Monday, September 18, 2017

Not Fair!

My wife teaches in a school where 80 page IEPs are common. She's had students whose accommodations have kept them from taking any assessments at all or from having to do any homework. To teach a student without expecting the student to demonstrate any learning quickly gets absurd. How can one learn without practice?

Not every learning difference can or should be accommodated in a mainstream class.  That said, this case  really bothered me.  This Nobel prize winning scientist's career is over because he refused to share his PowerPoints with a learning disabled student. I just can't understand why he chose to die on that hill. It is an utterly reasonable accommodation. The student is still responsible for showing mastery just as every other student must show it. Why the utter refusal to share his slides in advance? I think it comes from confusing fairness with treating every student the same way.

If I can make it so a student can learn, am I not obligated to do so? Isn't it arrogant of me to refuse to help? I'm sure this Nobel prize winning scientist thinks he is somehow protecting the integrity of the course. Yet there is more than a trace of arrogance in this.

I'm thinking of the physically challenged students I teach. Some don't see as well. They could never take notes. Others don't hear as well. Others aren't dexterous enough to write notes. How dare I say they can't learn? How dare I not modify my teaching to make sure more students can succeed?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Deck Toys Review

I tested out Deck Toys today. I had never heard of it until reading this ed tech team post today.
I'm very much intrigued by anything that gamifies learning. Students like games. Teachers have used review games for years and years and they are usually popular activities.

I liked some of the features of Deck Toys- such as it allows for self-paced game play, it offering a variety of game play options, and it being easy to use, Kahoot favors the quickest thinker. Students can get everything right in Kahoot and not do well compared to peers. Kahoot is fun but learning shouldn't be measured via Jeopardy! rules.

I didn't like the clunky visuals in Deck Toys and cluttered (ad-filled) screen (at least on the student preview screen through which I played one of its games) made it hard to read the graphics. I also didn't like that the game is primarily geared to factual recall.

If you are looking for an alternative to Kahoot, definitely take a look at Deck Toys. I don't think it is a "game-changer" but it will be useful once in awhile as a change of pace in the classroom.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

If We Were Starting From Scratch....

In every aspect of our lives, we have blind spots. We make assumptions. Last year, I wrote a post about making a change- a very obvious and much needed change- at the day camp which I run. It took me years to even consider the most obvious option. The reason I didn't change was because I made all sorts of assumptions, unthinking assumptions about how things were supposed to be and couldn't see the obvious answer right in front of me.
Teaching looks fundamentally much the same as it did 800 years ago.
 Think about that.  

Today in my International Relations class, which contains two Chinese citizens, I shared this sentence on the board and asked students to count the "Fs"

Go ahead, you try. Count the Fs:

How many Fs did you count?
(I counted 3.)
The correct answer is 6. 

David Brown shares this simple test on his website. He suggested that most native English speakers see 3 Fs while non-native English speakers see 6. While not a large enough sample size to prove anything, my American students except for one of the all said there were 3 Fs and my two students from China correctly counted six. 

Orwell had it right when he said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

What is right in front or our nose but we cannot see when it comes to the field of education? I'd posit that we make enormous assumptions that school is just supposed to look a certain way. This certain way consists of content delivered through lecture, discussion, labs and practice problems and is assessed through papers, labs and especially tests. This learning is then "graded" according to a A-F scale that was invented at the turn of the 20th century. 

Technology allows us to think about teaching and learning in fundamentally different ways. Brain science tells us all sorts of things about how the brain works. Yet, in a world where virtually every other industry is changing rapidly, the field of education has been remarkably resistant to change.

As a thought exercise. If you were starting truly from scratch, what would schools look like? 

For me, I start with deciding what matters and what is worth knowing in 2017 and beyond. Usually in schools, we just add new stuff. New history content is added. Maker and STEAM is added. Yet we also keep almost all of our legacy content. 

We should consider what skills are essential for this world and what ways of knowing are needed for success and happiness. 

We also will need to redefine the role of the teacher. Jane Hart, in this article  suggests a change of name entirely from teacher to "modern learning advisor". Okay, I admit it is a mouthful. How about simply "learning advisor"? There will always be a place from some direct instruction. But I've found I teach more effectively when I'm not doing most of the talking. 

Students should have real choice in what they study. Yes, some basic numeracy and literacy must happen but not necessarily in the same order or with the same methods we currently use. Yet, Wolfram in his famous TedTalk points out that most of us equate numeracy with calculation skills. Higher order math thinking is reserved for the very few. So I'd even suggest that numeracy and literacy may need to be redefined.

I don't have all the answers. But I find this thought exercise to be most interesting because starting from scratch can let us move past our blind spots and basic assumption of what things are supposed to be like. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Back to Life Back to Reality

I've been teaching for almost as long as this Soul to Soul song has been out.  The lyric which I use as a title to this post always pops into my head about this time of year.  Indeed, for teachers, it really is "back to reality".

I'm entering my third year as a Tech Integration Specialist. I've learned so much over the last two years. Some high hopes have been tempered but some seeds have been planted that I hope will take root.

I've been pushing for digital portfolios for several years and now have very firm administrative backing for this effort. I admit here, dear reader, that this is a stealth campaign of sorts for larger changes I'd like to see. For if we really embrace digital portfolios, we will have to put digital artifacts into them! Also, it will force us to reconsider how and what we assess.

I'm always hopeful this time of year. Big dreams. I hope that other teachers who read this realize some of their dreams this year. If you don't dream big, you don't get disappointed. But you also don't change a whole lot.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Addicted to Technology?

I once totally dismissed concerns about too much tech use for children. I didn't (and still don't) consider technology inherently anti-social or isolating. I contrasted time spent on a computer with the more passive TV viewing of older generations and considered it an improvement- and still do. For generations, older folks have worried about the habits of the young. American society has bemoaned the "kids these days" for generations. This Slate article shows that at the turn of the last century, society feared the "dime store" novels were corrupting youth across Europe and the United States. I figured panic of tech use was simply more of the same of such fear-mongering. Also, I dismissed screen time concerns as excuses by teachers who were resistant to change.

Looking at myself honestly, I know I read differently than I did in the past. I find it harder to stay with a book. I read all the time on my iPad and watch very little video. It is not as if I am not reading. In fact, I'd rather read a news story than watch a news story. My twitter feeds me a steady stream ed-tech, tech, education, sports, politics news- all rich and interesting. The vast majority of these reads take less than 5 minutes. When I read a book or longer scholarly article, I have to really work at staying with it. 

It doesn't help that I have an addictive personality. For me, too much is never enough. It's why I'm twenty pounds too heavy despite exercising regularly. If some is good, more must be better! Many argue that technology is addictive. Though not addicted to my phone, I am often on my iPad- for hours a day. While I feel we use "addiction" too loosely- as one doesn't going through withdrawal when a cell phone is taken away the way a heroin addict or alcoholic does when their drug of choice is removed- the mental obsession with technology is real.

Some argue, such as Twenge does quite convincingly in this article, that kids are being psychologically damaged by too much time on social media.

In light of the news that tech is addictive and psychologically damaging, what's a school to do? Should we become Luddites and embrace the Waldorf school practice of banning technology? In addition to banning black crayons (really!) , Waldorf Schools ban TVs and computers arguing that distraction of electronic media inhibits engagement between teacher and students. Can we really put the genie back in the bottle?

I'm the first to admit that many ed-tech promises are oversold even while feeling that we really haven't tapped tech's potential in the classroom. To me, banning technology entirely seems as silly as banning the color black for a child's palette of colors.

What can we do? I offer these 5 suggestions. 
1)  Only use technology when the technology allows the lesson to be transformed (or at least Augmented according to the SAMR model). If only substituting, don't use technology! 

2)  Teach mindfulness and self-awareness in school and at home. Mindfulness leads to awareness and promotes a sense of peace within oneself. Some suggest the escapism that we can become addicted to is lessened.  

3) Explicitly incorporate instruction about screen addiction and the how to use and respond to social media by teaching digital literacy. If the research is right, we are falling into a mental health crisis that we have yet to respond to. Twenge writes that psychologically, teens today "are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones."  

4) Incorporate digital literacy instruction throughout the day. Talk about it in language arts and social studies. Teach it in science and health classes. 

5) Okay- only half-jokingly- how about giving kids Jitterbug phones- the "old people" phones that are advertized in AARP magazines. They just make phone calls. Perhaps we should get the addictive smart devices away from kids. 
   If this seems too extreme, have students put phones away and keep phones away at school. Insist that students talk to each other at recess and lunch. At home, parents should have students put their phones on the dining room table and leave them there for most of the night- letting them use the phones for an hour a night. Teach healthy habits. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ed Tech, A Mixed Bag

There is much to chew on in this article I came across just recently from a Washington Post column from 2016 . I agree with much of it and disagree with some of the author's conclusions.

I agree fully with Strauss that technology can "perpetuate, traditional teacher-centered instruction that consists mostly of memorizing facts and practicing skills."   Textbook on an iPad, looking up facts online, or playing Kahoot to reinforce recall are "examples of how technology may make the process a bit more efficient or less dreary but does nothing to challenge the outdated pedagogy.  To the contrary:  These are shiny things that distract us from rethinking our approach to learning and reassure us that we’re already being innovative."

Yet, I disagree with her when she writes,  "Perhaps it hasn’t escaped your notice that ed tech is passionately embraced by very traditional schools:  Their institutional pulse quickens over whatever is cutting-edge: instruction that’s blended, flipped, digitally personalized.  This apparent paradox should give us pause.  Despite corporate-style declarations about the benefits of “innovation” and “disruption,” new forms of technology in the classroom mesh quite comfortably with an old-school model of teaching that consists of pouring a bunch o’ facts into empty receptacles." I really don't see many traditional schools passionately embracing flipped and blended learning. Strauss has a wider scope than I do; but my reading and knowledge of schools suggests the opposite to me.

New forms of technology mesh quite comfortably with old-school methods of teaching. But it really depends on how we use technology. Seymour Papert (before he passed), Will Richardson and other early advocates of tech ed in schools now openly worry about what tech ed is becoming- corporate and a reinforcer of the status quo. Indeed by the year 2000, Papert was already growing worried by the dismantling of his revolution and idea averse ed tech establishment. Corporations sell schools what schools want to buy- tech that reinforces the dominant paradigm.

My final thought is more of an aside, Strauss bemoans open gradebooks. Grades get in the way of learning. I truly believe that. They discourage risk-taking and encourage conformity. Yet, I disagree with her thought that open gradebooks only serve to increase the deleterious and pernicious effects of current grading practices.  The damage is already done. Besides, we can't simultaneously tell kids grades don't matter and to ignore them while grading them. It is unfair to students to keep them guessing.

It's a great column. Give it a read.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


I'm taking a terrific course from the Change.School folks. I'm learning some things and relearning other things. It is increasingly clear to me the power of inertia. It is hard to shake up the status quo- even if a majority of folks say they want to. Look at the Republicans in Congress right now. It was so easy to vote 62 times to repeal the ACA when they knew President Obama would veto the repeal. But when things get real.... Look, school change and the ACA aren't the same thing and I won't go out of my way to conflate them further beyond saying that powerful forces get in the way of change. (In hindsight, Obama's effort to get the ACA is more impressive than it was seen at the time- whether or not you think it good policy, it was impressive politics.) In the case of school, I also think simple weariness gets in the way. Teaching and administrative jobs can be so all consuming. Time to think long-term in the midst of the year needs to be intentionally carved out, and often it isn't.

When plans are made in the summer, often they aren't realized once school starts in the Fall because we revert to old patterns. The patterns of school are deeply ingrained throughout the entire education establishment and infrastructure.

Change agents must be clear in messaging and consistent in promoting change. Otherwise, reversion to the status quo is almost inevitable. That's why schools have largely stayed the same despite decades of "reform".

Monday, July 3, 2017

If we started with a totally blank slate, what would schools look like?

As Russell Ackoff says: “If you don’t know what you would do if you could do whatever you wanted, then how on earth can you know what you would do under constraints?”
The Tom Carroll essay  “If We Didn’t Have the Schools We Have Today, Would We Create the Schools We Have Today? helps me frame my thinking. As the US sits in the middle of a healthcare debate,  and substituting schools for healthcare, the obvious answer is “No!” I think it is safe to say the same is true for schools.
Carroll points out that an 1880s surgeon walking into a an operating room today would be almost totally lost whereas an 1880s teacher might be perfectly capable of leading a 2017 classroom. The surgeon likely wouldn’t understand the procedure or instruments. Not so for the teacher. Yet, I do not think change is inevitable. The current model is remarkably resistant to change.
So, how do we get there if change is not inevitable? Culture matters. Leadership matters and yet a larger societal change also needs to happen.
ExDee Hock, first CEO of Visa and author of Birth of the Chaordic (chaotic and orderly) Age asks this powerful question of all of us: “And what if those with the greatest power, wealth, and position were to open their minds to new possibilities, loosen their tenacious grasp on the old order of things, abandon the palliative of cosmetic change, open their eyes to new forms of organization, seriously question their internal model of reality?”
What modes of realities to I struggle to let go of? I have to be less cynical with the Luddites and skeptics among us. I then might be better able to help guide change.
This Grant Lichtman video tells us rather ominously that schools such as mine shouldn’t be thinking in 5 year windows for long-term planning. Instead we should be worried if we will be around 20 years from now. Lichtman says change IS coming. The question is, will we prepare for it? Or will we be shuttered shut?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Money, That's What I Want.

The early Beatles sang:
The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees
Now give me money
That's what I want

Interestingly, after getting all the money they could possible want, they sang, All You Need Is Love

In the post below, deBoer challenges the unquestioned assumptions about schooling in America. These assumptions are so unquestioned that he calls them "dogma".

"6. The purpose of education, from a policy perspective, is predominantly or purely financial/vocational; civic education, humanistic inquiry, socialization, aesthetic appreciation, cultivation of emotional intelligence or compassion, or similar are presumed to be of secondary importance if they are deemed important at all."

The entire reading is profoundly counter-cultural. It challenges many unquestioned assumptions. And this particular point that I highlight above is central to his argument because our culture defines "success" as being wealthy or at the very least working in an esteemed field. Politics aside, or at least partly aside, Donald Trump was perceived as successful despite his many, many faults. It is why he is president. One's happiness, one's dedication to family and to spouse, one's contributions to arts, science and the humanities all are considered less important than wealth and a great teacher, artist, or social worker is not esteemed the way folks such as Donald Trump, Jamie Dimon and Steve Jobs are esteemed. Remember the scorn heaped upon "community organizers" in the 2008 election? Is it really any wonder that "the purpose of education, from a policy perspective, is predominantly or purely financial/vocational?"

I'm guilty of this kind of thinking even though I'm cautioning against it. Let me tell you that I've worried that my daughter, an English major, will have a hard time upon graduating. At least I've had the grace not to tell her that and have had the wisdom to keep my mouth shut. I too am guilty of defining success, under the guise of "wanting what is best for her" by how much money she WON'T make!

Of course, I know the race for "success" is indeed a race to nowhere. It truly is fool's gold. Did anyone see the Silicon Valley start up owner who decided to pay himself and everyone who worked for him $70,000? He read studies that show there is a close correlation between happiness and money up to that point. It makes sense. At that salary- in most places in the USA- one will have a house, car if wanted, enough to eat, enough to buy clothing, enough to have most creature comforts and enough to go on a vacation. After $75,000, more income does very little to make someone happier. Many in America, though thought him a fool, including his brother who is suing him.

DeBoer gets it right. The primary purpose of schooling in the United States is financial and vocational. Everything else is secondary- even if the schools themselves don't fully buy in or claim to not fully buy in. I teach at a religious school where we proclaim morals and values are primary. Yet at my school, the bottom line is still the bottom line.

Consider this: every time schools are seen to be in crisis, mayors, governors and presidents empanel blue ribbon commissions of business leaders to fix schools. You know what we should have done after the financial crisis of 2008? We should have convened a panel of teachers to fix the mess! (I'm only half joking.) Have you noticed that we don't ask teachers their thoughts on how to improve schools and that instead we ask business people? Y'know why? We aren't "successful".

About my daughter, I want her to have enough and so I worry. She's the eldest of 5 and though she will leave her undergrad years debt free, we can't afford to help her at all for graduate school. I fear the debt she will carry and so I start playing that mental game and think about "success" even while recognizing that our traditional measures of success are sorely lacking. This argument is implicit, I believe, throughout deBoer's post. Americans are miserable. Our happiness index is falling in comparison with other countries. Some of us may be wealthier, but we aren't healthier or happier. As we define success in terms of wealth and career achievement we create unhappy people. Rich folks always want more money. Successful people chase more successes and neither of these paths will lead to happiness and well-being. They may increase pleasure, but they won't increase, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. I'm not against money or success. I wish I had more of both myself.

Schools mirror broader societal values. And these values have messed up many of us. Sadly,  to challenge the broadly accepted dogma is all but impossible. It's sad.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Google Shortcuts! /create

Want to make a start a google slides presentation faster than you ever have before or speedily open a new google doc, form or spreadsheet? Simply add a /create to the end of your url.

For instance by adding /create you get or try out It'll save you a few clicks. 

OR even better yet, get Google Docs Quick Create Chrome extension. And it'll be even faster still. 

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