Sunday, April 30, 2017

Off-brand Education

When I was a kid, generics looked like this <----. The idea was that skipping the advertising, the design, and the color printing, more-or-less the same quality products would be available at a lower cost. If you could manage without actual  Froot Loops®, you could enjoy round, sugary, fruit-colored breakfast cereal for less. At some point, the stigma of a cart full of white boxes with black lettering eventually combined with comparatively lower costs for printing resulting in store brands and generic brands that looked a lot like the national brands (I remember Malt-O-Meal as an early example). At least they would to anyone who didn't watch Saturday morning cartoons.

Also in those days, teachers' content usually resided in spiral-ring notebooks and was delivered to students by way of chalk. Worksheets were typed (with typewriters), written out by hand, or illegally Xeroxed from workbooks. Tech geeks may have printed things (on dot matrix), while their less progressive colleagues still copied on mimeograph machines. Teachers' bulletin boards were designed and constructed by teachers--which made penmanship and scissors skills very important teaching skills. In other words, education was mostly homemade by our teachers, or at most guided by textbooks.

Teachers were also engaged in pedagogical innovation, even if that also was a bit homemade and haphazard. Some arranged desks in a big circle around the room. Some would have us produce "music videos"--to be performed live, as video editing was pretty cumbersome on VHS tape--resulting in some kind of learning, I guess. One of my teachers continually plugged coming attractions (in the next chapter, we will discover...) such that his course was perpetually time-locked two weeks in the future.

Oh, also, we had cheese made of cheese and all the butter we could eat, due to government dairy price stabilization schemes. You would have liked the '70s and '80s.

I'm currently sitting in an in-service, learning--well, actually I'm typing this blog, but I'm supposed to be learning--about Hybrid Learning®, brought to you in part by Dellicker Strategies. Previously, I sat through Learning Focused Strategies; previous to that I learned Madeline Hunter®; previous to that it was TESA®.

Each of these methodologies is based in legitimate educational theories that someone figured out how to monetize. I submit that once these ideas made the journey from quality educational concepts and improvements to shiny binders and glitzy web-based in-service packages, something was lost.

If I ever get to interview a superintendent or principal or Secretary of Education, my one question--assuming I'm permitted to ask my own, and not have to choose from a shiny binder full of questions--would be: "What is currently wrong with education in general and the specific way teaching is being done in our district (state, country...), and what is your Solution®." Any candidate with a ready answer to this question should be immediately removed from the room, stripped of their certifications, and sent off to manage a WAWA (or Sheetz, depending on the exact location). 

The list that follows will take you through a series of branded Educational Initiatives® that began life as worthwhile improvements, subsequently turned ugly through the process of corporatization:

Common Core (not to be confused with common core):
  • The idea: National standards for benchmarks in certain aspects of a student's education will more equitably distribute access. The goal is to ensure that every student who takes Algebra 1 learns pretty much the same stuff.
  • The twisted reality: As Diane Ravitch so eloquently described, Common Core does too much to prescribe not only what is taught, but precisely how much and how. It has been used by none other than President Obama and his Education Secretary as a cudgel to weaken schools enough to bring about rescue scenarios such as charter schools. Common Core creates goals that aren't impossible to meet, but goals that are so specific that they stifle creativity and classroom-level customization. When teachers are left out of the process, we get closer to a reality in which teaching will be done by machines (see also: here).
AP (not to be confused with apps or apps):
  • The idea: Students who take exceedingly rigorous courses in high school should be able to apply this knowledge and skill to test out of entry-level courses in college.
  • The twisted reality: Educational Testing® has scaled up its efforts to the degree that any course without the "AP" prefix is assumed to lack rigor. This non-profit has made many people very rich, by selling parents and students college credit for $80 a course--an actual bargain if the student achieves the requisite score, and if  the college doesn't expect them to take their own version of the course, and if it wouldn't be a better idea to take their version. Lots of fine print to sort through.
LFS (not to be confused with SFL):
  • The idea: Making learning an intentional process, rather than a happy accident, improves the odds that it would occur.
  • The twisted reality: There's nothing new here. Terry Pratchett called it Second Thoughts. Longstanding learning theory called it meta-cognition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about your thinking process. There is absolutely nothing wrong with designing lessons based on a central idea, or essential question. There is absolutely nothing wrong with identifying critical vocabulary and identifying it for students. There is absolutely something very wrong with bilking school systems out of tens of thousands of dollars for access to Essential Questions®, Word Walls®, and the rest.
Hybrid (not to be confused with hybrids or hybrids):
  • The idea: Learning happens fundamentally in three modes: teachers deliver content, students work on their own, students work in groups.
  • The twisted reality: It came to our school wedded to 1:1 computer deployment, which has many of us thinking that Hybrid® is a technology initiative. It's not, though the relationship isn't coincidental either. Hybrid is an effort to keep teachers from lecturing for 82 minutes while expensive laptops languish in their bags; or the inverse: students f-ing around on laptops for 82 minutes on a task that takes most of them 10. Enforcing a strict rotation schedule gets teachers in the habit of using the computers, but not too much. Given how simple a concept this is, one might wonder why expensive consulting, multiple teacher "coaching" positions, and grueling hours of in-service (/blog writing time) have been dedicated to it.
    Danielson Framework (not to be confused with Daniel-san):
    • The idea: Teaching is a multifaceted art form, and it is worthwhile to look at it methodically from different perspectives.
    • The twisted reality: Like most of this stuff, it's hard to find fault with the philosophical core of this. The problem arises from the fact that the observation process has become so clogged with paperwork based on the framework that we've cut way back on it. Currently, teachers (at least at my school) do "differentiated supervision"--think: busy work--for two out of every three years, and are only observed one in three. This is a shame. It's good for administrators to get into classrooms. It's good, though admittedly not a cure-all, for teachers to do their thing under scrutiny. It's so good that an argument could be made for having a systematic program of teachers observing each other and reporting back on it. Most of us haven't done that since our induction program, but it can be very efficient for teachers to watch each other. It can result in the theft of good ideas, and in the discovery of methods and traits that we'd never want to allow into our own work.
    Trying to get better at education is not only a nice thing, it's absolutely essential for our survival. Much of the talk of "failing schools" is nonsense, intended more to cleave resources away from public schools than to improve them--I'm looking at you, Ms. DeVos. That doesn't absolve us of the responsibility of trying to get better, though. It's not possible to stand still, so if you think that's what you're doing, you're getting worse.

    Why not take it back, though? Why not figure some of these things out for ourselves, and learn it from each other? Why not hire, I don't know, an assistant superintendent, or director of curriculum, or something to guide all of this? Why not have teachers observe each other and share feedback--not as an assessment, but as a genuine effort to spread the wealth of good ideas and fresh perspectives?

    The answer, I'm afraid, is the shiny binders are very appealing, and the idea of a one-size-fits-most solution is even more so. To take this back would require that we recognize the wealth of ideas, tricks, and philosophical underpinnings already in the system. It would also mean that I won't get to retire on royalties from the upcoming binders full of The Slacker's Guide to Curriculum®, coming soon to a glitzy website near you.

    Sunday, April 9, 2017

    Elective Surgery

    In every school there are courses you have to take. Each degree, certificate, or diploma program has its own list, but they all have one and you'll take the stuff they tell you if want them to sign on the bottom line of the fancy parchment (see also: here). Whether a school requires two years of a language, four years of phys ed, three years of math, and so on is not standard across the industry, but in all of these cases someone somewhere is making decisions for you. PDE has its say, your school board its say, college admission standards have theirs, NCAA its, and your parents theirs. In the end you may actually get to pick something, and that's where the real fun begins.

    People who teach required subjects have what's called Job Security. In fact, if you manage to get your subject on the standardized testing list, all the better (see also: here). The rest of us fight it out for any time and space left over. The name of the game is to have the courses we most like to teach filled with appropriate students--though, never over-filled. In other words, try to teach that course that everyone wants but only a limited number can get.

    Even for those with Job Security, teachers will often enter the marketplace with elective editions of their regular fare. As a result, you'll see The History of Mathematics, and Elective Phys Ed, and The Physics of the Impossible--How to Make Science Fiction into Science Fact (okay, I made up the third one, but not the other two). It's too bad, because I think I'd take that physics course.

    All of this has pitted teacher against teacher in an odd skirmish. It's something of a popularity contest, but it can be difficult to discern the necessary elements in this sort of popularity. In some cases, it involves convincing the constituency that your course is more rigorous and therefore more rewarding than all the others. In others, it's a matter of getting a reputation for egregious grade inflation. If you're looking for proof, note that Rate My Teachers ranks both "Easiness" and "Knowledge" (see also: here). We take from this the impression that students want teachers who know a whole lot, but don't really require their students to know that much. I guess. Rate My Professor also ranks "Hotness," but luckily in secondary education we don't need to keep up with our hairdresser appointments or gym memberships.

    For teachers looking to market their elective courses properly, I offer the following:
    • Choose your target demographic: Want to teach gifted kids? Great, but beware the helicopter parents (see also: snowplow parents and tiger mothers). Slackers are not every teacher's first choice, but the smart but unmotivated student can be a rewarding challenge if you find something that finally catches their interest. It's possible to offer a course to students across all spectrum, but challenging the strongest students and not losing the weakest becomes a constant struggle.
    •  Play to your strengths: Think about what you actually want to be doing all day (see also: here). For example, I decided that I wanted to learn to play the guitar. My next step was to offer a guitar class. Someday I'll get interested in the bassoon, or the banjo, or the harp, and coincidentally we'll start offering that.
    • Naming is everything: “Sports Writing” has the word “writing” in there, which is bad, but it also has the word “sports” which is good--maybe (see: #1. above). If you're going to offer a course in watching movies, you should avoid words like "watch," "cinema," and for God's sake "movie." Try instead "history," "modern," or "seminar." Meanwhile, don't ignore the other extreme in students. Some are attracted to the most horrifying name you can devise. Forget “Elective Health” and think “Advanced Surgical and Non-surgical Exploration of Micro-biological and Macro-biological Organisms.” Someday someone will design an app to do this automatically, but you haven't adjusted your course name lately, use these real naming upgrades as a handy guide:
      • Basket Weaving --> Multicultural Applied Arts Survey
      • Co. Ed. Cooking --> Culinary Science
      • Shop --> Manufacturing Systems
      • Hanging Out in the Band Room --> Senior Music Seminar
    • Build a pipeline: The Car Talk guys figured out that one of the most powerful words in product instructions is “repeat”—with just one word, you’ve instantly doubled your sales. The same can be done by offering a “level 2” (“level 3,” and so on…) of your course. To play this game at the advanced level, apply the alternative naming strategy from above to your level 2 course--think: Advanced Application of Kinestilogical Science Regimen (aka Gym 2).
    •  Write engaging course descriptions: Stay away from ZANY!, cheeky, or otherwise unprofessional descriptions, but every word of a course descriptions is designed to turn on desirable students and turn off the rest. A handy guide is to explore Forbes Top 10 Paying Jobs list and just dot words from there liberally into your description. If you're not inclined to check out the link, just use: "STEM," "technology," "independent," and "media."Eventually we'll write an app for this too.
    • Offer career counseling: SPOILERS: Most career paths will undoubtedly begin with your class(es), but offering “objective” advice on every semester of a student’s time at your school up until graduation will make it clear how everything you offer will fit into a well-balanced academic life. If a student sees a need for math, writing, critical thinking, networking, presentation, or design skills, assure them that your Music Through the Guitar class offers all of that and so much more. You could even include bits of these skills in your course, I guess.
    • Tag "AP" on the front: Really, people love that stuff. Many people are dazzled by the just-like-college thing, plus Educational Testing has already done much of the marketing for you. There is a similarly sinister thing going around called "dual enrollment," by which some high school courses can simultaneously earn college credit just by charging students a fee and playing on teachers' belief that teaching from a college syllabus makes you pretty much a tenured professor. Keep in mind: If they'll let a fifteen-year-old with a 3.0 GPA take it, it's not college work. For more on this see: here, or the Slacker Guide version: here
    • Consider forming a cult: You may no longer find it necessary to apply the methods above if you play your cards right. Sometimes the easiest way to make sure that students schedule your course is to get the students you currently have to bring in fresh victims new faces. See also: here.

    If you are a student reading this post and made it this far--even past the list (bye Kayla!)--you may be feeling a little sick about the manipulation I've described that is inherent in the system. You should be, but understanding the methodologies being applied to you can make you a more intelligent consumer of this stuff. Just knowing that there is a marketing battle being waged over your choices can be helpful. A sales pitch loses some of its mythical powers when you recognize that you're being sold something.

    Ultimately, it is important to keep in mind that 93% of the learning you experience before perhaps graduate school is in the liberal arts. That is, the specific content you learn isn't nearly as important as the very act of learning for its own sake. A school counselor I work with reminds her students that most of high school is learning how to read, write, and think. I remind mine that my younger daughter's godmother works as an attending physician and administrator at CHOP, but majored in theater in college; a daughter of another friend working in the same profession has a bachelor's and master's in clarinet performance. All of this in way of saying, there isn't just one way to get there. Anyone who tells you different may be trying to sell you something.