4 keys that predict which education idea will be more than just a fad

Why do some ideas about education become common knowledge, while others don’t? According to  From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four key attributes:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

The book explores educational ideas that made the leap from academia to being something that “every” teacher knows about:

Tracking the history of these ideas as they journeyed from research to practice is a fascinating look not just at education, but also politics, culture, personalities, and pure luck. Contrasting each these ideas with four similar ones that did not receive the same attention makes the case even more compelling.

The 4 characteristics of sticky educational ideas

In part 1 of this blog post, I’ll summarize the four characteristics that are commonly found in ideas that become “sticky” and well known to educators. In part 2, I’ll compare those ideas and practices with the current trend of making and makerspaces in schools. Will “making” be a sticky idea?

1 – Perceived significance: People have to hear about the idea multiple  and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

For example, Multiple Intelligence theory helped teachers explain that students who don’t do well in school aren’t simply unintelligent. At a time when school was becoming more standardized (1980s), it was a big picture explanation of how teachers could still meet student needs without really changing curriculum. Coming from Howard Gardner, a respected Harvard professor, meant that it would be listened to, talked about, and taken seriously.

2 – Philosophical compatibility: Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

At the turn of the 20th century, rote learning and recitation were the primary modes of schooling. Many teachers felt that there was more to learning, but were powerless to change the system. William Kilpatrick, on the faculty of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote about what he called “the project method.” It validated teachers’ feelings that something was wrong. It offered an explanation that made sense, and a way to operationalize that in a classroom.

3 – Occupational realism: The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

Both Bloom’s taxonomy and MI had occupational realism in that teachers didn’t have to change very much to feel like they were using these scientific methods in their classroom.

In the book’s discussion of “the project method,” the practical application in the classroom was its weakest point. It wasn’t clear how to do it, and even if it was possible, seemed to call for a complete overhaul of chool structures and curriculum. Therefore it was mostly adopted as something that happened every once in a while as an add-on to the curriculum. As time went on, widespread adoption of formulaic projects subverted the power and promise of the idea. The book discusses the spread of the “California Mission Project” as an example. (For those of you not in California, every fourth grader in California builds a model of a Spanish mission, and has for decades.) The poor implementation of the project method on its way to occupational realism was the price paid for its widespread acceptance and endurance.

The review of why Direct Instruction became so widespread is especially interesting. It violates the second principle of “philosophical compatibility” because many teachers do not believe in scripted curriculum. However, at the time (late 1960s), political pressure for accountability and cost reductions required a curriculum that did not need a highly trained professional, yet produced increased standardized test scores. Despite complaints that students were being treated like trained animals, politics and budget cuts overwhelmed that objection.

DI solved multiple problems. It made it easier to spend less on teacher training and teacher salaries, increased test scores, allowed larger class sizes, and satisfied the “back to basics” movement all at the same time. The occupational realism of Direct Instruction was above all, institutional and political, rather than classroom centered.

4 – Transportability: The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

Bloom’s Taxonomy started off as an assessment scheme, a way to be more objective by defining different kinds of questions for students to answer. It quickly leaked out of assessment, as educators applied the structure to every part of the educational process from planning onwards, taking Bloom’s into a whole new area for which it had not been intended.

As time went on, the original complex definitions were simplified and recast as a pyramid that implied a progression from bottom to top. Teachers started seeing the drawing of the pyramid everywhere in their professional lives, and every instance reinforced the idea that it was reliable. This cycle of positive reinforcement-–of exposure validating reliability, and so in turn creating more exposure–-is typical of ideas that gain traction.

Original Bloom’s Taxonomy

Fifty years before Bloom, MI, and DI, “the project method” found its way to millions of teachers. It had a persuasive and tireless advocate in William Kilpatrick, from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He was an ambitious academic who wanted more than just scholarly fame. He convinced the publication Teachers College Record to publish his article, “The Project Method” and give it away for free to teachers. Sixty thousand copies were printed and distributed nationwide. Thousands of subsequent papers and articles were written about the project method and its application to all grade levels and subjects.

Although not a new idea, Kilpatrick wrote in a clear and less formal manner than many academics, including his teacher and mentor John Dewey. Kilpatrick was also genuinely interested in real classrooms. While some of his colleagues complained that he was a self-promoter tarnishing the reputation of academia, the results spoke for themselves.

The project method made such an inroad into teacher education in the first half of the 20th century that it became a part of every teacher’s classroom practice up to this day. The resurgence of various project methods in the 1960’s and 70’s (PBL, The Project Approach, etc) simply built on this collective consciousness of the idea from a half century earlier.

The project method became so popular that “project” became a term of art, not a specific method tied to one person. One can only assume that Professor Kilpatrick would be a bit miffed by this.

Ideas make their way into the world

The book creates a case that one of the reasons that most of these ideas took hold was that they were both specific and general at the same time. They also had a wide variety of interpreters and promoters who helped spread the message.

Bloom’s Taxonomy gave teachers a new way to look at classroom practice, yet didn’t require any particular belief or theory of pedagogy to implement. If you were progressive, it matched your understanding that growth is at least as important as learning specific facts. If you were more of a traditionalist, it provided a path from content to deeper understanding. The lack of opposition was an opportunity for it to spread widely. Everyone saw what they wanted reflected in an idea from a highly respected source. Schneider says the taxonomy was, “… an idea that somehow had the power to generate multiple constituencies without sparking opposition.”

Various providers of professional development created materials that further examined Bloom’s Taxonomy and provided specific curriculum and lesson planning advice. For the time, Bloom was remarkably open about supporting various groups, authors, and companies to interpret his work. These satellite disseminators made it easier to access the work, and even though some complained that it was misinterpreted or diluted, it was widely spread. These providers helped the idea gain the operational realism that it lacked in earliest incarnations. They answered the question — What would a teacher DO exactly, in a classroom where Bloom’s Taxonomy was a driving idea?

What does this mean for today’s ideas about making in education?

In part 2 of this post, I’ll take a look at how “making” in education aligns with these four traits.

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Podcast: Me and the EduTechGuys at FETC

While at FETC I had a pleasure of sitting down for a short interview with The EduTech Guys. Their motto is, “Come for the tech, stay for the talk.” The EduTechGuys are Jeff Madlock and David Henderson, who host an ongoing podcast plus go to conferences doing live coverage!

It was a ton of fun and I hope to join them for more episodes.

EduTechGuys YouTube Channel

edutech guys

Makerspace on a shoestring? Yes, but…

sylvia-FETC-makerspace-session
Me waving my hands at my makerspace startup workshop at FETC earlier this year

One of the questions I get asked quite a lot is about budgets for educational makerspaces.  We are doing this on a shoestring, is that OK? We don’t have any money, is it still worth doing?

My first reaction is typical, I think – of course go for it! No one should be prevented from having a great hands-on learning experience because of lack of funds. There are lots of things that can be repurposed and borrowed. In fact, recycling is a hallmark of the “maker mindset.” Doing more with less is a worthy engineering constraint that develops ingenuity and practical skills.

Yes…but…

However, I think there is a “yes… but” that should be understood. When educators are trying to change culture and practices in an organization, it matters that you acknowledge the size of the shift you are trying to accomplish. A bigger shift requires a bigger and more explicit commitment, and having a budget is a visible and commonly understood sign of commitment.

Whether it’s wanting STEM courses to be more inclusive or shifting teaching practices to be to more project-based, it’s about how far you want to go from where you are. You want big changes? Do big things. Of course, it’s not always about money. Your commitment might be towards long-term professional development, but that’s a commitment of time, an even more precious commodity.

But wait, there’s more!  – Want to hear more about making, makerspaces, design, and STEM? Come to FETC in January – I’m leading two workshops and two sessions! 

School friends. Let me save you $6,000

Google gets into the whiteboard business – Techcrunch

back of the interactive whiteboard
The back is really nice, says Techcrunch

Google is getting into the interactive whiteboard (IWB) business with a product called “Jamboard,” a touchscreen hub built around Google Apps – only $6,000.

It’s only a matter of time before schools get the same sales pitch – you have the free Google suite of tools and apps, you have Chromebooks – this is just a way to extend that investment. OK, so the interactive whiteboards you have now aren’t really being used… well, that’s going to be solved now because these are NEW and BETTER. They are 4K, for goodness sakes! The problem was pixelation!

Techcrunch says, “The board also has 16 levels of pressure sensitive touch and nice little animations that bring small things like erasing to life, as you watch the text flake and fall off the display.”

That’s terrific – what schools need is to bring erasing to life.

We’ve been here before

Six years ago I wrote a post called, “Let me save you $6,162″ about the then “innovative” touch tables that were all the rage at educational technology vendor booths. For only $6,500 you could play virtual tangrams with canned applause when you got the “correct” answer. Now there’s some innovation! Judging by the dearth of touch tables in schools, I guess wiser heads prevailed.

Schools wasted millions of dollars in the last two decades on interactive whiteboards. The reason they were a failure is because they were a bad idea in the first place, not that they didn’t work properly. Gary Stager concisely makes this case in “A Modest Proposal” written in 2011 and still true today. It starts out,

“IWBs and their clicker spawn are a terrible investment that breathes new life into medieval educational practices. … They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and teacher supremacy. At a time of enormous educational upheaval, technological change, and an increasing gulf between adults and children, it is a bad idea to purchase technology that facilitates the delivery of information and increases the physical distance between teacher and learner.”

So, sorry that I can only save you $6,000 (per classroom) this time around, but I’m trying!

Repeat after me…. Innovation isn’t buying new stuff.

Where are we? Is it too late for schools to change?

I had the opportunity to see Bran Ferren speak at an event (Infosys Crossroads) recently. He’s an “American technologist, artist, architectural designer, vehicle designer, engineer, lighting and sound designer, visual effects artist, scientist, lecturer, photographer, entrepreneur, and inventor.” (Wikipedia)

During his fascinating talk, he drew a quick sketch that looked like this:

uh oh curve.001.jpeg.001

And he described how change always happens – by some “new way” sneaking up and overtaking the “old way” of doing it. And by “it” he meant nearly everything – technology, business practices, fashion, customs, politics, art… the list is endless.

Then he added a few lines. The problem, he said, is that we never know where we really are on this curve. Ahead of the change? In the midst? Or it’s long past and perhaps we don’t even realize it.

uh oh curve 2.png.001

It made me think about school. The number of students who believe that school is relevant to their lives is going down exactly as the opportunities for people to learn through informal, global networks are exploding exponentially.

uh oh curve3.png.001

Where are we on this curve? Can we change “school” – meaning formal education systems and organizations before it’s too late? Are we bold enough, are we brave enough to make the big decisions and perhaps painful changes that are necessary?

Questions, questions…

The biggest indictment of our schools is…

from Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant:

“The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. ”

Scott created these charts from the most recent  annual Gallup poll of over 920,000 middle and high school students, and sharing these under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International copyright license. So please share widely! Boring students to death is ridiculous and so unecessary.

Compliance is not perseverance (the grit narrative)

Working hard on something you don’t care about or have a say in is not perseverance or “grit,” it’s compliance.

Thanks to Krissy Venosdale for the cool art! Check out her website for more maker goodies.

I said this last year at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2015. The idea that kids learn to persevere through frustration when they work on things they care about is a central tenet of the classroom maker movement. We talk about “mouth up vs. mouth down” frustration in our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. The former is what Seymour Papert called “hard fun,” while the later is… well… just frustrating. There is no educational purpose to letting a student try to deal with insurmountable problems.

Maria Montessori said, “”Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” She didn’t say that failure is the goal. It’s a big difference that I’ve discussed in other posts.

The conversation has been complicated by the word “grit” becoming the word of the day with the “if we just do x, all will be right with education” crowd. Ira Socol has written brilliantly about how this fascination with grit is grounded in shaky research and barely hidden racism. (Grit and History and Summarizing Grit: The Abundance Narratives)

So it may be just semantics, but words matter, especially if they have been co-opted and become code words for blaming children for not pulling themselves up by their own… opps, they don’t have boots.

Words that work just as well: perseverance, resilience, stubbornness, focus, attention to detail, mindfulness, or craftsmanship. I’m sure there are more.

You can’t teach any of these in isolation. I cringe at the thought of cheerleading kids with “you can do anything” rallies and then marching them back to their worksheets.

The key difference is agency. When the work is yours, it matters more. When you care about what you are making, your perspective changes. Who has ownership? Whose voice is the loudest? By the way, it’s not necessarily true that these attributes are always pleasant or easy to deal with. Stubbornness or a willingness to stand your ground in the face of authority are also indications of resilience. Agency isn’t always polite.

When you see young people as agents of change, rather than objects to be changed, it shifts perspective in a subtle way. Unfortunately, subtle messages tend to get lost in translation.

I’m continually amazed by how hard most students work on things they don’t really have a stake or a say in. Imagine if that work was being done on projects that they cared about and believed in. Every kid wants to be a super-hero, and we have the capacity to empower students to change the world, using their brains, passion, and real world challenges. The promise of the maker movement is not just about the cool tools, but that these tools can supercharge that empowerment.

The “grit” narrative will pass when some other book becomes a best-seller. But the narrative that young people should be active agents in their own learning (in partnership with caring adults) will hopefully outlast them all.

Update (1/29/16): Martin Levins from the The Armidale School in Australia posted a terrific comment on Facebook reminding us that sometimes stopping a project is the best path. Not all projects have a perfect storybook ending, and that’s real life too. Perseverance shouldn’t mean grinding out a project that should have been rethought and reworked.

Back to school headlines – do your homework

Stories in the news like this drive me crazy: Kids have three times too much homework, study finds; what’s the cost?

It starts out:

Nothing quite stresses out students and parents about the beginning of the school year as the return to homework, which for many households means nightly battles centered around completing after-school assignments.

Now a new study may help explain some of that stress.

The study, published Wednesday in The American Journal of Family Therapy, found students in the early elementary school years are getting significantly more homework than is recommended by education leaders, in some cases nearly three times as much homework as is recommended.

I agree with questioning homework. Alfie Kohn makes the case in his book, The Homework Myth better than I ever could. (If you want to read a summary of his thoughts on homework, try this article from Principal magazine.)

So I start reading the CNN article with a personal bias towards agreeing with it, and hoping it makes good points that parents and teachers can really act on. The article says that kids are being assigned too much homework, even in kindergarten, where no homework is the recommendation of experts across the board.

However, I’m soon disappointed. First, they cite the “10 minute rule” from the National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association. (10 minutes per grade level per night, starting in first grade.) However, if you click on the link, it takes you to an article on the PTA website, Hints to Help Reduce Homework Stress, which does not provide any information or research support for this rule. Poking around the sites shows a link to studies by Harris Cooper, PhD, such as this article Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: If So, How Much Is Best? with a sidebar summarizing his own analysis of homework research:

“The authors found that all studies, regardless of type, had design flaws. However, both within and across design types, there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement. Studies that reported simple homework-achievement correlations revealed evidence that a stronger correlation existed in grades 7–12 than in grades K–6 and when students, rather than parents, reported time on homework. No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework-achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math). On the basis of these results and others, the authors suggest future research.”

While this is hardly strong evidence (especially in early grades), Alfie Kohn decimates even this, “For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school.  For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement.  At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied.  Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.”

So, to me, there’s controversy about homework being worth ANY time, even the “10 minutes per grade”.

But even if you decide that some homework is a good idea, where does this “10 minute rule” come from? In her book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs, Cathy Vatterot says “origin unknown”. It’s just something that’s been “long endorsed” by the NEA and the PTA. So it’s a rule that’s become a rule because lots of people repeat that it’s a rule. Vatterot also provides a long and interesting discussion about the limits and contradictions found in research on homework.

But back to CNN – to their credit, they forge on to present evidence that homework doesn’t help students, that homework stress is directly related to real medical problems, and that homework discriminates against families where parents are poor, less well educated, or speak limited English.

Then comes the “what can parents do” part of the article. Instead of suggesting that parents use the evidence that homework is useless, they quote experts about “solutions” like finding a quiet spot, and encouraging your child (but with vague warnings about not helping them too much).

If that doesn’t work, parents are encouraged to communicate with their child’s teacher to “problem solve” together. Is the problem solving about getting rid of homework? No, it’s about how to get the child to do the work, perhaps in less time or with fewer tears, but to still do the work.

So how about helping parents fix the actual problem – the homework. Why not suggest that parents take on the “10 minute rule” because it’s bogus. Why not suggest that teachers push back on homework policies in their districts – isn’t this the age of differentiated instruction? Don’t we care about research? This is especially true in schools where the 10-minute rule has morphed from “no more than 10 minutes” to “10 minutes every night”.

This is what bugs me. Articles for parents are always about fixing the child, or the environment, or their own attitudes. Even when studies show that the problem is the educational practice, parents are being told the problem is them and their children.

 

Let’s stop lying to girls about STEM careers

We all want girls (and all young people) to have equal opportunity and to be whatever they want to be. But the reality is grim. Women are discriminated against in the workforce. They are paid less than men, promoted less, and listened to less. It’s not “perception” – it’s the hard truth. (See the research here.)  And it’s worse in many STEM careers, especially in engineering and programming. In college, women are discriminated against in courses, grading, and in getting mentorships that are so important for advanced degrees.

Trace back down this pipeline to K-12 and the facts don’t get any happier. Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math even when they get (generally) better grades and test scores than boys, and not selected as often for STEM slots in academies and special programs.

But girls have an advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science get good grades in other subjects too, whereas boys tend to get good grades in one area. Girls who score well on tests in math and science tend to also score well in language, history, and other subjects.

So when we complain there is a “leaky pipeline” in K-12 education for girls in STEM courses, it’s not just discrimination. Girls are choosing to not major in STEM subjects for the very reasonable reason that they have more options.

Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you? Painting a false happy-talk picture of “you can be anything you want to be” is simply wishful thinking. And really, let’s call it like it is, it’s lying.

Lying to kids is bad. Lying makes kids distrust adults and strangles the most important educational tool of all, a relationship of trust between educators and young people. Even when the lie hides harsh reality, even when we wish it weren’t true, it’s better to speak the truth — and then work to fix it.

Now – am I saying that we should tell girls to just give up? No. I’m saying we have to tell girls AND BOYS the truth. That there is unfairness and discrimination in the world. We should tell them because they deserve the truth. We should tell them because they should (and will) be appalled. We should tell them because it gives them a chance to think about how it should be different. And then we should teach them how to make the world a fairer place, starting today.

Because guess who can fix it – they can. Girls AND boys are the only hope that this changes, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.

It’s not like they don’t know it already. In a Girls Scouts study, (Generation STEM), “… 57% of all girls say that if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” And African American and Hispanic girls are more aware of this than Caucasian girls. (Also from Generation STEM, “Half (50%) of African American girls (compared to 38% of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: “Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/ worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.”’)

THEY KNOW….

These problems can’t be solved by sweeping them under the rug; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work TOGETHER to solve them.

What educators can do:

  • Arm yourself with the facts. I pulled together some resources for my ISTE session, Girls & STEM: Making It Happen
  • Talk with young people about stereotype threat, what it means, and how to overcome it.
  • Don’t just talk to girls about these issues – boys need to understand them too. The solutions must come from everywhere.
  • Boys and men are not “to blame” for how society treats women. It’s a long-standing issue, but one that can be changed by everyone working together.
  • Tell inspiring stories of women and girls – but also of men and boys who overcome obstacles and odds stacked against them.
  • This is not a “woman issue”. Use resources like: Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts from the National Council on Women in Technology (NCWIT) and adapt for your own setting.
  • Address issues of discrimination in your own settings quickly and fairly. What you do (as the adult in the room) matters. But not just in the classroom, also in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge, conference stage, and offices.
  • Be mindful of your own behavior and try as much as possible to open the learning invitations to all students.
  • Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think, how do they feel about it, what do they want to change?