Different Enough

Would you ride in a driverless car?

Let’s say you’re in Pittsburgh or Phoenix and you call for an Uber. The car rolls up, and there’s no one inside. Do you get in?

04-research-vehicle-f-015-luxury-in-motion-mercedes-benz-680x379-deYour answer might depend on how the car is configured. If there is no driver, there is no need for a driver’s seat. If the car itself has no steering wheel, pedals, or other controls, does that make a difference? Actually, if no one is driving, it’s not even necessary for everyone to face the direction of travel. What if the seats inside were configured like a train or a limo, where they face each other? Does that make you more likely or less likely to get in?

On the other hand, maybe that’s too radical. Would you feel better if there were a robotic driver: a human-like machine that mimics the actions of a human driver? While it wouldn’t actually be necessary to make the car work, it would give the car a sense of familiarity that might make you more comfortable.

We like innovation. We want to use products and adopt ideas that show that we’re making progress. My new phone needs to be better than my old phone. New appliances have fancy features that outpace their predecessors. Cars have their steady march toward increased safety and comfort that make them more attractive than their predecessors. The new products have to be new enough that we get a sense that we’re not just throwing our money away on the same old thing.

But when manufacturers innovate too much, they lose the market. Many people wouldn’t consider the early smartphones that didn’t have physical keyboards. Tankless hot water systems haven’t caught on, despite their energy efficiency and convenient size. There’s little difference in driving performance between my current hybrid car and the gas one that it replaced, but the new one has has 50% better fuel economy. Still, you don’t see many of them on the road. They’re not quite familiar enough to gain traction.

Innovation has a sweet spot. If a new product is not different enough from what we already have, it is rejected for its banality. At the same time, if it’s too different, it’s rejected as too radical.

In social psychology, this idea is called optimal distinctiveness. In social groups, we want to be alike enough to be accepted as part of the group, but we also have a need for differentiation and individuality within the group and between different groups. Jonah Berger discussed this on a recent episode of Hidden Brain. The theory also explains why, for example, teens moved away from Facebook when their parents started signing up.

But looking at this through an institutional lens, it suggests that we can’t just scrap the cultural tradition of public education and start over. Imagine for a moment that we could reach some consensus on what it is that schools should be doing. There’s a magic list of, say, ten outcomes that students should have when they complete their schooling. We have a reasonable way of measuring those outcomes, and we can all more-or-less agree that successful schools are the ones whose students consistently meet those goals. (I know. We’re somewhere over in that ill-defined area between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Don’t worry. We’re about to ride the teacups into Wonderland.)

Now further imagine that we know how to accomplish those goals. We have a defined strategy with predictable outcomes. We know how to most efficiently provide instruction to meet the defined goals, and we have proven intervention strategies that determine when students are struggling and provide the support they need to succeed.

The problem has been defined, and its solution has been articulated. But we still can’t do it. Whatever solution we come up with has to be optimally distinct. If we have a teacher standing at the front of the room delivering content to students, and the student answering questions and doing practice problems for homework, and a test every two weeks to determine what they’ve learned, then we aren’t being very groundbreaking. (I would also argue that we’re not getting beyond the recall and skill Depth of Knowledge levels). But if we throw out the idea that we’re working with 25 students in 45 minute blocks of time, then we are accused of adopting untested new education fads and using our children as guinea pigs.

So we’re walking this line of innovation. We’re keeping traditional classes, school calendars, and bell schedules. But teachers are leveraging technology to extend and expand learning beyond what can be accomplished in a 45 minute class period. We could provide wholly online courses, but our staff, students, parents, and school community are more comfortable with classes that meet face to face. We use short formative assessments to gauge student learning and adapt instruction to meet each student’s needs. In some cases, this process could be automated. But that pushes too hard on questioning the role of the teacher, and we have no intention of doing away with teachers.

I once proposed an idea for middle school where each team had a different focus. There would be an arts team and a STEM team. Both take the same core classes. Both have project-based curricula that focus on inquiry. The arts team would incorporate an emphasis on visual and performing arts, and would consider the academic subjects from that perspective. The stem team would focus on process, scientific method, and innovative design. The teams would always have some exposure to the other perspective, but the concentration would follow the passions of the student. Families would be able to pick which team best suits the student entering in sixth grade, and they’d follow that path for three years until going to high school.

The conversations about this idea are always good ones, but it’s really too different from our current approach to be practical. To get there, we need to focus on the smaller pieces first. Let’s spend some time trying to emphasize inquiry in some units in some courses. Let’s do some authentic project-based learning at each grade level, without totally transforming our school into a project-based learning center. We have to embrace the arts, and acknowledge the importance of stem. We have to make things different enough to be making real progress, but not so different that we don’t recognize our schools anymore.

Just different enough.

Photo credit: Mercedes F 015 concept car

Do We Need Teachers?

A couple months ago, I surveyed the teachers in my district about classroom technology. Over the last few years, we have focused a lot on improving student access to technology. While this has meant unprecedented growth in tech resources available to students, it also means we haven’t devoted much time or resources on the technology that our teachers use.

Edsger Dijkstra, 1994 in Zurich
Edsger Dijkstra, 1994 in Zurich

One problem with surveys like this is that you can’t really ask people what they want. The answer to “Would _____ help improve student learning in your classroom?” is “YES!”. It doesn’t really matter what goes in the blank.

The other problem with surveying staff is that they generally want what they already have. Educational technology is always about MORE stuff. We don’t want to talk about taking things away, even if they’re no longer useful.

With this in mind, I asked a lot of questions about teachers’ attitudes toward technology. If I know how they see the role of tech in their classroom, I can better look for solutions that foster that role. So I asked questions like this (all of these are rated on a “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” scale):

Technology helps students become more independent learners.
Technology helps personalize learning for students.

Technology helps students develop a deeper understanding of course content.
Technology helps students demonstrate their learning in innovative ways. Technology improves students’ ability to collaborate.
Technology improves students’ access to course content.
Technology could be used to replace teachers someday.

Many of these are questions I asked sixth grade students and parents earlier in the spring, as they came to the end of the first year of our 1:1 program. The teachers, like the students and the parents, are right where we would hope they would be. For the most part, they genuinely believe that technology fosters independent, personalized learning. It helps engage students and gives them ways to express their creativity and collaborate to deepen their understanding of the topics studied in school, and to demonstrate that learning in unique ways. Yay us! We’re on the right track.

It’s that last item that got me in trouble.

In all fairness, I knew it would. I shared the survey with several people before sending it, and they all pointed it out. Nobody actually contacted me in protest about the question, but I heard through the grapevine that several teachers were insulted and upset that I would even ask such a thing.

replace teachersBut my point is this: we’ve been asking why students still come to school for almost a decade now. When my parents went to school, it was because that’s where the knowledge was. The teachers were the experts on every subject, and the textbooks were the ultimate authority. Any question that the teachers couldn’t answer and that wasn’t in the book wasn’t worth knowing.

That world is gone. Our students have all of the information in their pockets. School has to be more than just delivering content. They need to find, filter, evaluate, analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge. They need to combine ideas from different domains and use it in creative ways to solve challenging, real problems. They have to think critically and work collaboratively to face the unprecedented challenges of their generation.

That’s good news. If school WERE just about delivering content, we could easily automate it, and we would all be looking for jobs. We might still need adults to monitor student progress through prescribed online curricula, but they certainly wouldn’t need teaching degrees. Fortunately for all of us, school is more than that.

So in the classroom, the technology has to do more than deliver content. We have to get away from the idea that we’re doing whole group instruction most of the time. We have to eschew the concept of “school” as a model where 20 children sit in rows and face a teacher who stands by the board and talks for an hour at a time. We have to embrace the idea that teachers are regularly using formative assessments to adapt instruction to the needs of each learner. We have to acknowledge that students in a single class may be doing four or five different things. We need to be aware that it’s not enough to just know the facts. There has to be an application or reflection component to learning.

For the most part, our teachers seem to know that. But I needed them to use that lens when thinking about the technology needs for their classrooms. Maybe it’s not all about projectors and interactive whiteboards and using document cameras to share workbook pages. We need to re-tool to design our classrooms for more than simple content delivery. I’m not sure yet exactly what those needs are going to be moving forward. But I’m pretty sure it will be different from what we’ve had the last ten years.

And despite their concerns about being replaced by robots, our teachers know that too.

 

Photo Credit: :Edsger Dijkstra, from Wikipedia.

 

Are We There Yet?

I’m a believer in personal learning networks. I’ve often said that I have learned far more from my colleagues than I have from any graduate course or workshop or conference. I’ve connected with people from all over the world, exchanging ideas, debating instructional approaches, and uniting in finding the best ways to leverage technology to improve learning and best meet students’ evolving needs.

map-29903_1280The technologies have evolved over the years. Online bulletin boards and usenet made way for web-based discussion boards and email lists. Blogs and wikis made it easy for anyone to post ideas online, and podcasts, Skype and Google Plus made it easy to connect with audio and video. The move to mobile and the integration of social networking tools have made connecting a friction-less part of life. It’s easier, sometimes, to use these tools to message the people in my own home than it is to go upstairs and find them. At the same time, these tools have made it easy to blend my social networks with my professional learning networks. Everything is in the same place.

At professional conferences, I’ve increasingly moved away from the the pre-planned presentations, in which a speaker talks about a topic for an hour, in favor of more interactive sessions that are more improvised and targeted to meet the needs of the people in the room. For me, this trend began with Educon several years ago, and has continued through the EdCamp movement and the unconference components of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference, OETCx. I think the exchange of ideas on that informal level is just as valuable, and perhaps more authentic, than the sessions that have an “expert” doing all the talking.

At the same time, though, I’ve noticed that I’ve been increasingly disengaged in the last couple years. I’m still writing here (at least once a month), and I get good feedback about the ideas I share. But I’m really not reading a lot of blogs anymore, and I’m not reading any on a regular basis. I’m listening to a lot of podcasts, but most are not directly related to technology or education. I check in with twitter occasionally, and find an occasional resource or perspective being shared that’s new. But for the most part, it’s the same things over and over again. Testing is killing American schools. We have to do a better job of teaching students to think critically. Common core sucks (except when it doesn’t). Everyone’s attacking education and teachers, and no one is doing anything about it. Politicians haven’t got a clue. Yeah. I’ve heard all that.

Learning must be student-focused. We have to meet the individual needs of every student. Differentiate by adjusting rigor. Assessment should inform (formative) and reflect (summative) learning. Evidence of learning happens in more ways than just test performance. Learning must be relevant to the student. It has to be active. Insert your favorite John Dewey quote here.

None of this excites me, because it’s not very groundbreaking. I have to use that word carefully. I’ve been twice accused of killing podcasts by claiming that they’re not adding value to the global conversation.  But I’m more likely to jump into Facebook these days, which I’ve curated to be entirely social, than I am to check Twitter (which is mostly professional). The same people are talking about the same things they’ve been talking about for the past decade.

A couple years ago, I tried to lead a conference session on moving the conversation into practice. We all have great ideas on what education should be, but sadly that vision is not fully realized in very many schools. Even in my own school district, where we have vertiable edtech rock stars, there’s a lot of disagreement about how to best put these ideas into practice. The session was quickly derailed and devolved into a weird mix of “Pearson is evil,” and “we have to protect our kids online.” I was embarrassed that we couldn’t get further than that.

The more I think about it, though, the more I see the edtech conversation as a weird combination of candy and Jaeger shots. The retweets from conferences are the ones that are witty and shallow. Find the 12-word sound byte, and you’ll be popular. It doesn’t matter if you say something new, as long as you’re clever about it. I think I’m ready to have a salad or a pint of ale or a grande cafe con leche. Let’s  dig a little deeper and spend a little more time.

Coursera keeps telling me that it has suggestions for me. Maybe I should take them. Or perhaps I should be engaging with fewer people on a deeper level. Tools like Slack and Viber make it easier to organize small teams. Maybe that makes sense for collaborative learning projects with more  specific goals in mind.

We know that the success of learning is largely dependent on setting goals ahead of time, and then demonstrating that progress has been made toward reaching that goals. At this point, though, I’m not sure that “continued professional growth” is a sufficient goal. I need to be more specific about what I want from my learning network, and curate  the network to meet that goal.

Image source: Pixabay.