Friday, July 29, 2016

A Principal Plays Pokemon Go: Lessons Learned So Far

Curiosity won out, and I downloaded Pokemon Go for two reasons. First of all, the publicity and news about the app made me curious. And, secondly, as a technology advocate, I wanted to see if it has any educational value. Immediately, after downloading the app to my iPhone, opening it, and setting up my account, I found a world in which I knew absolutely nothing.

Upon entering the world of "Pokemon Go," the screen warned me "Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings." Music played, and the progress bar indicated I was almost there, wherever there is. Suddenly I was, or my chosen avatar was, in the game. Immediately, I was facing something called a "Bulbasaur." Not being fluent in Pokemonese, I had no idea what this creature was, and even worse, I had no idea what to do with it. On instinct perhaps, I grabbed the red and white ball with my finger and flung it at the creature. It flew over it, bounced and immediately opened and vacuumed the creature inside. "Gotcha" appeared on the screen, and I assumed that was a good thing. Now, a week later, after capturing more than a dozen creatures with names I've never heard of, I have advanced to "Level 6," whatever that means.

On a surface level, playing Pokemon Go pushed me well beyond my comfort-level from the start. I know very little about Pokemon. I certainly did not know anything about how to play the game. I could have perhaps found some online videos or instructions, but like so many young people do with video games, I just jumped in, with the knowledge that messing up in this world was not the end of that world or mine. In my brief discomfort because of my lack of knowledge, I was forced to learn. I used what knowledge I had from other electronic games I've played, and just played. I spoke to others who have been playing the game and learned more. While I am certainly not claiming to be an expert, I can say I have begun to learn more of the Pokemon world as represented in the Pokemon Go app, and more and more about myself.

Perhaps some would say I've been wasting time; I even have made the comment "What a time-waster!" But, I must not forget that I had many students who said the same thing about sitting in my high school English class. I would tell them, "You never really know when something you learn today might have use in the future." I should perhaps also take this same tentative approach in my judgments toward playing and learning how to play Pokemon Go. I don't really know when I might have need of what I've learned. On one level, immersion into a safe unknown and having to sink and swim has its own benefits. On another, well, who knows, I might find myself someday facing a Bulbasaur with only a handful of balls.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

When Transforming & Innovating Your School Seems Hopeless: 3 Things You Can Do

"You got to use the power that you got." Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Most of us face situations where success seems impossible or improbable. Many of these situations involve what Malcolm Gladwell calls "Goliaths." These are adversaries or adverse conditions that appear to be insurmountable. In education, we often find ourselves in these "Goliath" situations where our initial assessment is that we can't possibly succeed, because we are out-manned, out-resourced, and out-powered, but according to Gladwell all is not lost. At the heart of our problem is our misconceptions about the situation and about who really has the power.

So what can we do? According to Gladwell, we can do the following:
  • Rethink the idea of what an "advantage" is. Conventional wisdom sometimes tells us what is an advantage. For example, being a small school might seem to place that school at a disadvantage. It might not be able to offer all the extra-curricular activities, classes, and programs that a much larger school would be able to offer. Yet, the "advantage" the smaller school might have has to do with its ability to be more flexible, and hence change and improvements might be implemented much easier and more quickly than in a larger school. Nimbleness is certainly the case with smaller schools with smaller staffs. Often they can react more quickly and gracefully to changing conditions. We can as Gladwell tells us, turn our disadvantages into advantages.
  • Change the rules. Often, in the midst of situations where we face adverse conditions, and we feel that loss is eminent, we feel hopeless. We feel hopeless because, in that situation, if we play by the rules, we are certain to lose. But, who said we had to play by these rules? Why can't we change them, modify them, and approach the adversity in an entirely new manner? Like the David and Goliath story, David chose not to engage the giant in a conventional manner, because he would have surely lost. Instead, he fought unconventionally and in a way his adversary wasn't expecting and won. Changing the rules is climbing out of the box systems put us in and reinventing the game. When you're faced with a sure loss, what do you have to lose?
  • Use what you have. All of us in adversarial situations facing sure defeat, begin to engage in "What-if" thinking, such as, "What if we had more computers?" Or, "What if we had more money for teacher salaries?" The rest of those questions are outcomes we would like to see. Sometimes, though, in the face of adverse and adversarial conditions and sure loss, we have to turn to what we have, and often what we have and what we control is more than we think. For example, if you want a 1:1 computer program and can't find funding to purchase computers for every student, then "use what you have." Perhaps enough students have their own computers and you can open your network for BYOD and just purchase computers for those who can't afford them. This accomplishes the goal by "using what you got."
Sure defeat isn't always a sure thing, as Gladwell makes very clear in his book, David and Goliath. We can prevail in more situations than we think by being willing to rethink our advantages, changing the rules, and just using what we've got.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Teachers Impact Students' Lives in Immeasurable Ways

"The effects of teaching may not show up until long after students leave school and in ways the teacher never dreamed of." Elliot Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of Mind
How do you measure the true educational impact of a teacher? If you consult psychometricians, they say it is simple. You pre-test, deliver instruction, and you post-test. On this our "educational sciences" are based. But do these tests really measure the teacher's most important impact on students' lives? Is the most important task of a teacher to demonstrate that they can "improve a student's test scores?" And, equally important, no matter what our state and federal education bureaucracy tells us, "Are these state standardized test results really capturing learning that will be meaningful to those students' future lives, or are these results simply better predictors on how students will score on other standardized tests?"

Elliot Eisner's book, The Arts and the Creation of Mind depicts an image of a teacher that is much more complex and complete than that currently promoted by the "education sciences" to which modern education finds itself enslaved. The teacher is much more farsighted than the teacher who can't wait for the latest standardized test scores at the end of the year. Eisner's teacher is an "environmental designer" who "creates" situations and places where students gain "an appetite to learn."

Eisner's teacher is not a technician who uses "test data" to choose "canned scripts" and the latest adopted "scientifically validated methods and curriculum" whose purpose, is not to inspire wonder and imagination, but whose purpose is to make some education administrator or politician feel like they are effectively improving education. The teacher should not be teaching by following recipes; they should be engaging students in a "mind-altering curriculum" that forever changes them into forever learners.

What's wrong with the current grip that so-called "education sciences" have on schools is that they have created an impoverished, assembly-line form of education that students don't have to participate in; they only need to be subjected to it. Our education system still strives to run "smoothly," in a standardized manner and as efficiently as possible, and to get as many students through the credentialing process. It is short-sighted and its vision can't see beyond the "testing extravaganza at the end of the year.

But as Eisner makes clear in his book, if you really want "educational gold" in the classroom, then a "high-degree teaching artistry is needed. You need classrooms of "improvisation and unpredictability," not classrooms constructed according to rigid scientific principles. The teacher, in this innovative and creative classroom, is not a scientist who constantly studies the latest test data and looks at his repertoire of "research-based, scientifically-validated" classroom scripts for the one to apply because the data indicates it is called for. The teacher is what Eisner calls "a midwife to the child's creative nature."

As I look back at my years in elementary school, I see one teacher who I would really say was the midwife to my own creative nature. She didn't make noise about my performances on tests. She genuinely questioned and encouraged me when I showed curiosity in the solar system, astronomy, biology, tadpoles, frogs, and trees. She listened attentively when I read stories I had written aloud in class and encouraged me to write more. She encouraged me to read anything and everything I could get my hands on in our school library, even helping me get permission from the librarian to wander into and check out books from the "junior high section" instead of the elementary section where all six-graders were constrained. I read more books that year than perhaps in any other time of my life because of her. In a word, she designed an environment that helped me grow my curiosity and a massive appetite to learn that is still alive today.

My greatest concern with the Standards-Standardized-Testing-Research-Based-Accountability educational milieu we've created in our schools is the damage it is doing to students far into their futures. Does all this focus and obsession with test scores really matter in the lives of our students? The true impact we have on student lives is an impact that hasn't happened yet, and its an impact that can't be measured by standardized tests. My sixth grade teacher had no idea that the classroom environment she created would mean that I would become a teacher myself. She had no idea that I would become a principal. She also had no idea that my passion for reading, writing, and appetite to learn would stay with me the rest of my life.

Perhaps if we really want to focus on "student outcomes" we need to set our sights beyond test data and create places of imagination, creativity, and innovation where curiosity is treasured, learning is not just measured, but valued. Not everything worthwhile can be reduced to pre-tests and post-tests, and the real impact of our work with students will be measured by the lives they live far beyond the classroom.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Evernote Raises Prices & Degrades Service for Basic Users: Is It Worth It for Education Users?

Evernote is increasing its pricing for Premium users and Plus users while degrading service to those who have chosen to use the service's Basic option. I have been an Evernote user and a premium user since May of 2010, and I have often blogged about its capabilities as note taking software. I have also led staff and professional development about the product. I still use it every day, both personally and professionally. Still, I hope Evernote knows what it is doing.

In a blog post (see "Changes to Evernote's Pricing Plans") the company claims that it "doesn't take change to our pricing model lightly, and we never take you for granted."

I certainly hope so. I certainly understand that companies like Evernote need to raise revenue for improvements, but this personally places me at a price point where I begin to ask the question, "Is the yearly subscription price worth it?"  It's not like there aren't other less expensive options out there. For example, I've used and still use Microsoft's OneNote, and I could so easily switch to it and accomplish what I want with that software, or even find some other alternative, but I have loyalty to Evernote as a great product, but changes in prices and functionality weaken my loyalty as a long-time user.

At this point, I will wait and see what Evernote does with the added revenue, but I do have these words of caution for Evernote. I am not a business user, so I do not really care to see improvements that make the product better for corporate America, unless these also improve my own functionality. To assume that those business improvements to Evernote software make it a better product for my job as an educator and education scholar is a mistake. Often companies forget core users in their efforts to capture new markets. I hope this isn't what Evernote is doing.

As an educator, I chose Evernote in 2010 because it was a great note-taking platform that was inexpensive, versatile, and accessible across devices. At that time, it didn't pretend to do something else. It was reliable. It did exactly what I wanted it for. But this is important: Improvements of a product aren't always improvements to all users.

If Evernote is making these changes in pricing and packaging to go after business users, there is the danger that they are forgetting us, the education users and everyday users who have been passionately loyal, like in my case, for 6 years.

I am not at the point of cancelling my Evernote account yet, but I want that company to know that I will be watching out for those "improvements." If I am going to be paying more for Evernote, then you can bet my expectations for your product have gone up as well. Your claim that you aren't "taking me for granted" will only prove true over time.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Did SAS Provide Gifts to UNC System for Special Future Considerations of its EVAAS System?

It seems, according to an article, software giant, SAS, who already has a multi-million dollar contract with North Carolina Public Schools for its EVAAS value-added software system, provided undisclosed air travel for the UNC Board of Governors and candidate Margaret Spellings during the recent presidential search. (See WRAL's "SAS Provided Undisclosed Air Travel During UNC Presidential Search.") This raises some interesting questions.

Most of us in education are very aware that SAS would stand to gain should North Carolina adopt some of the proposals that would evaluate new teacher programs by tying the performance of these college programs to "student growth measures" on state standardized tests. In light of these "gifts" to the UNC system, SAS would "just happen to be there" with its EVAAS system should North Carolina make this adoption.

Is it not equally interesting that SAS provided air travel to Margaret Spellings, whom most of us in education see as a major advocate for standardized testing and accountability measures? We have her to thank for her support of the failure of the "test and punish" systems of accountability under No Child Left Behind. Naturally, SAS obviously wants someone as UNC president who would push the same kinds of measures at the university level, so why not provide her air travel? I submit that this means that North Carolina sees the adoption of EVAAS value-added measures in the future for all North Carolina university teacher education programs.

Ultimately, the UNC system in situations like this should not accept gifts from corporations who might stand to gain from future university decisions. The UNC system should reimburse SAS for the entire amount of these "gifts" to ensure that it is not subject to being bought by corporations. It is a matter of integrity, which our universities still have and our state politicians do not. It's also very convenient that SAS did not disclose the gifts as they were apparently supposed to do.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Are the Concepts of 'Grit' and 'Mindset' Attempts to Erase Importance of Social Justice & Equity?

While reading an essay entitled "Foucault, Power, and Organizations" by Stewart Clegg, I have begun to write and congeal thoughts about the new embrace by educationalists of the ideas of teaching students about "grit" and "mindsets." More and more books you pick up on educational methods and teaching practices seem to increasingly refere to Carol Dweck's ideas about "mindsets" and their role in success . (I have read her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.) Then there's all this discourse about "grit" as well. Though this concept goes back to Francis Galton, Duckworth, in her book, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has more recently brought this term to the forefront.
When reading Clegg, he writes: "Bio-power normalizes through discursive formations of psychiatry, medicine, social work and so on. The terms of these ways of constituting the normal become institutionalized and incorporated into everyday life. Our own reflective gaze takes over the disciplining role as we take on the accounts and vocabularies of meaning and motive that are available to us as certain other forms of account are marginalized or simply erased out of currency."
Some questions:
Is the employment of the now "psychological concepts of 'mindset' and 'grit' a means of constituting a new normal using the psychological and educational sciences to marginalize ideas of social injustice and inequity?
Is the employment of these concepts in the educational apparatus a means to erase any thoughts or ideas of inequity and social injustice from our society?

Here's some my of my working thoughts on this matter:
The discourse of "grit" and "growth mindset" could function as a discourse that seeks to install a 'reflexive gaze" into students that asks them to disregard their circumstances in life, their experiences of poverty, misfortune and lives lived in inequity, and "get with the program."
It is an explicit "scientific" manifestation of the "bootstrap mythology" that propagates the idea that "if you work hard, then you will be successful."
It is a reflexive gaze which banishes any thought of inequity in society. It is directed at the souls of students to make them docile and compliant with the educational program.
It conditions individuals to ignore inequity in society and allows those who continue to stack the economic system in their favor to retain their pre-eminence.
It attempts to dispel any resistance to a socially unjust society. Ultimately it is a application of the psychological and educational sciences to the service of disciplining those who question the injustice of society.
I think perhaps before we jump on the "mindset" and "grit" teaching methodology bandwagon, we might want to ask some of these and other critical questions about what they really are doing with our students and our society.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Is All This Talk About Grit and Growth Mindset Nonsense?

All this talk about "grit" and "growth mindset" as a means to get students to think in such a way as to "erase" the realities of the difficult circumstances in which they live seems to me as a way for politicians and educators to absolve themselves from the guilt of the inequality and inequity that exists in our society. Instead of advocating for the less fortunate and calling attention to how those with the most resources are exploiting the system and rigging it in their favor, we are being told as educators we simply need to tell students to engage in the "power of positive thinking" and they will be able to overcome their lives of misery and misfortune. It is the "bootstrap myth" now wrapped up in new clothes termed as "grit" and "growth mindset." What do we tell students 10 or 20 years later with the myths have faded and their lives haven't been magically transformed by the "power of positive thinking?"

I didn't exactly grow up in the level of poverty and misery that I often hear many of my students experience, but I did grow up with a family of five kids and two parents who worked incessantly to provide for us. We perhaps did not live in hunger as some kids experience today, and I can say I always had a coat and shoes to wear. But, I was all too well aware that I did not always have the things my classmates had: a car to drive to school bought by my parents, the most fashionable clothes, or the latest gadgets. I was often aware that money was tight, which meant that I sometimes had to work in order to pay for some of the things I wanted, like my high school class ring or those senior field trips. Those who adhere to the "bootstrap mythology" would say I perhaps was a better person because of this. Perhaps, but is there not something fundamentally amiss here? Still, why is it that some don't even have to worry about "pulling themselves up by bootstraps" and others do not. All of this reminds of one instance where my own family circumstances had a direct impact on my class performance, and no one ever knew.

My sophomore year in high school I took a world history class. A major assignment for this class was the creation of a scrapbook of newspaper articles on current events. The teacher's requirement was that each article had to cover current events in a foreign country, and the final grade for the course was, in part, based on my ability to cut and paste articles from countries around the world. The broader the international representation of articles, the better the final grade at the end of the semester. Sounds like an easy assignment, right?

It turns out I did not do well with this assignment. Why? As I mentioned earlier, my family was large and money was tight, so it turned out that they only newspaper I had access to was our hometown newspaper, which, if I was lucky, during an entire week, it might have a single article covering an international event. This meant that it was very difficult for me to collect international current event articles for this major assignment. In the end, this translated into a much lower grade for this course, not because of my knowledge of the content, but because my parents did not subscribe the correct newspapers.

Now those who aspire to the "grit" philosophy would say that I was perhaps not resourceful enough; that I gave in too easily. Surely I could have scrounged up 25 cents for a more comprehensive and internationally focused newspaper, they say. Perhaps in my "closed mindset" I just discounted any opportunities that existed for me to properly complete the assignment. After all, I only needed to let the teacher know of my predicament and she would have helped me locate resources. Well, all that may be, but what about the lack of consideration by the teacher in the first place? This teacher just assumed that her students would have access to regular newspapers that consistently captured international current events. In the end I was not graded on my ability to understand world history, but on the simple fact that my family did not subscribe to a daily newspaper that covered more events than the local watermelon festival.

I say all this to emphasize that when we talk about "grit" and "growth mindsets," we have to be very careful that we do not use that as an excuse to totally ignore where our students are coming from. Putting unrealistic hurdles in front of our students, and justifying them by saying that they will help them grow is utter nonsense. We can't ignore the impact of our students' backgrounds when it comes to their achievement. Sometimes the deck is stacked against them, and it is our job to step forward, and not use it as an excuse for poor performance, but use it as an opportunity to advocate for equity and social justice. Long ago, I quietly accepted my mediocre grade in that world history course. No one ever knew the real reasons why I did not have 50 articles in my scrapbook. I suspect many of our students today do the same. The ideas of 'Grit' and 'Growth Mindset' should never be used to ignore the poverty and lack of our students; real worlds.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Sec of Ed King Pushes for Same Failed Ed Policy Seen Under NCLB and Race to the Top

It seems new Secretary of Education, John King seeks to continue the same reliance on test scores and superficial ratings systems to determine how effective schools are doing that his predecessor Arne Duncan pushed. From his recent remarks, King wants to force states into using a "A-F Rating system" (or something similar) to rate the effectiveness of schools, which happens to be the same nonsensical idea that the North Carolina Legislature and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has imposed on public schools in North Carolina. (See "Education Secretary Takes Heat for Pushing Single Rating of Schools"). He wants states to come up with a "single summative rating for schools or districts" that captures the success or failure of schools in the most simplest way possible.

But I have a question for Secretary of Education King: What if the success or failure of a school is not reducible to a single letter or number grade? What if there are so many factors that aren't captured in test scores that attribute to the success or failure of schools? What if education is too complicated for your idea of reducing it to a single rating? 

All King needs to do is look at our North Carolina's A-F public school rating system if he wants to really see how ludicrous this idea is. North Carolina's school rating system rates schools with low poverty students much better than it does their effectiveness. (See The News and Observer article, "NC Public School Letter Grades Reflect Wealth of Students' Families"). King's continued push of the whole idea that all the things schools do to be successful can be captured in a single rating system shows how little he really understands the complexity of schooling and education. His misguided leadership and push for this "rating system" will only continue the failed policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

At some point this Quixotian search by politicians and education leaders for a way to capture school and teacher effectiveness with numbers, ratings, and opaque statistical measures has to be abandoned. With each successive Secretary of Education, President, and revision of federal law, this viral idea that there is a simplistic measure of school or educator effectiveness gets passed on, despite the fact that some states, like North Carolina, have been piddling with this idea for well over 20 years now. Schools, teaching, and education are simply too complex to be reduced to an arbitrary number, letter or "Not Met" rating. Teachers in the classroom and principals in the schools know that their places of practice are too complex and involve too many factors beyond the control of the school. Parents and teachers grow tired of all the testing. Our schools continue to be more concerned about test scores than actual students. All of this happens because of education leaders from the Secretary of Education's office, down through state departments of education, to the local level, just can't let go of their dream of finding a simple measure of education effectiveness.

A "summary rating system for schools, teachers, or educators" is nonsense, and is clearly an idea promoted by people with little understanding of teaching, learning, or schools. I am beginning to ask: Do we really need a Secretary of Education and a US Department of Education? It really does make me wonder if it is time to dismantle the US Department of Education, because it bears a big responsibility in the "test-em-if-they-breathe" failures of education policies since 2000.