Ed Tech is Not the Enemy!

Yes, there are a great many in the education community that look to attack and tear down just about everything that EdSec Betsy DeVos says. So when she starts off 2018 singing the praises of personalized learning, it should be no surprise that the resistance immediately lobbed charges of wanting to turn our schools over to the machines.

This tends to be a common misperception about personalized learning. We’ve bastardized the phase, wanting to believe it means simply plugging every child into a computer and letting the tech do the teaching. And while that might be how some personalized learning is indeed done today, it certainly isn’t what was intended and it certainly doesn’t represent the best of what personalized learning does and can offer, both to the learner and the educator.

At the same time, technology need not be the enemy to learning. Effective personalized instruction isn’t about putting the tablets in charge. At its heart, it is about providing educators with a tool that can be used to effectively reach some of their students. In the hands of a great teacher, technology can be empowering, not limiting. And yes, it can improve the learning process.

Over at BAM! Radio Network, I explore the topic, praising personalized learning and asking us to cut ed tech a break when it comes to the classroom. Give it a listen.

And for those who say personalized learning is just a tool of the technology companies and doesn’t actually work, give a look over to special education programs and IEPs. An IEP is just personalized learning in a different wrapper, folks.

Making Our Schools Connected Again

Last month, educators across the country rightly fretted over the potential impact of net neutrality and what it would mean for the use of the Internet in classrooms across the country. After all, who wants corporate providers determining which websites are more appropriate – and thus faster to load – than others in our schools?

Before we rally to the barricades to take on the FCC, perhaps we need to take a closer look at the e-rate and connectivity in general in our schools. While most of us have become used to having immediate access to anything on the inter webs from the palm of our hands, no matter where we are, recent data has shown thousands of schools across the country are still lacking the basic connectivity that the e-rate had originally promised them, and many of those school districts in need were denied needed connectivity dollars by the Obama Administration, not the Trump’s.

On the latest episode of #TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore this subject, trying to refocus the education community on the most pressing need first. Give it a listen!

“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. 

The Quest for More Engaging History Instruction

Ultimately, fostering each student’s curiosity and sense of agency leads to habits of mind that support lifelong learning and civic engagement—and it is never a bad outcome when mastering required curriculum is exciting and fun. Teachers are also happily about the ease with which games can be tied into curriculum and standards and used to enliven content delivery and assessments while maintaining academic rigor. They are also committed to taking the lesson back to their colleagues—teachers teaching teachers, to make learning more dynamic throughout their schools.

– The Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s Stephanie J. Hull, writing about the importance of gaming in social studies instruction in The “Great Game” of Teaching History for GettingSmart.

From Opting Out to Opting In

While the testing opt-out movement is incredibly hot, and is now credited with being far better organized this year, Eduflack gets personally frustrated with those parents who are opting their kids out of testing to make a political point. Forget the impact it might have on their school district, their school, or even their child’s personal education. It seems its is far better to “damn the man” and amplify the urban legends about those dreaded “high-stakes tests.”

Such a position may not come as a surprise from someone who has long advocated for the Common Core, for stronger state tests, and for greater accountability. But it may be a shock that Eduflack was an opt-out parent during the 2014-15 school year. We did so for very personal and real reasons, that I wrote about for Education Post. And now we are opting back in, with that same child taking the PARCC last year after sitting it out the previous.

As I opine:

Yes, this opt-out parent is now opting his child back in.

The reasons for this are simple. Our son has worked very hard over the last year and a half, and it is important for his teachers and his parents to see how he is progressing. PARCC is the best tool available to know where our son falls when it comes to fourth-graders in his school, our state and across the country. And it helps his fifth-grade teacher best know the knowledge and skills he is coming in with next school year.

His IEP is not an excuse, it was merely a new compass. It is also not an opt-out from accountability.

A week into the 2016 PARCC and I can report that both of my kiddos are proclaiming that the state test is “easy.” No stress. No vomiting on keyboards. No emotional breakdowns in the computer lab. Just another test in the course of regular quizzes, tests, and assignments the average elementary school student experiences.

Give the piece a read. Let me know what you think. Just don’t opt out of reading it.



Gaming and the #CommonCore

As the urban legend goes, educators are provided little flexibility when it comes to teaching the Common Core State Standards. Those who don’t quite understand what the standards are assume it comes with a proscribed curriculum, one that teachers must follow to the very letter.

But in classrooms across the country, we see educators empowered with the flexibility to do what makes sense in teaching the Common Core to their students. With learning as the ultimate goal, how one gets there isn’t as important as the final destination.

On Common Core Radio this week, LFA’s Cheryl Scott Williams and I speak with Rebecca Rufo-Tepper of the Institute of Play. In this segment, Dr. Rufo-Tepper discusses how educators are using gaming to help students learn the key tenets of Common Core, and do so successfully.

It’s definitely worth the listen. We are seeing more and more how gaming can be a tremendously effective tool in 21st century teaching. Using it to relay Common Core lessons to students is no different.




“I’d Like to Give the World a Phone …”

Loyal readers of Eduflack know two things. First, I am passionate about education technology and its ability to transform the learning process for students. Second, I am a proud adoptive father, and never miss the opportunity to talk about (or write, as one can read in my book, Dadprovement) our family’s experiences bringing our children home from Guatemala.

For most who have no idea, last month Guatemala elected a new president, as elections were coming up and the previously elected president is currently sitting in a jail cell. I won’t go into the politics of the nation, the military, non-military rule that is prevalent, or any other such things. Let’s just say a new president was elected. His previous career was as an actor. And his famous role was playing a moron who gets elected president (yes, you can’t make this up).

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales earned more than two-thirds of the vote in an October runoff. He now sits in the big chair in Guatemala City. And one of his first official actions was to make some new education policy.

As background, Guatemala is an incredibly poor country (so much so that citizens sneak into Mexico illegally to do the unwanted jobs there). Education is not compulsory. Far too many of the nation’s citizens receive no formal education, whether it be because of access or finances or cultural prioritization.

So how do we address this? One could start with strong early childhood education programs. There are countless other ways to begin, most of which cost money. So President Morales decided he would think outside the box?

His plan? Free cell phones for all students. He’d pay for it by letting all of the cellphone companies paint their logos on school walls, assuming they donate the phones to the kids in question.

To summarize. We have schools ill-equipped to integrate phones into classes that already have 60 or 70 students in them. We haven’t prepared teachers for how to make use of these phones. And we are sending little kids out into communities where their new piece of technology makes them prime targets for robbery. All under a belief that if you give a kid a phone, she will learn (or for the cynic, that a phone can replace actual teaching.)

Don’t worry, teachers, President Morales has a plan for you too. While attending public school isn’t required, the Morales administration is convinced that attendance and teacher absenteeism is a big issue. So future plans include tagging teachers with GPS trackers to ensure they are showing up for their jobs.

This is why so many people think policymaking should be left in the hands of real professionals.

On the phones, I don’t doubt Morales’ sincerity in thinking if he can get kids tech, it will improve their learning. But delivering the hardware is the last step in a solid edtech plan, not the first thing out of the shoot. And as you are asking teachers to change their instructional practice, insulting them by demanding they be tracked doesn’t seem to be the wisest of strategies.

And yes, I realize some will suggest this is just another example of how the anti-teacher, corporatization of public education model of reform in the United States is being exported around the globe. Before you do, let’s not. I don’t think American education reformers are setting their sights on the Guatemalan education market. Heck, even the cellphone companies that may be painting their logos on school walls soon are largely local (it isn’t Verizon and AT&T you see much down there).

But it does speak to the danger of reform for reform’s sake. If one truly wants to improve education in a country like Guatemala, is it more valuable to have books or cell phones? Is there more benefit to content-based professional development of teacher GPS tracking? And is it more valuable to think through plans rather than announce the first thing that pops into your head when asked about education?

No matter how well meaning, we can’t close achievement and opportunity gaps by simply providing a child a cell phone that they may not have a month into the term.