The Dreaded Pendulum Swing

September 10, 2014

Whenever I have been involved in a discussion about improving teaching in K-12 schools, someone almost always notes how the “pendulum swings”. By this statement, they mean that efforts to improve schooling swing back and forth and anything “new” is just a return to something that’s been tried in the past. Of course, the tone of the comment indicates that what was tried in the past did not work. Unfortunately, it is easier to blame the “new” idea/strategy rather than looking at ourselves to see how we might have implemented poorly, but this is not my point.

Many of us (well, me anyway) are fascinated by the coin funnels we occasionally come across. You know, when the coin gets rolled down a ramp and rolls around a large funnel getting closer and closer to the middle and finally spinning wildly down the tube and ending with a clink as it joins its brethren inside the darkness. Imagine you could watch the coin from the side (e.g. a cross-section of the funnel). The coin would oscillate back and forth – much like a pendulum. Yet, we know the coin is not merely oscillating but spinning closer and closer to its final goal. We know this because we have greater perspective.

Perhaps those who complain about the pendulum simply don’t have enough perspective. They don’t see how every “new” idea gets us closer and closer to the goal.

Educational Technology

May 19, 2014

Every year I teach Educational Technology I feel myself pulled by several goals.  I want students to develop practical skills for using technology in their classrooms, but I also want them to develop a critical eye toward technology.  This tension is exacerbated by the fact that students in this class have a wide range of backgrounds.  Some of the students are taking their very first education class and some are getting ready to student teach.

So, this semester, I am engaging students in one pedagogical aspect and one nature of technology aspect each day.  Then, they have to apply those ideas immediately during class.  I am thinking most days the students will be required to identify an existing lesson plan, then modify that lesson to incorporate the ideas we discussed that day.  For example, when we discuss the notion of using more concrete representations of concepts I will introduce this idea by modeling how technology might be used to make things more concrete (e.g. a video, a model, a simulation).  Then, students will go off into their own content (I’ll have elementary and secondary teachers as well as all the different disciplines) and seek ways they can leverage technology to create more concrete representations of abstract concepts.  Finally, students will use our discussions about the nature of technology to critique both the original lesson and their own lesson.  For example, when student learn that technology is more than just digital artifacts, they might notice that using tangible math manipulatives is a more concrete representation than the drawing program they initially chose.

Time will tell if this produces a more useful class.  Here is the syllabus.  Class starts at 9:30 tomorrow morning.

Creating Doubt

May 18, 2014

One of my preservice teachers asked me what I would do when students are working in groups and one group seems to be “right on”. I told her, “I do everything I can to get them to doubt their thinking”.

She was understandably surprised by my response and I admit I was using a bit of hyperbole for effect. I wouldn’t do “everything” I could, but I would attempt to get them to doubt their thinking, even though they are “right”.

I don’t want my students to rely on my approval of everything they do. I want independent thinkers. I don’t want my students to limit their thinking to achieving “right” answers. I want creative and critical thinkers.

So, when I get a “right” answer, I ask students to continue to think, just like I do when I get a “wrong” answer. That must be why a former student made the following:


Maintaining the Status Quo

January 3, 2014

Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology posits that technical structures constructed under a previous system, when inherited by a new system will likely result in the re-establishment of the old system.  For example, in a socialist revolution, if the technical (or organizational) structures created under capitalism are maintained, the decisions leaders are forced to make end up creating a system that looks a lot like capitalism.  This is one way to possibly explain the failure of socialist revolutions throughout history.  They assumed an instrumentalist view of technique.  That is, they believed technology to be neutral and that if they simply used the techniques in a different way, they could maintain their ideals.  What they missed is that technology is not neutral – it’s not just a matter of “how you use it”.

So, if we apply this thinking to educational change, what might be some implications?  Right now, my twitter feed is abuzz with discussion of standards-based grading because a local school district is moving in that direction and some (a vocal minority if you will) are not happy with the change. Up to this point, the SBG “movement” has been largely grass roots so the technical structures surrounding the implementation have been easily navigated by the revolutionaries because they see the incongruence and work around such issues.  However, as SBG is moved to larger scales, and implemented from the top down, organizational techniques will play a greater role in how SBG is implemented.  So, if we leave much of our system unchanged (e.g. we keep reporting A – F grades) are we doomed to simply recreate the old system with new names (as the socialists simply recreated capitalism)?  What other technical structures must we consider if we hope to create a truly new system?

Similarly, and perhaps somewhat obviously, this thinking helps to further make clear that adding technology (e.g. laptops) to a classroom does little to change the learning in that classroom unless the other technological structures change as well (e.g. pedagogy, assessment strategies).  

I wonder, is incremental change possible, or will their always be other structures that bring us right back to the way schools have always looked?  Perhaps this is why schools have such tremendous institutional momentum.

(I’m too young to be this jaded, aren’t I?)

For me, this reaffirms my belief that individual teachers matter.  If enough individuals change, then the system just might change.  However, if we try to change the system, it’s likely we are just going to recreate the old system with some new labels. 

Teacher Education Starts in Kindergarten

August 21, 2013

“Teachers create all other professions”.

Teachers also create their own profession.  Some of the students in your class will eventually become teachers.

To what extent are you modeling effective teaching for those students? 

I was a late comer to education.  Teaching did not seem an interesting option for my life’s work.

I was wrong.

When are you explicitly discussing teaching and learning with your students?  How are you helping your students recognize the intellectual challenge of teaching others?  In what way do you explicitly share your passion for teaching with kids?

Critical Curiosity

August 1, 2013

While teaching my summer ed tech course today, some of my students were too quickly going to the “what’s wrong with this picture” line of thinking.

(I know, you’re surprised that my students have that attitude)

Then, after taking some effort to help them consider the positive aspects of the technology use, I explained that my goal with technology in education is ‘critical curiosity’.

With this stance, I’m always wondering how new technology might get used in the classroom, but am, at the same time, (not really) asking how a new technology might reinforce traditional teaching practices, create inequity in my class, or even reduce the intellectual level of the classroom.

Ideas & Answers

March 16, 2013

I get called arrogant kind of a lot. When I ask those who know me well about the issue, they note that I am a bold & confident person (no disagreement). Then, they usually cite some interaction they had with me in the past in which I was very receptive to feedback or perhaps even explicitly admitted being wrong (something I am quite a lot) as evidence that I am not arrogant. So, I’ve been reflecting on this a bit (you know, cause getting insulted isn’t fun).

I think I’ve come to a conclusion. I view the world in ideas rather than answers. When someone asks me a question I almost always have an idea (so do you), but not necessarily an answer. However, I wonder if people hear my ideas as answers? (Thus inferring that I “have an answer for everything”).

Now I’m left trying to figure out how to help those I communicate with understand that I am proposing ideas rather than stating answers. I believe this will be more daunting than it seems. For example, if I give up on my ideas too easily, then they won’t be fully explored. That is, if we give up on ideas because we don’t want to seem arrogant, then the idea seems weak because of our fortitude rather than weakness inherent to the idea. If an idea is weak, we should abandon it, but we should not abandon an idea because of any trait of the proposer (good or bad).


While I could respond more often with, “I don’t know”, I don’t think such a response gets us anywhere. Perhaps I could say, “I don’t know, but here’s an idea…”, or maybe I’ll just ask more questions.

I wonder if I view other people’s answers as ideas? I suspect I do as I rarely take someone’s word for something. So how do I continue wrestling with someone else’s idea while helping them realize I value their idea?

While writing this post, one thought kept popping up, “why should I have to change, shouldn’t other people just be more self-confident & recognize the value of ideas over answers?” Yet, I know this is an emotional response & I can only control what I say & how I say it, not how others interpret what is said. Sometimes it might be easier to just not talk at all.


* The follow was edited out to avoid misinterpretation: “This makes me think of Christ – the embodiment of humility, yet filled with fortitude, & even a bit of certainty.”  When I wrote that sentence, I was not at all comparing myself to Christ.  Instead, I was noting how thinking about the fine line between humility & arrogance made me think *about* Christ. How is it that he was able to be known as so humble, yet consistently told people they were wrong (& with authority)?


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