The important thing is not to stop questioning. – Einstein

Edutainment: new, “better” learning in 3 acts

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Here’s the latest “revolutionary way for Students — anyone who has a need or desire for knowledge — to connect with and learn from the best Teachers in the world.”  It’s called PowerLearning21.  Exciting name and premise – who wouldn’t be behind innovations in learning?  This one costs $2.99 and consists of watching a video of someone standing in front of a whiteboard explaining a concept.  Because, apparently, being in a classroom with a teacher writing on a whiteboard is antiquated, but watching the same thing happen on a monitor is revolutionary.

“New” is in again in education, tried and true is so 20th century.  As Diane Ravitch points out at Common Core:

“In the land of American pedagogy, innovation is frequently confused with progress, and whatever is thought to be new is always embraced more readily than what is known to be true.”

Ravitch and others recently took on the 21st century skills movement, fadbusting the door down just in time:

There is nothing new in the proposals of the 21st century skills movement. The same ideas were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the twentieth century.


Daniel Willingham points out a flaw in the growing movement toward higher order skills devoid of in-depth domain knowledge: the idea that

“…once the analytic skill is developed, they can always pick up the facts elsewhere. This attitude is reinforced in the “Intellectual and Policy Foundations” of 21st Century Skills document when it says, “With instant access to facts, for instance, schools are able to reconceive the role of memorization, and focus more on higher order skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.””

He adds, “Everyone understands that memorizing facts without skills is not enriching. People forget that training skills without facts doesn’t work.”

Glowing aspirations toward “critical thinking skills” are admirable, but D-Ed Reckoning helps review what critical thinking skills really are:

Those who think critical thinking/reading is a generalized skill are confusing the general procedure with the act of performing the procedure itself…

So, what we have is two separate problems. One problem is that students are often not taught how to spot faulty arguments and logical fallacies which are important skills needed to think and read critically. No one seriously disputes that this is a problem. These skills should be taught.

There is another problem that must also be dealt with. That problem is that students can’t comprehend well enough to extract the author’s conclusion, to discriminate evidence from opinion, and to determine if the author is trustworthy. All of these skills require and are a function of the student’s domain knowledge.


A closer look at the members of the coalition for 21st century skills might reveal where the pressure to move away from acquiring skills and knowledge is coming from.  With new technology comes exciting new ways to edutain.

What I see that frightens me most in education is not the focus on higher order thinking skills, but rather the idea that those skills pre-empt any need for knowledge in the digital age.  What I fear is what I see in my classroom, that “instant access to facts” leading students to snip information from websites they do not recognize as fallacious or inaccurate, a focus on the media collage as output (a basement Youtube video or glorified mix-tape), and a growing credulity for anything accessible via the internet.

Maybe it’s serendipitous then that Joanne Jacobs recently highlighted a post from The Onion and, because she’s had to explain herself before when doing so, plainly stated in the first sentence that it is “a satirical publication.”  Nonetheless, she managed to get one commenter who said “I read the article…and your post….this is freakin crazy” and had to be told by another commenter exactly what Jacobs said: that The Onion is satire.


Written by eduphile

March 8, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Keeping Kids Behind

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Joanne Jacobs has a post up which echoes my previous post “What’s So Important About Proper Placement?

Commentary wandered a bit from the main point, which is that high school level courses offered to high achieving middle schoolers may be stopped due to a lack of interest/enrollment from minority students, but it’s an interesting read.  Most comments reflect the controversy over heterogeneous classes, with a few former “smart kids” weighing in on having to carry the burden of the others in the group.

One commentor says “… the smart kids will remain smart, whether or not placed in advanced classes,” which would seem to miss the point: whether they remain smart or not is not so much a concern as whether they are being denied opportunities commensurate with their abilities, interests, and skills.

What’s more important?  The Harrison Bergeron approach to equality for the sake of self-esteem?  Or providing students the opportunities to accelerate?  What questions should be asked about the self-esteem of students held back and put in the position of “teaching” their peers?

One note: I always find the categorizations of students in such situations interesting: that is, that one group is the smarter, and the other group is lazy or apathetic.  In my experience, that lower level group is more often made up of students lacking certain skills to proceed – which makes accomplishing the tasks set in front of them next to impossible – not so much lazy or unwilling.  (Although there are a few of those too I’ve never found, with close scrutiny, that they are the majority that is often cited).

Written by eduphile

February 18, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Englemann and Inducing Learning

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D-Ed Reckoning has a video up of an interview with Zig Englemann, and an  interesting observation from a commenter, one I’ve found to true when speaking with some colleagues:

This sums up the problem with DI and most explicit reading programs. The educators HATE them.

The tyranny of teacher likes and dislikes is a difficult obstacle in the classroom for several reasons.  One, teaching is an isolated job, and a job done mostly in isolation.  Cursory evaluations, no matter how detailed, are rarely accurate assessments of performance especially if, as has been my experience, the evaluator and teacher agree upon the date and time of the observation for evaluation.  Two, the heroic stigma of the teacher allows for the perfectly well-meaning to step into a classroom with heroic ideas not necessarily backed up by strategies which match the needs of the learners.  Three, student inability is often blamed on attributed to developmental progress, especially in the realms of early childhood development which Englemann says “tend to have norms about what kids typically do at different ages, but precious little about what to do if you want to induce particular learning.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the desire to teach, and the heroic efforts many teachers put forth in doing so. But Englemann brings up some good arguments against setting up a system dependent on, or lauded for, teacher creativity, or one in which lack of performance is blamed on the student’s developmental level:

So what do you do if a kid is developmentally behind? Hold your breath and hang on?

What you want to do is set it up so that you don’t have to wait on development unrealistically.You certainly have to wait on development in the extent that if they can’t do it, you can’t say hey, you’re age 13, you should be able to do this, you’re entering the stage of formal operations.No, you have to say well let’s see what you don’t know, we’ll teach it to you, see how fast you can learn it, and move on from there.

It is in the philosophies of how best to induce learning that education so often draws its lines in the sand. Discovery learning, or direct instruction? Developmental progression, or systematic introduction to practice and skills building?

In the video Englemann discusses one of the most over-used criticisms of his Direct Instruction program that I tend to hear – that it is “drill and kill” (PDF link), and he delineates between the type of zealotry that is often ascribed to the program (by teachers less familiar with it) and its actual goal:

Academic learning is not everything. Kids have to learn from their environment, they have to learn from their experience, they have to learn how to learn some things on their own including how to deal with problems.But in terms of the realm of academic learning you can do it – you can give them a head start…

What I see all too often at the high school level is students suddenly expected to have certain skills and knowledge – that “hey, you’re X years old and should be able to do this,” Englemann mentions. This is expected of them because they have presumably passed certain high-stakes assessment tests, their performance on which should indicate they have acquired certain basic skills and are ready to move on. What happens to derail that is social promotion, or targeting test-taking skills in students who have failed, or any manner of remediations intent on moving the student past the basic assessment without considering how that throws the student under the bus academically.

Finally, he talks about the ways in which I often observe the heroic intentions of teachers go awry as they implement their creatively (and certainly lovingly) constructed lessons:

They don’t realize how much they over talk, how much their instructions are unclear, and how impatient they get with the kids when they’re unable to say it exactly the way they want to say it.

The intent here is not to bash teachers (since I am one, and can count a host of excellent educators who have taught me in turn) or creativity, but to point out that creativity and well-meaning are not going to erase what has not been taught. Even more, they are most likely not going to teach what has not been taught because they depend on exposure to activities and ideals of engagement, rather than on consistency in building a foundation of knowledge and successful student completion of measurable tasks. A fantastic lesson on the imagery of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will bring little appreciation to students who cannot identify an author’s purposeful construction of sensory detail (requiring at least a rudimentary knowledge of adjectives and adverbs) and motif. To expect students to enjoy activities without giving them confidence in their potential to successfully complete them too often leads to the frustration that students “just don’t get it.” It’s possible they don’t get it because they haven’t been given the means to get there.

As a bonus, go over to the Core Knowledge blog, which is talking about the website devoted to the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.  This is a website I share with my students every year when we begin learning about effective research, and one which illustrates the darker side of creativity – that it can also be used to confuse, misinform, and misdirect, evidence of which can be found in the continual operation of Snopes, a website devoted to debunking scams, urban legends, and other proliferate email bamboozlery.

Written by eduphile

February 9, 2009 at 1:30 am

Fun With Math

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This video, which I originally saw on, and which is making the rounds of other blogs now, is both hilarious and frustrating.

It reminded me of some of my favorites:

Abbot and Costello on doughnut math:

Abbot and Costello on “Two Fives and a Ten” (with bonus “Who’s on First” routine):

The “Two Fives and a Ten” routine reminds me of a Penn & Teller piece with an old money scam:

Despite being in the G&T program at my middle school, my parents still tell the story of how my 7th grade math teacher told them not to worry about my inability to manage math because “girls don’t need it.”  I never truly understood the relationship between numbers until I waittressed in bars in college and had to quickly calculate change (and my tip) at the table from a pouch worn on my waist full of coins and bills – no running back to the bartenders and the computer for that job.

Written by eduphile

February 8, 2009 at 12:28 am

Mind The Gap: Creativity vs. Content?

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Joanne Jacobs highlights a post at D-Ed Reckoning that questions the content of a hands-on “21st century” learning experience. Joanne’s second comment asks

“But why the endless “arts & crafts” fascination on the part of so many K-12 teachers, at the expense of true academic knowledge?”

The crayola curriculum has maintained a steady growth in the classroom at all levels. It is a subtle curriculum – not always visible to the naked eye as so obvious an activity as a poster or needless re-enactment. It also emerges as writing across the curriculum – science students in high school coached through a narrative in which they imagine themselves as matter experiencing sublimation, fusion, condensation, vaporization, etc., making cell models from marshmallows and pretzels, and so forth.

One of D-Ed Reckoning’s comments brings up the “creeping effect:”

Creeping effect is when teachers, some well-meaning and others or are simply lazy or ignorant, decide to borrow from the toolbox of less-than-age appropriate activities.

Worked for 4th graders? Let’s go 5th!

Worked for 5th? Let’s go 6th!

Worked for 6th? Come on, high school chemistry can do it!

It often seems as though education invented the idea of “21st century skills” based on a superficial assumption of technology-enhanced interaction in business – something viewed from afar by most schools. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor gives a little background, but it’s the graphic at the top of the article that strikes my interest. Labeled “What does creativity mean?” it is a poll of sorts weighing answers from businesses and employers against superintendents – you have to wonder how frequently the superintendents interacted as closely with their “employees” (the students) as the respondents in the “business/employers” category.

Jay P. Greene recently discussed The Global Achievement Gap, a book proclaiming the need for 21st century skills in schools which Fayetville Public schools bought 2,000 copies of, and quotes a critic who notes:

Unfortunately, Wagner dismisses measurable academic content while embracing buzzwords like ‘adaptability’ and ‘curiosity,’ which no one could possibly be against, but also which no one could possibly measure. Do we really care if our students are curious and adaptable if they cannot read and write their own names?

A visit to the book’s website reveals this testimonial:

“The Global Achievement Gap should be grabbed by business leaders to guide a much-needed conversation with educators.”

My question would be, will business leaders actually guide this conversation, or is education now dictating to the 21st century world what skills and abilities IT should expect, cater to, and remediate based on the stance schools are taking in teaching them?

UPDATE 2/3: The dam has broken. Joanne Jacobs highlights Sandra Stotsky, the critic mentioned in Jay Greene’s blog and quoted here. Jay Greene continues the discussion and posts his editorial, with Bugs Bunny imagery and bonus Dan Willingham comment.  Dan Willingham recently took on Alfie Kohn on various educational issues.  And the Core Knowledge blog is calling it “21st century snake oil.”

I still want to know: who is guiding the development of 21st century skills?  Are businesses informing education about what they need to  see more of, or is education telling business what it WILL see more of?

Written by eduphile

January 29, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Classic novels and “the other”

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(This post has been edited for clarity.)

The debate over whether the standard classic novel fare of many American high schools is still relevant has reared its ugly head again. Guest columnist John Foley, an English teacher, writes that because of our new president, “novels that use the “N-word” repeatedly need to go.” He suggests first getting rid of Huck Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men, and later, in his blogged rebuttal to critics, also throws out The Great Gatsby because “those spoiled characters really piss me off.” I’m going to hope he’s being facetious, because I find that a superficial reaction.

Instead, he recommends Lonesome Dove, Snow Falling On Cedars, and Going After Cacciato. Since I have not read or taught the books Foley recommends, this is not an argument against them, but rather for the others, which I have.

After beginning with the argument that the books use the n-word, Foley goes on to say the books are too slow for “students accustomed to fast-paced everything,” or use dialect “every bit as challenging as Shakespeare’s Old English.” His overall argument seems to be that the books are old, and students find it difficult to identify with the situations and time periods they address. Yet his replacement choices are a story of the American West, an event which occurred 13 years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Vietnam War – time periods I would argue are no more familiar to today’s students than the others until they are given the historical perspective necessary to understand the controversies of the time.

At Joanne Jacobs, discussion centers on the many possible themes of the novels which are familiar – prejudice, racism, the American dream. What is missing from the conversation is the larger thematic category I would place these books under: the American perception and treatment of “the other” – those we consider different from us due to the slimmest circumstance of race, gender, soci-economic status, and etc. What Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Lee, and Twain refused to do, and what makes their works lingering classics, was infantilize “the other,” to stereotype them, or ignore how the characters around them coddled, defended, abused, or ignored them.

Our president-elect’s inauguration speech was strewn with references which some fear were unintelligible to those not even two generations removed from their occurrences. Surely then, any argument against a classic American novel should not be that it is too difficult to read, or we risk arguing in favor of underestimating the ability and potential of our students. To argue that the events in the novel are too old to be relevant to today’s students is a little silly in light of an inaugural address which brought back to the forefront the sacrifices of Americans from immigrants to those who “fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.” To eliminate novels with overarching themes which continue to repeat themselves because students “have appeared very uncomfortable” is to rob students of the opportunity to read works written because their subject matter made the authors themselves uncomfortable, and inspired them to expose and explore that discomfort.

In short, these novels are not simply about their time periods or the n-word. If that were true, they wouldn’t continue to fascinate readers – yes, even impatient teenagers, when presented effectively. They are about how we choose to set ourselves apart, to distinguish between “us” and “them,” and what those distinctions mean in terms of how we develop law, policy, and behavior governing equality and basic human rights. What fascinates me, as a teacher, is watching students realize we sometimes possess traits exactly like those we despise, fear, or admire in these characters, and in that realization find within ourselves the hidden qualities that make these characters resonate – frailty and extraordinary humanity in equal parts.

Written by eduphile

January 24, 2009 at 4:54 am

What’s so important about proper placement?

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A comment on the Taylor Daily Press community forum brings up a good question.  In response to my observation that heterogeneous grouping results in “chunking,” “covering,” and using higher level students as teachers, commentor Delila asked:

Why is it unfair to high-performing students to act as teachers in group learning? Isn’t that the way it used to be in the old “one-room schoolhouse” concept? Obviously the teacher has to maintain control & is the ultimate authority. However, most high-performing students have natural leadership abilities anyway. It enhances their self-image, strengthens their skills, assists the teacher, and reinforces the lessons to the low-performing students when practiced in a controlled environment.

It’s a good question with a reasonable argument – shouldn’t students have the opportunity to practice and refine their leadership skills?  Of course.  In the ideal classroom, this would be happening with all students.  In a classroom where there is a large disparity between ability levels, however, there may be some unforeseen consequences which I’ve observed:

1. Higher ability students who believe that instruction cannot move forward until all students understand may a) get frustrated with lower ability students, and b) feel obligated to do some “under the table” teaching (often more like providing answers) very quickly in order to move their own progress ahead as much as possible.  The act of instruction requires, at the very least, providing information, modeling, and allowing the student to practice on their own before providing answers or revision.  This is not going to happen in five minutes’ time.

2. Lower ability students may become co-dependent and lose self-esteem, especially if they are embarrassed by their inability to understand and/or complete tasks within the time allowed, or what they perceive to be the allowed time.  I mention the perception of time allowed because in a heterogeneous class with a large difference in ability levels you will always have students who are able to answer quickly – usually by blurting.  There are ways to circumvent this, of course, but the stigma may remain from past experiences.

3. Occasional occurrences of student-to-student tutoring in class aren’t bad, even in groups.  But when the higher performing students feel obligated to do so every day, under the table or otherwise, then they’re being put in a position they do not deserve.  They may never get behind, but they won’t get ahead either.

4. If the students are high performing enough to be consistently ahead of their group, shouldn’t they be allowed the opportunity to move ahead?  If I have 4 such students in one class, 7 in another, 5 in the third, and 3 each in the fourth and fifth, that’s pretty close to a single class size – and why not place them where they will be successful?  The same goes for the lower performing students – if they are interspersed throughout classes, and their placement is not moving them forward, why shouldn’t they be placed where they are only in competition with themselves, and can move forward without intimidation?  Some argument may be made that students need to learn to work in groups of differing ability – improving their 21st century skills and what not – but I don’t think this skill is as important as mastery of the core subjects, which will eventually inform and provide those 21st century employment opportunities.

Kitchen Table Math is discussing a study in which 7th grade depression is attributed to student experience in the first grade, including some anecdotes about heterogeneous grouping.  One quote from the study says:

Often, children with poor academic skills believe they have less influence on important outcomes in their life.  Poor academic skills can influence how children view themselves as students and as social beings.

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January 22, 2009 at 12:07 am