#EdTech problems can also be the solutions

Here’s the thing: every trait has positive effects and negative effects. This was the basis for the Roth’s Divergent Series actually. Honesty is a virtue that risks becoming harshness if it’s not paired with kindness. Courage is a virtue that risks becoming cruelty if it isn’t paired with wisdom. Book-learning is a virtue that risks becoming arrogance if it isn’t paired with humility.

Many educators in these modern times want their EdTech companies to be open, free, and independent. This risks the negative effect of creating companies that lack stability. Open, free, and independent companies often change quickly (see Newsela and Formative) or end up having to alter their independence (see Minecraft and YouTube).

However, open, free, and independent often creates the positive effect of companies being nimble and responsive, both to the behavior of their competitors and the feedback from their clientele. Desmos sets the gold standard for openness to discussion with their clientele, if you’re asking me. But EdPuzzle showed me a little something this week that impressed me.

A week or so ago, I lamented out loud about the Zaption going the way of MySpace. I’d like to think that my blog post was so powerful that the folks at EdPuzzle read it and decided to offer me a bit of comfort.

That’s probably not really how it happened (although they did tweet directly at me after that blog post went out… just saying…) but nonetheless, the #EdTech marketplace being what it is, EdPuzzle saw an opportunity and it’s going to work out okay for us former Zaption users.

By following this link (edpuzzle.com/zaption), EdPuzzle will directly import all of your Zaption video activities directly into your EdPuzzle account. The whole process takes, like, 4 minutes.

There are natural trade-offs in everything. HMH or Pearson are very, very stable providers of educational resources. It’s also a serious challenge to get anyone at either of those companies to return your e-mail or update their resources. (“Can we get a bit of closed-captioning on your online video examples?)

On the flip side, there are some very small, nimble, open companies that are dealing with serious challenges to their long-term sustainability. We learn to love them when they are start-ups, but they can’t stay start-ups forever. And the transition can, at times, be very inconvenient for the users of the tech.

But, for the time being, EdPuzzle has reminded us that in the EdTech land of instability, when users suddenly become free agents looking for a new team to sign with, an open and flexible company can be there to provide the pick-me-up when another provided the let down.

 

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Gallons and Gallons of Pennies

Sometimes, “real-world” problems just go ahead and write themselves. And I say take advantage. Why be creative with the actual world can do the heavy lifting for you, right?

This floated across my Facebook feed. Pretty sure you’ll see where I’ve made some edits to the original texts.

Pennies Problem

Sequels could potentially include:

If Ortha wanted to exchange them for quarters, how many 5-gallon jugs would she need? You could do the same with nickels or dimes.

What would be the mass of each penny-filled jug?

What do you think? What other questions could come off this wonderful set up?

NPR wants to advise your pizza order…

Quoctrung Bui from NPR says that there are at least 74476 reasons that you should always get the bigger pizza. (The article has an awesome interactive graph, too!)

If we could mix the article with a math exploration, we could provide an awesome opportunity for a math-literacy activity that can combine reasoning, reading, writing, and some number-crunching all in the same experience. That’s a nice combination. Also I suspect the content hits close to home for most students. (The leadership in our district is often looking for opportunities to increase authentic reading and writing in math classes. This seems to fit the bill quite well.)

Here’s an activity:

Although without fail, the menus from a variety of local pizza joints will probably be a bit more engaging. (Look for an update coming soon…)

Shauverino Pizziano

But the big question is why?

According to Bui: “The math of why bigger pizzas are such a good deal is simple: A pizza is a circle, and the area of a circle increases with the square of the radius.” 

Yup… that’s pretty much it.

Perception and Reality – (Lean not unto thine own understanding…)

In Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell tells a story about a decision made by a New York politician who was attempting to address the homeless problem in New York City. The politician noticed that most of the people who were homeless were also not very wealthy. The politician moved forward with the idea that the apartment rent prices were simply too high for these people to afford a place to stay.

So, he decided to cap the rent prices… and the homeless problem got worse. How could this possibly be?

Well, according to Dr. Sowell, lowering rent prices, while making the apartments more affordable for those in need, did the same for everyone else. The suddenly cheaper rent prices decreased the rates of young folks sharing apartments. Also, people who have several places they call home throughout the year might not have found it reasonable to pay a high rent price to keep a NYC apartment that they might only stay in a few times throughout the year. Lower rent prices made that seem more reasonable.

Evidence also suggested that there was an increase in apartments being condemned. Lowering rent costs meant that landlords found themselves with fewer resources to maintain buildings, repair damages, pay for inspections, etc.

While the decision made the apartments more affordable, it also made them more scarce. There was a disconnect between a decision-maker’s perception of a situation and the reality. That disconnect led to a decision that ended-up being counterproductive.

I may have just done the same thing… maybe.

Perception-Reality

 

Sometimes things make so much sense. If we did this, it would HAVE to produce that. It make so much sense. How could it possibly not work?

This perception was in place among some in my community. It led me to decide to try The 70-70 Trial, which I’ve been at for about 10 weeks now. The perception in place goes like this:

a. Formative assessments prepare students for summative assessments.

b. Students who struggle on formative assessments are more likely to struggle on summative assessments (and the inverse is also true.)

It’s with these two perceptions in mind that we assume that the if we can ensure a student achieves success on each of the formative assessments (regardless of the timeline or the number of tries), we improve their chances of success on the summative assessment.

The 70-70 trial did what it could to ensure that at least 70% of the class achieved 70% or higher proficiency on each formative assessment. (There were four.) This included in-class reteach sessions and offering second (and in some cases third) versions of each assessment. With all of those students making “C-” or better on each formative assessment, how could they possibly struggle on the unit test? That was the perception.

50% of the students scored under 50% on the summative assessment. That was the reality.

Now, I am not an alarmist. I understand that one struggling class in one unit doesn’t discredit an entire education theory. But it sure was perplexing. I’ve never seen a test where, after 8 weeks of instruction on a single unit (Unit 4 from Geometry), half of an entire class unable to successfully complete even half of the unit test.

And when you consider that this class was the one class I had put the most effort into defeating just that kind of struggling, well it seems like the intersection of my perception and the reality wasn’t nearly big enough. I just got a better view.

And I’m having a hard time making sense of what I’m seeing.

Feeding The Elephant in the Room

I am going to ramble a bit in this piece, but as you read, keep a specific thought in your mind:

When our students have graduated high school, we will know we educators have done our job because _____________________.

Now, onto the ramble:

So, a lot gets said about the struggles of American secondary education. Recently, Dr. Laurence Steinberg took his turn in Slate coming right out in the title and calling high schools “disasters”. Which, as you can imagine, got some responses from the educational community.

Go ahead and give the article a read. I’ll admit that education is not known as the most provocative topic in the American mainstream, but Dr. Steinberg has written a piece that has been shared on Facebook a few thousand times and on twitter a few hundred more. It’s instigated some thoughtful blog responses. You have to respect his formula.

He starts with a nice mini Obama dig.

Makes a nice bold statement early (“American high schools, in particular, are a disaster.”)

Offers a “little-known” study early to establish a little authority.

Then hits the boring note and hits it hard. High school is boring. Lower level students feel like they don’t belong. Advanced students feel unchallenged. American schools is more boring than most other countries’ schools.

Then he goes on to discredit a variety of things education has tried to do over the last 50 (or so) years including: NCLB, Vouchers, Charters, Increased funding, lowering student-to-teacher ratio, lengthening the school day, lengthening the school year, pushing for college-readiness. I mean, with that list, there’s something for everyone

Like it or hate it, that is an article that is going to get read.

However, there isn’t a lot in the way of tangible solutions. The closest Dr. Steinberg comes is in this passage: ” Research on the determinants of success in adolescence and beyond has come to a similar conclusion: If we want our teenagers to thrive, we need to help them develop the non-cognitive traits it takes to complete a college degree—traits like determination, self-control, and grit. This means classes that really challenge students to work hard…”

Nothin’ to it, right? It’s as easy as making our students “grittier”.

Now, I will repeat the introductory thought: When our students have graduated high school, we will know we educators have done our job because _____________________.

That blank gets filled in a variety of ways from the area of employability, or social responsibility, or liberation and freedom, or social justice to a variety of other thises and thats that we use our high schools for. We are using our high schools as the training ground for the elimination of a wide variety of undesirable social things. We’ve used our schools to eliminate obesity, teen pregnancy and STIs, discrimination based on race, gender, or alternative lifestyles. We have allowed colleges to push college-readiness to make their job easier. We’ve allowed employers to push employability to make their jobs easier. The tech industry feels like we need more STEM. There’s a push-back from folks like Sir Ken Robinson who feel like it’s dangerous to disregard the arts.

And they all have valid points. I’m certainly not mocking or belittling any of those ideas.

However, very little is getting said on behalf of the school. We are treating the school as a transparent entity with none of its own roles and responsibilities. It is simply the clay that gets molded into whatever society decides it should be. Well, since the 60’s, society has had a darned hard time making up its mind about what it wants and so the school has become battered and bruised with all the different initiatives and plans, data sets, and reform operations. Reform is an interesting idea when the school hasn’t ever formally been formed in the first place.

So, we have this social institution that we send 100% of our teenagers to in some form or another and we don’t know what the heck its for. No wonder, as Dr. Steinberg puts it, “In America, high school is for socializing. It’s a convenient gathering place, where the really important activities are interrupted by all those annoying classes. For all but the very best American students—the ones in AP classes bound for the nation’s most selective colleges and universities—high school is tedious and unchallenging.”

Public enemy #1 needs to be the utter and complete lack of purpose in the high school system. We are running our young people through exercises… why? For what? What do we hope to have happen at the end? When we decide the answer to that question, then we eliminate the rest. It isn’t lazy to say, “I’m not doing that, because that isn’t my job.” It’s efficient. If you start doing the work of others, you stop doing your work as well.

We’ve never agreed on the work of the American high school, but I suspect some of what we are asking it to do should belong on the shoulders of something or someone else. I suspect as soon as we establish a purpose and simplify the operations around that purpose, we can start to see some progress on the goals that we have for our schools, which will spell success for our students and start to clean up the disaster that so many feel like the high schools currently are.

The Equity of Extra-Curricular Education

It goes without saying that the role of the educational communities extends beyond the final bell of the school day. In most communities where I’m from, schools provide a variety of extra-curricular activities that are athletic, artistic and academic in nature. In general, most of these clubs are small and get very little publicity for their efforts.

Equity isn’t an issue in many of these clubs and activities because boys and girls can participate together. Clubs and activities like robotics, art club, drama, quiz bowl, for example, typically don’t deal with equity issues (at least not based on gender) because the main factors of inclusion tend to be interest, ability, and availability.

However, there is one huge area of extra-curricular activities where gender segregation is standard operating procedure: athletics. Within this realm, there are male sports (e.g., football, wrestling, baseball) and female sports (e.g., volleyball, softball). There’s sports where both genders can play, but they each have their own teams (e.g., soccer, basketball, golf, lacrosse). There’s also sports where technically the teams compete separately, but typically schedule, practice and travel as if the teams are co-ed (e.g., cross country, track and field, bowling).

Just so we are all on the same page, I’m going to state the obvious: institutional segregation of any kind is asking for some extra scrutiny. That does not mean the segregation is wrong or harmful, but it does mean that we need to be sure that the methods, reasons, and relationships between the segregated groups are arranged deliberately and equitably.

An article written by Graham Couch appeared in my local paper on May 27, 2013, that addressed this issue of gender equality in dealing with extra-curriculars.

As I stated before, almost all extra-curricular clubs and groups are low-publicity groups whose non-participant supporters tend to be parents of the participants. In mid-Michigan, there’s a small handful of exceptions to this. Fine arts clubs (theatre, choir, art, band and orchestra) tend to draw big crowds and certain athletic events: typically basketball and football. These events are advertised in the newspapers, they have billboards, news reporters are on-site during events along with lot of spectators.

To add an additional level of complexity to this, money is involved in a few of these. Big ticket fine arts events are normally free for spectators (theatre being the exception, and if you include the marching band performances at halftime of the football games). Schools also charge admission for big ticket sporting events like football and basketball.

The issue of money isn’t a small issue. Theatre departments can be expensive clubs. Continuing the program is dependent on filling the auditorium with paying spectators for every performance. Also, most schools depend quite heavily on revenue from football and basketball games to balance their athletic budgets. So, it would make a ton of sense to schedule these events carefully to maximize their attendance. Football owns Friday nights in the fall.  Theatre performances tend to be multi-day weekend events. Thursday-Saturday in the evenings and a Sunday matinee. No gender equity issues, right?

What about basketball? Both boys and girls play it. In Michigan communities, boys basketball is typically much more popular to spectators than girls basketball. That is, it draws bigger crowds. That is, it makes more money. So, schools have worked hard to keep varsity boys basketball games on Friday evenings to maximize admissions revenue. Seems reasonable… right?

Well, there’s a civil right complaint going through the Michigan Department of Education right now that’s forcing us to deal with that issue.

From the article: “There is no perfect way to schedule girls high school basketball. There never really was and there might never be. It’s a matter of meshing equality with what’s best for student-athletes and what’s accepted by communities. And those three ideals, most places, don’t work in concert.”

Things we’ve tried in Michigan:

  • Girls’ basketball season to be played in the fall to avoid direct conflict. Courts ruled in several years ago that fall scheduling was an unnecessary detriment to female athletes getting recruited to play at the college level as most of the recruiting work was done in the winter.
  • Girls’ being played on different days. But this added bus trips and made scheduling within conferences more complex. Especially considering that the gyms in most schools are also being used in the winter for volleyball and wrestling. Plus each basketball program has at least a junior varsity team, and many have freshman teams.
  • Replacing the typically slot for JV boys (right before the varsity boys) with varsity girls on Friday nights. But, as Couch puts it: “The argument against that schedule, however, is the girls game feels like a JV game.”
  • So, we’ve tried alternating the schedules, putting boys varsity games first followed by girls’ games. But, as Couch puts it: “When the girls play second… many fans leave as they’re warming up or beginning play. And the athletes notice.” He continues: “Is it equitable to have your fan base walk out on your girls game on a Friday night?” Fulton AD and CMAC president Chad Podolak said. “Maybe it is, because you’re playing on a Friday night, but the girls I’ve talked to just feel terrible about it.”
  • How about both varsity teams play the same nights, but at opposite locations. So, the same two schools are competing just one school hosts the girls games and one school hosts the boys game. Well, as Couch puts it: “And, if the teams are instead separated — one on the road, one at home — the fan base is split, but not equally.”

So, it there seems an equity issue. But, I am concerned that this might be bigger than high school sports.

Consider that Michigan is a fantastic sports state. The fans are enthusiastic and loyal. Michigan supports six major programs (Red Wings, Lions, Tigers, Pistons, Spartans, and Wolverines). Not all of these teams are good all the time. In fact, the Lions are almost always frustratingly poor. The Pistons have been one of the worst teams in the NBA the last three or four years. The Tigers have gone through several stretches where they have struggled mightily (although right now, that is not the case). There has never been any talk of these teams leaving Detroit. You never hear that. Ever.

The Detroit Shock were a WNBA team that started in 1998. In the first twelve seasons, all they did was make the playoffs 8 times, the finals 4 times and won three WNBA championships. (If the Lions supported those winning percentages over their existence, they’d have won 11 super bowls by now.) In 2009, The Shock franchise moved their team to Tulsa, hoping for more enthusiastic support from its local fan base.

From Couch: “The issue, and often proverbial elephant in the room, comes down to this: Basketball is the only spectator sport in which girls and boys go head-to-head, in high school or college. And it’s a sport built around height and athleticism, one where the physical differences in genders are pronounced.”

So, here’s my question: To what degree is it the individual high school athletic departments responsibility to help solve this social preference? The athletic departments, conferences and schedule-makers are contorting themselves to no end to try to balance out a social imbalance that seems to exist beyond the scope of the school. Do we really think that schools are responsible for causing the issue?

And before we explore the issue of schools having the responsibility to solve this problem, let’s first discuss is local school districts have the ability to solve this problem?

Let’s get back to what extra-curricular activities of all sorts are designed to do: give young people an additional way to be engaged by the school curriculum to support the overall educational experience for their 13-run from kindergarten to graduation.

Does forcing girls’ basketball to bear the civil rights burden in a way that the girls bowling team doesn’t make it a better educationally-supportive activity for the students? Are the schools (whose lack of adequate funding is always used as a political tool) at fault for trying to maximize their revenue? At what point are the schools simply called upon to create equality of opportunity and the community is on it’s own to respond? Do these problems all go away if we outlaw charging admission at games? Might the loss of revenue make the sports go away, too?

I don’t know. And it seems that I’m not the only one asking these questions.

From Couch: “The question is, at what age or level do these realities matter? When does it stop being strictly about educational opportunity and begin to morph into spectator-driven sport?”

What’s the Opposite of Success?

I want to explore two very important questions: How? and Why?

These questions tend are at the heart of the talk over how to “reform” America’s schools. Everyone from Sir Ken Robinson and Dan Carlin to Sal Khan and President Obama has an ideas. Some I agree with (the first two), some I’m not completely sold on (the last two). Either way, they all agree on this: something’s wrong and we need to fix it.

How do we go about fixing things? Bush’s No Child Left Behind, with it’s younger brother Race to the Top has something of a logical plan for creating success. Except that is isn’t really working very well. When it doesn’t work, then you have to move past the why-it-should-work-explanations and move toward a new set of discoveries.

What if there was a place where education is working well and we could explore HOW the system works. We can deal with WHY later. We have theorists and researchers who love to publish papers. They can work on the WHY. I am a practitioner. I am entertained and engaged by the WHY question, but find the answer to the HOW question more fulfilling.

One place has found success by doing the following things:

  • Narrative grades only until Grade 5
  • After that, teachers stress grade “as little as possible”
  • Not comparing schools or students by standardized testing
  • Teacher training programs resulting in each teacher having a master’s degree with the expectation that they will be “experts of their own work.”
  • Allow high levels of teacher autonomy by not mandating curriculum from the top down
  • Highly emphasizing “soft skills” like analysis, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

By doing this, they’ve created a national school system that is among the very best in the world.

That place: Finland.

Now, before I get labeled a “Finn-o-phile,” I want to state up front that I have no particular affinity for the Finnish culture (although, full-disclosure, I am partially of Finnish descent). I am focusing on Finland’s system because it is working better than ours.

To explain, I am going to let two articles most of the heavy lifting on this one. One from the Globe and Mail out of Toronto and the other from The Huffington Post.

I want to isolate some quotes from these articles:

The First from the Globe and Mail:

One of the ways the Finnish education system accomplishes [its success] is by giving individual teachers greater autonomy in teaching to the needs of their classes, rather than a top-down, test-based system.

America is currently moving away from this model. You can think good things or bad things about the content of Common Core, but the message is clear: Across the country, we want everyone doing the same thing. The Finnish system does have a National Core Curriculum which are defined  as “the legal norm for educational institutions” (sincere thanks to Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) for fact-checking me on that) although discussions of assessment are much different than those of NCLB(which mandate statewide testing) and instead focus on assements “guiding and motivating” students as well as developing “their abilities in self-assessment.” (Quotes from the Finnish National Board of Education)

Also from the Globe and Mail:

The reality in Canada, which is unfortunate in Dr. Sahlberg’s view, is that students are rewarded for competing against their peers, teachers are held accountable by their class’s performance on exams, and schools are compared through widely published standardized test results. Finland takes an alternative approach.

The story is the same below the Canadian border as well. Standardized testing is THE evaluation tool for most schools and teachers. Real estate agents love it because it is so ingrained in our culture that parents will move into communities with good test scores because we’ve been conditioned to think that those are measures that tell the whole story. The Finnish system does the opposite.

Also from the Globe and Mail:

In addition to emphasizing collaborative work, Finnish schools have a different conception of knowledge than the traditional one. Teachers don’t think of knowledge as a cumulative store of objective information. “It is not primarily what individuals know or do not know, but more what are their skills in acquiring, utilizing, diffusing and creating knowledge that are important for economic progress and social change.”

Perhaps exposing a bit why standardized testing is avoided in Finland, these “soft” skills that are difficult to assess off a bubble sheet. According to Finnish National Board of Education, the National Core Curriculum includes options for on-the-job training with flexible assessments in which student can earn credits through “set of work assignments, a written paper, report, project assignment, product or equivalent” completed “performed individually, in a group or as a more extensive project.” American policy-makers are starting to appreciate these skills. Indeed, have you read about the Smarter Balanced Assessment? Leave it to us Americans to try to find a way to create such a standardized test.

From the Huffington Post (quoting Finland’s Minister of Education, Ms. Henna Virkkunen)

Our students spend less time in class than students in other OECD countries. We don’t think it helps students learn if they spend seven hours per day at school because they also need time for hobbies…

We seem to think that if students are struggling, they need more time in school. The Finnish system does the opposite.

So, let’s recap: Less time in school. Less testing. Less competition. More success. Could you imagine an American Politician standing on that platform?

The Finns have produced a system based on trust. They trust the teachers, they trust the local districts, they trust the students. The American system is based on a lack of trust. We call it accountability. We mandate curriculum because we don’t trust local districts. We over-rely on standardized tests because we don’t trust the teachers. We want longer school days because we don’t trust the students.

There is a nation that is excelling at education. They are, in many ways, doing the exact opposite of the things that we are doing. We, who are eagerly seeking to improve our system, are putting our hopes in standardized testing and state and federal manipulation of school districts through funding incentives. Perhaps it’s too early to state boldly that American reform efforts will fail, but we can say boldly that there are places where real excellence is happening and those people are moving in the opposite direction.

We could spend weeks arguing/discussing/explaining about WHY the Finnish system works. Don’t get me wrong, that is important. But, what matters most to me is this: It works. We could be doing what they do. We’re not… and it appears we won’t be for the foreseeable future.