Dangers of the we vs. they perspective

I have been reading Pure Genius (Don Wettrick) because I try to keep up on the trends in instructional tactics. What follows is not a reaction to the notion of independent projects or independent study but to an argument the author often forwards in support of the instructional methods that are proposed. I cannot  come up with an exact term to describe this argument. My best effort might be something like – “we, as the practitioners, know best”. I do not find returning to this idea on multiple occasions to elevate the merit of the rest of the book.

As one example, at one point the author says:

“Teachers know that theories can never explain a child’s lack of interest that’s caused not by a boring curriculum but by worry about his parents’ fighting.”

OK – so I am likely one of those folks who presented “theories” to future teachers. What am I to make of this statement? Before I retired, I taught educational psychology. I would suggest that it is relevant to this specific example that I also taught the introductory course in psychology. For decades college profs have used “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” to describe the various motives for human behavior noting that basic needs must be met (e.g., safety) before other motives (e.g., grades, satisfaction in learning) will influence behavior. This motivation theory is so commonly taught I cannot imagine any college student, let alone a future teacher, not being asked to consider that “not all needs are equal”. Furthermore, using academic achievement as one of the various examples to help students process this idea is very common. An example might focus on the academic lethargy of a college student who has recently suffered the end of a relationship. Hunger and violence in the lives of younger learners who struggle in school are actually very common examples.

So – theories can explain this situation and even this specific example is frequently presented to future teachers.

While I am on the subject of “theories” allow me to suggest that many use the word incorrectly. The label “theoretical” is sometimes used to imply an idea that is to vague or abstract to be useful. Vagueness and unnecessary abstraction is not to be valued, but these limitations are not predictable characteristics of a theory. Human behavior is very “theory” driven. We are both exposed to theories developed by others and form our own. We use general principles to guide behavior because life experiences are unique and we must have ways to explain these experiences to ourselves even though we have not encountered the exact circumstances before. Perhaps formal and informal theories would be one useful distinction. Science educators probably have been exposed to the concept of “naive science”. Naive science, roughly equivalent to informal theory, suggests that we all live in a world we must do our best to understand. We must deal with physics, biology, etc. daily whether we have studied these subjects formally or not. We form our own theories based on our personal experiences out of necessity. Sometimes such theories work in a specific set of circumstances but are flawed on a more general level. This means science education must no only present new ideas, but sometimes also confront ideas that have hidden flaws.

The argument I am trying to develop here is less concerned with informal and formal theories and is really focused on the value of being open to multiple perspectives. The theories of practitioners are not necessarily in opposition to formal theories. If the formal vs. informal theory argument was not sufficient, allow me to present what educators might recognize as a familiar experience. Parents, typically of students who are struggling, sometimes suggest that the teacher is not aware of the unique characteristics of their child and if even if this is not the case the teacher is unable or unwilling to adapt instruction to accommodate these characteristics. The teacher and the parents have different perspectives and see the student from the perspective with which they are most familiar or perhaps feel they must address in a general way.

I understand that appealing to group identity is a technique for making people feel good. I also understand that teaches may feel under attack and feel a need to look for support. However, taking a we/they approach as in we know and they do not is only a reasonable long term strategy when those functioning according to different perspectives are actually adversaries. In this case, I think learning from different perspectives would be more productive.


Simple Science

In a previous p0st, I explained how to use a tool for creating a video using the example of making suet to feed birds. As part of the example, I proposed the opportunity for an experiment. The idea was to determine the popularity of different food types.

After a couple of weeks, I have the results.


Suet containing fruit (cranberries and apples) seems to be more popular than suet containing traditional bird food.

What further hypotheses might be tested?


Learning to Teach

I just finished reading Dana Goldstein’s “The teacher wars“. I found the book to offer an even-handed and deep evaluation of educator performance and public opinion of teachers and the teaching profession. Much of the book takes an historical perspective which may bore some readers. The author takes this approach to explain how the public understanding of education, expectations of teachers, and the politicization of attitudes directed toward education in contrast to other areas of public service has come to be. I know that groups of educators sometimes engage in “book studies” and am aware of many of the books that are selected. I recommend such groups consider this book – it is complex and may not paint a “feel good” picture, but I think it is realistic and takes on specific issues that will continue to shape education. My concern about practicing educators is that they avoid issues that really end up having significant impact on their lives and the lives of students. Perhaps they feel these issues cannot be changed. Perhaps they feel that these issues are too political. I would encourage both deeper understanding and greater advocacy.

My intent here is to identify one of several topics from the book I thought might resonate with practitioners. The author describes teaching as having a “steep learning curve” that beginners encounter with limited practical preparation. There are multiple sub-topics. One target was teacher preparation. It seems college programs do not offer future teachers enough experience in developing what I call “tactical” skills. There seems too much emphasis on abstraction and not enough on practice. I used to teach one of the “abstraction” courses (educational psychology) and I have mixed reactions to such concerns. Recipes for practice have their own limitations and knowing why things work as they do can inform the constant decision making that is required in an applied setting. I suppose the point is when in a career is deeper understanding helpful and what can be done when there is limited access at different points in a career path. Knowing that future teachers had micro teaching, methods and field experiences of various types, I could conveniently assume that teaching tactics were up to someone else. I would suggest that the quality of supervised practice varies greatly from situation to situation and is a great preparatory challenge. Teacher education programs must pretty much take what they can get when placing students and I think realize that many opportunities offer little in the way of mentoring or quality models. So often it seems a money game. Programs operate on tuition dollars. More students mean more tuition. Running an elite program focused on fewer students generates insufficient funds. Educators believe student skills can be improved (students in this case are college students) and the public (e.g., parents) assume this as well. It is complicated when you are in the middle of such situations.

Whether because new teachers are missing important skills or because there is much to learn, it is clear that the learning curve is steep. A very high proportion of new teachers quit after a year or two. In undesirable settings this churn is the greatest and this lack of stability adds to other problems specific to such schools. One thing I know from my study of technology usage in K-12 settings is that new teachers tend not to generate what we have hoped to see. It may appear that this implies poor preparation. However, if one waits just a few years, newer teachers are more creative in their use of technology. This is a classic case of a learning curve and priorities. It is not necessarily that the new teacher has a poor background, it is that thess skills and knowledge do not materialize until the teacher develops a sense of the environment and likely finds classroom management skills that are effective.

Goldstein points to the value of what I would describe as “on the job training” as particularly important in the development of new teachers. Are administrators and other teachers willing and capable of offering specific suggestions. Do new teachers have opportunities to observe effective peers? Are new teachers offered additional time for planning? Are a greater number of “problem children” dumped on the new guy?

Goldstein suggests that experienced and new teachers likely have things to teach each other. Practicing teachers have concrete suggestions related to classroom situations. New teachers likely have new ideas – things they know but may not apply until the basics are under control. I wonder about the potential of technology to bring these two knowledge sources together. Are present means of interacting specific enough to be beneficial?


Net neutrality issue going mainstream

I have fallen into writing about some topics that seem beneath the radar for most ed tech bloggers. I assume many writing about ed tech have a local focus and avoid topics that have a political tinge because they would prefer to remain apolitical or because they assume they cannot make a difference.

I became interested in what is called “net neutrality” in 2005/2006. Because the phrase seems to mean different things to different people, I define neutrality as an ISP being agnostic as to the type or source of content delivered to a user. Some used to describe this as “bits is bits” – meaning the user pays for access at a certain rate and the provider should not be able to manipulate the content the user desires to consume.

I understood the original concern to be that providers could use their control to prioritize other services they might provide. For example, a cable company selling premium movie channels might advantage such channels by making it difficult to download content purchased from a service such as NetFlix. A DSL provider might reduce the quality of Skype or some other VOIP service to advantage the phone services it sells.

More recent concerns focus on content providers allowing some to “fast track” their content by making deals with service providers.This multiplies the advantages of existing successful companies making it difficult for new companies or hobbyists to contribute content.

Just for the record, I do not accept the argument that a net neutrality position prevents businesses from generating a reasonable return on their investments. Much was invested before the large companies became involved. The Internet was not created by business ventures or ramped up by commercial content providers. The Internet came from the research community and was pretty much developed by hobbyists. Business entities came into the game once profit potential was established. The supposed great risks they take are not exactly the risks of R&D. Also, those companies in a position to offer these services were few in number and already well established. By building on top of the cable or phone companies, the services were provided in sectors of the economy that were already close to monopolistic. Many of us live in areas of the country with one option and a low quality and expensive option at that.

The President has now taken a solid position on net neutrality. A position taken by the President has generated the typical response from the republicans.  This could easily be framed as a small business vs big business issue. Those who read tech blogs probably know about this issue, but the dem vs republican angle may now bring the topic to the attention of the average citizen. I think positioning this as a red/blue confrontation is unfortunate, but this may be what it takes to generate some attention. I am concerned we are losing sight of the original promise of the Internet and will become limited by the financial goals of a few large companies.

30 Hands – Preparing Suet Demo

There are several iPad presentation apps based on a “voice over slide approach”. Explain Everything is the app from this category that seems to have received the most attention. I think this type of app offers an efficient way for students to create videos. The advantage is that these apps allow the audio to be generated on a slide by slide basis. This approach makes it easy to redo the segment of audio associated with a slide when an attempt to generate the segment comes up short of expectations.

30 Hands takes a similar approach and has similar capabilities. Again, the author generates “slides” in various ways and then records the audio to accompany each visual. Slides can be generated in multiple ways (see below).


The following is a quick demonstration I created with 30 Hands.

Teacher Preparation and the New Political Environment

The recent election has brought a shift in political power to Washington. Assuming a simplistic vote along party lines both houses are not controlled by republicans and the President is a democrat. One wonders whether the contentious politics of the past two years will continue. Democrats in the Senate could now play the Republican game of the past two years and prevent passage of pretty much anything. Will the “party of NO” wear a different color jersey?

Leaders, Mitch McConnell and President Obama, have been remarkably pleasant and promise greater efforts to work together on areas of agreement. While it may have seemed that no such areas exist, to avoid the “party of no” strategy, Republicans are now likely to identify some such areas (in addition to pushing through legislation that the President will obviously veto).

One such area may concern teacher preparation and teacher evaluation. Republicans and Obama’s Department of Education have been supporters of the “value added” mentality. I single out Republicans only because it seems this concept is somewhat more accepted by Republicans. This is a simplification.

The idea of value added proposes that the contribution of teachers can be estimated statistically by using student gain scores after attempting to control for some confounds. It follows that if the value added of a teacher can be determined than the average value added of the institution preparing these teachers can also be estimated. It kind of makes sense on the surface, but the practical significance of value added in contrast to variables other than the teacher and issues of what the dependent variable used in statistical should be make this very controversial. By dependent variable (a stats/research kind term), I mean what will be used to evaluate “gain”. This probably translates as some type of standardized achievement test. Even standardizing on a standardized test will be a struggle that will probably not be resolved. You will then have a mess with different standards in different states and teachers trained in one state teaching in other states making the use of gain scores to evaluate teacher training an apple and oranges mess.

So, without weighing in on whether this will be a good thing for learners and educators, I am just predicting that politicians will see this as an area to address. Teachers are an easy target and politicians will want to point to something, anything, they have accomplished.

(pre-election article on the possible regulation of teacher preparation from the Washington Post)

365 vs Google Apps

I see today that ND EduTech has Office365 for K-12 working. Higher Ed in ND offers the same system. The release was described as offering students 21st Century Learning tools.

Just for the record, I regard Microsoft as lagging behind Google in developing cloud services (and Apple in developing hardware). Both Apple and  Microsoft have been pushed toward cloud applications by the success of Google.  Having used all of these systems, I would rank them Google, Microsoft, and then Apple.

It is interesting that Microsoft seems have to changed the company approach to pay attention to K-12. Apple used to have this focus with the logic that this emphasis might create future adult users. Apple seemed to back away from this focus as its hardware products became the industry leader is many categories. Microsoft may now be taking a similar approach. Note that the free/low cost to students is a way to get individuals invested in the platform. The “adult” version requires a purchase. Of course, Google apps are ad supported for adults. Will most adults purchase Microsoft products for themselves?

I find Google docs easier to use for peer collaborative writing and peer editing. Any system, Apple, Google,  Microsoft has a way to collaborate, but I find the Google approach easier to use. I also see the total “suite” offered by Google better suited to education. To my knowledge, there are no Microsoft or Apple equivalents to Sites, YouTube, Hangouts, Forms or Blogger. I see these products important to developing the multimedia authoring and collaboration skills of students. Contrary to the notion of 21st Century skills, learning, etc., the Microsoft offerings are both dated and limited in scope. I give Microsoft an advantage for OneNote.

Here are some additional links on this topic.

Information Week (this is a good overview not specific to ed)

Education users of both systems discuss