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September Issue

Vol 29|No 1|September 2018


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Looking back and looking forward

Just how big an educational revolution resulted
from all those technology dollars?

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

When microcomputers first came to school

Half a century has passed since I first tasted how computers might change schools for the better. In 1968 I was teaching English and social studies in a private school in Connecticut that had the foresight to connect with the mainframe at the University of Bridgeport.

Being a fan of simulations to bring historical decision-making to life for students, I hoped computers might help them to see the consequences of their choices. But I had to wait a few more years. This was a time of great exploration in schools with "open classrooms," "schools without walls" and what was called "The New Social Studies" — an approach that focused on inquiry learning but failed to win broad acceptance from social studies teachers across the land.

By 1980, Tom Snyder Productions, began producing the kinds of simulations I had in mind and those are still available and powerful today — "Decisions, Decisions!"

Before that, in 1978 while an elementary principal in New Jersey, we bought two Apple "microcomputers" for the school, and before long we were testing their potential full on, teaching students to program in Basic and wondering how they might best support student thinking, problem-solving and invention.

During a summer workshop at Columbia Teachers College at that time I attended with colleagues from our three elementary schools, the most powerful idea presented was the capacity of computers to "crunch numbers" in ways to make sense of huge databases. It was an idea that did not catch on quickly in the K-12 world.

Two Main Views of Computers in Classrooms

The educational world swiftly divided into two camps: those who saw computers as tools to support thinking and exploration and those who saw them as teachers or babysitters. Sadly, it was the second group that seized the day. Even within the camp that emphasized thinking, there was an unwarranted belief, subsequently discredited, that if students learned to program on computers, they would gain thinking skills that would transfer into other domains.

Some of us then spent several years showing students how to program turtles to move about on a screen, using Logo, which MIT's Seymour Pappert had lauded in his book — Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas — in which he argued for the benefits of teaching computer literacy in primary and secondary education. His ideas were theoretically exciting, but few of the benefits he predicted ever materialized.

During this past half century, in contrast with the excellent simulations produced by the Tom Snyder group, many of the products and programs sold to schools with grand promises proved wasteful and disappointing. We saw "drill-and-kill" software promoted ad nauseam at great cost with paltry results. We saw edutainment and frivolity. Then we had "surfing the Net" in the 1990s — which offered little more than browsing through information that was often unreliable.

During these decades, a huge amount was spent on equipment and then networking, with little investment in professional development or program development. This inspired me to comment that "Toolishness is foolishness!"

Despite a lack of evidence to support the notion that laptopping both students and schools would enhance their thinking, writing and overall performance, one-on-one computing became fashionable. It was not uncommon to sit at a conference and hear impressive claims that were never substantiated.

The Laptop Promise

If you buy a laptop for each student, you will see . . .

  • Better writing

  • Expanded knowledge

  • Increased achievement - higher scores

  • Improved skills for the modern workplace

  • Enhanced learning & teaching efficiency

  • Heightened motivation for all involved

  • Enriched preparation for global citizenry

  • Elevated problem-solving & decision-making

  • Intensified student-centered learning<

  • Augmented teaming and cooperation

As we entered a new century, laptopping schools was all the rage with technology companies like Microsoft trumpeting the benefits at conferences. As I outlined in 2002 in "After Laptop," many of the first experiments with one-on-one computing failed to produce the promised benefits.

And now?

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What evidence do we have of great results?


  • Can students think better now than they did 10-20 years ago? better than they did before computers, 30-40 years ago?

  • Can they write better? better than they did before computers, 30-40 years ago?

  • Are they better at math, science, civics and reading?

In the USA we can look at "The Nation's Report Card" -- "The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), first administered in 1969, is the largest continuing and nationally representative assessment of what our nation’s students know and can do in subjects such as mathematics, reading, science, and writing. Standard administration practices are implemented to provide a common measure of student achievement."

The results are reported clearly and dramatically. Of most pertinence for this article would be two classifications: PERCENTAGE OF STUDENTS AT OR ABOVE Proficient and PERCENTAGE OF STUDENTS AT Advanced.




Sadly, despite the various "so-called reform efforts" of the past two decades and the huge expenditure on computers, national results in all categories and subject areas have improved little and remain quite dismal, if you care anything about excellence.

The 2011 NAEP Writing Report Card for grades 8 and 12 showed the following: 24 percent of students at both grade levels scored at the proficient level on the writing assessment. Farther back in 1998, the percentage of students reaching proficient was 27 for 8th Grade and 22 for 12th Grade. Only 1 percent reached advanced at both grades in that year.

There is no evidence that the equipment, No Child Left Behind, or the recent focus on Core Standards have led to a major increase in the percentage of students who are performing at the PROFICIENT or ADVANCED levels.

This should be a matter of great concern to policy makers who have dithered about for the past two decades imposing reform strategies that have focused more on high stakes testing than capacity building. The preoccupation with the purchase of computers has been a side issue as money has been diverted from meaningful staff development to equipment.

If we hope to see a dramatic improvement in student's reading, writing, thinking, inferring and problem-solving, we must invest in professional development that will equip teachers to empower students to perform at a higher level.

Capacity Building

Improvement in student performance requires a substantial investment in professional development to change the way teachers work with students. It is not enough to lift standards, introduce tougher tests and buy lots of laptops.

Effective pedagogy - the ability to employ powerful teaching strategies - is at the heart of progress and improvement, but it has been pretty much ignored, underfunded and neglected for the past two decades. Washington has been quick to invest in high stakes testing and standards but reluctant to fund professional development adequately. During recent years of tight school budgets across the land, staff development has often been the first thing cut.

Hoping for improvement without funding capacity building is like squeezing blood from a stone.

A 2017 article in the LA Times reported that California scores on new tests tied to the Common Core Standards seemed to have flattened out or stagnated in the second and third years, as if some had hoped the tests themselves would have led to improvements.

One observer wisely commented that it takes more than tests to change performance:

"I'm not surprised they're flat," Gregory Cizek, a testing expert at the University of North Carolina, said of the California results.

Cizek was a technical advisor for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which developed the California tests.

In the past, he said, when states adopted new standardized exams, students' scores increased as they and their teachers became accustomed to the format and questions. But he described the California tests as a "different animal."

"They're requiring changes in classrooms to get gains," he said. "You're not going to budge this needle much if fundamentally the way kids are being taught doesn't change."

Diane Ravitch, once a supporter of high stakes testing and the Common Core Standards, has come to challenge this approach to school improvement, as she argued in her July, 2016 New York Times article, "The Common Core Costs Billions and Hurts Students."

The people who wrote the Common Core standards sold them as a way to improve achievement and reduce the gaps between rich and poor, and black and white. But the promises haven’t come true. Even in states with strong common standards and tests, racial achievement gaps persist. Last year, average math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined for the first time since 1990; reading scores were flat or decreased compared with a decade earlier.

The development of the Common Core was funded almost entirely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was a rush job, and the final product ignored the needs of children with disabilities, English-language learners and those in the early grades. It’s no surprise that there has been widespread pushback.

How teachers learn technology

I have been arguing since the 1990s that robust staff development is required if we hope to see teachers make smart use of new technologies in order to improve student thinking, problem-solving and performance.

An article of mine that first appeared in the January, 2001 issue of Electronic School, a publication of the National School Boards Association -- "How Teachers Learn Technology Best" -- laid out the strategies that would empower teachers to win results:

  • Read, reason and write more powerfully

  • Communicate productively with members of a global community

  • Conduct thoughtful research into the important questions, choices and issues of their times

  • Make sense of a confusing world and a swelling tide of information

  • Perform well on the new, more demanding state tests requiring inferential reasoning

The article and the strategies suggested remain just as pertinent (and ignored) today as they were when published, as funding flowed to equipment rather than adult learning. In a related March 2003 article -- "The True Cost of Ownership" -- I pointed out the need to fully fund the introduction of any innovation, identifying all key elements required for success.

 

This model would apply for the introduction of new technologies as well as something like implementing the Common Core Standards. Sadly, the wisdom of this approach is usually ignored by change agents who rush things and cut many corners as well as key investments. Some of the worst damage has been done by so-called philanthropists imposing simplistic changes on schools that are poorly implemented. They often try to impose change strategies from the business world that show a shocking ignorance of schools, teachers, learning and the best strategies to create growth and improvement.

What can any one school or school district do?

When a school makes student thinking, problem-solving and questioning a priority, and when that school invests heavily in professional development designed to equip all teachers with the strategies most likely to nurture such thinking, performance will improve in ways that are measurable and dramatic. But this kind improvement involves a commitment of 3-5 years, with peer coaching and sustained adult learning customized to match the learning styles and readiness levels of each teacher.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, some excellent models for teacher growth were developed by educational researchers such as Bruce Joyce, Beverly Showers and Sprinthall and Sprinthall. These models remain pertinent today, but most of them have been shoved aside in many places where high stakes testing has imposed a test-driven change agenda.

Many of the strategies proven effective back then are summarized in my article, "Designing Staff Development for the Information Age."

That article suggests the following key elements:

1. Staff development must offer immersion and transformation.

2. Staff development must inspire teachers to invent.

3. Staff development must be experience-based, with learning resulting from doing and exploring

4. Staff development must hook the curiosity, wonder or passion of teachers.

5. Staff development must respond to teachers' appetites, concerns and interests.

6. Staff development must consider the feelings, fears and anxieties of the learners.

7. Staff development must engage the perspective of teachers.

8. Staff development must appeal to learners at a variety of developmental stages.

9. Staff development must be properly funded.

It is quite clear that the wisdom and research of the 1980s and 1990s was pretty much ignored by so-called reformers in the last two decades. Here and there, wise school leaders kept the faith, investing in robust professional development that empowered teachers, bringing models like Habits of Mind and the International Baccalaureate program to life in their classrooms.

Moving to Proficiency and Beyond

A close examination of what is meant by "proficiency" on the Nation's Report Card for a category like writing clarifies the challenge involved in helping the majority of students in one school past proficiency to the advanced level of performance. It is this challenge that inspired my two most recent books.

Description of
Laptop Thinking and Writing

Description of
The Great Report

To honor the values and strategies for effective professional development outlined above, a school wishing to produce great movement to the proficient level and beyond would design activities for the teaching staff that would engage them in the kinds of thinking and writing activities outlined in these two books — a journey that might take 5-10 days spread out over two years.

It is not enough to equip students with laptops or tablets. The secret to the powerful use of laptops for writing and thinking is an understanding of incubation, percolation, fermentation, reverie and idea processing. Unless the staff has actively experienced and embraced these concepts and processes in a well-designed adult learning experience, it is unlikely the students will show much growth.


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