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. 

Time for a new online financial model

I have written several posts arguing that online content is not free and the present approach is not sustainable. The argument regarding the false perception of free is that even if you are not paying for online content with cash the online sites are harvesting your information to be sold to interested parties. Information about you is used to manipulate you in one way or another. Someone will pay. The most recent example of someone will pay might be the use of information about users to tailor the political information they received during the 2016 election.

I also believe that free is not sustainable. Quality content (information created to be factually accurate and semi-independent) takes time and skill to develop. How many individuals is it reasonable to assume will provide such content as a hobby? How many of the online services we use could possibly provide such content if the online service had means of support. I suggest both content creators and content hosts must have some means of compensation.

Those with commercial interests are already forcing our expectations of free to be reconsidered. I recently wrote a post describing the soon to be realized plans for upgrades to Chrome (Google) and Safari (Apple). Google promises to block the most onerous ads (pop-ups, video/audio that plays automatically). Apple promises to block all ads AND block cross-site tracking. These companies are taking these steps to protect their own interests. Google makes a high percentage of its income from ads and hopes encouraging higher quality ads will sustain the ad-based content model. Apple has no stake in ads at all and hopes to take advantage of customer annoyance with ads to prioritize their browser and hardware. Whatever the other issues with ads and ad-blockers, companies will take advantage of the situation to limit the value of online ads to content creators and other technology companies. This combination of the long-term value of quality and the willingness of technology companies to find some type of leverage will kill the present funding opportunities.

As an example, check about half-way down in the left-hand column of this blog. You might see the following message:

No ad blocker detected. Thanks for your support.

I run code that detects whether a viewer has an ad blocker installed and returns the message if no blocker is detected. Instead of this message, I could run a short javascript script that sends the viewer to another page that asks the viewer to disable ad blocking. Instead, I just track the data on the percentage of viewers who use ad blocking software (about 18%).

My prediction is that quality information will go the way of streaming music. I would describe this as micro-payments and many of us already accept such a system to listen to music (I pay for Google and Apple music subscriptions). Google music, for example, also allows me to view YouTube content without ads (YouTube Red).

Here is a new approach you will likely learn about soon if you have not already given it a try. Brave is a new project providing a great browser that can be used in three ways – as a traditional browser, as an ad blocking browser, or as a micro-payment browser. As I understand the micro-payment model, users commit a certain amount of money for a month – say $4. Brave will track the sites the user visits for the month and divide up the $4 payment among those sites that have signed up to be paid (described as claiming your share).

I believe there are significant scale-up issues, but here is how this might go. If Brave can get enough individuals to get the system started (pay in a few dollars so that content creators see a return), I predict Brave will offer producers the opportunity to block nonparticipants. It is not difficult to block a given browser or deny access to users employing ad blockers. There will likely continue to be battles between those wanting to block ads and those wanting to block ad blocking. If Brave makes the move I predict, I might decide as a content creator that is it better to have 10 readers paying one cent per view than 100 readers who block my ads or if the revenue from displaying ads seldom results in any income because no viewers click on the ads. There are a lot of ifs in my analysis, but I do think what I describe is possible and I think it makes enough sense that some will give it a try. The micropayment approach ended up winning the music wars because even though some access was free, playing just what you wanted to hear was attractive enough to generate payment.

Whatever you think, take a look at the Brave browser. It is very fast and just an interesting alternative. I am considering throwing in a few bucks a month and possibly enrolling my content as a participant just to see what happens. It appears to be easy to get in and to get out.

I do have one suggestion for Brave. I think more folks would trust your motives if you did not include the “no ads” option. As I understand the argument you make, publishers should be compensated. The argument would be stronger if the options available were limited to a) ads as intended by the publisher and b) the reader-funded mode with no ads.

Justifying layering

I have this personal expectation that may annoy others. When I propose a learning activity, I feel I should explain why it works and what need it meets. This is kind of the way researchers look at application issues. I understand that technology offers some very interesting possibilities, but there should be a logical justification for why possibilities are implemented.

The following is a video I created to accompany the series of posts and a book on Layering for learning. The previous posts have mainly outlined the learning activities that can be applied with layering techniques and provided tutorials for several layering services. You can locate the previous posts using the layering tag associated with this post. This post is more about justifying these techniques.