mildly encouraged by the coincidence of it being issue 87, corresponding to Gronk’s uniform number. Still, I was not as successful as I would have liked to be. Even though I sent it out before the game, it likely was not early enough. So, many of you might passed it over without much notice. Nevertheless, as New Englanders bask in the dying embers of victory’s glow, here is another issue.

This week has a pretty interesting mixed bag of items. The first couple of links are wonderfully inventive visual representations of information more than articles. The second pair of links are articles more typical of what I usually share, although they are more about implications of decisions that are made for us with some remarkable consequences.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. The fact that a study highlights how students’ standardized test scores were markedly different when transitioning to a computer-based system is interesting enough. I am as interested by this information being shared about a test almost four years ago with almost no information more current than that. Yet, the first item below is super cool.

Hope everyone enjoys the week and the coming vacation.


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

Elemental Haiku – Science Magazine – Mary Soon Lee (11-minute read)

This one is for all the science teachers out there that subscribe to the newsletter. It is also pretty cool for English teachers too. It is an interactive web-based periodic table that renders an element inspired haiku for ever element on the table. How cool is that? Do not let the 11-minute read time frame fool you, it is only because there are 119 elements. That is an impressive number of haikus.

If any chemistry teacher is not as impressed with the poetic infusion, take look at Science magazine’s most recent visual representation of the periodic table, a historical virtual tour of the table.

Giving algorithms a sense of uncertainty could make them more ethical – MIT Technology Review – Karen Hao (4-minute read)

I found this article both interesting and infuriating. On a fundamental level, the fact that there is an acknowledgment of what algorithms are actually designed to do and how they are being used incongruent ways is strong. Even contrasting how algorithms are designed to pursue a single mathematical objective with the incompatibility of humans wrestling with multiple desires highlighted an interesting dilemma. Yet, the very framing of the problem becomes a fundamental paradox.

The article proceeds with a flawed notion. If only we introduce uncertainty maybe the algorithms will be better. Adding multiple options, percentages, or tendencies could potentially increase the usefulness of algorithms. This is where the article is headed. The first source explains, “There are many high-stakes situations where it’s actually inappropriate — perhaps dangerous — to program in a single objective function that tries to describe your ethics.” Then continues to advance possible techniques for expressing the idea mathematically as a way to force a tool to function in a way that defies its function.

Maybe, just maybe, we should not use algorithms to make ethical decisions. I am not really sure why that never seems to gain any purchase.

Scores Were Lower When Mass. Students Took PARCC Exams on Computers, Study Finds – EdWeek’s Digital Education blog – Benjamin Herold (5-minute read)

My first reaction to seeing this headline was “No fooling?” I have to admit that I was not familiar with the term “mode effect” or at least knew what it was called but just about every English teacher I know was deeply concerned with the transition to computer-based test. While some might quickly dismiss that as aversion ot change. The concerns were far more nuanced than that, not that any decision-makers in power were likely to listen.

The main concern was that so many reading strategies taught in the classroom revolve around marking up texts, not to mention the prospects of pre-writing strategies involved in composing written responses. A computer-based test has a digital interface mediating the freedom of those activities and potentially interfering significantly. Thus, it is not shocking at all that there was a significant difference in the “mode effect” between the math and ELA tests.

What is particularly interesting about this article, however, is how there is hard data in the form of statistics to highlight the negative effects but none to validate the claim “By 2018, there was no significant effect.” I guess we are just supposed to take the word of the spokesperson for the outfit that took over the test items from the defunct PARCC. This strikes me as one more reason to rethink the value of these tests anyway, regardless of Massachusetts’ “hold harmless” policy. Certainly, the promised advantages of computer-based tests have not really come to pass. The scoring is not faster and the tests are more expensive than ever. Lastly, all of this information is based on the results from a 2015 test which only reinforces my claim that by the time anyone is even looking at standardized test scores they are looking at a picture of what may have been happening two to three years ago if they offer any real insight at all.

Education Evolutions #87


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

Well, the first term is now officially over and the new one has begun. For me, that means I have a whole lot more new students than those that return. Some of that is the nature of the classes I teach and some of that is the machinations of the schedule. Still, it is a nice midpoint of renewal in a lot of cases.

Seeing that this is Super Bowl Sunday and I am getting this out a little later than I had hoped I have kept the items a bit shorter this week. Hopefully, there is a little something in here for everyone. They are all pretty quick reads regardless.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one. Sent to me by a reader, it definitely deserved some wider circulation. Forwarding it on here is a kind of meta act of kindness, in fact. It is an excellent reminder of that we all benefit from being a bit more aware and conscientious in dealing with one another. Plus, it offers some pretty savvy tips to keep in mind, especially when your patience is fraying or you have a chance to prepare for a difficult situation.

Hope everyone enjoys the Super Bowl in whatever way you choose.


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

Student evaluations of teaching are not only unreliable, they are significantly biased against female instructors – The London School of Economics and Social Science Impact Blog – Anne Boring, Kellie Ottoboni and Philip B. Stark (6-minute read)

This is a couple of years old but still came across my digital reading radar, no doubt because of the end of the first semester in much of the academic world, a time of student evaluations. I must admit that I have always found student evaluations to be somewhat dubious. While this article studies student evaluations of teaching at the university level, I suspect that the findings would correlate pretty highly at the high school level.

With the last wave of teacher accountability measures that were rolled out, there was a definite uptick in encouragement of teachers to survey students. For me, the thinking that who knows better about teachers than students is seriously flawed on a number of accounts. First, the relationship between teachers and students is not exclusively transactional. Students are not consumers or customers. Second, students rarely have any actual awareness of what teachers actually do to prepare or execute lessons. Even when students are asked to perform as teachers it is usually in highly controlled and narrow circumstances. Third, I have seen first-hand on multiple occasions how closely student comments correlate with grades. Students often perceive that teachers simply give grades rather than students earning them or any efforts at an objective assessment.

The most interesting aspect of what this study finds is just how much gender plays a role in the evaluations. While I am not necessarily surprised by their findings, I am not sure that I would have hypothesized what they found. Still, the findings only strengthened my suspicion of student evaluations. I would not say that they have no value or that they should never be used. Under certain conditions, a teacher might be able to use them to assist in decision-making within the context of a class. Yet, any suggestion that student evaluations of teaching should be part of a teacher’s overall evaluation is a dreadful idea that is even potentially harmful, not to mention erroneous.

How Helping Students to Ask Better Questions Can Transform Classrooms – KQED’s MindShift – Katrina Schwartz (7-minute read)

Anyone not familiar with the Right Question Institute’s work ought to take a little bit of time to investigate it. Founded by a couple of Boston-area teachers, developing the capacity to craft and answer good questions is a powerful practice. While they do not have all the answers by any means, they definitely have some valuable strategies to offer regarding fostering quesitons creation with students. The book written by the founders, Make Just One Change, is pretty good too.

This article almost serves as a primer on methods advanced by the Right Question Institute. There are plenty of links to check out and a couple of examples in action. One thing I can attest to is using these kinds of strategies foster considerably more student choice without much additional effort.

Incorporating student composed questions can serve a lot of purposes, as this article highlights. Student questions can leverage their natural curiosity and agency but they can even serve as a kind of formative assessment. As former teacher-turned-trainer Kim Sergent explains, “You’ll know what they don’t know by the questions they ask. And you’ll know who got it by the questions they ask.” It is not the only question generating method around but it is a pretty good one.

Kindness Is a Skill – The New York Times – David Brooks (4-minute read)

This is an entry that came to me by way of a reader of this newsletter. So many thanks to them because it is definitely one of those lists of things to consider that would be helpful to anyone but especially educators. Even approaching kindness as a skill that needs to be acquired and practiced has an appeal that is potentially way more powerful than thinking of it as a quality or characteristic.

I have to admit that I often do not find myself agreeing with David Brooks all that much. I probably hear him a lot more on NPR or PBS than I read his column in the Times, which usually involves me shaking my head in dispute. However, I actually find listening to what he has to say beneficial, even if I often disagree.

In this article, Brooks synthesizes a list of techniques that can be practiced in a conscious effort to be kind. There are some excellent ones at that. Some may seem a bit more obvious than others, while a few have a genuine appeal of novelty. I especially like “the best ice-breaker” that asks everyone to tell the story of how they got their name. What a great way to encourage sharing, storytelling, and open almost any kind of meeting. I suspect I will be using that one. I also quite like “your narrative never wins.” The truth of that one grows stronger to me the longer I live.