Let me preface this post with two statements/disclaimers:
First, I love the TIES conference. I've been attending this conference and presenting at it every year for the past five years. I like the people at TIES and consider them some of my closest colleagues. I have a lot of respect for that organization and a lot of respect for the impact their annual conference has for education in Minnesota and beyond. That said, what criticism/observations in this post are more a general criticism aimed at the state of affairs in education today through which I believe this week in Minnesota TIES was a conduit.
Second, this post will contain a greater percentage of my own editorial than simply just reporting/recording what Mr. Rose said at the conference. I have some deep concerns and I feel obligated to express them. Readers of this blog who have been with me a while will find no surprises.
What follows is a record of my live-Tweets from Joel Rose's keynote along with my own reflection and commentary:
#ties11 waiting to hear School of One founder Joel Rose give opening keynote.At
Two years ago Promethean sponsored Dr. Marzano as the keynote speaker at the TIES conference. That year Promethean had paid Dr. Marzano a handsome fee to conduct and publish research showing that their products promoted student achievement gains. Marzano never let that research be peer-reviewed and what the research actually tells us says less about the technology products and more about teaching practices. But, I'm not going to rehash that whole debate here.
This was how Joel Rose was introduced to the audience here at TIES. I am not quite sure those credentials instill a lot of confidence in an audience where the majority of those in attendance are educators who entered the profession with more than a five week training course on how to be a teacher. Also, Edison Schools (now EdisonLearning, Inc.) was a for-profit brand of charter school that failed. Widely touted as the school model of the future they failed to show the academic gains they promised and their stock fell from $40 a share to 14 cents. There are no Edison Schools in the United States today because they all closed or morphed into other entities. Edison got out of the business of running schools and entered into the business of offering services such as testing and after-school programs.
Anyway, Mr. Rose was also introduced as having 15 years experience in education which means that if he was a TFA recruit and then an administrator at Edison Schools that he couldn't possibly have more than 4 or 5 years experience in the classroom. Most likely what experience he brings to education is most strongly rooted in a form of assessment derived from the Edison Schools model.
Rose begins his talk by asking why schools today don't look radically different from how they looked in 1843. By now this is starting to become a cliche comparison but it is a pertinent question.
Again, citing a statistic that I agree is troubling and needs addressing.
Now, this was a great little side note in his presentation and it generated much adoration. What he did was show in a bar graph how much money has been donated by the Waltons, the Broads, and the Gates to public schools and then a bar that dwarfed these bars in comparison showing how much teachers give to public schools. Now, the way he figures this is if you take all the extra time teachers work grading papers and writing lesson plans and multiply that by what would be their hourly rate and add up all that money for all teachers the amount donated by teachers is ginormous. However, this kind of comparison is a bit dishonest as we are comparing the giving of time to the giving of monetary resources and to arrive at this statistic requires some massaging of the data. But, that was also how Edison schools showed for years that they were making gains in student achievement. This kind of data analysis should call into question the methodology Mr. Rose uses to show the academic gains of School of One. This also works as a rhetorical device to draw attention away from the effect private donors like Gates, Walton, Broad, and Zuckerberg have on public education.
No disagreement there. On this point I agree with Rose. School needs a redesign and technology ought to be part of the fabric, not just an add-on. I'm just not sure that what School of One offers as an alternative vision really is radical enough of a shift. It still carries with it a lot of the bad stuff inherent in the current old model.
I wish this were framed different. This still implies that a linear progression with "prerequisites" is a necessary component of knowledge and skill acquisition. What if we decided not to assume that there is or should be such a thing as 6th grade or 4th grade content? Or chapters? Or levels?
Here is the crux of my rub. (oh that sounded dirty). The theme of this conference was "Its Personal: Transforming Pedagogy With Technology" but what the premise of this statement, which is arguably the single most distinguishing feature of School of One, is a form of personalization. The key difference between personal and personalize is where the agency lies and who is empowered to make educational decisions. If I create a personal learning environment I as a learner have the agency to make decisions about what is allowed to be part of that environment, what content I choose to study, what tools I choose that fit my needs, and what people and resources I find valuable. If learning is personal then personal learning transformed by technology must involve the learner making choices about the content, modalities, and direction. If my learning is personalized for me someone else is telling me what to do. The agency still lies with someone who is telling me where to sit, who to listen to, how to learn, and when to move on to the next thing. Learning that is personalized is not personal learning.
Now, if I choose to outsource the personalization of my learning to someone else that is my choice and can arguably fall within the realm of a personal learning choice. There are definitely times when this kind of arrangement is desired and needed by the learner. But in that choice the agency still lies with the learner and if that method doesn't work out there ought to be a choice to abandon the endevour.
And, what of the lessons? This is something I would like very much to know more about. From Mr. Rose's description of where they get the lessons in their lesson bank it doesn't sound like the lessons are created with a new learning system in mind. They sound very much like old school lesson plans be they taught by a teacher in a small group, online asynchronously, or online remotely. I would like to learn more about this aspect of School of One before I pound the gavel on this but if my impression from this talk is correct, what the algorithm does is simply shuffle the old school lessons and presents them to each student in an individualized schedule. Essentially, it sounds like the learning experience for a student at School of One on the pedagogy level isn't any different than any other school.
I find that revolting.
This was my question. Nowhere in Mr. Rose's talk did he address how School of One does community building or what the role of personal relationships between students and teacher are. Nowhere is this addressed but we know from volumes of literature and research on this topic that this social element of the learning environment is extremely important. This is especially true when we are talking about the at-risk students Rose called our attention to at the outset. If you work in a school that serves that 1/3 of students who are likely to drop out you know how important relationship building and community is. Where is that in the algorithm?
Yes, but are you comparing a group of students who have the family support and/or personal motivation and initiative to attend an after-school math program to students who don't have those things? How were students chosen for the after-school program? Did you compare students in this after-school program to students in another after-school program that used different methods? There are just too many variables to make this an actionable statistic.
Rose ended his talk trying to address a fear he anticipates teachers might have about School of One that it will mean teachers will loose their jobs. He cites economic data showing fields where technology has caused a transformational change showing that fields where some level of human judgement is involved those careers have seen increases while those that didn't saw decreases. He speculates that in education this will mean more jobs for teachers, not less.
I would like to push back on this notion for just a moment. It isn't like education has not yet seen a transformation, in fact we are in the midst of one right now. But, I think most are too close to the trees to see the forest on this issue, or rather, too close to the circuits to see the machine. The whole standards-driven education environment with high-stakes testing and standardized mechanisms for measuring student achievement, school improvement, and teacher "effectiveness" is a technology itself. It is the core processor driving School of One. The algorithm in School of One is only part of the equation. It is a subroutine in a much larger program called standards-based education.
The standards-based machine is a biased one. It has its own set of values and very little room for what falls outside it. The standards-based machine only understands inputs and outputs that can be easily measured by its sensors. It ignores all else. In its scans it misses important details because it does not possess the sensors to detect certain domains of learning, certain domains of understanding, certain domains of knowing. Those things, the things that are not easily standardized, are lost to the machine because the machine cannot process it. Because the machine cannot process them and the fate of schools depends on the machine showing good results schools will focus more energy and time only into those domains the machine can read. Therefore, we see reductions in the arts, reductions in family and consumer sciences, reductions in creative writing, reductions in physical education, and reductions in anything else that the machine has not been programmed to read.
Mr. Rose argues that domains that require human judgement will not be negatively impacted by the integration of his technology, a technology that not only supports the standards machine but makes it more efficient. Because the algorithm can only see what it has been taught how to read it will just as likely expedite the extinction of the domains already in decline. And to add a bit of irony to this, it appears computer science is among those domains.
TIES is the upper-midwest's largest technology education conference and very very little of what was offered this year addressed how to teach computer science in school. Not one session on programming, not one session on how to teach students to write their own algorithms. I don't blame TIES for this, this is a much larger trend. In the past two years at ISTE I observed the same phenomenon. Somehow we have come to a point where technology in education is something we use to put kids through their paces, to help to personalize their learning, to program students. I want students to learn how to program a computer, not to be programmed by one.
This conference is huge. This year they reported over 3,100 participants and about 1/3 of the school superintendents in MN were present. That is a lot of students they are responsible for and for one morning they all were presented an infomercial for Edison Schools 2.0. I like to think that most of our school leaders have a good enough BS detector to sort through a lot of this and ask tough questions but I know in a group of people from any sector of life you will have some who buy in hook line and sinker. This is especially true if you are in a state of crisis. This year the number of schools not making AYP was staggering. That pressure can lead anyone to make decisions without asking the right questions. In conditions like those someone coming along selling an idea with a promise to solve all your problems receives a welcome reception. I suspect more superintendents were receptive to what Joel Rose had to say than would be if the standards machine were not causing a crisis in their districts.
Normally at the TIES conference the keynote address is followed by a small group presentation/discussion between the presenter and the superintendents. This is then usually followed by a Q & A session with the presenter. Rose had no such session. There was no opportunity given for other conference-goers to ask questions. There was no platform for push-back. I hope some of the questions I raise here were asked in the superintendents session but not being part of that club I will never know.
To TIES credit, the rest of the conference was filled with feature speakers that did justice to the other side of the personal learning coin. Christian Long, Chris Dede, Bernajean Porter, and Ananth Pai all were excellent and highlighted the value of personal agency in learning. Also, the one place I did see some computer programming was in the Classroom of the Future installation where the kids were fully immersed in a LEGO Mindstorms project.