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What Have We Learned So Far?

During the abrupt switch to online school last spring, everyone learned a great deal. Most of it, however, was not in any formal curriculum.

Here are a few lessons I hope we retain going into the new school year and beyond.

For one thing, I’m pretty sure that most teachers, students, administrators, and parents learned pretty quickly that online schooling is not as easy as it looks. And that people are far more important to the process than is the technology being used.

Teaching And Learning Are Not The Same Thing

Seth Godin is a popular writer and speaker, well known for his work around marketing and organization. He also occasionally offers ideas around education.1 Probably his best known work in that area is the extended essay Stop Stealing Dreams and the TEDx talk on which it is based.2

In addition to writing a daily blog, Godin also does a weekly podcast called Akimbo, and in a recent episode he offered some thoughts about the educational establishment related to the recent college entrance cheating scandal that featured a few members of the rich and semi-famous.3

At the opening of the podcast, he makes this observation: 

Management and leadership are not the same thing.

Management is done with power and authority, compelling others to do what we need them to do, when we need them to do it. Leadership, on the other hand, always involves voluntary compliance. It always involves people eagerly following the leader.

And the same dichotomy is true about learning and education.

Education is often done to us, it is mandatory, people show up and say “you will learn this and there will be a test”.

That’s different from learning. Learning is a process we choose to go through.

That idea of learning not being the same as education is one that has been stuck in my head for many years. And it’s not much of a stretch to modify Godin’s statement into this corollary: learning is not the same as teaching.

Teaching, at least in it’s popular interpretation, is also something done to students. Ask someone who’s not part of the profession what a “teacher” does and you’ll probably get a lot of verbs related to the transfer of information from an adult to kids. Someone who lectures, gives tests, and in general runs a space called “classroom”.

Learning, on the other hand, may or may not occur as the result of teaching. In a formal school setting, students are usually offered some incentive to retain certain information and skills for a relatively short period of time, although much of that is likely to disappear over the longer term. Maybe even between the spring tests and the beginning of the new school year.

Over a long career in and around public schools, I’ve heard more than a few colleagues say something to the effect of “I taught them, they just didn’t learn it” about their students.

This also ties back to some previous rants about personalized learning. Those systems seem to be more about teaching – the transmission of information to the subject for them to retain at least long enough to pass an assessment – than about learning. The goal of the artificially intelligent algorithms embedded in the software is to adapt the flow of data to the student’s ability to respond to it.

Is that “learning”? Maybe it’s one definition. Certainly it’s a process that produces a statistical score for classifying the learner.

In the end, however, genuine learning really only involves interests and topics that have some personal meaning or consequence for the learner. And that’s equally true for a high school freshman as it is for an adult of any age.

So, why do we persist in “teaching” instead of enabling “learning”?


The image at the top is, of course, a classic cartoon from Gary Larson’s Far Side. I’m very likely violating copyright by using it, which is why I’m embedding it from someone else’s copyright violation. :-)

1. Don’t hold me to this, but I think I read somewhere that one or both of his parents were teachers. Which doesn’t make anyone an education “expert” but can add to their understanding of the profession from that particular time.

2. The talk is worth your time to watch. In the essay, I think he misses the mark as often as he hits it but his ideas about the American educational structure are still interesting.

3. And lost me in the process, as he sometimes does with other Akimbo episodes. Overall, however, I look forward to his weekly audio essays.

Tech Will Not Personalize Learning

student_ipad_school - 124

At the moment, one of the hot education terms is “personalized learning”. It sounds pretty good, maybe something that we should be doing in schools. As opposed to all that unpersonalized learning currently happening in classrooms.

The problem is that no one is clear about what “personalized” learning really is, a point clearly illustrated by a writer in The New Yorker1 who says the concept is messy.

Danusis [principal at the school profiled in the first part of the article] and her teaching staff practice personalized learning, an individual-comes-first approach, usually aided by laptops, that has become a reformist calling card in education.

Personalized learning argues that the entrepreneurial nature of the knowledge economy and the gaping need, diversity, and unmanageable size of a typical public-school classroom are ill-served by the usual arrangement of a teacher lecturing at a blackboard.

Advocates of personalized learning say that the approach has been unfairly conflated with teacherless, online-only education. They invoke Dewey and Freire and Montessori as guiding lights and take pains to emphasize, in almost liturgical unison, that personalized learning is not about tech—and that “tech is just a tool.”

No, it’s not about the tech. Which is interesting since much of the push for personalized learning is coming from edtech companies. Walk the vendor floor at ISTE or any of the other over-sized tech conferences and count the number products that promise to personalize learning for your kids.

Anyway, two other parts of the personalized learning hype that should raise concerns comes from it’s intersections with the charter business and the usual cast of tech billionaires who believe their software is the magic key to fixing schools.

Charter schools are the bluntest incarnation of education reform and have long enjoyed bipartisan support. Last year’s wave of teachers’ strikes, though, popularized the critique that charters divert funding from traditional public schools and undercut union standards. Personalized learning, meanwhile, is as ascendant a reform as ever, boosted by many of the same philanthropic entities that have promoted charters: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Intermediary funders and education-policy groups that depend on their grant dollars—including iNACOL, Excel in Ed, the Learning Accelerator, Big Picture Learning, and Jobs for the Future—have, in turn, made personalized learning a priority. Karla Phillips, a policy director at Excel in Ed, told me that both personalized learning and charter schools have “flexibility” as their aim.

Personalized learning systems have been adopted by many of the major charter companies as a way to reduce the number of teachers needed, often in the name of making them more “productive”, as well as flexible. Many of the Rhode Island schools visited by the writer were using personalization systems from Summit Learning, developed, in part, by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

None of those somewhat suspicious connections would matter if personalized learning actually “worked”. So, where’s the evidence?

Yet the academic and policy research behind it is thin. A few local pilot programs have been shown to slightly improve test scores and teacher satisfaction, but a 2017 study by RAND, commissioned by the Gates Foundation to study forty Gates-funded schools, reads like a shrug. “Although advocates and reformers have developed PL models,” the RAND authors observed, “many of the component practices are relatively common nationally, making it difficult to clearly identify what makes a school a PL school.”

Of course, this study (and the vast major of other education research) assumes that student scores on standardized tests is a valid measure of “learning”. And that the tests themselves are valid.

And that highlights one of the major problems with “personalized” learning systems.

The question of what kids should be learning in K12 should be the starting point. Instead developers at the tech companies like Summit, along with the school administrators who sign the contracts to buy their products, assume that the curriculum and assessments already in place are credible and will best serve student needs.

That hardware and software by itself will transform learning.


Image by Brad Flickinger, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Trying to access the article can be a little messy in itself since the website really, REALLY wants you to register. I recommend saving it to a read-later service (like Instapaper), which makes it much easier to read.

2. The writer includes a disclaimer noting that the Gates and Hewlett Foundations and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are among the many funders of The Hechinger Report which partnered on this story.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Ignorance

Everyone is ignorant. At some point in our lives, and about some, probably many, subjects.

Learning is about reducing that ignorance. It’s why we have schools and teachers and mentors and books.

And if we are not interested in learning about a particular topic, that’s ok too.

The problem comes when we form an opinion on a particular topic while still largely ignorant about that topic.

It gets even worse when someone is in a position to make public policy decisions around that topic while still largely ignorant about it.

This is why we have experts. Traditionally, society asks select people who have studied a subject in depth to then explain it to the rest of us. We trust them to be complete and accurate. We have to.

For example, I certainly have never studied climate science. I took some 101-type science classes in high school and college. But my basic understanding of how climate works is based on reading works by scientists (more often, science explainers) who know much more than I do.

As a result, I rely on the fact that the work of an overwhelming number of experts in this field say climate change is happening, it will be a serious threat to the world, and there are things that can be done to at least slow it down.

However, at the moment our country is being led by people who are ignorant of basic scientific principles. Who express a mistrust for scientists, reject their expertise, and make policy based instead on “common sense” and “gut feelings”.1

And it doesn’t stop with climate science.

The political party currently in control of the US government is built around the economic “faith” that cutting taxes for the rich will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Despite a half century or more of evidence to the contrary. Their leaders also propose legislation based on dubious claims about immigration, public education, poverty, voter fraud, and more with little or no supporting data.

Now, I have no issue with people holding their own private misunderstanding of the world and accepting all kinds of conspiracies. Those who think the world is flat can talk to each other all they like. If you want to believe aliens built the pyramids, so be it.

But personal ignorance is one thing. Turning that ignorance into public policy harms everyone, even the ignorant.

November 6, two weeks from today, is your next opportunity to push back against ignorance.

Removing legislators, at all levels, who want to make laws based on their personal ignorance is one of the best reasons I can think of to vote.

Do it!


Image: a sign at the March for Science, Melbourne, Australia, April 22, 2017. Photograph by John Englart, linked from Wikipedia Commons, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Which is possibly me being generous in ascribing their motives. It could be simple fear of change or complex greed.

What is “Ed” Tech?

Roomba hack: Spirograph!

For one teacher, edtech included a Roomba.

It turns out the disc-shaped vacuum cleaner, which uses sensors to autonomously zip around homes is also a great tool to teach students about robotics and empathy.

Yung’s students learned all about how the Roomba moves, behaves and how it works. Then they set off to dream up and draw their own robots that could help people in the real world like a robot that gives you a blanket when you sleep.

Ok, I can see building a lesson around understanding how a robotic vacuum works.

But does that make the device educational technology?

Not necessarily.

Let’s face it, “edtech” is a very broad term and a wide variety of hardware, software and services have been tossed into that basket. So maybe we need to be a little more specific.

I don’t expect this to catch on, but I see at least two subcategories: teaching technology and learning technology.

That robot is learning technology only if kids are the ones using it. They should be playing with it, experimenting,  programming it. Maybe even taking the device apart and changing it’s function, like the picture above.

Technology under the control and direction of adults is teaching technology. Stuff like Google Classroom, FlipGrid, interactive whiteboards, most of the hot new stuff in your Twitter feed.

And that’s not a bad thing. Only that we need to make a distinction between technology that is used by teachers as part of their instruction and tech that is used by students as part of their learning.

They are not necessarily the same. Certainly not of equal value.

Just something to think about.


Image: Roomba hack: spirograph! by squidish on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

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