The Amplification of Learning

Sunday’s New York Times magazine (the education issue) features a long article about tablets in schools, beginning in a North Carolina district that is in the process of deploying their devices to every student and teacher in their 24 middle schools. 

Actually, that’s not accurate. This story really is not about “tablets” or how new technologies impact learning, or even about education. It’s a long, high profile ad for Amplify, a division of Rupert Murdock’s global media conglomerate News Corp, and their all-in-one “solution” for fixing American education.

The entire article has so many flaws, misconceptions and errors that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with the philosophy of the company as laid out by the CEO Joel Kline, former chancellor of the New York City schools, who, of course, believes that “K-12 isn’t working”. Kline also says that education is “ripe for disruption”, a phrase used by many other business people looking for a way to profit from public schools.

However, the model his company is pushing is anything but disruptive. Beyond tablets, Amplify is selling a fixed curriculum (aligned to Common Core, of course), delivered at a predetermined pace, adjusted slightly based on how well students do on their highly structured feedback system, also being sold.

Rather than stimulating major changes, Amplify’s approach to learning sets in concrete the traditional school model of the past hundred years. Except that now their tablet is the all-knowing dispenser of information. The teacher in this model becomes a combination data manager and tutor.

The writer does pose one non-softball question to Kline about “what evidence supports spending tax dollars on educational technology”, one that we should be asking more often. Unfortunately, his unchallenged response doesn’t even rise to the level of lame.

… he boiled it down to three things. First and most important was the power of “customizing.” Plenty of research does indeed show that an individual student will learn more if you can tailor the curriculum to match her learning style, pace and interests; the tablet, he said, will help teachers do that. Second, educators have not taken full advantage of students’ enthusiasm for the gadgetry that constitutes “an important part of their experience.” Lastly, teachers feel overwhelmed; they “need tools,” Klein said, to meet ever-increasing demands to show that their students are making progress.

Yes, we could improve learning by better incorporating student interests and their styles but that’s not what the Amplify system is doing. And teachers are overwhelmed by lack of “tools” but instead by the ever-increasing demand to generate “data”, not to mention the constant chant by Kline and his reformer pals about how teachers are the root of all that’s wrong with schools. The part about “enthusiasm for gadgetry” is too stupid to waste time responding.

That part about tailoring K12 education to the student brings up another critical piece missing in the development of this tablet and the material being sold for it: the students themselves. Certainly Amplify is doing focus group testing (complete with the requisite junk food) on how their software works, but that’s not the same as actually working with kids to incorporate topics they want to explore and how they best learn. Of course, our standard school curriculum and process is almost entirely adult driven anyway, so this is another example of how Kline’s “disruption” really isn’t.

Scattered throughout the Times piece, the writer brings up her very valid concerns, and those of others, about students spending too much time in front of screens and not enough interacting with others or the world at large. What she doesn’t address is the quality and purpose of that time.

Amplify’s tablets and software are heavily focused on the one-way transmission of information, with student input coming at specified points in the process. That’s far different from students using devices as a tool for a project or activity. Creating a video, recording audio of their thoughts, assembling a storybook, all very different from rote responses to a pre-programmed lesson delivered on a tablet.

Finally, after thousands of words, and far more crap than anyone should have to suffer through, the writer finally arrives at an important point she should have made far earlier in the story: teaching is all about people and relationships.

Still, if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool.

Are our overwhelmed, besieged, haphazardly recruited, variably trained, underpaid, not-so-elite teachers, in fact, the potential weak link in Amplify’s bid to disrupt American schooling? Klein said that we have 3.5 million elementary- and middle-school teachers. “We have to put the work of the most brilliant people in their hands,” he said. “If we don’t empower them, it won’t work.” Behind the talking points and buzz words, what I heard him saying was Yes.

Bottom line, if we’re not going to invest in people – teachers, kids and families – no amount of technology is going to disrupt, or improve, American education.

That Word Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

In a recent column, the Public Editor for the New York Times asks “Are Blogs Outdated?”

There’s just one big problem with both her question and the explanation offered by the managing editor.

“We are rethinking blogs – actually, we’re always rethinking them,” he said.

He suggested that the golden age of blogs at The Times may be over: “Blogs proliferated early on because they were seen as a way for desks and subjects to get into the Web game. They taught us a different way of writing and thinking, created a way to move fast on coverage. But I’d argue that as we’ve matured, the sections themselves now act like blogs.”

I’d argue that the Times doesn’t understand the concept of blogs.

Newspaper “blogs” were never really blogs in the first place. The posts may be published in the same reverse chronological format, have the same appearance, and are frequently updated. But they are not blogs.

What news media sites call blogging is nothing different from standard, editor-approved newspaper articles and columns that are published in pixels rather than on paper.

Ok, so that’s just my opinion. But that’s the point. I get to write about what I want, offer my own views, act as my own editor (and censor), and don’t have to worry about whether the material will drive traffic to advertisers.

That’s what I mean when I use the term “blog”.

Interpreting the Data

This past week the owner of the Tesla electric car company got into a fight with a reporter for the New York Times over a somewhat negative article about his road test of the vehicle. To prove his point that the reporter had not conducted a fair test, the owner released all the telemetry data the car had collected during the trip.

Which might have been the end of things except that a writer for the Atlantic looked at the same data and came up with a different interpretation. And the Times own public editor weighed in with analysis looking at both sides and not necessarily supporting either of them.

Although I saw a little of this story pass by in my info stream, the larger point of all this didn’t really register until reading David Weinberger’s post yesterday.

But the data are not going to settle the hash. In fact, we already have the relevant numbers (er, probably) and yet we’re still arguing. Musk [Tesla owner] produced the numbers thinking that they’d bring us to accept his account. Greenfield [the Atlantic reporter] went through those numbers and gave us a different account. The commenters on Greenfield’s post are arguing yet more, sometimes casting new light on what the data mean. We’re not even close to done with this, because it turns out that facts mean less than we’d thought and do a far worse job of settling matters than we’d hoped.

Electronic data tracking on a car – where it went, how fast it got there – yields very straightforward numbers and, in this case, still produces different interpretations of the meaning of that information.

Now I’m sure the Tesla is a very complex piece of technology. But it’s not nearly as complicated as understanding and managing the growth and learning processes of a human being, especially kids in K12 schools.

However, using much less precise measuring systems than those in the car, we collect far fewer data points on each student here in the overly-large school district during each year.

We then accept those numbers as a complete and accurate representation of what a student has learned and where they need to go. That very narrow information stream also leads to even more narrow judgements on schools (success/failure) and now we’re starting to use the same flawed data to assess the quality of teachers.

In his post, Weinberger is celebrating the open and public way in which the dispute between Tesla and the Times is being played out, with many different parties lending their voice to the discussion of how to interpret the data.

How often do we ask even the subjects of our testing to analyze the data we’ve gathered from them? Why are then not included in the development of the assessment instruments? When do we include at least a few of the thousands of other factors that affect student learning in our interpretations?

I’ve ranted before in this space about the increasing amount of resources being poured into data collection and analysis here in the overly-large school district (and elsewhere). But it’s the absolutist approach to the analysis of those numbers that may be an even larger disservice to our students than wasting their time.

Recovering From Failure

The New York Times Learning Network blog has an interesting lesson on the topic of failure, with some good examples from sports, business, the arts and other fields.

It also asks students to consider some interesting questions about failure in their own lives and those of people they know.

Can failure be useful? Can you think of examples, from your own life or someone else’s, when it has led to something positive?

How is failure defined and dealt with in your family, your school, the activities you do outside of school, among your friends and in your community? Which of those definitions and responses to failure seem fairest or best to you? Why?

What can be done to avoid failure? Should people try to avoid it?

What is “failure” and what is “success”? Who decides?

Missing, however, is any real consideration of failure as it applies to school. What happens if you fail the midterm in English 7? What recovery options do you have for getting a bad score on the SOLs?* Suppose you get a 1 on an AP test?

We really don’t deal well with the concept of failure in school, especially in helping students learn from it and discovering options for recovery. Maybe in sports, possibly the arts or other “non-academic” contests. But for most kids, failing a class or a grade means they will repeat it.

But the most likely scenario is that they get to cover the same content, often using the same materials and teaching techniques, often in the compressed time frame of summer school. And usually with only slightly better results, not anything we might call “success”.

Doing the same thing in the same way hoping for different results.

Is that how people recover from failure in real life?


*For those outside of Virginia, that’s the acronym for our spring standardized tests.

We Need Something More Than “Heroes”

As we approach yet another national holiday that the media will imbue with a military undertone, an “essayist and critic” writing in the New York Times asks if “heroes” in various styles of uniforms are really what the country needs at this point in our history.

“America needs heroes,” it is sometimes said, a phrase that’s often uttered in a wistful tone, almost cooingly, as if we were talking about a lonely child. But do we really “need heroes”? We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead. The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters, he argues, embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators. What we really need, in other words, is a swift kick in the pants.

That’s the last paragraph. The whole piece is well worth your time to read.

This is all part of our national tendency to spend far more time and effort memorializing the past than we do in planning for and constructing the future.