Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Be Wary of Products Claiming to Be ‘Research-Based’

I receive countless emails during a given week from vendors of software, textbooks, and other instructional materials. A number of these throw the term “research-based” around like a badge of validation. The truth is, I can’t help but be skeptical.
"Products claiming to be ‘research-based’ throw around that label like a badge of validation."
Recently, a vender sent me an email for some redial reading software and in that email was the claim to be “research-based.” I emailed the sales person and asked them to send me copies of the research studies that validate their product. The email I received was links to simple generic titles of studies that indirectly validate the “supposed methods” and psychological principles on which their product is based. There was not a single study that actually “validated” their specific product. That hardly, in my opinion, gives them validation as a “research-based” effective product.
"Having a product that claims to be ‘based’ on research-based principles of learning is not the same has having a product that is validated by research."
If we were operating in a more skeptical world, when we ask for “research” that a vendor claims validates their product, I honestly think we should ask for specific independent studies that examine their product.Being “based” on research-based principles does not validate that specific product.
"Being ‘based’ on research-based or scientific educational principles does not validate the product."
I realize that is a very high hurdle for edupreneurs and educational product developers to traverse, but if you’re going to say that your product is “research-based,” you have an obligation to prove that your specific product is just that. Otherwise, your language should simply say that your product is based on research-based learning principles, and then provide documentation for those principles.
"If a company claims their product is 'research-based,’ then that company is obligated to provide those validating studies."
We as educators should not be naive and be willing to ask the tough questions when salespersons call. Just because the product was developed by an educator, or is being sold by an administrator you knew a long time ago, does not mean that we accept their word either. We owe it to our stakeholders and our students to make sure our limited funds aren’t wasted on bogus educational materials or products.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The End of Ed-Tech Evangelism: Using Your Critical Faculties to Question Tech Obsession

One of the identifying characteristics of my blog, this blog, has been that it "advocates for the use of technology." Since the very first post here, I've often joined the educator chorus of singing the praises of "technology in education." Now, a few years later, I am beginning to wonder, in the spirit of Nicholas Carr, that perhaps I've been more "evangelist" than educator when it comes to "advocating for technology." I've been "spreading the gospel of technology use in the classroom and in my role as principal" for several years now, and I've come to some certain "Carrisian" (if I may invent a new word) realizations about technology myself which can be summed up thus: Technology is no panacea; it doth not an effective educator make.

Before the virtual spitballs start flying in my direction, let me explain myself a bit further. Being a "Tech Evangelist" gets it all wrong. There is "no gospel of ed technology." There's nothing to convert people to, and there's no salvation to be found in outfitting out classrooms with gadgets galore. Placing 30 laptops in a room does not necessarily transform that room into the new center of learning in Western Civilization. Why? It's simply this: the greatest feats of learning are not always found on the screens of our smartphones and tablet screens. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves, that "tech is better," sometimes a pad of paper and our favorite fountain pen is a much better way to engage our thoughts and the world.

Educators, I'm afraid, have been "spreading a utopian view of technology," as Nicholas Carr calls this technoevangelicalism, for some time now. I've engaged in that myself. I've been guilty of viewing any educational progress as "essentially technological." And, this means, I've been a part of the problem of "legitimizing" all these edupreneurs and opportunists who bombard my email inbox every day with promises of sure entrance into the "academic achievement promise land" if I will only purchase their products. Educational technology is the land of opportunity for many; including those who peddle snake oil and latest elixirs that cure every ailment in our schools. By being uncritical and faithful to the ed tech creeds, I am just as guilty as anyone of enabling that "commercial culture" that puts the profits of self and others ahead of what is sometimes best for the students in my building. No more.

If anything, ed technology needs it's own version of "Food and Drug Administration" that forces these edpreneurs and technoevangelists promoting their wares to provide solid evidence of their claims. Educators are a trusting lot. They want so much to believe that the nice gentlemen plugging his software program or tech device, or any other educational ware, really wants what they want: what's best for kids. But, while that may be true, understand that he is out to sell a product, not take care of your students.

We have the greatest "FDA" faculty in our heads as educators. We talk about critical thinking and independent thinking, then we need to exercise it when it comes to any educational product or technology. Anyone can claim their product is "research-based" and the best thing to happen to education since chalkboards. Yet, we are ultimately responsible for using this critical faculty to ask the tough questions of anyone promoting a product or even idea. We owe it to our own integrity and most of all to the kids we face each and every day.

By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they've encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests" Nicholas Carr, Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Career Caught in the Swirl of Ed Reform: What I’ve Discovered

My entire career as an educator, all 27 years, has been spent in the perpetual swirl of “reform” that enveloped education when I first set foot into the classroom. It was in the cusp of the “Era of Accountability” that I began teaching, and the clarion calls for site-based management, uniform standards, and testing were just beginning to resound. Soon to follow was the Total Quality Classroom movement, multiple intelligence theory, and right-left brain theory, critical thinking teaching, thinking maps, and whole host of other initiatives. There has been no shortage on theory during my career as an educator that’s for sure, and during my entire career, we’ve been reforming education, then reforming our reform in an unending pursuit of a “magical land” where schools succeed, except that there’s been one major problem: we’ve never arrived.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic in this reflection; in fact, I’m not really that way at all. I am nostalgic in one sense, because there has always been that anticipation of the next great idea that comes around the bend, and the promise that all our educational ills will finally be resolved. Those who’ve promoted this atmosphere of perpetual reform, have, after all, succeeded even if our schools may not really be any better off. It’s those who’ve capitalized on these reforms by promoting products, professional development, computer programs and websites, and new techniques and strategies who have earned a bundle. The promise of their being one single way to resolve the educational puzzle has led many to search high and low, and our market-based approach to these products has not disappointed, at least for those who’ve made the money.

Still, I’ve come to a cold, hard conclusion that is, in fact, very liberating. It is simply this: There is no magical theory out there or discovery that will allow us to suddenly be able educate like we’ve never done before. There is no one best way to teach, and as we already know, there is no one best way to learn. Despite all these infernal emails I get that promise to "raise my students’ ACT scores or SAT scores to exorbitant heights," in the end their promises are more marketing than reality, and in many cases, downright deceptive. Education has become a money making enterprise like everything else, with “experts” arising from all corners of the field with their version of the “final solution to all our education problems.”

My liberating conclusion that all of these are mostly empty promises frees me to view education as the difficult work it is with problems that do not, nor ever will have singular solutions.

Reform has become such a cliche now, every time I hear a politician say the word, I want to flee in panic, or hit him with a rotten tomato. It just won’t happen. Perhaps real “reform” will begin and end with ourselves rather than continuing the fruitless quest for magic. Real reform begins with the liberating thought: “There are no easy answers or solutions to discover about our educational system. There’s only hard work to be done."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why Pursue a Doctoral Degree? You Might Be Changed By It!

I think it is fairly obvious that I haven't posted anything here in some time. Some have probably thought I dropped off this earth, and there are perhaps those, because of my sometimes irritatingly political posts, who hoped that such had happened. The truth is, so much of my time is consumed with working on my dissertation that blogging has taken backseat. The constant reading, writing, and journaling takes just about every spare moment I have, and when there is a moment I am not working in my role as principal of a small high school, and working on this infernal degree, I am sometimes too tired to even look at a computer screen. In spite of all these travails though, I would gladly engage in this pursuit of a doctoral degree and would encourage others to do so too. Here's why.

This scholarly endeavor has changed me in dramatic ways. I don't look at education, my job, or even leadership in the same way any more. I now find myself entangled with the Postmodernists, Poststructuralists, and Deconstructionists. Now, I won't subject anyone to any attempt to explain those terms. If you're an English teacher, you probably encountered these schools of thought (if that is what they are) in your literary criticism classes as I did. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to them then. But what's different for me now, is that here toward the latter years of my career as an educator, the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze once again haunt both my work, my thoughts, and even my writing. They have unsettled everything I once believed to be "education science."

Once again, I won't subject you to a biography or description of the contributions of these individuals to literary or cultural studies; I simply say that these Postmodernists-Poststructuralists-Deconstructionists have  disturbed me as a practicing educator and educational leader. How can that be? Through them, I've learned that I don't really know as much as I thought I did, and many of those things I took for granted as "truth" are not the truth. Even my daily actions and thoughts about what it means to be an "effective educator" is not as simple as it once was. The intellectual challenge that these thinkers have wrought has made me more inquisitive, and even more skeptical it that was possible, of this thing we call education and all the "science" in which we wrap it.

In effect, I've actually come home, because in these thinkers, I've found the permission and means to continue to be skeptical, which I've always been when it comes to those promising "educational elixirs" and promises of quick cures. It's as if I've been given free reign to question and examine relentlessly all these things about education that we take for granted and take as a given. As the intellectual leader of my school, I have come to understand that "experts" in education are sometimes better at selling their wares than actually improving our field, but that is another blog post altogether.

All these years I've talked about leadership practices, teaching practices, and practices of engaging in using technology. Now, due to my explorations and doctoral readings and studies, I walk around each day on my job with each of these enclosed in quotation marks. In fact, every time I hear another educator or education consultant use the word "research-based," I see the quotation marks there too. Why is that? It is because these postmodernists-poststructuralists-deconstructionists have disturbed what I took for granted as the boundaries of our field of education. My dissertation experience has fostered a new habit of mind that demands that I be both inquisitive and question relentlessly.

Some would see no practical value in being this way. I disagree. This "ethos of critique" I live in now has freed me to think even more outside the box than ever. If we want to innovate and be creative, we have to suspend the rules and think in ways that are out of bounds. Besides, who was it that got to decide what is "out-of-bounds?" There's a long list of individuals whose thought was initially out-of-bounds. Now, I am not so Trump-like to say that "only I can solve the problems of education," but I enjoy thinking beyond the boundaries now more than ever.

So, what has this dissertation journey done for me so far? It is teaching me to think "out-of-bounds" and not worry whether some other educator-referee is going to call me on it. After all, who made them referee?





Friday, July 29, 2016

A Principal Plays Pokemon Go: Lessons Learned So Far

Curiosity won out, and I downloaded Pokemon Go for two reasons. First of all, the publicity and news about the app made me curious. And, secondly, as a technology advocate, I wanted to see if it has any educational value. Immediately, after downloading the app to my iPhone, opening it, and setting up my account, I found a world in which I knew absolutely nothing.

Upon entering the world of "Pokemon Go," the screen warned me "Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings." Music played, and the progress bar indicated I was almost there, wherever there is. Suddenly I was, or my chosen avatar was, in the game. Immediately, I was facing something called a "Bulbasaur." Not being fluent in Pokemonese, I had no idea what this creature was, and even worse, I had no idea what to do with it. On instinct perhaps, I grabbed the red and white ball with my finger and flung it at the creature. It flew over it, bounced and immediately opened and vacuumed the creature inside. "Gotcha" appeared on the screen, and I assumed that was a good thing. Now, a week later, after capturing more than a dozen creatures with names I've never heard of, I have advanced to "Level 6," whatever that means.

On a surface level, playing Pokemon Go pushed me well beyond my comfort-level from the start. I know very little about Pokemon. I certainly did not know anything about how to play the game. I could have perhaps found some online videos or instructions, but like so many young people do with video games, I just jumped in, with the knowledge that messing up in this world was not the end of that world or mine. In my brief discomfort because of my lack of knowledge, I was forced to learn. I used what knowledge I had from other electronic games I've played, and just played. I spoke to others who have been playing the game and learned more. While I am certainly not claiming to be an expert, I can say I have begun to learn more of the Pokemon world as represented in the Pokemon Go app, and more and more about myself.

Perhaps some would say I've been wasting time; I even have made the comment "What a time-waster!" But, I must not forget that I had many students who said the same thing about sitting in my high school English class. I would tell them, "You never really know when something you learn today might have use in the future." I should perhaps also take this same tentative approach in my judgments toward playing and learning how to play Pokemon Go. I don't really know when I might have need of what I've learned. On one level, immersion into a safe unknown and having to sink and swim has its own benefits. On another, well, who knows, I might find myself someday facing a Bulbasaur with only a handful of balls.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

When Transforming & Innovating Your School Seems Hopeless: 3 Things You Can Do

"You got to use the power that you got." Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Most of us face situations where success seems impossible or improbable. Many of these situations involve what Malcolm Gladwell calls "Goliaths." These are adversaries or adverse conditions that appear to be insurmountable. In education, we often find ourselves in these "Goliath" situations where our initial assessment is that we can't possibly succeed, because we are out-manned, out-resourced, and out-powered, but according to Gladwell all is not lost. At the heart of our problem is our misconceptions about the situation and about who really has the power.

So what can we do? According to Gladwell, we can do the following:
  • Rethink the idea of what an "advantage" is. Conventional wisdom sometimes tells us what is an advantage. For example, being a small school might seem to place that school at a disadvantage. It might not be able to offer all the extra-curricular activities, classes, and programs that a much larger school would be able to offer. Yet, the "advantage" the smaller school might have has to do with its ability to be more flexible, and hence change and improvements might be implemented much easier and more quickly than in a larger school. Nimbleness is certainly the case with smaller schools with smaller staffs. Often they can react more quickly and gracefully to changing conditions. We can as Gladwell tells us, turn our disadvantages into advantages.
  • Change the rules. Often, in the midst of situations where we face adverse conditions, and we feel that loss is eminent, we feel hopeless. We feel hopeless because, in that situation, if we play by the rules, we are certain to lose. But, who said we had to play by these rules? Why can't we change them, modify them, and approach the adversity in an entirely new manner? Like the David and Goliath story, David chose not to engage the giant in a conventional manner, because he would have surely lost. Instead, he fought unconventionally and in a way his adversary wasn't expecting and won. Changing the rules is climbing out of the box systems put us in and reinventing the game. When you're faced with a sure loss, what do you have to lose?
  • Use what you have. All of us in adversarial situations facing sure defeat, begin to engage in "What-if" thinking, such as, "What if we had more computers?" Or, "What if we had more money for teacher salaries?" The rest of those questions are outcomes we would like to see. Sometimes, though, in the face of adverse and adversarial conditions and sure loss, we have to turn to what we have, and often what we have and what we control is more than we think. For example, if you want a 1:1 computer program and can't find funding to purchase computers for every student, then "use what you have." Perhaps enough students have their own computers and you can open your network for BYOD and just purchase computers for those who can't afford them. This accomplishes the goal by "using what you got."
Sure defeat isn't always a sure thing, as Gladwell makes very clear in his book, David and Goliath. We can prevail in more situations than we think by being willing to rethink our advantages, changing the rules, and just using what we've got.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Teachers Impact Students' Lives in Immeasurable Ways

"The effects of teaching may not show up until long after students leave school and in ways the teacher never dreamed of." Elliot Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of Mind
How do you measure the true educational impact of a teacher? If you consult psychometricians, they say it is simple. You pre-test, deliver instruction, and you post-test. On this our "educational sciences" are based. But do these tests really measure the teacher's most important impact on students' lives? Is the most important task of a teacher to demonstrate that they can "improve a student's test scores?" And, equally important, no matter what our state and federal education bureaucracy tells us, "Are these state standardized test results really capturing learning that will be meaningful to those students' future lives, or are these results simply better predictors on how students will score on other standardized tests?"

Elliot Eisner's book, The Arts and the Creation of Mind depicts an image of a teacher that is much more complex and complete than that currently promoted by the "education sciences" to which modern education finds itself enslaved. The teacher is much more farsighted than the teacher who can't wait for the latest standardized test scores at the end of the year. Eisner's teacher is an "environmental designer" who "creates" situations and places where students gain "an appetite to learn."

Eisner's teacher is not a technician who uses "test data" to choose "canned scripts" and the latest adopted "scientifically validated methods and curriculum" whose purpose, is not to inspire wonder and imagination, but whose purpose is to make some education administrator or politician feel like they are effectively improving education. The teacher should not be teaching by following recipes; they should be engaging students in a "mind-altering curriculum" that forever changes them into forever learners.

What's wrong with the current grip that so-called "education sciences" have on schools is that they have created an impoverished, assembly-line form of education that students don't have to participate in; they only need to be subjected to it. Our education system still strives to run "smoothly," in a standardized manner and as efficiently as possible, and to get as many students through the credentialing process. It is short-sighted and its vision can't see beyond the "testing extravaganza at the end of the year.

But as Eisner makes clear in his book, if you really want "educational gold" in the classroom, then a "high-degree teaching artistry is needed. You need classrooms of "improvisation and unpredictability," not classrooms constructed according to rigid scientific principles. The teacher, in this innovative and creative classroom, is not a scientist who constantly studies the latest test data and looks at his repertoire of "research-based, scientifically-validated" classroom scripts for the one to apply because the data indicates it is called for. The teacher is what Eisner calls "a midwife to the child's creative nature."

As I look back at my years in elementary school, I see one teacher who I would really say was the midwife to my own creative nature. She didn't make noise about my performances on tests. She genuinely questioned and encouraged me when I showed curiosity in the solar system, astronomy, biology, tadpoles, frogs, and trees. She listened attentively when I read stories I had written aloud in class and encouraged me to write more. She encouraged me to read anything and everything I could get my hands on in our school library, even helping me get permission from the librarian to wander into and check out books from the "junior high section" instead of the elementary section where all six-graders were constrained. I read more books that year than perhaps in any other time of my life because of her. In a word, she designed an environment that helped me grow my curiosity and a massive appetite to learn that is still alive today.

My greatest concern with the Standards-Standardized-Testing-Research-Based-Accountability educational milieu we've created in our schools is the damage it is doing to students far into their futures. Does all this focus and obsession with test scores really matter in the lives of our students? The true impact we have on student lives is an impact that hasn't happened yet, and its an impact that can't be measured by standardized tests. My sixth grade teacher had no idea that the classroom environment she created would mean that I would become a teacher myself. She had no idea that I would become a principal. She also had no idea that my passion for reading, writing, and appetite to learn would stay with me the rest of my life.

Perhaps if we really want to focus on "student outcomes" we need to set our sights beyond test data and create places of imagination, creativity, and innovation where curiosity is treasured, learning is not just measured, but valued. Not everything worthwhile can be reduced to pre-tests and post-tests, and the real impact of our work with students will be measured by the lives they live far beyond the classroom.