Apprenticing Forward, Not Backward 

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump spotlighted the importance of apprenticeships in our educational tapestry. This may be the first major education policy move of this Administration, and the man who made The Apprentice a success may know a thing or two about the topic. 

In focusing on apprenticeships, though, it is essential we focus the discussion on the career paths of tomorrow, not of yesteryear. We explore this topic on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. I hope you’ll give it a listen. 

Learning to Learn Better: The Interview

Dear ol’ Eduflack has been spending a great deal of time recently focused on the subject of cognitive science. Dating back to my time helping lead the National Reading Panel, I’ve been fascinated with learning about how people learn. And I’ve been even more fascinated by those that, despite the incredible growth in cognitive learning research in recent years, continue to believe that learning is an art, with little room for hard science.

So when I heard about the new book, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and Schools, or How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, I was sold. The book itself is terrific, weaving a tight narrative of instruction, storytelling, and inspiration. And it applies to concepts of learning, and learning better, in areas many of us may never have thought of.

That’s why I just had to reach out to Ulrich Boser, the author of this terrific book, to get some answers to the questions I was begging to ask. Most know Boser as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. My first interactions with him date back to when he was an editor at US News & World Report. As author of Learn Better, Boser has made an important contribution to the discussion of how we improve learning and how we ensure our educators, our institutions, and our learners are prepared for what the future of learning might bring.

Huge thanks to Boser for indulging me and stepping up on the five most important questions his book left me with. 

EDUFLACK: What was the most surprising story on learning you heard as part of your research? 

BOSER: For me at least, the story of Roger Craig was definitely the most surprising. To explain, Roger Craig thought that he might have an edge at Jeopardy after reading about an approach to learning known as spacing. The idea behind spacing is pretty simple. Since we all forget, learning should be spread out—or spaced—in order increase the amount of learning.  

So Craig began to study Jeopardy! trivia using a spaced approach, and with the help of a bit of software, he would revisit every weird Jeopardy detail in a highly distributed—or spaced—way.

Armed with this bit of the science of learning, Craig dominated Jeopardy. He first appeared on the game show in the fall of 2010 and eventually set a record for the most amount of money won in a single game.

Craig’s success at the game show tells two bigger stories, I think. First, learning often leaves as soon as it arrives, and to account for this fact, people should revisit whatever they’ve learned at regular intervals.

Second, people can use the science of learning to develop much richer skills. 

EDUFLACK: Learn Better seems to champion competency-based education, the ability of a student to both learn and be able to do/demonstrate. Is that a fair assessment?

BOSER: Absolutely. Indeed, I find the debate over competency-based education a little narrow minded, to be honest. More specifically, does anyone really argue that we should not measure competency? To me at least, it seems obvious that if students learn something, they should be able to–you know– do it.

In my mind, the more important question is: How do we measure competency? What programs and policies do we need to figure out if students can really demonstrate their learning?

From my conversations with researchers, it seems that robust learning is the ability to think in a certain field. So if someone wants to be a competent engineer, they should be able to think like a engineer. If someone wants to be a competent a car mechanic, they need to think like a car mechanic.

This isn’t as complicated as it seems, and according to a growing number of experts, this sort of thinking—and learning—often comes down to analogies. In other words, we can learn a lot by seeing the relationships within a field, by seeing how things fit together.

For me, the problem is that our education system is not aligned with the research. Standards, curriculum, tests, they often push in different directions on the issue of competency, and we need better tests and instructional tools to promote—and measure— analogical thinking within an area of expertise. 

EDUFLACK: In recent years, there has been a drumbeat that every student can and should benefit from a liberal arts college education. But as you emphasize finding value in one’s learning, is “all can benefit” the approach we should be looking to?

BOSER: I think a liberal arts education is deeply important. To engage in the world, we need a broad base of knowledge, from knowing Mozart to understanding the Battle of Mogadishu. What’s more, a liberal arts-oriented education can help us learn new things. Background knowledge helps learning, and the most reliable indicator of what you can learn is what you know.

At the same, we expect way too much of schools. In K-12 at least, schools are supposed to teach everything from reading to coding, social skills to citizenship, tuba to Picasso, plus win an occasional sports championship. That’s simply too much, and it keeps schools from focusing on effective teaching and learning. 

EDUFLACK: The thesis of Learn Better seems to place a great deal of responsibility on the learner to own his or her own education. What should teachers today be doing, or doing differently, to ensure better learning in their classrooms?

BOSER: Great question. First, I’d point out that students need to learn responsibility in the same way that they learn geometry or Spanish, and we need to give young people more opportunities to develop ownership skills in meaningful ways.

This can be difficult, to be sure. I have little kids, and as we are rushing out the door each morning—a mess of untied shoes and missing water bottles—it’s hard to imagine giving my kids any more responsibility. But giving kids some ownership is crucial. It gives them an opportunity to practice responsibility.

Second, we have to realize that people need to find their own meaning. This is key to learning, and people have to find their own meaning in a subject in order to be driven to learn that subject.

This means that just sprinkling some pop culture facts on a topic isn’t going to make it interesting. Alas, just mentioning the Kardashians during math class isn’t going to promote any robust forms of motivation.

Instead, educators should encourage students to find their own value in a topic, to figure out how the students might uncover their own relevance in a field of expertise.

Chris Hulleman at the University of Virginia puts this idea well. Motivation “is about making that connection between what people are learning and what’s going on in their lives,” he told me. “Value is the mechanism. For people, the question is, ‘Can I see why this is valuable to me?’” 

EDUFLACK: In talking about the need to shift from rote memorization to deeper thinking, I read it as a need to move learners from being generalists — or jacks of all trades — to being specialists or expert in those things that really drive them. Are we headed toward such a future?

BOSER: Yes, and in many ways, this future is already here. After all, the history of the modern world is the history of specialization, and our economy runs on people developing pretty narrow areas of expertise.

Adam Smith wrote about the power of specialization centuries ago in his book Wealth of Nations, and at its core, it’s about dividing up labor. What’s more, technology is putting a version of this trend into hyperspeed by automating more and more tasks, which requires more and more specialization.

That said, we don’t always need to become experts. Mastery isn’t always necessary. But we should stay away from rote learning. It’s simply not effective.

Let’s take changing a tire on a car, for instance. I don’t need to become expert in the skill of tire changing. My tires don’t break down that often. But I do want to go beyond a rote understanding of tire changing.

Because if I have a rote understanding, I will not be able to change a tire on any other car besides my current car. That doesn’t help me that much, especially if my friend’s car has a flat tire or if I get a new car.  

So when it comes to changing a tire, I would want to learn how to change a tire well enough that I understand some of the basic principles (like lift) and enough of the mechanics (like unscrewing bolts) that I can change the tires on different cars.

To answer your question, then, we want people to specialize–and learn some topics very well. But some generalization remains necessary, at least if you don’t want to be stranded by the side of the road with a flat tire.

“Dream, Then Do” When It Comes to #STEM Teaching, Learning

For more than a decade, we have been talking about STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education in the United States. For much of that time, though, our discussions haven’t evolved much. In too many corners of the conversation, we focus exclusively on how to teach math and science, mostly relying on the same methods and the same approaches we have used for generations.

It’s only been recently that we’ve acknowledged, for instance, the need to better address the T and the E in the conversation, particularly as we now look to add coding and computer science to the K-12 curriculum (and as we search for teachers prepared in leading such instructional pursuits). And we now embrace the idea of transforming STEM to STEAM, seeing how the arts (particularly music) can better connect the academics of STEM to the students of today. 
Eduflack has been fortunate to spend recent years looking specifically at how we can revolutionize teacher education to take full advantage of the opportunities available through STEM education. In states like Georgia, Indiana, and New Jersey, we have worked with dozens of universities to transform their existing STEM teacher preparation efforts, ensuring strong pipelines of effective educators for high-need schools that possess both the content knowledge and the pedagological skills to succeed. 

And through the work of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, we are now taking that even a step further, exploring how gaming, assisted reality, rich clinical experiences, project-based learning, and a time-independent program void of credit hours and Carnegie units can do a more effective job preparing prospective teachers for the rigors of STEM education in both the schools of today and the learning environments of tomorrow. 

Recently, I had the privilege to travel to Israel to see how a “start-up nation” focused on technological opportunities is addressing STEM education today. The ORT Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network is essentially a network of nearly 100 charter high schools focused on STEM instruction. Everything is taught in a dual-language environment (English and Hebrew), with many of the schools in the northern part of the nation adding the third language of Arabic to meet the needs of their Arab students. 

At every instance, the educators at ORT seek to use personalized learning to help connect STEM lessons to the STEM learner. They embrace the use of technology in the classroom, including the instructional applications of students using their own smartphones while in class. ORT actively recruits teachers who have developed meaningful content knowledge in the private sector, bringing their experiences as developers and designers for names such as Microsoft and Google into the K-12 classroom. 

Visiting schools across the country, I witnessed STEM seamlessly integrated with English language instruction and literature and even the Bible. One educator remarked that “this is a creative thinking place for teachers.” In multiple schools, I heard educators speak of changing “the exclamation points to question marks in learning,” meaning to them that instead of teachers offering the definitive word on everything taught, they saw their role as inspiring their students to ask questions and seek answers. 

“Kids don’t have to change. Let them be curious,” one technology teacher told me. “Teachers need to change.” 

And one engineer-turned-educator summed up his direction to his students as, “today you can dream, tomorrow you can do.” 

The students respond in kind, seeing project-based instruction as, “relevant to us.”  

As I was meeting with a group of students in Northern Israel, I inquired whether they preferred this new, project-based, STEAM-focused instructional model to the previous ways they were taught, the room exploded with a combination of rapid Hebrew, followed by laughter from some of the teachers. Clearly my meager mastery of the English language and my pathetic understanding of Spanish wasn’t going to help me, so I asked one of the teachers for a little assistance. 


His explanation made me understand I was in a STEM classroom much like the classes I visit here in the United States. Most of the kids in the class were not aspiring rocket scientists or brain surgeons. Many of them didn’t want to be in high school at all. But they were saying that if they were required to be in school, this was really the only way they would want to do it. For them, there was no other school choice. 

The visit to these ORT Schools helped me see there are some universal truths when it comes to the future of teaching and learning, truths that I see with every school visit or teacher discussion I have here in the states. Teachers want to be empowered. Educators see the enormous value in mastering content as well as being adept at classroom management. That their success is measured by far more than a test score. That they are eager for the instructional opportunities ahead, and charting new ground to meet the needs of tomorrow’s learners. 

And for those learners, personalized instruction is king. Project-based learning inspires. The real-life experiences of their teachers mean something. And what they can do with the content and knowledge obtained is far more important than how it can be measured. 

As a community, we need to do far more to spotlight what is happening in American classrooms today. To capture how PBL is affecting both teacher and student. To demonstrate the impact STEM has on all students, regardless of expected career path. To call out how teacher preparation programs are breaking the old models to meet the demands of the future. To talk about the dreams of today, so we can do tomorrow. 

A Few Future-Looking Qs for DeVos

As Washington and the education community gear up for Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings to become the next EdSec, over at BAM Radio Network I explore a few areas we really should look into, but likely won’t.

Sure, we could spend the entire hearing discussion past actions on charter schools, vouchers, reform advocacy, and reform dollars. But rather than just talking the past, what if we actually explored the future and how the U.S. Department of Education can impact the entire education community.

The nation needs a clear vision of accountability, teacher preparation, modes of learning and expectations for all. Now seems like as good a time as any to start asking. Give it a listen here. You won’t be disappointed.

Improving #TeacherEd for Today … and Tomorrow

Imagine if teacher preparation programs were focused on the doing, instead of just on time served. Educators already know the best learning happens when it is rooted in real-world problems and real-world engagements. So why aren’t prospective teachers learning in programs that are designed in the form of such challenges and that mirror the real work of real teachers?

Imagine if teacher preparation programs embraced individualized instruction. Educators already know that their young students arrive at the classroom with different levels of knowledge, different experiences and different preferred learning styles. Prospective teachers are no different than those they will one day teach. So why aren’t more teacher education programs focused on the learner, with programs based on the needs and preferences of that adult learner?

From my latest at US News & World Report, looking at how competency-based learning may be the future in teacher preparation

The New PDK Poll is Here, the New #PDKPoll is Here!

Last week, the good folks at PDK released the results of the 48th Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. So what do we think?

The most interesting number each year is how we grade public schools. In 1974, 48% of Americans gave their local schools an A or B grade. Today … 48% are still giving As and Bs to their local schools. The grade for our nation’s schools as a whole doesn’t fair nearly as well, with only 24% giving As and Bs to the nation, but that’s on par with grades over the past three or so decades. (Good thing ESSA is handing over authority from the federal to the localities, huh?)

On the purpose of education, 45% of those surveyed say the purpose is to prepare students academically, 26% say its to prepare students to be good citizens, and 25% say its to prepare students for work. So despite recent-year pushbacks, it seems school ensuring all kids are “college and career ready” is winning the day.

When evaluating the public schools, parents offer a significantly higher opinion on what’s happening than non-parents. Whether its providing factual evidence (47-37), preparing students to work well in groups (43-33), or enhancing critical thinking (36-28), those adults closer to the learners in the classroom are far more likely to say local public schools are doing extremely or very well.

When it comes to learning standards, only 7% think standards are too high, while 43% say current standards are too low. Interestingly, “too low” scores high with urban residents, adults in households earning more than $100,000 a year, and Republicans/conservatives.

Those surveyed still see “lack of financial support” the top problem facing local public schools, coming in at 19%. That’s more than double “lack of discipline” or “concerns about quality,” and almost three times the number who worry about the “quality of teachers.”

Continuing on the money trend, there were a few head scratchers. Of those who were confident higher taxes will help schools improve, nearly 30% said they oppose raising such taxes. And of those not confident higher taxes can result in school improvement, more than a third (35%) said they would support increased property taxes for the purpose. And if those taxes are raised, 34% of all those surveyed want to see it go to teachers.

When presented with an “either/or” decision on ideas to improve the schools, those surveyed:

  • Overwhelming supported more career-technical or skill based classes (68%) over more honors classes (20%)
  • Leaned toward raising teacher salaries (50%) over hiring more teachers (40%), even though smaller classes beat larger classes 51-40
  • Emphasizing more “traditional teaching” and using more technology battled to a draw, 43 all

The full survey results, found here, are definitely worth the read. Of particular interest for all should be a deep dive into thoughts on parent/school communications.

What does this all tell us? The public’s perceptions of public schools, both locally and nationally, aren’t as bad as many have made them out to be in recent years. Like our collective test scores on NAEP and international benchmarks, it seems our views — good or bad — about the schools have largely stagnated. Even with all of the ugliness in recent years about Common Core and testing, things are pretty much holding constant.

More importantly, we see those closer to the classroom — the parents — have more positive views on what is happening. And those parents are eager and hungry for additional information and greater interaction with their public schools.

While there is a lot to parse here, and many will cherrypick those data points that prove their own beliefs (or disprove the thoughts of those they rail against), the PDK poll provides an important foundation for discussion on where we are, where we are headed, and where we want to be.

(Full disclosure, Eduflack served, proudly, as a member of the PDK Poll Advisory Board this year.) 

Earth Day, #CommonCore, and Environmental Ed

As we celebrate another Earth Day, we are seeing more and more examples of how instruction in the environmental sciences — even for our youngest learners — can be about more than just lecture and the recitation of facts.

As I write for BAM Radio’s EDWords, there are strong ways to connect Common Core and Next Gen Science Standards with environmental science instruction and student interests. The Think Earth Environmental Education Foundation provides us just one example of what is possible.

From BAM Radio’s site:

While many may think that aligning with Common Core and NGSS means a tightly controlled, proscribed curriculum with on room for creativity or tailoring to specific students, we are seeing more and more that that simply isn’t the case. With offerings like Think Earth, we are given a clear view of how our youngest learners can learn subjects like environmental science in ways that just enhance what they are already learning in their science and math classes.

Teaching “to the Common Core” provides an unending number of paths to the creative educator. They have third graders market vacations to the outer reaches of the solar system and they can have first and second graders understand natural resources and conservation in ways that their own parents may not quite appreciate.