Teachers vs. bad research, evidence-free fads

Tom Bennett’s new book, Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What it Claims, and What You Can Do about It, is the work of “one pissed off teacher,” writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

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Bennett, who’s taught in Britain for 10 years, feels cheated of the time he’s spent in training sessions urged to adopt some “evidence-free theory” and cheated of respect as “researchers with no classroom experience presume to tell him his job, and blame him (or his students) if their magic beans don’t grow a beanstalk.” Researchers are actively getting in his way, to the extent “their cockamamie ideas infect districts and schools,” Bennett believes.

Social sciences aspire to the precision of the “hard” sciences but are just “walking around in mother’s heels and pearls,” he charges.

His advice: “Researchers need to take a good long look in the mirror; media outlets need to be less gullible and  teachers should appear to comply with the district’s latest lunacy, but once the door closes stick to the basics.”

Willingham writes:

This section offers a merciless, overdue, and often funny skewering of speculative ideas in education: multiple intelligences, Brain Gym, group work, emotional intelligence, 21st century skills, technology in education, learning styles, learning through games. Bennett has a unerring eye for the two key problems in these fads: in some cases, the proposed “solutions” are pure theory, sprouting from bad (or absent) science (eg., learning styles, Brain Gym); others are perfectly sensible ideas transmogrified into terrible practice when people become too dogmatic about their application  (group learning, technology).

In addition, schools of education should raise their standards for education research, writes Willingham.

Another new book, The Anti-education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning by Arizona State Professor James Paul Gee is disappointing, writes Willingham. “There is very little solid advice here about how to change education.”

Future teachers

Digital learning will change teachers’ jobs, but we’ll still need teachers, writes Michael Horn in Forbes.

As blended learning grows in K–12 education, it is not eliminating teachers, but eliminating certain traditional job functions of teachers. This change in the role of the teacher is, as others and I have noted, in part about allowing computers to do what computers do well to free up teachers to do what only humans can do.

. . . It appears likely that there will be more room for teachers to focus on deeper learning by working with students on higher-order skills and the application of knowledge in rich projects. Teachers should spend less time handling mundane administrative tasks that suck up time and less time delivering one-size-fits-none lesson plans. Teachers will have far more time to work with students one-on-one and in small groups and target their interactions in more meaningful ways.

Many blended-learning schools are unbundling teachers’ roles, Horn writes.

Some teachers serve as content experts and others as mentors and learning coaches. Some focus on tutoring, whereas others specialize in small-group projects or on making the learning relevant to the outside world. Still others act as case workers or counselors (but actually spend the majority of their day in the learning environment with students) to focus on the non-academic problems—like food, health, or emotional issues—that too often trip up students (and sadly receive short shrift in many schools today).

Unbundling has enabled Rocketship Education to pay teachers more. At Summit Public Schools, a team of teachers works with students in a large learning environment.

How to blend great teaching, digital learning

Schools need a “better blend” of high-quality digital learning and excellent teaching, argues Public Impact in A Better Blend: A Vision for Boosting Student Outcomes with Digital Learning. Technology alone isn’t enough.

From cohorts to competency

Technology makes it much easier to personalize education through show what you know” promotion, concludes The Shift From Cohorts to Competency, a Digital Learning Network Smart Series paper.

The cohort model — children are grouped by age — moves on students who aren’t ready and holds back students who could excel, the authors write. “A competency-based system frees up students to learn at their own pace and according to their own needs,” said Carri Schneider, one of the authors. “Competency education is the ultimate path to personalization.”

The entrepreneurial learner

We can create “a global one-room schoolhouse through networks of imagination,” said John Seely Brown, co-chair of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and  former chief scientist at Xerox, in a speech on the “entrepreneurial learner” at the 2012 Digital Media and Learning conference in San Francisco.

Can digital learning transform education?

More than 2 million K-12 students are enrolled in online courses and that’s projected to hit 10 million by 2014. Can Digital Learning Transform Education? asks Education Next.

First, We Need a Brand New K-12 System, writes Chester Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Institute and editor of Education Reform for the Digital Era. 

“Local districts and their school boards want to control online learning, Finn writes.

Yet leaving districts and their boards in charge of digital instruction will retard innovation, entrepreneurship, collaboration, and smart competition. It will raise costs; undermine efficiency; block rich instructional options; restrict school choice and parental influence; and strengthen the hand of other interest groups, including but not limited to already too-powerful teachers unions.

Unions are “determined to prevent digital learning from shrinking their ranks or weakening their power bases.”

In California, for example, the state teachers union’s model contract requires that:  “No employee shall be displaced because of distance learning or other educational technology.”

. . . Elsewhere, unions have ensured that class-size limits nonsensically apply to online schools.

As Digital Learning Draws New Users, Transformation Will Occur, counters Michael Horn, executive director of education at the Innosight Institute.

. . . moving away from seat-time requirements toward a competency-based system, in which students advance upon mastery of a concept or skill, is critical to unleashing the full power of digital learning. But because today’s education system was modeled after a factory, time rather than learning is the primary unit of measure.

“Education regulations for the digital-learning world of tomorrow will almost certainly be implemented piecemeal,” Horn concludes. Online learning will be held to a higher standard at first.

Education Reform for the Digital Era

In Education Reform for the Digital Era, Fordham looks at “taking high-quality online and blended schools to scale — and to educational success.”

A learning revolution — or digital hype?

“The learning revolution is underway,” writes Tom Vander Ark in Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World.

“There is good reason for optimism,” but beware of Hyper Hype, responds Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.

. . . digital technology can customize learning and dismantle the old calendars and spaces of schooling. Extraordinary innovations have arrived—online curricula, learning games, customized play-lists—and they are ready for implementation across the land if only educators and public officials break with standard procedure and embrace them.

. . . Every few pages Vander Ark adds a bold prediction sidebar: “In five years…Information from keystroke data will unlock the new field of motivation research…,” “In five years…Most learning platforms will feature a smart recommendation engine, similar to iTunes Genius…,” and “In five years…Science will confirm the obvious about how most boys learn and active learning models will be developed in response using expeditions, playlists, and projects.”

In his enthusiasm, Vander Ark ignores the disappointments (laptops for all had little impact) and the dangers (social media can fuel gossip, bullying and cheating), Bauerlein writes.

All this hype and prophecy is unnecessary. The digital future is here, and its main educational advantage, the individualization of learning, is recognized by everyone. At this point, the pressing questions are practical: how much it costs, how to overcome bureaucracy, for example. Vander Ark does include an appendix of concrete advice, such as urging state leaders to allow students to personalize their learning and base matriculation on demonstrated competency, not on seat time, but these are precisely the points to expound in the main text, not stick in an appendix. . . .  What we need is sound evidence, presented without hyperbole, of scalable and cost-effective digital programs that yield higher reading, writing, and math achievement.

Utah’s digital learning law lets districts and charter schools offer online courses to students throughout the state “and pocket a reasonable share of the state aid that comes with every student enrolled,” writes Paul Peterson. In theory, providers will compete for students by offering high-quality courses. “But that dream may not come true unless various aspects of the law are re-thought,” Peterson writes.

Questing in Digiton

Last week, I visited the brand-new ChicagoQuest school, created by the Institute of Play, as part of a Digital Media, Technology, Children and Schools conference organized by the Hechinger Institute.  The learn-by-gaming charter school started this fall with sixth and seventh graders and will add a high school.

We walked into Code Worlds, which teaches both fractions and grammar as codes, and were greeted by a petite, very self-possessed seventh-grade girl, who explained the class was trying to restore rationality to the town of “Digiton” and compete to help farmer Al Gorithm calculate his harvest. A very articulate boy joined us, displayed his map of Digiton and joined the discussion.

The school tries to create narratives and games to motivate students to solve problems and think in terms of systems. Students — nearly all are black or Hispanic — range from way behind academically to advanced.

We tap into kids’ natural curiosity by giving them a “mission” — a hugely complex task that they can not solve with their current knowledge and understandings. These missions create reasons to learn. Students actually do something with their learning, right on the spot. Our approach sparks the drive to think critically, to keep trying, to persist for solutions.

We also visited a lab where students can play physical games: I tried moving mirrors with a partner to direct a laser to the target. Allegedly, we were learning geometry and maybe physics. Maybe, maybe not.

I liked the school’s very thoughtful curriculum design, which includes teaching the Common Core Standards and “21st century skills.” Game designers work with teachers to come up with ideas, look at what works and redesign curriculum.

In every room, students were working — or faking it convincingly.  One class was looking up an article on Aristotle on their iPads and taking notes. Not very gamey, but ambitious for middle schoolers. I told a girl that Aristotle had been Alexander the Great’s tutor — and then explained Alexander the Great. She looked interested.

When we talked to four students — including the very articulate boy from Digiton — we asked what was different about ChicagoQuest. They didn’t talk about the games or the technology. They said they liked the fact that there’s no fighting or cursing.  One girl said teachers at her old school had walked by a fight, pretending they didn’t know it was happening. One of ChicagoQuest’s “core values” is “Nobody walks by.”

Other core values are: “Respect all things,” “Be tenacious,” “Win and lose with grace” and “Get in the game: Play fair, play fully.”

Digital learning will prove itself — or adapt — argues Katie Salen, a game designer and DePaul professor who co-founded Quest to Learn two years ago in New York City.

. . . video-game companies develop products with users. They might issue an early version with kinks or bad ideas. And then it’s a dynamic process where user feedback helps the designer improve a game. There’s constant fixing. The video game is ever evolving.She’d like to see schools experiment with education software in the same way, rather than waiting for definitive proof that certain products work. The more students play with educational games, the more game designers can make them effective.

The MacArthur Foundation folks, who are providing most of the money, sounded offended by questions about effectiveness. I agree it’s too soon to tell, but it’s a valid question. (Reading and math scores for the New York Quest school are average for sixth graders and above average for seventh graders.)

Digital disruption in education

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush calls for digital learning to disrupt the education monopoly on Reason TV.