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A Decade Of Khan

Khan Academy in Space

If you have been involved with education during the past decade, you certainly have encountered Khan Academy. Maybe you even used their free training videos in your classes or even with your own children.

Sal Khan, who created the channel in 2006 and made it his full-time job three years later, tells EdSurge about “Three Things We Learned at Khan Academy Over the Last Decade”.

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Playful Assessment

Media Lab Main Room 2

Returning to the general maker topic, when you bring that whole concept into school, how do you assess the work students do for a project? Because we know that anything done in the classroom must be assessed.

That’s one of the questions researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Playful Journey Lab1 wanted to answer.

Advocates of maker education have a lot of student success stories to share but not a lot of data. Measurable results could help convince cautious administrators and skeptical parents that kids should spend more time on open-ended, creative pursuits rather than reading more books or memorizing the formulas and facts that burnish grade-point averages and standardized test scores. Plus, evidence-based assessments could improve the overall quality of project-based learning by helping educators tailor projects to specific skills and vet a lesson’s overall effectiveness.

In order to address that lack of measurable results, researchers created what they call “playful assessment” tools and worked with a few teachers in two different schools to see how they might work.

The term describes gamelike measures of knowledge and abilities, and also the tracking of skill development in playful learning activities, which was piloted over the past year by middle-school teachers at Corte Madera and the Community Public Charter School in Charlottesville, also known as Community Middle. The goal is to blend mini-evaluations into learning activities, collecting evidence about student choices and behaviors throughout the process, rather than focusing on just the final result.

According to the writer of this article, the tools were largely successful at one school but not so much at the other. The reason was not the difference in students or teachers, but in the overall cultures of the schools.

MIT’s assessment tools were a great fit at Community Middle, which is an experimental lab school and already steeped in interdisciplinary, project-based learning. But most schools are more like Corte Madera — governed by schedules, academic standards, report cards and other ties to traditional measures of student achievement — and there, the pilot was a mix of triumph and struggle.

Plus lots of pushback from parents who believed teachers were abandoning instruction in the traditional areas of reading and writing.

However, nothing in this story is surprising. We hear educators and political leaders talk about transforming school using the maker concept, along with its cousins STEM/STEAM, coding, PBL, and others, but few are willing to make the necessary changes to the traditional structure.

Maker in most schools is usually done in a “space” – outside both the classroom and “regular” work. Students work on maker projects during lunch, participate in pull-out programs, are given the time as a reward for completing their academic tasks early, or drop in after school hours.

All of those “open ended, creative pursuits” are not included in the standard curriculum, are not officially assessed (playfully or otherwise), and are not an integral part of the school culture. Reading more books, memorizing formulas, and passing tests are still the most important part of students’ time during their work day.

But I’m just not sure our society really wants an educational system built around playful assessments. Where classrooms look very different from what we saw. Spaces where students have some autonomy to work on projects of their own choosing. And learning cannot be described using those “traditional measures of student achievement”.

The kids may be ready, but most adults, including their teachers and parents, are not.


The picture shows the main room at the MIT Media Lab when I visited about ten years ago. For me, that’s what a classroom should look like: lots of open space with flexible work areas and plenty of toys. Especially for high schools, most of which still expect students to sit still and listen for anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes at a stretch.

1. Let’s face it, MIT has the coolest names in all of academia. By far!

What If There’s No “Fix” For Schools?

Breakdown

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post asks in the headline “Can we fix the schools?”. Followed by the parenthetical answer “Maybe not”.

The writer, whose focus for the paper is economics, is trying to make the case, based on a “major new study”, that the federal government should let “states and localities see whether they can make schools work better”.

Fair enough. I suppose he may have a point. However, it’s his terminology, also used by many politicians and other education experts, that bothers me.

That idea of “fixing” schools.

“Fix” implies that we only need to make some adjustments to the system to get everything “working better”. Like a car that needs a tune up or new muffler. Or replacing the cracked screen on your smartphone.

Nobody takes their car into the shop for repair and questions the fundamental concept of the automobile. When getting a leak fixed, none of us ask the plumber to re-imagine the idea of indoor plumbing.

But maybe that’s exactly what we should be doing with the idea of school. Rather than trying to “fix” the system by creating new testing programs or abdicating the responsibility of public education to private companies.

The idea of “fixing” schools assumes that the basic structure created a century (or more) ago is still sound and remains valid for a very uncertain future.

It assumes that grouping kids by chronological age, presenting them with a stream of data divided into discrete topics, and using mass assessment tools to determine their understanding is still the best system for learning. (If it ever was.)

What if there is no “fix” for schools and we need to start over?


I shot the image above, of a man working under the hood of his classic Chevy, on the streets of Havana. From what we were told, the owners of those cars need to be very creative to keep them running.

It’s Closing Time

IMG 0826

This sign is in front of a local elementary school. The end of the academic year is June 15.

Which means the library is basically closed for the last two weeks of school.

Unless things have changed drastically in the two or so years since I left the overly-large school district, almost every student computer in the school has been used for testing this month. And the IT tech support people will likely begin collecting them for summer storage around the same time the library wants it’s books back.

Which means technology will largely also unavailable for instruction during the final six weeks of school.

Of course, there are plenty of other activities that don’t require computers or library books going on during the final two weeks of the school year.

But I wonder how much more learning would be possible if we didn’t “open” and “close” schools each year. If we treated learning as a continuous, open-ended process, rather than something with a fixed start and end.

Just a thought.

I’ve ranted about the waste, intellectual and monetary, inherent in the traditional academic calendar many times in this space. Feel free to let me know just how wrong I am.

Debating Charters, Intelligently

The concept of debate has been severely corrupted in the age of 24-hour talking head television. Boxing up two to six people on a TV screen and letting them yell opinions over each other for five minutes may make for higher ratings but it certainly doesn’t provide any context for whatever the topic is.

A more interesting approach is a public radio series called Intelligence Squared US (IQ2US), the American branch of a fifteen year old UK organization founded with the “goal of raising the level of public discourse” on important current issues. I’ve listened to a number of their programs over the years and most are a nice learning experience. More than a few found me yelling back at the speaker while driving.

The format uses what they call the “Oxford” style of debate1 in which two people on each side present their arguments for or against a specific resolution. The debate begins with each person in turn given a fixed amount of time to present their case. In part 2, the moderator and audience members get to ask questions and the participants can interact with each other, dealing only with information, not opinion. Finally each person gets a couple of minutes to present a closing argument.

Each debate does declare a winner, based on votes from the audience. Before starting, they vote for or against the resolution, or declare themselves undecided. The same vote is taken at the end. The winner is the team that has the largest percentage change to their side. The organization also takes pre and post votes on the website but it’s not clear if those numbers are included.

Last week I discovered that IQ2U events are being streamed on YouTube and I got the chance to actually watch the debate proceedings live. It’s very different from the podcast, which is only audio and obviously edited from a much longer discussion.

This particular debate (embedded below) was of particular interest since the resolution being address was “Charter Schools Are Overrated”.

I’m not going to try and summarize more than 90 minutes of discussion but I do have a few observations.

On the side opposed to the resolution was the founder of an organization that promotes school choice and a former Florida commissioner of education. They didn’t seem like they had spoken at all before coming on stage and were reciting their own list of talking points, with lots of anecdotes and very little evidence.

I thought the two college professors and researchers on the supporting side did a better job but also had some communications issues. Both brought plenty of data to the table but should have spent more time prior to the debate boiling it down to a few, very relevant points.

The moderator does get a little involved in the proceedings, while staying pretty neutral, and that’s a good thing. I liked that he challenged speakers on both sides to restrict their statements to evidence and not try to their opinion as fact. The people on the “news” channels could learn something.

Finally, there’s the proposal itself. As with many, even most, of the topics on this series, the statement is far too broad. It’s also not the most important issue when it comes to charter schools. We should be debating whether charters are a good format for the overall improvement of public education. But this was a good start.

Anyway, go watch the whole thing (I won’t spoil the ending by saying which side won), although you may want to do it in private. If you’re like me, you may feel like very vocally joining the debate.

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