Meaningful innovation will require substitution

Some described as tonight leaders make the case that education is broken and new models are needed. From my perspective, if they want to take this position they should expand their view of what education actually involves. Focusing on the existing curriculum and instructional/learning tactics are likely far too narrow. Reality requires that one not just argue what is wrong and what should be added, but what the additions should replace. Replacement is the difficult challenge. Do you drop world history, calculus, or the final course in language arts? Even if you propose that changes should exist within courses you must make similar decisions. Do you eliminate the focus on classic literature or persuasive writing?

In the promotion of change, there are some sacred cows that are seldom, if ever, considered. Examine the following list. I would argue that each has strong advocates, but all involve considerable allocation of time and resources.

  • Athletics,
  • Music and creative arts,
  • Advanced placement courses,
  • and work.

These activities do develop skills, most allow or require individual choice, but most also require considerable time and most resources taken from the school budget. I don’t see administrators having the fortitude to suggest that any of these opportunities is less important than say an entrepreneurship course. If you need the resources and time within the curriculum for new courses – drop AP courses. Promote this to parents by arguing that saving money on college is less important than having the opportunity to find personal interests before getting there. Suggest that unless finances are really a basic problem for families, allowing adolescents to work in order to afford a car or the newest athletics shoes is less important to developing life skills within a safe and supportive environment.

Innovation is partly about examining the values within education, but also the values within communities and families. I have read many recommendations suggesting what are radical departures from traditional education models, but I have yet to read any administrator promote any of the changes I have suggested be considered.

Embedded formative evaluation = mastery learning

One of the ways in which I presently see technology improving learning experiences and success involves methods of individualization that allow individuals to move forward at a rate suited to their individual aptitudes and past experiences. My thinking about this opportunity has been shaped by my previous exposure to the theory and research of mastery learning. This perspective, which I associate with Bloom, Keller and other researchers of the late 1960’s and 1970s, provides the rationale for present practice. Many ideas that were great and well-substantiated ideas at that time were difficult to implement. One way I often look at technology now is as a way to take advantage of great ideas in ways that are now practical. The use of history to claim “we tried that and it did not work” needs reexamination. It is important to ask the why question? Sometimes the why is known and ignored. This is the situation in which interesting ideas reemerge in some form based on a similar interesting past ideas, but are a waste of time and energy because the conditions of why have not been acknowledged and/or changed. For me, the argument that learning to code will develop critical thinking falls into this category. Then, there are examples in which the why should encourage a second look if the conditions of the why have changed. I see this as the case with mastery learning.

I had my class this semester read a review by Shute and Rahimi (see citation at the conclusion of this post). This article focused on recent technology-supported instruction that offered data on the importance of competence and feedback. No mention was made of mastery learning. The article used a different vocabulary which I remember as “embedded formative evaluation”. So formative evaluation is likely a familiar concept (Bloom did see his group-based mastery learning as involving formative evaluation). The idea is that technology-enabled systems can incorporate formative evaluation as a mechanism to provide feedback and determine when individuals should progress. If these new words appeal to you, I think this is great and perhaps this appeal may encourage attempts at application. What I think is unfortunate is that a vast collection of work is out there and may allow new innovators to avoid tactics that were unproductive once and will likely be so again unless the circumstances of application are changed.

Shute, V.J. & Rahimi, S. (2017).  Review of computer-based assessment for learning in elementary and secondary education. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 33, 1-19.

All things retrieval practice

Researchers have a reputation of spending their time on specific topics far beyond the point at which this focus yields useful information. This was my first reaction when I learned that Pooja Agarwal had developed a website specifically devoted to retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is the concept that making the effort to retrieve something from memory increases the probability that the targeted memory will be recalled in the future. Awarwal is one of the individuals I associate with this finding.

To me, retrieval practice is not a new idea. I have been interested in the benefits of responding to questions since the 1970s. I even have a notion of why this idea has had a resurgence albeit with a different name. I think that improving recall is associated with memorization and educators seem to move through historical phases in which memorization is considered a bad thing. For example, you might note some refer to testing recall as regurgitation. Of course, this perspective kind of misses the point. If learned information is unavailable, application is impossible.

Agarwal and others emphasize retrieval practice as a study skill and explore variations that may appeal teachers and students with different learning needs.

I do have one suggestion to add. I have been writing lately about the benefits of using technology tools that allow the layering of educator or learner prompts on online resources (web pages, video). Retrieval prompts of various types would be a way to encourage retrieval practice. So, if learners were asked to review a video or a web page as instructional content, questions could be added to this material so that when the content was opened in the future learners can practice the retrieval of the targeted information. If the effort to retrieve is unsuccessful, the page or video can be quickly reviewed.

The Agarwal site includes research citations and ideas for application.

Noun Project for educators

There are so many situations in which content created by educators might benefit from graphics – handouts, bulletin boards, web lessons, etc. I have read recommendations that suggest bloggers should always include an image in their posts. I do include some screen captures and some photographs, but my personal artistic skills are insufficient to create images in other ways. The Noun Project offers images that are perfect for such situations. 
For $20 a year, educators can access a nearly unlimited database of icons appropriate for nearly any imaginable situation. The images are scalable (see Maple leaf in a fall color). You establish your credentials as an educator and respond to indicate how you intend to use the images to acquire the $20 fee (the fee for others is $40). Images can be searched using a browser or software (at least for the Mac).


Mac Noun Project application

Goodbye Gallimimus

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the first phase of a family project to follow the caterpillar to butterfly transformation of the monarch. I thought it was the time to show the conclusion of the project.

Sid knew it was important to release his pet so he/she could fly south. Here is a short video of mom and Sid searching for just the right location.

Goodbye Gallimimus – the monarch’s name had me confused. Sid’s present passion is dinosaurs. Evidently, Gallimimus is one of his favorites.

Training edupreneurs

I have read many books about technology innovators. Their lives and their struggles make for great stories. A frequent theme is the challenge these innovators face being able to actually build a company and sell products. The solution is often described as “bringing in some adult supervision” implying the skills of creativity and problem-solving involved in product or service creation do not necessarily translate in sustaining a business.

The books I have in mind often tell the story based on the different values and skills of the engineers and the marketers. Wozniak and Jobs would be a good example. Their difference in talents and values eventually led to their separation. Google founders Brin and Page would be an example of an engineer driven company. With both Apple and Google there were at least some periods of adult supervision (various CEOs with Apple – Scully and Amelio and Schmidt for Google). In both cases, although this may have involved considerable acrimony, a founder eventually returned to run the business. The transitions were not necessarily understood in this fashion, but perhaps there was a period of learning and maturation required for company leadership.

Institutions of higher education have taken note of this pattern (or understood it from the beginning) and encourage some “engineers” to take some business courses. This reminds me somehow of advice sometimes given to athletes headed for what look like pro careers. Skills in one area may leave on poorly prepared individuals for applying these skills in another.

I was thinking about this model in light of recent discussions of edupreneurs. Without weighing in on the backstory for these discussions, the argument might be made that educators (whether they continue as practitioners, become thought leaders, or both) are unlikely to have the skills and perspective necessary to market themselves and their ideas. Should those of us preparing advanced students add course work on edupreneurship to our existing offerings on learning theory and applied instructional tactics. This would probably be a requirement necessitating the hiring of a different type of higher ed faculty member. We tend to be more like the engineers. However, without some interventions are those now gaining visibility really the individuals we would prefer pushing practice forward or in different directions?


A version of the SRA reading box resurfaces

I assign the grad students in my instructional design and technology class the task of analyzing a system that allows individuals students to advance based on demonstrated competence. This my way of explaining what I learned as “mastery learning” back in the 1960s. My position is that such systems were always a good idea, but technology has not made them more practical and powerful.

Part of the challenge for students is identifying such systems. I could name many systems that meet my expectations but students are often unfamiliar with this perspective for thinking about learning environments and if they work in traditional schools unfamiliar with such systems. It is my opinion that such systems are far more common in charter schools and probably among those who home school. The exception might be the Kahn Academy, but familiarity with this online opportunity seldom includes long-term individualization.

Without giving away too much because I want students to think and explore a bit, I decided to use the example of Newsela. My take on Newsela would allow long term individualization fitting my charge to the grad students, but I am guessing the possibility I see when not be perceived in this fashion. Newsela is a very interesting service making the same stories (e.g, current events) available at different reading levels. This approach allows educators working in a group-based environment a way to address levels of reading proficiency. Because the stories come with comprehension quizzes, I see a mechanism that would allow learners to advance level to level over time based on performance. Sometimes, seeing how opportunities fit models is all it takes.

As I thought about Newsela, I flashed back to much earlier experiences with SRA reading kits (I think this was the description). If you are a little older, you may now be thinking about the same reading resource that I am. I remember a box with partitions separating groups of laminated, 8.5 x 11 laminated cards. Each card contained reading material and comprehension questions. The cards had different colored borders that allowed them to be accurately returned to a specific partition in the box. The different colors represented different levels of challenge. Each card within a color was different, but supposedly a similar level of challenge. I remember thinking at the time that this was a variant of the different mastery models I was studying and research at the time.

I searched for SRA kits and came across this post by Audrey Watters with a similar recollection. I also remember that in the 60s-70s mastery tactics were often associated with a behavioral tradition. I was a cognitivist even then and never thought that the proposed processes had to be understood within a behaviorist tradition.