Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Invisible Technology of School

I am currently reading Kevin Kelly's new book, What Technology Wants and am finding it a fascinating read. One interesting thing he talks about is how technology was here before we knew it existed. Meaning, before we had a name for technology or even recognized that there was this category of what we do or what exists out there that we now call technology it was there and coexisting with us. It was an invisible force. People sharpened flint into knives, made spears, built shelters, harnessed fire, domesticated animals and farmland, sew clothing, made fish hooks, and developed language all without having a name for this embodiment of human ideas. In the early stages of the evolution of technology it was invisible to us even though it made itself present all around us. And, every time a new technology was developed it completely changed the human environment.

Trying to define technology is hard. Two years ago I sat on an interview committee hiring a technology teacher. The principal asked if there were any questions I would like to add to the list before we began the interviews. I told him I had only one, "What is technology?" He had a strange reaction to my request but this proved to be one of the more decisive questions in our search. We interviewed three candidates that day and got three very different definitions. The teacher we hired took the broad definition and said that technology was the term used to describe how people manipulate their environment to achieve something they couldn't otherwise achieve. The other two candidates gave the narrow definition which unfortunately is also currently the common definition that technology was anything that used electricity.

If you take the narrow definition of technology then it is very easy to disregard the ecological effect introducing a new technology will bring. If you take the broad definition these considerations are unavoidable and obvious. Problem is, I think most people only consider the narrow definition and in so doing render all non-electronic technologies invisible.

One definitive characteristic of technology is it is constantly in a state of evolution and change. Rendering a technology invisible blinds us to this key attribute and locks us into a mindset about it. This is how sacred cows are born. This is how we become rigid and this is how we become irrelevant.

When a new technology is introduced into an ecology everything changes or becomes irrelevant. According to the broad definition language is a technology. Our languages are in a constant state of evolution as evident by the annual list of new words added to the dictionary each year. Language changes to adjust to the introduction of new technologies. If it didn't change how would we even be able to discuss things like wikis, friending, m-commerce, or tweeting? This is one major problem with content standards for schools. Content standards take something fluid like language and treat it like its constant. What would happen if we used content standards from a time in our distant past to drive all curriculum and assessment in our schools? And, just like language, schooling is a technology rendered invisible by the narrow definition.

Failing to see schools and all their trappings (grade systems, standardized tests, bell schedules, etc.) as a form of technology sets any technology initiative up for failure. Introduce laptops or iPads into a classroom and still run everything else the same way and one or both of two things will happen: 1) The devices will prove to be nothing but a distraction and get in the way of schooling causing people to claim the program was a flop; or 2) The technology will take over many of the purposes the school was originally designed to serve, making students view the school as irrelevant. The school whose teachers and administrators embrace the broad view will see schooling as a technology and understand that the introduction of another technology will require changes to curriculum, teaching strategies, room design, schedules, assessment, and teacher evaluation metrics.

When you start to view schooling as a technology you start to question its purpose. You start to question how it has changed the ecology it was introduced into. You start to question how it might evolve into something else. You start to wonder if or when it will become obsolete.

Technologies always have pros and cons. Early industrial technologies laid waste to our environment in exchange for cheap goods. When you start to consider school as a technology you start to see what school lays waste to and you start to see its biases.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Data Is Not a Flashlight #dayofdata #edchat #edreform

Yesterday the #dayofdata hashtag caught my eye as it floated down my Twitter stream so I decided to follow it and got sucked in by the current. At first I didn't know what it was but soon realized that this was the hashtag for an event featuring panelists that included "education reformers" such as Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee. Needless to say, I found a lot of what I was reading in the stream of live tweets from the event objectionable to say the least. But one tweet in particular has caused a rash that I just can't get out from under my skin:

Aimee Guidera: Data isn't a hammer, it's a flashlight. Need to make sure data is meeting people's needs. #dayofdata 1 day ago via Twitter for iPad · powered by @socialditto

A quick search on YouTube finds this video from EdWeek where Aimee Guidera explains this statement:

I was actually hoping for something more eye opening and enlightening than that (or at least illuminating since after all, it is flashlights she is talking about).

So, anyway, here was my initial response when I read that tweet:

@rachelgwaltney data as flashlight has the analogy all wrong. In Plato's allegory the light created only shadows and echos. #dayofdata 1 day ago via web · powered by @socialditto

to which I got this reply:

@anderscj Better than being entirely in the dark! #dayofdata 1 day ago via Twitter for iPhone · powered by @socialditto

@rachelgwaltney I think you missed my point. 14 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

I have written about this a few times before but I think Plato's allegory is perfect for understanding the problem with student data. If we must use a flashlight in our analogy for understanding student data the flashlight is the instrument which we use to extract the data by shining it on students. What the flashlight produces as a result are not students but rather the students' shadows. By saying we need to use student data to improve instruction is like saying that I should use my shadow to help me improve my appearance.

The big problem, and the one that makes arguing with these dataphiles so difficult, is in Plato's allegory the prisoners who were released and shown what makes the objects, shown the truth, were seen by the prisoners who weren't released as having come back unable to see.
[Socrates] And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
Who was at this event? Who was on the panel? Were there any teachers there? Did any of the panelists have any history in teaching (besides taping children's mouths shut and taking pleasure in firing people)? And who do these "reformers" listen to? A quick look at who the people at this event live tweeting follow on Twitter tells me they probably don't listen to the voices of educators who actually work with the students whose data they are concerned with. They probably see us as having lost our sight. We see students, they see shadows. The student doesn't matter so long as the shadow they cast looks good. The result is we end up bending and contorting students in ways that are unnatural and don't make much sense just so the shadows they produce with their data flashlight look good.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Future of Education & The Future of School Are on Very Different Paths

A few weeks ago I posted this passing thought on Twitter that I was not quite ready to come back to at the time but seemed to get a little traction:

Does anyone else get the feeling that the future of education & the future of school are on very different paths. 20 days ago via Mobile Web · powered by @socialditto

Then, last night as I was about to finish reading Larry Cuban's (2001) Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom Jerrid Kruse asked me this question on Twitter:

@anderscj you liking cuban's work? 15 hours ago via Twitter for iPhone · powered by @socialditto

to which I replied:

@jerridkruse I wouldn't say I like it so much as I agree with most of it. 15 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

@jerridkruse Cuban presents an inconvenient truth. 15 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

Cuban basically explains why, despite unprecedented access to technology, such reforms have failed to make foundational changes in schools. In Cuban's account the reasons for such high investment in tech tools in schools has been: 1. To make students more digitally literate, and 2. To shift from a teacher-centric to a student-centered learning environment. In his account he lists numerous teachers and programs that do this but shows how they are not the norm. What these tools end up doing is reinforcing already established teaching practices instead of transforming them. Among the many explanations he gives he includes school heritage, public conceptions, flawed decision-making, conflicting policy, and reformer misunderstanding of the purpose of school.

Before reading this book I thought Larry Cuban and Seymour Papert were on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Papert a tech-enthusiast and Cuban who near the end of this book calls for schools to cease spending money on computers:
"Contemporary reformers have forgotten the democratic mission at the heart of public schooling, ignored the critical importance of social capital in strengthening civic behaviors, and proven too narrowly committed to technocratic solutions of school problems—all of which tempts me to call for a moratorium on buying any more computers for K-12 schools." Cuban
But now I realize they are closer to being on the same page than I thought. Reading between the lines on these pages it is obvious that the kind of transformation, the kind of change in the classroom that Cuban was hoping to find was akin to the kind of constructionist tech-enhanced project-based learning Papert observed with children in their use of LOGO to learn math. But, what he found was no such transformation on any measurable scale.

One thing Cuban hints at but doesn't give much weight to are the places where computer technology has revolutionized learning. He recognizes that the places where teachers and professors most use technology is in preparing for lessons and that students who knew a lot about computers learned most about them at home or in a part-time job. These are places where the personal computer has been used as a personal learning device, where the learning supports the learner's own goals and not the goals set forth by a teacher or curriculum. The technology-enhanced learning revolution has happened, its just left schools behind.

So, lets explore a few examples of this. First, how many teachers who engage in "PLNs" say that they find their social media engagement with other educators more valuable than the school or district-sponsored professional development programs? It is odd for a day to go by without me seeing at least one Tweet expressing this sentiment. A quick search in Twitter for "PLN," "Love," and "PD" drew these responses:

@wrice1978 I use Twitter for daily learning & connecting with global educators. I love my math PLN that spans the globe! #sfssepsb 5 hours ago via · powered by @socialditto

I love my PLN, esp. during #ukedchat I will try my best here, esp. against the odds. Education & needs is not fully understood by many here. 5 days ago via TweetDeck · powered by @socialditto

Let's use PD as an opportunity to talk to teachers about how to develop their own PLN to keep the learning happening all year. #edchat 4 hours ago via TweetDeck · powered by @socialditto

Thanks to Twitter I have made some amazing friends and my PLN is ever-growing. I learn more on Twitter than from any PD I pay for... 2 days ago via web · powered by @socialditto

Thanks to all the tweets! Have new "converts" to the world of twitter and its PD and PLN uses! Good Stuff! #sschat #psychat 6 days ago via TweetDeck · powered by @socialditto

Does anyone have a sample certificate of completion for a teacher participating in a PLN? Our district is exploring this PD option #edchat 7 days ago via Twitter for iPad · powered by @socialditto

Also, one could look at the rise in homeschooling and unschooling as a result of greater access to personal learning tools at home. Its not that computers and the Internet cause homeschooling, unschooling, and dropouts, it just enables and empowers them to feel this is a viable choice. I have spoken with many families over the past two years who have cited how important the Internet is for their homeschooling and unschooling. And this is not to say that the Internet can do what a teacher can't. Many unschoolers hire teachers when they feel they need them. The technology does not replace teachers, it makes it possible to do away with school and empower students to take control of their own learning.

Regardless of whether you believe Digital Natives and Immigrants exist or not I think Marc Prensky accurately illustrates the problem in this video:

"Education has biforcated completely into school where you get a credential and its about the past and and after school where you really learn interesting stuff on your own." Prensky
And Sugata Mitra proposes a plausible role of learning and schooling in this video:

Perhaps this is also why when asked last year about how social media and mobile technologies are changing teaching and learning in schools S. Craig Watkins said he and his colleagues at the Digital Youth Project are more interested in studying how students are using these tools at home.

Now take examples of teachers who work in what John Holt would term S-chools who have managed to transform teaching and learning with technology in their classrooms. How many of them have done so by deschooling their classrooms? I think Clay Burrell, who often talks with distaste about schooly things, is an excellent example:

Part 1---------Part 2

(This presentation requires Microsoft Silverlight. Click here to install.

It seems pretty obvious to me that in order to achieve the kind of learning revolution in schools that computer technology "reformers" sought that teachers must deschool their classrooms. But, to do so teachers bump up against a wall that Cuban doesn't mention in his book but a commenter on Scott McLeod's blog touches on. Sam Fancera writes:

Scott – Many of us don’t do this on a large scale, because many of us are evaluated solely on our students standardized test results. I agree that we should emphasize hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration, but until the reliance on test scores for evaluative purposes are modified we will not make a full press.
I would take this a step further and say that it is not just the evaluation based on test scores that is the problem but many of us are also evaluated on how well we follow a teaching routine set forth for us by our schools. In my current school we are obligated to use the workshop model of 10-15 minutes direct instruction followed by 20-30 minutes of individual or group work ending with a 5-10 minute closing. This alone hinders the kind of learning that technology can enhance because it sets up the teacher as the one who controls the classroom curriculum, who asks the questions, and who tells students what they should do with their 20-30 minutes in-between. Even if this expectation were not explicitly stated, as it had never been in any of the other schools I worked in, it is always implied. I have yet to have an administrator I work for who understands the kind of learning that can occur when you allow this kind of transformation to take place. And, even if I did work for an administrator who understood, the expectations carried by past administrators and classroom evaluators is enough to shock me back into traditional teaching mode.

Yesterday I wrote this comment on McLeod's blog that I think I will repost here because it more clearly describes this problem:

My son, a high school senior reading this right next to me, says, “Right on! This is so true.” He is no slacker at school; his grades are excellent. However, we both know how little he really has to do to score well on any test. It’s almost laughable.


What is more laughable is how little tests can really measure. But what brings me to tears is the weight we are forced to put on something which means so little. And what drives me crazy is having to defend over and over again how ignoring the tests and focusing on personally meaningful projects leads to better learning, is more rigorous, and ultimately will lead to better test scores. And what drives me absolutely stark raving mad is trying to explain to school managers (and often to other teachers) that such authentic learning is the result of negotiation and dialog with the learner and cannot be done through pre-planned scripted lessons or teacher-driven assessments.

A teacher’s job ought to be to help children learn. Instead, too often, the teacher’s job performance is assessed not only on how well students perform on a test that narrowly measures what a student knows but also on how closely they follow a script and stick to their lesson plans. If the goal is optimal learning then the very best teachers know their lessons cannot be scripted, they cannot be pre-written, they cannot be programmed. The optimal lesson plan is one that is written on-the-fly and responds to student needs and questions, not some common core standardized curriculum that dictates what and when each student should learn certain things.

In my classroom I ask very few questions. I make my students do most of the asking. Their questions guide what we do in class and what we learn. They ask the questions they are ready to wrestle with and are relevant to them at the time they are ready to have them answered. If the curriculum is truly important the student’s questions will lead us to it. Usually it does. Aside from that I load their environment, both physical and digital, with enough curiosities to spark the kinds of questions I would hope they would ask. The questions I ask most frequently are, “What do you want to learn about?” and “How can I help you today?” But, justifying this methodology to school managers who see learning as synonymous with knowledge and knowledge as something that can be handed down from teacher to student as if they were empty vessels waiting to be filled is hard if not impossible. Consequently, I often get comments when observed like, “I don’t understand what is going on here but I wouldn’t ask you to change it.” to “what you are doing is incredible but you need to work on….” and then they hand me the Charlotte Danielson rubric clearly outlining the things they didn’t observe in my class. I’ve come to realize that very few people in charge of most schools and most departments of education know much about how people actually learn. We are required to post our lesson objectives on the board. Mine always reads: Students will set their own goals and work toward achieving them. And those two students playing video games in the corner, they made those games but did anyone who came to observe bother to ask?

I am starting to wonder how much longer I can find a place in this profession where I can do what I do. But then what we assess today isn’t doing anyway. Doing and do-ers are on the way out. How many industrial technology, family and consumer science, art, music, drama, creative writing, poetry, graphic design, and computer programming courses are there anymore? Where they do exist they exist as places where students mostly study others doing, not doing themselves. We don’t want doers, we want consumers. We can pay workers in China $150/month to do our doing. At least if the students do well on that standardized test we will know that they have consumed the curriculum and objectives someone else set for them.

My conversation with Jerrid last night ended this way:

@jerridkruse Cuban presents an inconvenient truth. 17 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

@anderscj yes, IMO he & postman Make clear that tech simply doesn't matter, teaching/teachers do. 17 hours ago via Twitter for iPhone · powered by @socialditto

@jerridkruse technology may in some ways improve learning but mostly as personal improve unstructured learning, not schooling. 17 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

@jerridkruse Cuban, for me, supports my building hypothesis that the tech-enhanced learning renaissance is leaving schools behind.... 17 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

@anderscj can you explain that hypothesis? 17 hours ago via Twitter for iPhone · powered by @socialditto

@jerridkruse technology may in some ways improve learning but mostly as personal improve unstructured learning, not schooling. 17 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

@jerridkruse tech helps us learn things better we normally wouldn't go to school to learn 17 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

@anderscj that makes a lot of sense. 17 hours ago via Twitter for iPhone · powered by @socialditto

@jerridkruse and for those who are able, tech helps those who want to learn on their own and in their own way 17 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

@anderscj able & have means. 17 hours ago via Twitter for iPhone · powered by @socialditto

@jerridkruse yes. And those teachers who have managed to allow tech transform tchng & lrng do so by deschooling their classrooms.... 17 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

@jerridkruse ....something those without means consistently say they don't want for their children. 17 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto