Pragmatism is Not the Answer, Part II: Tech Integration

Photo courtesy of gadgetophilia.com

For Leadership Day 2010 I decided to default to one of my soapboxes. Those of you who have made a habit of reading my rants will recognize some recycled parts of an old blog post. However, when I think about the message I most want to communicate about technology integration, it is this message—Pragmatism is not the answer.

For the sake of this discussion, I will define pragmatism to mean: A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems. (Thanks to answers.com for that definition) It's a straightforward If-Then mentality. In the tech-evangelical world, I would say it means some iteration of ”If I buy the latest and greatest technology, students will experience high quality learning.” 

I spend a lot of time thinking about our addiction to pragmatic answers to our highly-complex educational questions. We are so concerned with fast, practical results that we’ve forgotten that real, substantive, lasting change happens as a result of changing the underlying belief systems of the individuals who comprise your school.

This is even relevant in the sometimes-pompous world of tech-integrationists. We focus on the hardware, the software, or the product—missing the boat entirely. We count the number of laptops, iPods, iPads, and netbooks, and we neglect to assess or highlight the qualitative difference in students’ learning experiences. We focus too much on getting the technology into the hands of the teachers and students and not enough time fostering the belief systems that will allow the teachers and students to innovate with the technology they have.

Or, when proclaiming the positive results of a technology initiative, we focus on all the wrong things. We talk about the laptops, not the learning. We talk about the cool products students have made, not the deep conceptual and procedural knowledge they have attained as a result.

While I am absolutely a fan of meaningful technology integration, simply buying technology for your students will not transform your school. It’s just not that simple. We consistently neglect to consider and challenge our most fundamental attitudes and beliefs—the forces that drive every action we take and every decision we make in terms of how to use technology for learning.

So, think around your building and answer these questions: What are our shared values? What are the core beliefs that drive our actions in conscious and unconscious ways?

Do we believe that educational systems must be designed for students, rather than adults? Are we willing to throw away our treasured traditions and take the risk of letting the students show us where to go?

Do we really believe all kids can learn? Do we believe every single student is worth our utmost effort? Are we relentless in our efforts to connect with students and push them to their full potential?

Do we believe that the best kind of learning occurs when students are deeply engaged in a struggle to understand important concepts? Do we believe that conceptual understanding and skill fluency are more important than knowledge?

A fundamental change in belief system must accompany technology integration in order for us to see the system-shattering results we want to see. In my mind, it’s a chicken-egg deal. I don’t care if you purchase the laptops for every student first and then change the belief system—or vice versa.

My major word of caution is not to neglect the hard work of challenging and changing attitudes and beliefs. Participate and engage others in experiences that provide cognitive dissonance and force us to question our biases and assumptions. Changes in values and beliefs will result in incremental changes in behavior that will get us to the lasting and systemic results we want. 


What Ender Taught me about Educational Change

I was invited by John Carver to engage in a conversation about the future of education a couple of weeks ago. I’ve had many of these conversations before, but this one was different—most noticeable in the fact that I am still churning yet today. Typically, I find myself deconstructing the system and talking around the most troubling education questions with a bunch of other education types. The effect of that narrow audience is that we never get outside of the paradigms of education. See, most educators know nothing else. They went from being students in an educational system—one that typically served them fairly well—to being the pillars of the same system. We struggle to “think outside the box” because the box has framed our entire lives. What was different about that meeting was that that it was a heterogeneous group—with great thinkers from the private sector as well—and one of these great thinkers threw the curveball that eventually provoked a eureka moment for me.

At one point in the meeting, Christian Renaud got up and started a list of recommended reads on one of the white boards. It was an unassuming move that most in the room probably didn’t give a second thought. However, when he wrote Ender’s Game on the board, I was knocked off balance for a minute. I guess you might even say that I was pushed out of the box. I know this book well—even taught it when I was a classroom teacher—but I had no idea what it had to do with the questions with which we were wrestling. Determined to square this dissonance, I downloaded the audio version and listened to it during my drive to Des Moines the next morning—this time allowing myself to be engaged by Orson Scott Card’s work from a different angle.

What I learned from two hours with Ender

Optimal learning happens when students experience “just right” challenge. This is a widely-studied, well-supported fact. If you need the evidence, start by looking at the research base behind problem-based mathematics instruction. If you need more, look to the work of Fred Newmann and Bruce King in their study of Authentic Intellectual Work. Navigating through complex problems that have value beyond the four walls of the classroom—beyond the expectations of the teacher—forces students to develop complex procedural knowledge. And, if well-designed and delivered, valuable metacognitive knowledge and deep conceptual knowledge of important stuff.  Throughout the book, Ender is constantly put in situations that force him to navigate his way through carefully constructed challenges that force him to develop needed skills and knowledge.

For an example of a “just right” challenge take a look at the “Give Me Shelter” project viewable through Edutopia’s Anatomy of a Project series. We need to create an educational system that consistently puts students in situations where they are facing "just-right" challenges. 

We must understand our students. Creating the situations in which “just right” challenges can occur requires that we know our students in deep and distinct ways. We must understand how each and every one of them thinks. We must understand their individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning trajectories in order to know which challenges will help them develop their strengths and chisel away at their weaknesses—all the while developing important concepts and skills. Further, we have to attend to their affective development. We need to foster the dispositions and belief systems that allow our students to develop confidence, perseverance, and openness. Ender is constantly observed for signs of growth and areas of deficiency. I don’t propose installing monitors in children’s brains like they do in Ender’s Game. However, I do propose that we develop valid tools and processes that allow us to monitor an individual student’s growth and development to ensure he or she is consistently facing “just right” challenges that do in fact lead to the development of important skills and knowledge. 

The system must transform—in real time—to match the growth of the individual student. Currently, we depend on what I can only call an arbitrary system of grouping children by age and moving them along at essentially the same pace—presuming 180 days of school constitute a recognizable unit of growth or development. Ender’s game constantly changes to match the difficulty and context of the task he faces to the level of proficiency he demonstrates. I have sketchy ideas of what this looks like, sounds like, and feels like in action. I’ll be sharing these ideas with the group when we meet again Friday, and I will share them with all of you in the near future.


My Response to the Fordham Report

The second issue raised in the July 21st Des Moines Register Article is about the quality of the Iowa Core. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently published the results of a study in which they examined the English/language arts and mathematics content standards of each state and compared them to the Common Core Standards in terms of rigor and clarity. You can find the full report here. The short version is that Iowa gets an F for English/language arts and a C for mathematics.

The Iowa Core literacy essential concepts and skills are faulted for being broad, vague, repetitive, and arranged by grade span. The report characterizes the literacy Iowa Core as "only general statements that are repeated almost verbatim across spans" (p. 125). The report points out "some weaknesses in the development and prioritization of arithmetic" in the Iowa Core mathematics essential concepts and skills. Additionally, high school mathematics is characterized as "unusually presented" and "missing much of the essential content" (p. 129). Both literacy and mathematics receive low ratings for rigor. 

I don't intend to argue against the content of the report, the measurements used in the analysis, or even the validity of its conclusions. What I will say is that any comparison of the Iowa Core to the Common Core is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The Iowa Core is not standards and benchmarks and has never pretended to be. The Iowa Core is a continuous improvement process that is about what we teach and how we teachIt is a roadmap toward systemic change in Iowa schools. 

With that said, the Iowa Core is what it is--for better or worse--because of deliberate decisions, not because of oversight, of its developers. Once again, I would like to provide some perspective on the Iowa Core. 

The fact that the Iowa Core essential concepts and skills are organized broadly by grade spans allows for maximum flexibility at the local level, while at the same time ensuring that each and every student is ultimately held to the same high expectations. This allows us to hang on to our local control philosophy that says those of us closest to the students in our classrooms know best about what they need right here, right now to achieve at high levels. At the same time, it also allows for standardization of outcomes across the state. 

The repetitive nature of the essential concepts and skills underscores a belief that deep learning occurs in what can best be characterized as a spiral. Students engage in learning experiences that develop the same conceptual and/or procedural knowledge in depth over time through increasingly complex content or through increasingly complex iterations of the skill or concept. I'll paraphrase Daniel Pink and say that mastery of complex skills and concepts is an asymptote. It can never actually be attained--the target moves as we grow and develop. 

Iowa has had a sharp focus on rigor. We, as a state system, have engaged in thorough and intense study of our content, instruction, and assessment through the lens of rigor--as defined by Bloom's Taxonomy. We have highly successful statewide initiatives, such as Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW), Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI), and more that inspect and respect cognitive complexity. Our newest round of teacher and administrator evaluation certification teaches evaluators how to identify and coach for rigor and dimensions of knowledge through the Southern Regional Education Board's Revised Bloom's Taxonomy. If this respect for rigor has not been appropriately communicated through our Iowa Core, I'll be happy to get to work on addressing the problem. 

In the meantime, I'm going to continue to hold my head high as an Iowa educator and keep working to support high quality learning for each and every child in our state. 


Iowa Core and Common Core Adoption

The July 21st article in the Des Moines Register, Group faults Iowa for standards for math, English created more than a little stir among my Iowa colleagues, and I want to take a moment to respond from my perspective. Some background on my perspective: 
  • I was one of the original writing team members for the Model Core Curriculum back in 2005
  • I have served on a variety of work teams and committees in the ongoing development of the work of the Iowa Core--one of which is a team that was convened just this month to look critically at the content of the Common Core, the relationship between the Iowa Core and the Common Core, and make recommendations to the State Board of Education (BOE) regarding Common Core adoption
Disclaimer: The opinion I am going to share is my own. It is not necessarily shared by the Iowa Department of Education or anyone else. 

There really are two separate issues to be addressed in the article: Iowa's adoption of the Common Core and the Fordham Institute's analysis of the Iowa Core. I will just address one of these issues in this posting-for the sake of brevity. 

On the issue of Common Core adoption: 

By the time you read this, I anticipate the BOE will have adopted the Common Core. While I do understand and appreciate the reactions of some of my colleagues who feel as if the train has just jumped the tracks (again, as many of you who have been around much longer than I have might add), let me contextual this. 

The Iowa Core is broad. It addresses six different outcomes, only one of which is content alignment--or aligning what we teach with the Essential Concepts and Skills of the Iowa Core. Presumably, the adoption of the Common Core will have the largest impact on this work. All the good work already happening with effective instruction, leadership, assessment, community engagement, and professional development remains on track. And, I believe much of the work districts have already done in the world of content alignment will still be relevant in the post Common Core adoption world. 

Further, I have to say that, though I have been a staunch advocate of the Iowa Core, it is not perfect. After an in-depth review of the English/Language Arts portion of the Common Core, I would also admit that it's not perfect. Nothing is. Keep in mind that the rules of adoption allow a state to add 15% to the Common Core. Iowa will be doing so. I can say definitively that the result will be something that is better than either Iowa Core or Common Core alone, and this is good for the students of Iowa. 

I will close by reminding you that the Iowa Core is a continuous improvement process. It is not an event--or even a series of events. Progress requires change, and I, for one, see the adoption of the Common Core with Iowa's 15% addition as a good thing. 


New Chapter/New Blog

It's the night before my first day of school. Even after all these years, I still get kind of giddy about starting a new school year. I have my clothes picked out and my bag packed. I won't be able to sleep tonight. School doesn't actually start tomorrow, but tomorrow I begin a new chapter of my professional life, as I take over as the Director of Educational Services for the Waverly-Shell Rock Schools

For the past eleven years I devoted my life to Price Laboratory School, which was a wonderful place to learn and grow. But now, I am ready for a new adventure. I am ready to build on good work already happening in the district and ready to tackle existing challenges with my "new eye" perspective. This move is a big deal. It's such a big deal that I decided it was worthy of a whole new blog. Those of you who know me know I have much to say. I already have a list of to-be-blogged topics waiting for my new office, and I can't wait to get started.