Mastery revisited (again)

Mastery learning is one the concepts I discovered early in my career and that I continue to return to as a great idea just on the edge of meaningful implementation. I see mastery learning as different from other education concepts that continue to reappear even though the efficacy of these ideas is seldom demonstrated. To me, mastery learning is an idea that has waited for a practical method for implementation. Tutoring has always been an approach to implementation responsive to individual differences in learning speed, but the cost effectiveness of tutoring has typically prevented speed of acquisition differences to be accommodated. My interest in technology from the beginning has been related to the potential for personalization. The “personal computer” offers opportunities for many forms of individualization.

Educational historian Larry Cuban has recently begun generating blog posts focused on the Personalized System of Instruction – Fred Keller’s model from the late 1960s (here and here). As a model suited to technological support, PSI offers the best model from the early days. Bloom’s more group-based approach possibly received more attention because of Blook’s conceptual framework and concepts such as formative and summative assessment, but Bloom was also simply better known as an influential figure. I try to get my grad students to consider Keller’s perspective as a better starting point for individualized instruction.


Is the focus on STEM just another educational pendulum problem

The focus on STEM in education is in full force. Science, math, and technology are somehow linked to the economic success of the country. Resources and attention follow the factors that are understood to influence the bottom line. The weird thing, I think, is that this focus of attention and resources can be seen even at the level of elementary education. STEM for all despite the reality that the contributions to be made will require college and probably graduate-level education and most even at this advanced level will be unable to develop the level of expertise necessary to make actual contributions.

K-12 is a zero-sum environment and this environment is underfunded to begin with. Resources focused on STEM (time, content funding, educator support and professional development) mean there is less available for other content areas. Few problems facing the country are exclusively STEM-based. Consider the present climate-change issue. This problem is about science, but not because of science. The science is pretty clear. The problem is one of economics, failed information literacy, and ethics. More STEM will not provide a solution to this scientific challenge.

So many of our real problems are “social” problems better addressed by the second-class citizens of education professionals – social studies educators. Our biases when it comes to the importance of various content areas have long been obvious. These social problems must be addressed by anyone and do not require a graduate degree. What the solutions require is a focus on better understanding at all levels of education. It is time for K-12 folks to get off the STEM bandwagon and do a better job of preparing the total learner.

Annotation Studio – MIT Digital Humanities

I have used this blog on several occasions to provide tutorials on several online services that could be used to implement the instructional strategies I outline in my book “Layering for Learning“. The book has a very specific focus – educator amplification of online resources (video, web pages) – to create better learning experiences for students. An important focus here is that the content comes from a third party (or at least that is what is assumed) and the methods do not violate the copyrights of the original creators. So, educators can make use of YouTube videos and web content they did not author.

Many of the tactics I cover in the book and in my free online resources could be applied to other content. For example, Google docs allow peer editing, commenting and the opportunity for educators to distribute content they have available with overlays of comments and questions.

The Annotation Studio Digital Humanities project from MIT is an online option developed more specifically within the framework of educational applications I outline in my book. It is specific to content uploaded by educators and so is different than the approach I have described in my own work.

It is important to me that I recommend tactics that have demonstrated value. My own approach relies on the work of educational researchers. The Humanities project is less based in quantitative research and focuses on the argumentation style of those from the humanities. MIT has generated a White Paper that describes Annotation studio, provides a tutorial on the service, and provides additional comment justifying such activities that may interest educators. The program was developed at the university level, but has been used in high schools.


Personal history

I received what I thought was an interesting email this morning. This email notified me that my content contained an out-of-date link and provided a more current address. I have generated so much content that finding a way to keep information current is a problem so I appreciate assistance when offered.

The unique thing about the request was that it concerned a blog post I had written rather than the content I might try to keep current. The blog post was written in 2002. Unlike web page content I create, blog posts are kind of a temporary offering I assume fades into the mists of time. Just to address the emailer’s request, here is the original post updated to include a current link.

OK — just in case you don’t know and were wondering — what is a blog?

Blog is web slang for “web log.” Think of a blog as a web page that the author continues to update with new and typically short comments. Blogs entries tend to be dated and the entry appearing at the top of the page is the most recent. Blogs are created using a simple web form through a service provided on a remote server. There are several such services and basic blogs can be created for free. Blogs are either hosted on the remote server or can be ftp’s to a server of your choice.

We must admit that we are new to blogging and we are learning as we go. The experience of jumping in and trying a new technology venture in a public way is becoming a pattern of learning for us. We think this is a great way to learn and we would encourage you to take the same approach.

It seems to work best for us if we learn within the context of an actual project. Here is our proposed project. We will be attending the National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio (June 17-19). Experiences at NECC should provide us something to write about. We intend to share both our NECC and blogging experiences with anyone who might be interested. We hope the combination will be of some value.

History of weblogs

For some reason, I found the topic addressed by the broken link, then and now, interesting. Blogging could not have had much of a history in 2002 nor could other forms of online authoring. I occurred to me that we (my wife and I) have lived through the history of something that continues to shape many aspects of our world. We were working with technology before the Internet was available and before the web browser. We did things for ourselves (e.g., running a server and generating web content “by hand”) because sharing content and opinions had yet to be developed as a service. Our first book on technology integration for educators was written in 1995 and we were working with computers in classrooms some years before we wrote about the topic. I like to explain our earliest personal work in the field by noting that we first used the Apple II when you had to add an extra card so you could have lower case text. It does occur to me that a comment about adding and pulling cards probably makes little sense to many technology users. Trust me – it is the kind of thing you used to have to do yourself.

It is interesting being old in a field often associated with the young. You must pardon our smiles when you share your enthusiasm and sometimes assume we don’t understand. We are not putting you down because of your enthusiasm. We were once where you are now and remain involved and excited by the present. When it comes to broad access to technology, the good old days were not that great.

This post from 2002 contains some history. The post mentions attending NECC in San Antonio. Some of you may have just returned from ISTE in San Antonio. Same organization with a new name 15 years later.

I was thinking that blogs of some duration end up being historical accounts in the raw. The many entries speak to current events and in doing so offer by accident an account of the topic the posts tend to address. I will have to take the time to reread some of my old stuff.

Quality of your summer reads

The summer is a great time to do some reading. Various folks, including me, have offered educators some suggestions for what they might read. I think putting some time into the “long form” is a great form of professional development. However, there is still reason to be critical when making selections on which you are willing to spend time.

I recently encountered an extended blog post that emphasized this point. The post references Drezner’s book The Ideas Industry which expresses the concern that many now encounter “thought leaders” promoting one cause or another. I suppose many such books are encouraged by what I think is a much more intense interest in “political issues”, but books for educators focused on leadership, how students learn, or how to teach some new skill or knowledge areas should be included.

The blog post author offers what seems a familiar list of critical thinking skills to be applied to pretty much any form of content (quoted below) but were focused in the post on books for professionals.

  1. Do they have an advanced degree in the field they’re discussing? If not, do their cited sources?

  2. What’s their methodology? Does their case rest on anecdotal evidence or scientific studies? Do they cherry-pick certain studies and ignore those that don’t support their view?

  3. What’s their motive? Who funded their research? Are they transparent about funding and other organizational ties?

Many of the books for educators I would place in this “thought leader” category offer few references of any type, but do tend to throw in a number of anecdotes to support their advocacy.

The blog post uses Gladwell’s book Outliers as an example. I happen to like Outliers and would still recommend the book even recognizing the validity of the complaint. The blog criticized the 10,000 hour rule Gladwell highlights in the book. I have also read accounts carefully demonstrating that the 10,000 standard need not be met and I suppose arguing that those who use this value are discouraging educators from taking on instructional challenges that cannot commit this amount of time could be an issue.

In fairness to Gladwell, I would describe the intent of Outliers a little more broadly. I interpret the book as an argument against “extreme genius” being responsible for the accomplishments of certain individuals (e.g., Bill Gates, the Beatles). It has been some time since I read the book, but I remember the explanation suggesting that “outliers” tend to be talented individuals who have the luck to fall into an endeavor or area before others and to work very hard. So major accomplishments are a matter of talent, luck and hard work. So, from Gladwell’s anecdotal analysis, such achievements result from more than talent.

Gladwell did not make up the 10,000 standard. If I remember from cognitive psychology textbooks, the 10,000 value comes from studies of the development of expertise. So, Gladwell did have some basis for using this value and it was probably appropriate to the examples he used (self-taught programming, musical creativity, etc.).

I do agree with the blog authors concern regarding the glut of “thought leader” books and critical analysis is certainly warranted.

Why not do something obvious, but innovative?

So many education leaders and politicians interested in education are urging that educators innovate. My reaction typically is to question just what such exhortations are supposed to accomplish. When in a pessimistic mood, I am likely to note that this is what politicians say when they do not want to provide resources and want to appear to be doing something. For education leaders, urging innovation can be a way to encourage without offering a direction. When I feel more positive, the “it is time to innovate” message could be a willingness to admit you don’t know what should be done, but want to encourage practitioners to take risks with the reassurance that failures will be tolerated.

Let me propose something a little different. I think I can begin with an obvious, but neglected issue and suggest a remedy. The remedy may require some resources because I am not a believer in magic.

I would argue that the most ignored variable in education practice is time. In fact, actions taken often seem to work in contradiction to the reality that learning takes time. For example, a current recommendation is that we abandon home work. Without home work, students could have more time for themselves and teachers would have less content to review. Without getting into the issue of what is assigned as  home work, note that getting rid of out of school assigned activities reduces the time devoted to learning. Adding new topics to be learned is another way to reduce the time available for existing expectations. Coding, information literacy, money management and other worthwhile recommendations abound. Additions are often made without precise recommendations for what should be deleted. Deletions are the hard part because there are always folks who promote the arts, physical education, etc. as essential to a well-rounded education. Watering everything down is a solution when deletions are difficult.

A well-documented education issue is the summer slide. This term describes the decline in previously learned knowledge and skills that occurs while students are out of school over the summer. In addition, it is established that the magnitude of the slide is not a constant across certain groups; e.g., those students from lower income homes lose more. This makes sense as wealthier families can provide more opportunities for their children when the children are out of school. Some solutions are fairly obvious. For example, reading is a great way to develop knowledge and maintain or improve reading skills. Take your kids to the library.

The variable of time in education can have other meanings. Across my career I have been interested in the challenge of individual differences in time required to learn. Those learners with less aptitude and poorer backgrounds for specific skills require more time to acquire those skills. These differences in time required are difficult to address in group-based instruction, but failures to adjust to the needs of individuals increases time required for those who cannot keep up and bores the learners who must mark time while waiting for peers. Variability within a group increases continually increasing the instructional challenge. Practices such as ability grouping seem an adaptation on the surface but we know that such practices are far from ideal with known issues such as labeling impacts learners in ways that reduce motivation. Individualizing time to learn is one of those things we largely conveniently ignore.

I think real innovation begins with the precise identification of major challenges. My suggestion for the precise identification of a major challenge would be finding a way to increase the time available for learning.

So, here is something innovative to consider. Why not consider how to use the time available over the summer in a productive way? Visits to the library are great, but why not also take advantage of technology? If your school provides laptops, chromebooks, or ipads, are students allowed to take these devices home over the summer? If so and even if students must UYOD (use your own device), do educators take the time to offer suggestions or formally engage learners in the productive use of these devices? There is a lot of talk regarding the value of student-guided learning and passion projects. Why not create some curriculum units, donate a couple of hours a week, and find ways to engage parents with their kids in productive summer projects? The summer is a perfect time for technology-facilitated innovation. Why not increase the time committed to learning?


Grade grubbing valedictorians??

Karen Arnold has authored a study based on the longitudinal study of high school valedictorians that has generated a lot of online media attention among educators. Arnold followed the careers of 80 or so high school valedictorians and found that while most did quite well, they are prone not to accomplish major things. I have not read her book, but the following two summaries from which I have selected specific quotes:

From Time:

So why are the number ones in high school so rarely the number ones in real life? There are two reasons. First, schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Academic grades correlate only loosely with intelligence (standardized tests are better at measuring IQ). Grades are, however, an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules.

From the Daily Beast (Grade grubbing valedictorians)

There was little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. They are reliable, consistent, and well-adjusted, and by all measures the majority have good lives.

But how many of your number-one high school performer peers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero.


Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries … they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.

I encourage you to read the complete articles.

My comments here respond not so much to these articles as to the spin put on these articles I have observed on social media. The spin I question is close to what seems to be the sentiment of the Daily Beast title (Grade grubbing valedictorians). The existing research seems to be spun to suggest that K-12 and I suppose college education needs to somehow change to encourage those likely to have more impactful careers.

You might understand the core of my position from a reply I made to a Tweet suggesting that this research suggests that educational practice must somehow change. My comment was – Here is my proposal – I will take the valedictorian and you take a student selected at random. Let’s bet on which individual has the highest income at age 35.

I have both methodological and practical concerns related to what I have seen as suggestions related to this research. What I see as lacking methodologically and practically in the work is the identification of which students should be compared with the valedictorian.

Consider that in a class of 100 students there could be 1 valedictorian and 99 other students. Is it really surprising that one of these 99 might eventually be regarded as more successful than the valedictorian? Life has enough uncertainties that this comparison is hardly a reasonable way to evaluate whether those who are successful in schools as they exist somehow provide evidence that schools should be changed.

It appears that argument is that the problem is somehow conformity and a desire to please. It does make some sense that nonconformists will take paths in life that explore new areas and look at things differently. I can understand this advantage or more accurately put – difference. One question related to this group might be how many of the individuals who fall within this group are extremely successful. Just for sake of argument let’s say that 10% achieve at a higher level than the valedictorian but most of the rest accomplish little and most have difficulty fitting into the expectations of most careers. Should the process of education somehow be modified (you would have to explain just what changes would be required) to encourage and prioritize this group?

For the record, I support programs allowing personal exploration such as 20% or passion projects. Even if what should be done to encourage optimal success for each group, I do not assume that institutions must take one approach or the other.