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.

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.

What do we want from educators?

November 23, 2012

Here is a pic from Goodlad’s “A Place Called School”. We must stop pulling educators in opposite directions. We cannot expect movement with equal, but opposite forces being applied.


Reading Strategies

October 3, 2012

Last night I tried a new approach with one of my college classes. The course is about science education. We read an article that summarizes a high school science activity that addresses climate, heat capacity, investigation design, & the nature of science.

I first had students read the article to identify how the authors addressed the nature of science as well as missed opportunities. Then, they went back through the article to note places when the activity fit with learning theory. In a third reading, I asked the preservice teachers to identify teacher actions/behaviors that seemed important for the activity to work. Fourth, I had students investigate ways in which the authors addressed safety issues. In a final reading, we investigated how the article sought to teach the science content. That is, how the authors organize & scaffold content learning for students.

In between each reading, we discussed ideas & pros/cons of the activity in relation to the lens through which we had just viewed the article. I imagine most people would consider reading the same article 5 times would be redundant. I found the students’ ideas to grow in sophistication as we progressed & the different lenses provided new perspectives.

Each time we read the article, we embarked on a new inquiry into the nature of teaching. This kind of close reading is not often achieved & asking students to view the same reading through different lenses provided scaffolding for them to dig deeper into the piece. Imagine if we encouraged younger students to read so closely instead of quizzing them on mundane details*.

*when I wrote the phrase “mundane details” I immediately thought of Office Space. ;-)


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