Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Obstacles For a Reason

Oh, my curmudgeon self must be manifesting again. This video cartoon seems so appropriate for education today that is micromanaged from the top down, as the video suggests. Simply, the main obstacles to any innovation--technological or not--boil down to our failure as leaders to base change on needs rather than what we think will be great. It is a failing I suffer from but, fortunately, I get reigned in periodically by caring folks around me. For example...

  • Wouldn't it be neat if we had an electronic, rather than paper, gradebook system?
  • What if we could track professional development registrations online instead of paper and fax?
  • What if students could publish their work on the web using easy to edit wikis, content management systems instead of complex web page editors that requires years of expertise?
  • Wouldn't it be neat if teachers could create a closed virtual space that allows them and their students to share ideas and information without having to participate in a global conversation?
  • How can we easily allow global conversations to happen within our classrooms without having to buy expensive technologies for every teacher?

Those questions are double-edged, so be careful.

In watching this cartoon, it occurred to me to ask, how would this cartoon would be different for those of us who are early adopters and embrace new "tools" to use in classrooms?

I recently had the opportunity to listen to a presenter that I disagreed with. Rather than dazzle his audience with Prezi presentations, engage us with videos, his presentation was a bit "old school." Every slide in his presentation appeared on his paper handout, yet I found myself shaking my head in disagreement.

The presenter was someone I've quoted in this blog before, so you might imagine how perturbed I was that he was sharing ideas I found oppositional to my thinking. One of my favorite quotes from the past had to do with Collins' Stop-Doing List, which the presenter referenced in one of his articles:
Results will require tough but intelligent decisions from us. To gain the results we want will require that we systematically review and eliminate unnecessary, ill-wrought goals and committee work, that we abandon ineffective but so-called "research-based" programs and strategies. (Source: Up and Away)
In fact, after listening to him, I was inclined to take him off my list of favorite authors! Given a few days of reflection, though, I asked myself, "Maybe you're wrong. Maybe it's time to take those technology-rose colored glasses off and get back to the essence of what it means to be in education. Problem is, what is the essence?"

Mike Schmoker--quoted above--makes some great points in his published writing, as well as the talk I had the opportunity to listen in on. Some of those points are paraphrased or quoted from his presentation below, especially the parts I found myself agreeing with:

  • People are freelancing...because there is no curriculum. We all got pretty decent evaluation when we taught this way [freelancing]. What percentage of time kids spend on worksheets? (Response: 50+%).
  • In some cases we waste 6-7 or 7-8 years doing this. We don’t have a resource crisis. Time is our most precious resource, but the real issue is, what are we doing with time? If you said only 25% is spent on worksheets and Texas Legislature passed a law and outlawed worksheets, “We’ll pull your license,” then have kids reads novels. That’s 9 weeks of reading = 25% of the curriculum. What would happen? We’d have the largest spike ever in test scores if we just did that. There are very few things more powerful than having kids read for an extended period of time.
  • Gene Bottoms - We have systematically to reduce to zero that a kid has to read to be in school and get ahead. It’s like somehow that kids read less in school than they have in our history. We have to fight the system and the institutional inertia that puts us in this situation.
  • Three things that are so fundamental to a good education...when we do these things, we will see something amazing for kids.
    1. Get teachers to teach lessons.
    2. Lots of reading.
    3. Put curriculum in place.

  • 20% of our kids hit college and only 1 out of 5 can read college material. Prepare a kid for college? Have them read lots of what they would read in college. This is best delivered in a good curriculum.
  • Simplicity/Less is More: First things+clarity+ceaseless reinforcement=guaranteed results.
  • “Foxes pursue many ends at the same time...Hedgehogs see what is essential , and ignore the rest.” - Jim Collins, Good to Great.
  • We keep adding more...
    • methods/strategies
    • workshops terms
    • programs, requirements, technology, classroom arrangements 
    • BEFORE we do “first things”

We keep adding more technologies and web-based tools before we do first things. Of course, again, what are those first things? What's the essence?

Here's the part I found trouble with in Mike Schmoker's presentation...highlighted items are what we have to get down cold:

We have to get these 3 down cold before anything else will make a difference.
  • Laptops for all/smartboard in every classroom
  • Common, content-rich curriculum
  • All commercial math/literacy programs
  • differentiated instruction
  • smaller classes
  • cold calling (& other “checks for understanding”)
  • various small/school within a school academies
  • 90-120 minutes of purposeful reading and writing per day
  • turnaround strategies (new faculty; school designetc)
  • Cognitive/concept mapping; graphic representations.
Of course, you notice that laptops and other technologies aren't among the top 3 items. I can see it leaders might take Schmoker's points below to mean, technology isn't going to make a difference until we handle these 3 things first. That's a problem because I think technology and what we do are indivisible at this time in history. Consider this perspective from Tom Whitby (it's worth reading the whole thing):
I was always intrigued by the saying, “I taught him everything he knows, but not everything that I know!” I always thought that was a pretty clever saying. It was also true of educators in years gone by. They were the content experts. If you wanted knowledge, these experts had it. People paid good money to travel to the places where these content experts delivered their wares, universities, colleges and monasteries. Knowledge was a commodity and, if the expert held anything back, a student’s only recourse for more, was to search the libraries. Ah, the simplicity of the bygone days. As public education came about we had many more content experts and many more libraries. That was the model, listen to experts and read content in books housed in academic or public libraries. Since all of education was based on print media every teacher was media literate, if they could read and understand.
...Technology tools are no longer an option left to a teacher’s discretion. Students without a digital literacy will be handicapped as learners in their own lifetime. 
Source: Tom Whitby, No Defending Illiterate Educators
Is a content-rich curriculum a phrase that signals we're living in the past, a past bereft of media and technology?

Unfortunately, I found myself agreeing with the rest of Schmoker's presentation about simplifying what we teach (sheesh, who can teach all the stuff they've piled into the state curriculum?!?), what we put in the curriculum, and dumping all these extraneous programs brought in by central office administrators (of which I'm one)....

It's tough talk that would certainly free up dollars for schools and time for teachers. But a part of me keeps asking, have we picked the right essential things to get down cold?

A slide from my "Embracing Technology for Positive Change" presentation quoting the
eminently quotable David Warlick.

The more I reflect on this, the more ignorant I feel. As I recall the experiences that were most efficacious for my students, those included:
  1. being open to life and people as the curriculum, 
  2. checks for understanding that were problem-based, engaging students, and 
  3. as much reading for pleasure and purpose, as well as writing as possible.
Technology certainly plays a key role in each of these areas that *I* believe we need to do daily. It may be that we've crammed the classroom and our expectations with too many initiatives and programs.

I don't see MY experience of a classroom surviving at a time when we cram it all full of this or that expensive program (I won't make a list for fear that the vendor will assault me in some way, interrogate me at the next conference or my email box will fill up), or even when we cram it full of neat things we can do online.

In his presentation, Schmoker says the following is laudable in a school district, what the HR folks say to any candidate for a teacher position:
    1. You will not be hired unless you teach the curriculum and we monitor the curriculum.
    2. You have to teach according to strictures of Madeleine Hunter, her basic elements of a decent lesson...not a hundred things, just 5-6.
Well, it's been too long since I looked at Hunter's work...but as soon as I looked, I remembered:  

When designing lessons, the teacher needs to consider the seven elements in a certain order since each element is derived from and has a relationship to previous elements. Also a decision must be made about inclusion or exclusion of each element in the final design--NOT ALL SEVEN ELEMENTS WILL BE INCLUDED IN EVERY LESSON. It may take several lessons before students are ready for guided and/or independent practice.

When this design framework is implemented in teaching, the sequence of the elements a teacher includes is determined by his/her professional judgment.

1. (Learning Objective) Select an objective at an appropriate level of difficulty and complexity, as determined through a task analysis, diagnostic testing, and/or congruence with Bloom's cognitive taxonomy.
2. (Anticipatory Set) Motivate instruction by focusing the learning task, its importance, or the prior knowledge/experience of the learners.
3. State the lesson objective(s) to the students.
4. (Input) Identify and teach main concepts and skills, emphasizing clear explanations, frequent use of examples and/or diagrams, and invite active student participation.
5. Check for understanding by observing and interpreting student reactions (active interest, boredom) and by frequent formative evaluations with immediate feedback. Adjust instruction as needed and reteach if necessary.
6. Provide guided practice following instruction by having students answer questions, discuss with one another, demonstrate skills, or solve problems. Give immediate feedback and reteach if necessary.
7. Assign independent practice to solidify skills and knowledge when students have demonstrated understanding.
Ah, judgement. The teacher's judgement. I often see that as the greatest casualty of education reform, high stakes testing, legislating education "success--" we no longer believe that teachers have professional judgement to exercise.

In looking at this information, I do remember it. It was the process I followed when I taught every lesson. Since she preceeded me by several years in education, and knowing I was a person who needed visual cues, my wife had an illustrated chart made that summarized the steps for me (she was, and is, an excellent teacher), laminated and posted in the back of my classroom.

Somewhere, I have that old, laminated poster as a digital image. I'm so grateful I kept it. If only teaching were that simple.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


dgrady said...

Miguel, interesting blog. We're reading the Focus book in my distrrict. I wondered if Schmoker is implying that a sound curriculum can include technology integration. Don't ask me why. I don't have text evidence to prove this; but, it's the 21st Century. Who wouldn't make this assumption?

Miguel Guhlin said...

@dgrady Hi! When tech has led such a segregated experience in schools, "implying" that a sound curriculum includes technology is reprehensible.

We can't issue iPads to administrators (do an informal poll as to how many districts are doing this) but then fail to rethink our approach to using tech in schools.

Who wouldn't make the assumption? People who can't check use technology for the simplest things--principals and campus admin.

Let's demand and require tech-rich learning opportunities for admins and students.

dphillips51 said...

I agree with many of your reflections in this blog. I also think that the most important evaluator of students' reading is writing about it. Well-designed prompts that require kids to respond in thoughtful writing, whether in a blog, wiki, essay or significant journal entry both allow teachers to check whether students are "getting it" and also help kids process what they are reading and extend their thinking to forming conclusions and using logic skills.
All of this is predicated on the teacher's willingness to read and respond to students' writing quickly. I teach a dual-credit senior English course, and my students and I are constantly exchanging ideas and discussing, both verbally and in writing the things they are reading.
And we never do worksheets. Much more work for me, actually grading and responding, but students learn and retain the content--that doesn't happen with worksheets, as witnessed by the failure of students to understand grammar rules after 11 years of filling out worksheets. When they write a lot and get constant feedback, writing and grammar skills become intuitive.
I love technology and make extensive use of Web 2.0 tools, but it has no value if the teacher is not willing to demand more of himself than of the students.

The Courage to Lead