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.

 

A Textbook Description

I want to free my students from textbooks. They shouldn’t have to carry half their weight around in their backpacks all the time. When they get to middle school, it starts to get out of hand. Each student has 4-6 books. They’re big. They’re heavy. And they have to go back and forth between school and home all the time. Once they move on to high school, the textbook problem is ridiculous. The books are twice as thick, and twice as heavy. I want to change that.

TextbooksSo I switched to the electronic version of the textbook. The e-book can be accessed on a tablet or computer or Chromebook. There’s nothing else to carry. All of the content is right there on the device.

That’s called substitution. I have substituted one technology (an electronic book) for another one (a physical book). There are some advantages (it’s easier to carry) and some disadvantages (the device has to be charged to work). Overall, though, not much has changed.

But now that the textbook is electronic, we can start to do more with it. Maybe the map in a world history book is interactive. Maybe there’s a video in the literature textbook showing a scene from Hamlet. Maybe there’s an animation showing how the water cycle works in the science text.

At this point, there are some clear advantages gained from the electronic version of the text. Mostly, it’s the same content we’ve always had. But now it is expanded and supplemented with additional resources. This is called augmentation. We’re using the technology in the same way, but we’ve added something to it.

But these devices that the students are using to access their books are also connected. So in addition to the content in the book, there are links to other resources. Maybe there are forums where students can debate the causes of the civil war, or collaborative spaces where they can explore the effects of DNA folding. Maybe students can react to the textbook by adding their own notes, and then sharing those notes with others and annotating one another’s comments. This is modification. The technology is starting to change how learning takes place.

But what if the book could do more than that? What if it could adapt to the needs of the learner using it? At the end of each section, there are discussion questions and progress checks. What if the book could adjust to how the students perform on those progress checks? Maybe there’s more supplemental content that can help develop understanding. Maybe it can figure out that the student is missing some key prerequisites and adapt the content to fill those gaps. Maybe it can adjust its own reading level to fit the needs of the learner. At this point, the methodology of teaching and learning starts to change. The text is more than just a static resource. This is called modification.

By now, it’s not really a textbook at all. It’s a resource entirely different, with interactivity, adaptability, and collaborative features built in. We think of it as an online resource, or a collection of online resources. The textbook may live on as a metaphor, but the resource only vaguely resembles the printed volume we started with.

This process is called the SAMR model. Developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, this is a framework for evaluating the level at which technology integration is happening in classrooms. It’s not meant to be judgemental: modification is not always better than substitution. Instead, it helps guide conversations about how technology is used in education, the effectiveness of those efforts, and the capabilities that will come in the future.

This video from Common Sense Media explains the idea very well.

Photo credit: Timuiuc on Flickr.