Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sharing my Thoughts on the Khan Academy

I had been sitting back, watching the discussion and ultimate backlash against the Khan Academy following the 60 Minutes Episode with little opinion one way or the other.

For those that haven't seen the episode, you can watch it on their website (Khan Academy: The Future of Education?) Not for nothing, I can see both sides of the argument. Does applications like the Khan Academy provide students with additional resources to help them get through difficult content? Yeah - it does. Will applications like the Khan Academy revolutionize education as a whole? No - not really.

Therefore, I sat back and watched the backlash go one direction and then the other without much thought until I came across Stephanie Sandifer's post Khan Academy, TED-Ed and the new leaders in education reform - REALLY?! ( For the record, it was not Stephanie Sandifer's post that made me cringe, but the quote from The Washington Post that she shared regarding Khan Academy and the need for educational reform (Jena McGregor - The Washington Post: Khan Academy, TED-Ed, and the new leaders in education reform).

In the final paragraphs of the article, Jena McGregor stated:

The large public-school education system, although not quite a big, slow company, is not really that different. Teachers are at the center of a system that has long relied on lecturing in classrooms and homework at home. No matter how good their intentions might be, it is hard for them to think about their own jobs differently, much less step outside the predominant teaching methods that have been used for hundreds of years. You can’t exactly study methods that haven’t been invented yet, and as difficult as it can be to get companies to experiment, doing the same on school children is even harder.
Who knows how much Khan’s video-based, “flipped-classroom” approach will truly change what ails American (and global) public schools. But whether it is Khan or someone else, my guess is that the most revolutionary—and potentially, most effective—educational reform will come from leaders outside the system.
What the...! Seriously? You truly believe that the educational reform will most likely come from leaders outside the system? Have you not seen what those leaders have already done to the system. You think those that penned No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top really know what they are doing? Do you honestly think that Michelle Rhee has the answers? Obviously, you have no idea what is going on in education much less the classrooms of those that should be considered leaders in educational reform!

I stand behind Stephanie Sandifier on this one. Those that are leading the change are those in the classroom; they are the ones working, building, developing, and educating day in and day out. They are not looking to sell their model to the highest bidder or the next district over. They are helping students grow; they are helping students learn.

Change needs to come from the inside. We need to find those leaders from within the system who understand what needs to be done, is willing to make that change, and is willing to model that change. There are a lot of teachers out there doing great things, but they being overshadowed by the current political witch hunt in education.

Does the Khan Academy hold merit in education? Absolutely - don't get me wrong this is not an attack on the Khan Academy. I don't think it's the answer, but I definitely think it can be part of the solution. Nevertheless, we cannot allow outsiders like Jena McGregor to think that they have the answer because they watched a 13-minute segment on television on a random Sunday evening. We cannot continue to allow Washington or state education departments to reign down upon education with this one-size-fits-all, pre-packaged programs thinking they have the answers either.

Maybe 60 Minutes should run a segment on teachers making a difference and highlight those that are doing more with less and who are bringing change to the classroom. Maybe then we'd get a bit more attention.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Random thoughts on Student Learning

There are days I forget how truly involved I am in technology and education among other things. 

  • I oversee my department, schedule professional development workshops, facilitate those workshops, and also handle several vendor contracts.
  • Twice a week I am in one particular district as their Tech Coach. 
  • I facilitate several local online courses through our Moodle platform. 
  • I am the co-chair of our Technology Committee
  • I am our Title III (ESL) Grant Coordinator
  • I am our Senior Enrichment Coordinator
  • I host two separate blogs, including this one. 
  • I try to keep up with my Twitter profile. 
And let's not forget about my family commitments as a father of three very young children and a husband to a very patient wife. 

Therefore, I don't always feel much sympathy for those who complain that they don't have enough time to learn about technology and/or incorporate it into their classrooms. I do everything that I have listed plus whatever else I am called upon to do AND I still find time to research, review, and practice. 

Now that I have that out of the way, I can get on with my original plans for this post....

As the final assignment in my Internet Safety course, I pose the following questions

This course has addressed various topics regarding the integation of technology in education. These key factors are all pieces of a much larger goal which is ultimately student learning.
  1. Of all the topics, articles, and videos discussed what is the most important thing(s) that stood out to you?
  2. How do you plan on incorporating this information into teaching?
  3. Where do we go from here?
There was and always is very good dialogue that goes along with this assignment. Many teachers share their "Ah Ha" moments as they begin to reassess their philosophy on education going forward. 

One teach in particular, raised a number of interesting points which spurred further conversation among the group. Here is that teacher's original response: 

(Teacher 1)
1. The most important thing that stood out to me was the video with Kevin Honeycutt [side note: this video was from the 2011 NYSCATE Conference where Kevin Honeycutt was one of the keynote speakers]. This video discussed the importance of inspiring passion to learn in students. He reinforced how critical it is to provide the tools for these students and teach them how to utilize them to enhance their love of learning. It stresses how teachers need to change their classrooms into dynamic environments where students enter and want to expand their horizons. We need to start having students recognize their innate powers that they are born with rather than mold them to fit into what we feel is the ideal language learner. When we start to create an environment where students feel important and where they see that we believe in them will we create a generation of learners that believe in themselves and challenge themselves to be "great". 

2. It is very important to incorporate this information into teaching. At my level and subject (Spanish) the use of new technology is not a luxury but a necessity. Alot of language acquisition is based on modeling and our society does not have enough models for my students. However, all of the new technology opens up the world for my students and gives them the models that they need. I plan on connecting my students to others in other countries a lot more now .

3. In terms of where we go from here I think that the challenge becomes attempting to utilizing these new tools in environments where financial strains somewhat limit what we can have. It is important to stress the importance of opening up their world through new technology and how, financially, this is essential to our future economy. We need to enhance education and refocus how we view education in our society. We cannot look at technology as supplemental but as a tool we have to open up our educational world and keep up as a society with the incredibly rapidly changing world. Only when our schools change can we become part of a global economy and compete in such an environment.

(Teacher 2 | In Response) 
I too think we need to "light the fire" of learning in our students.  I am still having difficulty helping my reluctant learners to realize that they do have the power, despite the use of various technologies.  I continue to plug away in the hopes that I will find the magic bullet that will wake up those students who haven't yet found the value in challenging themselves.

My Response (and the foundation of this post!)
It's difficult to light that fire, when we are so focused on testing and data collection. 

The system is literally killing the desire to learn among our students and our teachers as well. A recently New York Times article stated that teacher morale is at a all time low with a third of teachers seeking to leave education in the next five years. 

The system doesn't encourage our students to learn. it encourages them to takes tests and a lot of tests. It encourages them to take tests that have no implications; they don't receive a real grade. They aren't held accountable for that grade. We bring them in, sit them down, test them, test them again, and test them a third time. Somewhere in between we try to instill content on them and teach them to be good students. We never ask them what they want to learn or how they want to learn. 

Our system needs to focus on student learning, portfolio development, and career exploration. Why not incorporate the necessary skills in a student engaged environment that allows the students to choose from a variety of options?

Both individuals raised several very good points. (1) For many technology is a necessity. It's not a game that we've introduced to our students. It's not a toy that we play with on Friday afternoons. It's the gateway to learning; it's key to unlocking new opportunities and experiences that would not have been possible otherwise. (2) Technology a large component of 21st century learning and education as a whole. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we can continue to prepare our students to be "college and career ready" while ignoring and/or underestimating technology. Society has steadily adapted to the influx of technology and social media. The private sector has acknowledged this and embraced this. However, a large number of  educational institutions continue to stick their heads in the sand or downplay the potential of technology. Others will try to throw out one excuse or another. If we had more money and our budgets weren't being cut blah blah blah - Not every student in my district has technology; there is a discrepancy among students, therefore we are putting them at a disadvantage when we use technology - etc. etc. etc. (3) The system has killed the desire to learn. The system is so focus on student assessments, student growth, and quantifying the qualitative nature of learning that we've killed the passion for learning along the way. We aren't willing to admit it, but we know our teachers are teaching to the test. Our students are onto us. They know these tests have little to no impact on their grades nor graduation. 

So how do we reverse the process? How can we reinvigorate learning among our students? We need to change the system and we as TEACHERS need to change the system. Yes - I know. That statement is easier said then done. Nevertheless, we need to take back education; we need to take back the ability to educate, to assess, and to teach, we need to our state and federal governments to support education rather than dictate education, and we need to establish a process that holds students accountable for their successes and properly prepares them for "career and college readiness." 

Otherwise, we will be stuck here treading water waiting for the imminent failure of the latest alphabet soup of programs that have been handed down by our government "leaders."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Applying Game Theory to the Classroom

We teach a generation that lives in a world that is self-configured to meet their individual wants and needs. It is a world that our classrooms have yet to understand or adapt to - until now.

I've begun working with an ELA teacher who has devised a somewhat unconventional twist on classroom learning and game theory applications. Rather than implementing a traditional linear approach to learning and instruction, Kevin wants to infuse game theory applications that infuse a "Skill Tree" of achievements, levels, and pathways within his curriculum.

In his own words, Kevin wants to develop:

A "Skill Tree" or a "Tech Tree" is a gaming mechanic in strategy computer games that allows for players to progress through a hierarchical pathway, unlocking more sophisticated and complex skills or technologies as they go. The tree acts as a visual representation of what players have accomplished, as well as acts as an indicator of the necessary means by which to further progress. They offer players an option to see how often mundane or repetitive tasks lead to more potent rewards and greater ability. Lastly, they lend the sense that one is in control of shaping one's development, often allowing players to choose how they will make their avatar or minions grow in order to meet the game's objectives.

I want to adopt a "flipped classroom model," as championed by Bergmann and Sams. With my lectures and lessons thus recorded, I would like to use web-based assessment tools to build activities that help students learn, practice, and demonstrate their understanding. With the course fully articulated, the intention is to open up time for greater and more in-depth project-based learning activities.

The tech-tree would serve as a pathway for each individual student's learning, somewhat akin to the Khan Academy. However, the lessons will be bound as well by narrative, for as a gamer and English Language Arts instructor myself I've seen the driving power of storytelling to compel and motivate. This would package my course into a complete game, replete with missions, XP, bonuses, rank titles, avatars, and boss challenges. The goal is to fully implement a game-based learning model that is motivating, differentiated, student-driven, and which satisfies the literacy and technology standards of the Common Core as defined by New York State.

Together with my students, we will plan out pathways to meet each students needs. I will implement recursive pathways for remediation, re-enforcement, and re-teaching, and utilize the data gathered from my students progress through the tech tree in my design and implementation of project-based lessons demanding long-term commitments and high order cognitive tasks.

Although Kevin has developed his skill tree and is currently working on incorporating his content within the process, we are lacking a platform. We have begun to look at a variety of options, but we are seeking a RPG-like environment that we can build from. Kevin has developed the vision, the materials, and the process. However, we are lacking the foundation and that is where we are stuck.

If you have recommendations, suggestions, and/or know of someone that may be able to direct us towards the "light" please let us know.

As Kevin has stated: Please help me to make this vision a reality.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Death of Learning

The more I visit my local school districts, the more frustrated I have become with the new APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) that has been handed down by the New York State Department of Education and our Governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Like most, I am all for teacher evaluations and observations. I honestly believe that our teachers need to be observed and evaluated on a regular basis. I get that and I am all for that.

However, the new APPR process that has been implemented will be the death of learning!

For those not familiar with the new initiative, teachers will ultimately be rated on an 100-point scale with 60 points coming from direct observations and another 40 points coming from local and state assessments. Truthfully, I do not have an issue with the 60 point observation mechanisms. In fact, they are very similar to the previous observation tools we had in place with a few tweaks to the language. My angst does not lay within the observation, but the acquisition and implementation of thse tools.

Are we allowed to use our previous observation tools? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Apparently we're only allowed to use state approved observation tools that have been supplied to us by a number of third party vendors. Of course, each observation tools also comes with a professional development training package all for a hefty price. Let's not forget that most districts are also going to purchase an observation recording tool such as OASYS or Teachscape, which jacks up the price even more!

Nevertheless, the core of my anger does not lay within the observation tool, it's third party vendor pricing, or the packaging deals that fail to impress. There's still the other 40 points that relies on local and state assessments that have become the thorn in my side.

Of the 40 points, 20 points must come from a state assessment exam and the other 20 points must come from a district directed assessment. Again, districts have turned to third-party vendors to purchase various assessment tools such as NWEA MAP and STAR Enterprise. These tests must be conducted two to three times a year, which takes buildings two to three weeks at a time to complete. During a 40-week school year, this shuts down computer lab resources for 6 to 9 weeks!

Districts have implemented these programs under the pretense that we are going to pre and post-test our students to chart their progress throughout the school year. Are students provided with study materials? Do we know what the test is going to cover? Does it align with our current curriculum? No - No - Most likely NO. Therefore, we are "testing" our students progress on material that may or may not be covered. What happens when that student scores poorly? Does their success/failure on the test have any impact on them? Are they held back? Are they put in remedial classes, AIS, RTI? No - Like the grade 3-8 assessment, these tests are a "measurement" of student progress. Therefore, it has very little impact on them whatsoever.

However, these tests have everything to do with the teacher. A teacher can and will be rated poorly if his/her students do not show adequate growth. The system holds the teacher responsible for the success/failure of the students, but the students are not held accountable for their own actions. Pass or fail - it doesn't matter to the student. Pass or fail - means everything to the teacher including his or her job!

Is this the death of learning? It is absolutely the death of an educational system that I was once familiar with. Within a single year, I have watched our educational system make dramatic changes that will profound implications. You think teachers won't teach to the test more so now then ever? You think this new system will actually call out the bad teachers and not affect the good teachers?

What ever happened to learning? What happened to exploring new ideas, new topics, and new projects? When did the school year become a testing schedule of pre-tests, mid-year tests, post-tests, and state assessment tests? When are we supposed to teach? When are students supposed to learn?

How much is 40 points on a teacher evaluation really worth?

For those interested, please read Diane Ravitch's article No Student Left Untested, which can be viewed at: