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.

Attacking #edreform and Progress, No Matter How Ridiculous

Throughout the years, I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous statements made in efforts to thwart education reform initiatives and to block efforts designed to provide all kids with access to a world-class public education.

I’ve heard legislators say it isn’t their problem because they represent districts without black and brown kids. I’ve heard the business community say we don’t want to give kids too many high-level skills, out of fear that they won’t be satisfied working in a blue-collar job for three or four decades. I’ve heard teachers tell parents to “sit down and shut up,” saying they had no business being part of discussion of education reform. And I’ve heard parents waxing eloquently about just going back to the “good ol’ days.” Yes, I’ve heard it all.

And I’ve also said my fair share of hyperbolic statements, of attacks on those who didn’t necessarily deserve to be attacked. Of making policy fights personal. All in the name of progress and improving our public schools.

But my jaw just about hit the floor when I saw an old adversary, former Connecticut State Sen. Don Williams, make the most outrageous of outrageous statements in defense of the status quo. A few years back, Williams retired from the Connecticut General Assembly, taking a job with the Connecticut Education Association. (I’ll be honest, during my years in Connecticut ed reform, I assumed that Williams was already working for the CEA, based on his education positions.)

Earlier this week, as a CEA spokesman, Williams was railing on all things reform. speaking on WNHH radio, and as reported by the New Haven Independent, he held nothing back. Williams attacked testing. He attacked the “corporatization” of our public schools. He attacked the cost of college. And he did all of it, trying to wrap himself in the flag and American and all that is good and holy in the United States. Nothing most of us haven’t heard before.

Then he dropped the following, “Computers create achievement gap.” Yes, the Honorable Don Williams attacked technology and computers in the schools, blaming them for the achievement gaps that have existed well before technology was ever introduced into a public school classroom.

Let’s go through the roster. When it comes to the achievement gap, charter schools are to blame. And private philanthropy. And testing. And Common Core. And poverty, please don’t forget poverty. And now computers are to blame as well.

Are we serious? Does the CEA, and by extension, the National Education Association, really believe that technology is to blame for the achievement gap? Do they agree, as Williams says, that when we “digitize our children” we make it impossible for them to become problem solvers? And does the NEA really believe that today’s urban schools are “drilling and spending time on test prep instead of enrichment?”

I get that we are all trying to score rhetorical points in a battle that should be about what is best for kids. But in a 21st century learning environment, can we honestly say technology is bad for classrooms, particularly for high-need classrooms?

Education technology is the great equalizer. It brings knowledge and resources into classrooms that otherwise would be without. It allows a diverse student body to learn in diverse ways. It ensures we aren’t deskilling and unplugging our 21st century kids. At its very heart, edtech is the answer to our achievement, opportunity, and resource gap problems we seek to solve, not the cause.

The time for blame games needs to come to an end. We have spent too much time, wasted too much breath, and spread too much electronic ink on the negative attack. All the fighting back and forth is doing absolutely nothing to help kids who need  safe, good schools. All the vitriol does zero to close those gaps we speak so much of, and does nothing more than letting just another generation of students fall through the cracks as the adults protect their own interests.

Senator Williams, I’ve seen the power of technology to transform high-need schools and to empower teachers to deliver world-class educations to all students. It’s sad that you and the CEA have now added technology and computers to the enemies list when it comes protecting public education.

History Can Be Fun and Games

While we may look to the history books to see the chronicling of the past, we don’t have to limit how we teach history (or civics or social studies, or any subject, for that matter) to those same books. New technologies, new instructional approaches, and even the embrace of the old role-playing styles, have opened up new doors when it comes to how we teach — and learn — history.

Over at Medium this week, I write on how history instruction can be transformed through a gaming approach to teaching. USA Today reporter Greg Toppo has literally written the book on the topic, with his The Game Believes In You telling some incredible stories of how educators are using games to better reach their students.

In my piece, I look at some of the specific efforts to use gaming to bring social studies instruction alive, everything from iCivics to the teacher-focused simulations at Ted Kennedy Institute to the new Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest Fellowship program.

As I write:

Simply put, we cannot expect 21st-century students to truly learn from history — and civics and social studies in general — in the same way and through the same approaches that may have worked for Santayana, Winston Churchill, and others concerned about repeating history. The methods of old, those with experienced educators lecturing in front of a class of students all sitting at desks in straight rows, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. If the students of tomorrow are to truly “learn from history,” they require instructional approaches that better reflect their own interests, learning styles, and experiences.

And as I conclude:

And that is the role gaming now plays in my kids’ classroom. I want a teacher who has been part of the HistoryQuest program to make social studies come alive for my kids in a way a paper-and-ink textbook simply can’t. I want a music teacher that is channeling my son’s love of Minecraft to help him appreciate his grandfather’s love of opera. And I want an educator who can use the simulations of the Kennedy Institute to help my daughter better understand what I did all those years when I worked on Capitol Hill.

Give the piece a read. Think of it like a game …

Is the Time Right to Change Higher Ed?

For decades now, the media had proclaimed the “death” of higher education as we know it. Online ed was supposed to do it a generation ago. Just a few years ago, the MOOC was going to put all colleges and universities out of business. Yet the institutional model that has been around for a millennium still seems to be alive and kicking.

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, my colleague Arthur Levine (president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University and current president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation) writes on how the time may finally be right for higher education to begin to transition from its assembly line, industrial age approach to one better suited for the information age we all current enjoy (or at least tolerate).

Levine offers three reasons why we may finally see higher education transform in the United States. Reason one: As a nation, we are transitioning from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information one. So it only makes sense that higher ed would follow the nation. Reason two: the number of higher education providers is booming, and it such opportunities are no longer limited to the traditional, ivy-wall-covered universities we have grown used to. And reason three: research makes clear that people learn in different ways, and we may need multiple approaches to higher education to ensure all are receiving it.

Dr. Levine is a particular fan of competency-based education, which focuses on subject matter mastery rather than time spent in a classroom. At its core, CBE is about students demonstrating their knowledge, rather than being recognized for coming to X numbers of classes for X total hours. As he writes:

[Competency-based education]  experiments need to be watched, assessed, and supported so that institutions can create and expand the infrastructure for competency-based education, including an alternative to the time-based Carnegie unit. This is merely the most visible aspect of a revolution occurring in education at all levels: the shift to learning outcomes and learner-centered education.

Every institution of higher education will have to make this shift, and the time to plan for it is now. History shows that the future of institutions that fail to act will be determined for them by policy makers and by pioneering competitors — inside and outside traditional higher education.

The full commentary is worth the read. Change is coming to higher education. The only question is whether institutions and individuals will be leading that change, or just have the change happen to them.