The answer to “will it scale?” is agency and empowerment

When people question progressive, student-centered education reform with “Yes, but will it scale?” – the implication is usually, “I can’t see this working if you make everyone do it like robot cogs in a giant edu-factory.”

The real answer to “will it scale” is  — yes, but what we must scale is empowerment and agency, not rigid process.

Example: How Paul Weertz helped stabilize the tiny Detroit neighborhood you almost never hear about

So Paul Weertz (a beloved educator, not surprisingly) resurrected a bombed out neighborhood in Detroit. How? By developing relationships with neighbors and treating people with respect, including the kids. By tackling problems before they get out of hand. But  mostly by caring and hard work. Can this happen in other neighborhoods? Will it scale? Could it scale?

It could, but not in the conventional way. The answer is not to write down everything Paul did and then demand that other would-be neighborhood saviors do exactly the same thing. The answer would be to inspire them by showing it can be done, offer practical lessons that have worked (not rigid recipes), and support them as they do it.

That’s what “scale” should mean.

Example:  UN Report Says Small-Scale Organic Farming Only Way To Feed The World

This report says that to feed the world, we need small farms, not mega-farm corporations. We need crop diversity, not mono-culture. We need to teach good farming practices that reduce the need for chemicals. We need to do this even though it diverts money from corporations that want to sell more chemicals to mega-farmers, even if it drives up food costs. If that’s not a metaphor for what’s going on in education right now, I don’t know what is.

The report links global security and escalating conflicts with the urgent need to transform agriculture toward what it calls “ecological intensification.” The report concludes, “This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

So the way to scale is not to focus on the tonnage of food produced even if it wrecks the environment or decimates local economies, but to support the entire eco-system of food growing. And that focus is to teach each and every farmer how to be the best farmer possible.

This is the way to scale good education, too. Empowered students require empowered teachers who have agency over their classroom and curriculum.

Is it a perfect answer? No. Will there be some teachers better than others, some classrooms more welcoming, some schools more successful? Sure, of course. But pretending that we can crush teachers and students spirits into a mono-culture of test-defined success is worse.

To replicate, to remediate, or to reinvent – the 3 Rs of education

I meet a lot of teachers in my work. It’s interesting to listen to their stories about who they are and how they became teachers. I’ve noticed that there seems to be a real split in the ranks about the reason they became teachers.

On one side are teachers who themselves had a good experience in school. They generally were successful and their mission is to create those same kinds of experiences and memories for the children they serve. They are replicating their own experience.

On the other side are teachers who feel the school system failed them. Some dropped out, some rebelled, some got horrible grades, but at some point in their lives they decided to dedicate themselves to righting that wrong. They are determined to create different kinds of experiences and memories for the children they serve. They are remediating their own experience.

I don’t know any other profession where there is such a polarization. And yes, of course this is a generalization. You can’t expect to split a large and varied group of people into two neat groups (let’s not get all left brain/right brain here now.)

But there is a point to be made. Replicators and remediators bring two divergent world views to the table. This disparity can become a problem when we try to talk about how to change education, because we hear the same words and think we are being understood, but the underlying experiences are so vastly different that the meaning is muddled.

And yet, I don’t believe either of those stances are sufficient. We must reinvent education in a way that doesn’t depend on childhood experiences. Because childhood experience is too narrow a lens with which to view the world. We have to think about how our own learning experiences color our opinions and allow other’s experiences to carry just as much weight as ours.

To replicate, to remediate, or to reinvent. I choose reinvent.


Why the (__noun__) won’t save/revolutinize education

We’ve all heard how (__noun__) will save/revolutionize education. But unfortunately, it’s not going to have the expected impact. Some may use (__noun_) in an exciting, creative way, and will be able to say that their students are engaged at a new level. But many implementations of (__noun__) will be thoughtless, with opportunities for even minor impact buried under a host of systemic issues that can’t be solved by going shopping.

  • Schools will adopt (__noun__) without a vision of what to do with it
  • Schools will purchase (__noun__) without really thinking about how it fits into the current infrastructure, much less a new way of doing things
  • Schools will assume that (__noun__) changes things – but will not set aside the time for the participants in the change process to actually decide what “change” is or to plan and implement new processes that support it

What happens next?

  • Blame teachers and students
  • Look for other things to purchase that makes (__noun__) “work” in the classroom. Vendors will be all too happy to supply more stuff to buy
  • Do more “training” on (__noun__)
  • Search for the next new (__noun__)

I find it odd that the phrases “save education” and “revolutionize education” are used nearly interchangeably in the current public discourse about education. Aren’t they really in opposition? Save implies that things don’t change all that much, that the system just needs some sprucing up to get things back to the mythical way they used to be. And what does revolutionize mean other than re-creating everything?

But whether you believe that education needs radical change or minor course correction, a “thing” won’t make that happen. Only people will – the people at the heart of the system, teachers, parents, and students.


Monday… Someday

Note: This is part 4 of 4 of a series on Khan Academy.

Part 1 – Khan Academy and the mythical math cure
Part 2 – Khan Academy – algorithms and autonomy
Part 3 – Don’t we need balance? and other questions
Part 4 – Monday… Someday (this post)

In the previous post, I ended with a question about the inch-deep, mile-wide math curriculum in the U.S. that essentially requires teachers to force-feed their students so they can “cover” the material and pass the tests.

This is the Monday… Someday problem – the fact that even if a teacher changes everything in their classroom, nothing else in the system will change. How can one argue for a long term (Someday) overhaul of math curriculum, pedagogy and assessment when you know even if it does change, it’s going to be long time from now, and you have kids coming in on Monday who need to pass a test on Friday that will depend on them memorizing a bunch of facts and skills?

What good does it do to fight when the system not only doesn’t care, but will slap you down for it.

Even the students will likely complain – “why don’t you just tell us what we need to know?” They’ve been conditioned over the years that they aren’t supposed to really understand; they have figured out the rules of the game and don’t have any reason to believe that the game will change, even if one teacher insists it will.

So… what DO I do on Monday?
Even if I thought I had that answer I wouldn’t have the hubris to tell a teacher that I had a magic formula. I respect teachers too much to think that I could prescribe a “solution” that would fit everyone, every context, every kid, and every other major variable in the teaching/learning equation.

All I can do is present alternatives to what I see are these math myths that are so pervasive in American culture. To speak about things that often go unquestioned. To point to great thinkers and research that have changed my own thinking. That’s my whole purpose here with these posts on Khan Academy.

Seymour Papert said, “My answer is that if you have a vision of Someday you can use this to guide what you do Monday. But if your vision of where it is going is doing the same old stuff a bit (or a lot) better your efforts will be bypassed by history.” – Technology in Schools: To Support the System or to Render it Obsolete.

Working on “a vision of Someday” requires doing some thinking about what you believe about learning, and how different teaching models align with those beliefs. Without having an “eye on the prize” it would be difficult to steer your own classroom towards anything new. In a similar vein, Alvin Toffler, futurist and author of the book Future Shock said, “You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Someone else who has influenced my thinking on the “what do you do Monday” is Gary Stager. He says that anytime you go to “help” a learner, pause and think about whether you are taking away an opportunity for them to learn it themselves. He summarizes this as “Less us, more them.” His recent TEDxNYED talk showed examples of what at-risk students could do in science and math when given the chance.

A Monday solution pretending to be a Someday solution
Unfortunately, Khan Academy is a simplistic “what do I do on Monday” solution that is being hyped as a Someday solution. If you have a long-term vision that in any way aligns with more open-ended, more constructivist learning, Khan Academy is not a step on that path. It’s a “more us, more us” solution.

You can’t expect an instructionist solution like Khan Academy to pair with, or even more implausibly, magically morph into a constructivist solution.

Instruction begets instruction.

Well, if it’s not Khan, what does Someday look like?
I’m going to go back to theory for this and talk about constructionism (the learning theory developed by Seymour Papert.)

“The word constructionism is a mnemonic for two aspects of the theory of science education underlying this project. From constructivist theories of psychology we take a view of learning as a reconstruction rather than as a transmission of knowledge. Then we extend the idea of manipulative materials to the idea that learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner experiences as constructing a meaningful product.” – Seymour Papert (Wikipedia article on constructionism)

“Meaningful product” – now there are a couple of important words. Is it possible to shift math education to “constructing meaningful products”? What does a classroom look like when students are engaged in developing meaningful products?

Good news — there are lots of answers out there that are well researched and classroom tested. Bad news — these models are virtually ignored in most American classrooms. Call it constructivist, project-based, progressive, inquiry-based… there are a lot of good books, websites, and help out there to change the way we teach math. Gary Stager has collected a starter kit of constructivist books in the collection at The Constructivist Consortium.

One of Papert’s answers was to invent a programming language for children called Logo. This language allows very young people to construct things on the computer, or to control physical objects like robots. There are thousands of versions of Logo today that offer all kinds of constructivist learning opportunities on the computer. Scratch, free from MIT is one such Logo offspring.

Even when people acknowledge that some topics in the math curriculum are not needed in the real world anymore, we hear, “oh, but it’s good for developing logical thinking.” Really? How about some real world math that teaches logical thinking… programming. Where  is that to be found in math curriculum? In my original post about the difference between Conrad Wolfram and Salman Khan’s TED talks (Compare and contrast: using computers to improve math education), Wolfram also mentions that programming is a way to teach procedural, logical thinking.

This is an idea whose time has come.

Here’s a video of a keynote speech that Seymour Papert (by the way, another protégé of Piaget) gave in Australia in 2004 where he makes some incredibly good points about these things.

Seymour Papert in Sydney, Australia 2004 from The Daily Papert, Gary Stager

Why I keep coming back to Papert
Seymour Papert has been an enormous influence on my life and my thinking about math learning. He’s also the reason I do what I do. If you read the article I linked to above (Technology in Schools: To Support the System or to Render it Obsolete.), one of the things he talks about is “Kid Power” and Generation WHY – which was the original name for the non-profit of which I’m now president, Generation YES.

Seymour says in this article that there are changes coming:

“A hundred years ago John Dewey was showing the faults of the curriculum-driven, non-experiential ways of teaching favored by schools. But all his work had only a marginal effect on what schools do; they have changed in some details but most are not essentially very different from those which Dewey criticized way back then.

Critics of school reform (including Todd Oppenheimer) are fond of quoting the failures of past movements as evidence for the extreme difficulty of changing school and hence casting doubt on the likelihood that revolutionary change is likely to come this time round.

But the critics are misled by their failure to look below the surface of what is happening to the learning environment. If they did they would recognize three aspects of a profound difference between the present situation and anything that has happened in the past.

Each of these takes the form of a reversal:

    • Reversal #1: Children become a driving force for educational change instead of being its passive recipients. Dewey had nothing stronger than philosophical arguments to support his attempts at changing school. But academic arguments can never budge an institution as firmly rooted as the School Establishment.This time we are beginning, just beginning, to see the effects of a wave that will soon become a veritable army of young people who come to school with the experience of a better and more empowering learning environment based on their home computers. There is much talk about schools setting higher standards for students. But what is more important is that these students are demanding higher standards from schools. And moreover they come armed with the know-how that makes better learning possible.
    • Reversal #2: Teachers’ technologies vs. learners’ technologies. The emergence of Kid Power as a force for change is closely related to the fact that digital technology is a learners’ technology. This makes it radically different from the educational films and television cited by the critics who scream about previous technologies promising to bring an educational revolution and fizzling.

      These technologies were teachers’ technologies.
      The fact is that a teacher talking out of a TV set is not different in kind from a teacher lecturing in front of a class. These earlier technologies did not really offer something really new. The computer does: it offers a fundamental reversal of relationships between participants in learning.

  • Reversal #3: Powerful advanced ideas can become elementary without losing their power. The reversal that is most often missed is the opportunity for making accessible to young children very powerful ideas that were previous encountered only in specialized college courses.I have mentioned two mathematical ideas in this class: random variables and successive approximations; one from engineering: negative feedback and a whole area of knowledge about project management.

    However, while this may be the most important reversal, it is also the one that has to overcome the most severe obstacle: for these powerful ideas are by their nature not familiar to teachers and parents raised in the days when they were inaccessible.(emphasis mine)

The strategy for overcoming the last obstacle brings us full circle to my opening paragraph:

for those of us who want to change education the hard work is in our own minds, bringing ourselves to enter intellectual domains we never thought existed. The deepest problem for us is not technology, nor teaching, nor school bureaucracies.

All these are important but what it is all really about is mobilizing powerful ideas.

And there it is…
“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Pogo

Khan Academy is the system’s pushback against real curriculum reform. In “Reversal #2” that Papert talks about, we see he has explicitly predicted Khan Academy. The system likes the status quo and things that support the status quo have a predictably comfortable feel to them. Then we get to call it a revolution without changing a thing.

Moving beyond Monday to Someday involves mobilizing powerful ideas that might not feel comfortable. It’s tiring to constantly rethink everything you “know” about learning, but rewarding in the end.

For technology in education advocates, it means constantly pushing the envelope towards learner-centered technology and away from teacher-centered technology. So although I said that the discussion about Khan Academy is not about educational technology, it should be, because it’s the perfect example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing “technology revolution” that really supports the status quo.

Some last thoughts
To teachers – 1) Keep your skeptic hat on tight. Anything that “solves all problems in education” probably doesn’t, and any “revolution” probably isn’t. 2) Anything that you use in your classroom should align with your theory of learning. Find one and drink deeply. Strangely enough, this is exactly the same two pieces of advice I give about using games in the classroom.

To students – Math isn’t what’s found in textbooks. Sorry you have to slog your way through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. There are lots of people, videos, and sources out there to learn about vibrant, useful, beautiful things that also happen to be numerically interesting. Use the Google. PS- If you love math you aren’t weird.

To parents – The math your children are learning should not be about worksheets and lectures, even if those worksheets and lectures are on a computer. Demand that your children not be sacrificed to the gods of standardized testing. Your children’s teachers need you on their side to fight for something better.

To everyone else in the system – Don’t mandate to teachers or replace them with videos. Include them in long-term learning communities and conversations that support change, growth, and better teaching and learning for everyone.


Part 1 – Khan Academy and the mythical math cure
Part 2 – Khan Academy – algorithms and autonomy
Part 3 – Don’t we need balance? and other questions
Part 4 – Monday… Someday  (this post)

Why Education Reform Will Work This Time

This is a remarkable piece of video from 1998 unearthed by Gary Stager. In it, Ryan Powell, then a GenYES middle school student, interviews Seymour Papert and John Gage about the model of students learning technology in order to help teachers in their own schools. Both of these heavyweights of educational technology say some really interesting things about the model, including Dr. Papert saying that it’s the best thing the US Department of Education has ever funded! Pretty nice to hear that.

As further background, Dr. Papert is the father of educational technology, a colleague of Jean Piaget, and an internationally renowned educator famous for the theory of constructivism. His advocacy of student laptop programs extends around the world including the XO laptop for developing nations, and he invented the Logo programming language for children. John Gage, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, started the NetDay movement to wire schools and originated the phrase, “the network is the computer.”

About halfway through this clip, Dr. Papert talks a bit about why he believes that education reform can happen now, even though decades of reform efforts have not had much impact.

He says there are two things that are different now. One is that school was designed to fit the previous “knowledge technology” of chalk, blackboards, paper and pencil. These technologies match quite well with the prevailing pedagogy of the last century, which relied on instruction, teacher as the center of all knowledge, and delivery of content. So criticizing it was a bit idealistic and theoretical. But now we have new technology that directly enables construction, connection, and distributed expertise. These new knowledge technologies tip the balance and as a result, new pedagogy can become reality.

The second factor is what he calls “Kid Power.” The technology amplifies the voices of people who are traditionally without voice or representation in our society.

For more explanation of Papert’s view on why technology will power education reform, check out this speech: Chlld Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century.

In Gary’s post about this video, he also recalls some of the early days of Generation YES, when Dennis Harper had this “crazy idea” of kids being at the center of changing education with technology. Seymour Papert on Generation YES & Kid Power : Stager-to-Go

By the way, Ryan is now a college graduate serving in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa with his wife Kimberly.


‘Teach Naked’ and complacency natives

‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers From Classrooms – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This is one of the stories where you have to actually read the whole thing. At first you think, “Terrific, another educator who hates technology and refuses to join the 21st century.”

College leaders usually brag about their tech-filled “smart” classrooms, but a dean at Southern Methodist University is proudly removing computers from lecture halls. José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts, has challenged his colleagues to “teach naked”—by which he means, sans machines.

But you would be wrong – read a bit more. He’s not really against technology, he’s against being boring, especially being boring with PowerPoint. He thinks when students come together, the best thing to do is have a conversation. Let the students read the material, or listen to a podcast ahead of time. Use class time to talk, ask questions, and interact with the teacher and other students.

Even though he is taking computers out of classrooms, he’s not anti-technology. He just thinks they should be used differently—upending the traditional lecture model in the process.

Aha! He’s talking about pedagogy, not tools. He’s against lecturing, with or without slideshow accompaniment. And guess who he has to convince about this — yes, those digital natives, the students. Because what they really are is complacency natives. They are used to waiting passively to be told what to learn, how to learn, and then repeating it back.

But he’s taking computers out of the classrooms! Oh no! Evil! But wait, keep reading. He’s removing the fixed computers hooked to projectors. And buying laptops instead. And unbolting the desks and replacing them with movable chairs and tables so the teachers and students can adapt their classroom to suit their learning needs. Oh, hmm… not so crazy.

It’s a great lesson in the sloppy vocabulary of the ed tech world. All “technology” is not created equal. It’s not a technology = good, removing it = bad. We have to be more precise about this. What’s the learning environment? What do you believe about learning? How is technology supporting those goals?

Teach naked? Ok, got to give the guy credit for coming up with something catchy. Getting attention for advocating doing away with lecture is OK in my book. A worthy goal for K-12 would be to produce students who aren’t complacency natives, who arrive at college ready for deep discussion, real learning, and meaningful interactions with other human beings.


“Bracey Report” Curtain-Call Takes on Trendy Education Reforms

The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education, 2009 | Education and the Public Interest Center.

The report starts with this preface.

In Memoriam: Gerald Bracey 1940 – 2009
For 18 years, “The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education,” an annual review of education research and policy issues, was published by Phi Delta Kappan. In 2009, EPIC/EPRU was pleased to become its new publisher. Sadly, Gerald W. Bracey passed away before he finished editing what will be the final Bracey Report.

We have suffered a great loss. Although he was a social scientist of considerable talent he eschewed esoteric language and instead spoke and wrote plainly. His writings left strong impressions on readers, whether expert or layperson. When he judged that an official, a newspaper, or a scholar had played lightly with the truth, his expert knowledge was directed toward withering critiques. He fearlessly exposed the errors in fact, flaws in methods and illogic that were built into all too much education research and all too many education “reforms.” Jerry had little patience for received wisdom, no matter how powerful its purveyors.

Fortunately for us all, Jerry’s last report was sufficiently enough developed that it was possible for Susan Ohanian and Pat Hinchey to finish the necessary editorial work. Jerry’s wife, Iris, helped, too, by encouraging us to publish the final Bracey Report and by providing Jerry’s notes and reference material. As a result, the Report has been completed with fidelity to Jerry’s words and intentions. The Report is almost completely Jerry’s but, of course, any shortcomings are ours.

The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education, 2009 (PDF)

This year’s Bracey Report identifies and discusses the research support (vs. the popular support) for what the author considered to be three widely held assumptions about how to reform public education:

  1. High-quality schools can eliminate the achievement gap between whites and minorities.
  2. Mayoral control of public schools is an improvement over the more common elected board governance systems.
  3. Higher standards will improve the performance of public schools.

My posts about the untimely passing of Gerald Bracey are here:

Please read this report –The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education, 2009 (PDF)