Open Education Open Education

Category — Books & Library

For Greater Student Achievement Teach Students to be Leaders

Greater achievement comes when we focus on students, not on the curricula itself.

Stephen Covey
, the internationally respected leadership authority, is best known for his phenomenal book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” But the co-founder and vice-chairman of the FranklinCovey Co. has also been recognized as one of Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans based on his impact in a variety of fields including education.

coveyCovey’s seven principles are universal, with the first two leading the way for any walk of life: a) take personal responsibility and initiative and b) be clear about what’s important to you and setting goals. In this writer’s eyes, these two elements represent the foundation for being successful, whether it is training for the world of pro sports or inspiring a classroom full of students.

Some educators may be surprised to learn that these seven habits once served to revitalize A.B. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Principal Muriel Summers transformed the poor performing school with low teacher morale into a model program by applying Covey’s seven principles to the school setting.

Implementing an inside-out approach, i.e. having the teachers and administrators learning, living and modeling the principles themselves first, Summers led a process that resulted in the principles of effectiveness being woven into every subject — math, science, social studies, art, etc.

Encouraged to Be Leaders

Dubbed The Leader in Me process, the seven habits educational approach has now been adopted in over 200 schools around the world. While every school is unique in its own way, these 200 all share a common mission statement: “Developing Leaders, One Child at a Time.”

book-preorderCovey notes that many folks question the fundamental notion that every child can be a leader. But in the ‘Knowledge Worker Age,’ he insists that leadership is a life choice as opposed to a position that is assigned to people.

The Leader in Me process is not about the small number of people who will end up in significant leadership positions. Instead, it is about leading one’s life and being a leader among one’s friends and one’s family.

Covey considers this emphasis on leadership as the ‘highest of all the arts,’ and that by communicating to people their worth and potential they ultimately come to see it in themselves.

A Program Worth Considering

Perhaps it is Covey’s humility that makes his work so enticing. The man behind the seven principles does not take credit for what he calls the ‘set of universal, timeless, self-evident principles common to every enduring, prospering society, organization, or family.’ Instead, according to his own assessment, he ‘simply organized, sequenced and articulated them.’

But for this educator, it is the fact that Covey reverts to the very fundamentals of education in the Leader in Me program that is significant. The focus on students and not curricula, on character and not subjects, and most importantly, ‘doing the right thing even when no one is looking’ is one every school should take notice of.

Indeed, education has been and will always be about relationships. Covey’s focus on developing leadership features this fundamental prominently.

Educators interested in greater student achievement would do well to review the principles featured in The Leader in Me. Though a complete school approach would no doubt produce greater impact, teacher’s who implement these principles into their classroom will find students taking greater ownership in their learning.

And such ownership is at the heart of greater levels of student achievement.

May 31, 2010   No Comments

The Next Wave of Digital Textbooks – DynamicBooks from Macmillan

One of the most firmly entrenched academic practices centers upon the use of textbooks as the fundamental drivers of curricula. Ultra-expensive, these items represent one of the largest costs for public school systems as well as those attending college.

As the digital age continues to work its way into the stuffy world of academics, there are clear indications that textbooks are gradually being phased out in many areas of the country. The sheer volume of resources available on the net is leading many school districts to create and share their own materials.

homepic3_whats_nextMacmillan, considered one of the largest players in that old, conservative world, apparently has now also seen the “handwriting on the wall.” The company recently announced it will offer academics an entirely new format: DynamicBooks.

The Wikipedia of Textbooks

The new, digital textbook format introduced by Macmillan has been dubbed by the New York Times as a kind of “Wikipedia of textbooks.” New software will allow college-level instructors to edit digital versions of e-textbooks, enabling these professors to customize the texts for their individual courses.

In addition to having the ability to reorganize and/or delete entire chapters or sections of the text, professors will be able to upload their course syllabus as well as any other supporting materials that have been created for the class: notes, videos, pictures and graphs. Offering significant potential cost savings (half the price of physical textbooks according to the Times), this format will allow all course materials be placed in a single digital location, a feature that should prove to be a godsend for students.

But it is yet another step that Macmillan is taking that is drawing the greatest attention. The phrase “Wikipedia of textbooks” speaks directly to that concept, the ability of professors to rewrite paragraphs and add their own equations, drawings, and illustrations.

While this step will allow most professors to do what they already do in a more efficient manner, the idea is not sitting well with the traditionalists who see the intellectual property within such books as proprietary. The further blurring of copyright laws as professors create their own content and intermingle that work with the published textbook authors is an enormous issue for those who have made a living in the textbook field.

The Opposition

Most of the concerns center on a format that is ripe for plagiarism. But the editorial staff at Tufts Daily is calling the concept risky for other reasons.

TD expressed extreme concern that professors would have direct editorial control over the content of the textbook yet would not be required to cite sources for the changes made nor need approval from either the publisher or the authors of the textbook. In addition, TD is concerned with another of the focal points of textbook traditionalists.

Online library conceptApparently a significant number of the textbooks that will be available are those currently utilized in “large survey courses in the sciences.” While all professors no doubt altered the material to some extent in their individual courses, the traditional textbook had served as a standard reference for students.

According to TD, not only were students able to reference the textbook to discern greater clarity of the specific material that has been presented, the books provided students the essential content deemed relevant to the topic. But now, TD fears those books could well be devoid of relevant topics or critical background material.

In addition, TD notes “that professors may change the text with biased or even false information,” could “accidentally miswrite a definition or make an error in a formula or equation.” Any such errors would no doubt be detrimental to the students taking the course.

TD further insists students should not be the ones to face consequences for these errors or biases, that professors “should not be allowed to edit textbook content without review by the publisher or the textbook author.” And while TD offers support for the field of digital textbooks due to their ease of use and accessibility even as they reduce textbook costs, the editors insisted that allowing such edits did “not outweigh the potential problems that it could cause.”

Instead, professors should not be provided unchecked editorial control over the textbook as it ultimately “jeopardizes the reliability of course material for students.”

Macmillan Moving Forward

Despite these concerns, Macmillan plans to start selling about 100 titles through DynamicBooks. Some of the reported texts that will be available come August include: Chemical Principles: The Quest for Insight, by Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones; Discovering the Universe, by Neil F. Comins and William J. Kaufmann; and Psychology, by Daniel L. Schacter, Daniel T. Gilbert and Daniel M. Wegner.

The books will be available at college bookstores, the DynamicBooks web site and through CourseSmart. Accessing the DynamicBooks editions will be possible either directly online or by downloading the text to a laptop or iPhone.

Dollars in the books, isolated on white background, business traAnd of the cost savings, the Times noted one concrete example. The aforementioned Psychology has a list price of $134.29 when sold in its traditional format. The version that may be altered by a professor will sell for $48.76 when accessed through the DynamicBooks concept.

The altered versions will also be available in print on-demand version from Macmillan. However, when students opt for that format, the cost will revert nearly to the original list price.

100% Support for New Concept

Given the costs associated with textbooks, any step taken to reduce the outlay by students or schools is a welcome one in this corner. The fact of the matter is the current knowledge explosion renders most books out-of-date within a matter of months after publication.

In addition, no text is ever a perfect match for a course and the students taking that course. Every teacher makes modifications on at least a weekly or monthly basis, supplementing and deleting whenever such a step makes sense for the students they are entrusted with.

Kudos go out to Macmillan for taking a step other publishers have held back on: the level of customization that comes with being able to edit and supplement at the sentence and paragraph level. The option also allows for those delivering course content to collaborate and share material that is known to work best with students and include that in the basic course materials.

That inherent question, should professors have the right to edit and alter materials, is essentially a non-starter anyway. The bottom line is every good instructor does just that, altering and supplementing as he or she deems appropriate.

But now colleges, and hopefully one day K-12 school districts will be able to save hundreds of dollars even as they continue that long-standing practice of offering students an anchor text.

February 25, 2010   5 Comments

The Importance of Extended Family – Aunts and Uncles

Professor Robert Milardo arrived at the University of Maine in Orono in the summer of 1982 after teaching for a couple of years at the University of Southern California. Calling northern Maine a great place to live and his role the perfect job, one with a fair balance of teaching and research responsibilities, Professor Milardo has remained at the flagship campus ever since.

A professor of Family Relations, Milardo is currently editor of the Journal of Family Theory and Review owned by the National Council on Family Relations. He has published extensively in the field of family studies in leading journals and is the author of The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles (2009), The Decade in Review: Understanding Families into the Next Millennium (2001), and Family as Relationships (2000).

milardoProfessor Milardo’s interviews and commentaries on family issues have appeared in Psychology Today, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the USA Today.

Professor Milardo earned his Ph.D. in Human Development & Family Studies from Pennsylvania State University and his M.A. in Social Psychology from Connecticut College. Given his depth of study in the developing science of personal relationships and the ongoing importance of family to raising successful children, we were extremely interested in Professor Milardo’s work, particularly as it relates to aunts, uncles and kinship, and his theory of families as multiple households.

We recently spent some time with the Professor discussing his most recent work, The Forgotten Kin.

What ultimately was the impetus for you looking into the extended family and specifically to then examine the roles of aunts and uncles in families?

I started with an interest in interviewing men in caregiving roles other than parents. Were there men who were acting responsibly and having a positive influence on children? In my own life, uncling has been very important to me. I really enjoyed being around my nieces and nephew as children and now as adults.

And in my own childhood, uncles were important to me and fun to be around. On the other hand, the field of family studies is largely silent about uncles (and aunts) so a research project seemed like it would be interesting and maybe important.

Can you explain a little bit about the people that formed the basis of your research – how did you go about selecting and gathering interview and research candidates to examine the family roles associated with aunts and uncles?

Getting men to participate in research on family issues is not always such an easy task. I began the study in Wellington, New Zealand at Victoria University and spent much of my time calling acquaintances and arranging interviews.

Fortunately, the idea of the study was of interest to several journalists and articles appeared in local papers in NZ and then in Maine where I continued the work. Eventually I completed 104 personal interviews with uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews and accumulated over 80 hours of recorded conversations.

My intention was to get a variety of participants – some with very close relationships and some with modest or distant relationships. And to a certain extent the book represents a diversity of family forms and relationships. This is important because it helps us to understand how relationships with aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews vary in closeness, how they vary over time, and the features of individuals and families that influence closeness.

Reviewers indicate you offer information as to how aunts and uncles contribute to the daily lives of parents as well as to their children. Could you give a brief overview as to some of the basic ways that aunts and uncles contribute to the lives of parents?

This was one of the initial questions I had when I began the project. Are aunts and uncles important to parents? Well the simple answer is yes of course they are, sometimes.

Aunt Denise cared for her nieces especially when they were infants. As she said: “somebody would have to get some sleep in that house. So I would go over for a few hours. It was kind of a changing of the guard.”

But of course there is more to the story. Uncles and aunts were often parents themselves so they could draw on their own experience in counseling their siblings. At other times, aunts and uncles simply provided a listening ear and acted like good friends. On other occasions, parents would enlist an aunt or uncle to directly intervene with a child. And at times, nieces and nephews were more willing to listen to the counsel of an aunt or uncle.

Of course not all aunts and uncles are close to their siblings but when they are close their relationships can merge elements of family obligations and traditions with the strong bonds characteristic of best friendships. They can be some of the longest relationships we have. Brothers and sisters, when they are close, share their entire biographies.

My mother spoke with her sister Lena every day of her life and they both lived long lives, both married, had children and became grandparents. Intimacy is really about knowing things about another person that no one else would even care to know and doing so over a long period of time. For close siblings, intimacy is packaged over lifetimes of shared biography. That’s hard to match.

And to their children?

Not all aunts and uncles have significant relationships with their nieces and nephews, but many do. Aunts and uncles mentor children as well as older nieces and nephews. They provide advice concerning school, work and careers. They counsel their nieces and nephews about relationships with other family members and especially siblings and parents.

Raymond, age 26, described a unique relationship with his uncle. Raymond’s parents divorced when he was 2, and he speaks of his current relationship with his dad “as like two adults sitting in a bar talking about the weather.” Throughout Raymond’s life, his uncle has been an important source of support and companionship. Raymond consults his uncle about his career, his friendships, and nearly all of what he does. He describes frequent occasions of support and advice. They visited often during his adolescence when Uncle Les was the only important male figure in his life. In his words, his uncle “provided direction.” A highlight of their relationship is their mutual interest in music and playing guitars together. The contributions of his uncle are likely lifelong. At one point in the interview Raymond spoke of this influence:

One of the things we do is sort of a philosophy. We call it the Lost Chord…. In [learning a new] song you’re missing a chord and trying to find it, but then once you find that missing chord it puts the whole song in harmony and we realized we could apply that to life. So one of biggest things he taught me about life is always searching for that something to put in my life to make it a little bit smoother sounding. Eventually when you get 80 or 90 years old you can look back and find that you’ve had a lot of good music.

Throughout my interviews I was continually struck by the depth of relationships. I can’t emphasize enough that not all nieces and nephews are close with uncles and aunts, but for some, their relationships are truly extraordinary—they fuse elements of parent-like obligations with friendship.

Likewise, you suggest that aunts and uncles serve as mentors to their nieces and nephews, yet the adults themselves are also mentored by the children for whom they are responsible. Can you give a couple of concrete examples about this back and forth mentoring process?

This mentoring of aunts and uncles by nieces and nephews was a complete surprise. It occurred often among aunts and nieces as well as uncles and nephews.

In an ordinary but significant way, Aunt Rebecca recounted how her niece worked at a large department store and on occasion would purchase clothes for her because as Rebecca recounts “she thinks I need little skirts and stuff.” Although when her niece suggested a tattoo, Rebecca declined. It’s good to know one’s limits, I guess. These instances of reverse mentoring, however superficial at the outset, can serve as ways for nieces to express their affection and concern for their aunts. They are very much instances of care giving functioning to confirm, enrich and sometimes deepen their relationships.

Prior to your research, you must have had some specific items, a few informal postulates at least, as to what you thought you might find. After conducting the research, where there any major contradictions to some of those initial speculations?

milardo bookI went into this project with an interest in documenting the relationships of a small array of family members. I assumed some aunts and uncles had active relationships, but I really didn’t expect the sheer number and depth of close relationships. In the big picture, we are not “bowling alone.”

Among the very best of friendships are relationships between family members, between siblings or between siblings and nieces and nephews. Towards the end of my interviews and after I had spoken with a passel of aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, I began asking aunts and uncles how they thought about the future of their relationships. When I asked Aunt Michelle if she expects her relationship with her 7-year –old niece to develop into a friendship in the future, she replied: “I really have a hard time picturing it any other way.”

When conducting the research, were there some real surprises for you, things that you did not expect to find?

Another unanticipated finding was the importance of aunts and uncles in mediating adjustments to divorce. Aunts and uncles often spoke of helping nieces and nephews in adjusting to the divorce of parents. This is a source of support that has not really been acknowledged but proves to be important.

While the book is no doubt extremely valuable to other experts in the field, are there some specific things that a family can take away from the book that could help them extend their current family relationships? Or specific suggestions as to how parents can utilize aunts and uncles to help them with the challenging process of raising a child in today’s complex world?

I hope everyone will read this book. I hope it changes the way we talk about families and how we come to understand what makes them successful.

Over the years if there is one clear lesson I’ve encountered it is that families successfully arrange themselves in many ways. It would be a serious error to assume a single prescription for resilient well functioning families. There are many successful configurations, but at their best families are ensembles built across households. They include a variety of forms—some with children in the home, some single-parenting, and some with close ties to siblings. When adult siblings have reasonably close relationships, without question everyone can benefit.

February 15, 2010   3 Comments

Ted Sizer and Gerald Bracey – The Loss of Two Influential Giants

In late October, the educational world lost two disparate giants from the world of education. On October 21st, we learned of the death of the quintessential educational reformer, Theodore Sizer. A native New Englander, Sizer dramatically influenced the instructional practices of thousands of educators including those of yours truly.

One day earlier, we lost Gerald Bracey, a longtime education researcher who had the audacity to truly analyze statistics. Bracey, considered one of the foremost defenders of American public schools used long-term international comparisons to demonstrate that America’s public school actually performed much better than critics would suggest.

Ted Sizer

Ted Sizer was the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group that boasts about 600 members. These schools have adopted a specific school reform concept that construct learning experiences for students by focusing on a core set of principles.

Instead of the traditional comprehensive approach to high school Coalition schools focus on ten core principles:

  • Learning to use one’s mind well
  • Less is more, depth over coverage
  • Goals apply to all students
  • Personalization
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Demonstration of mastery
  • A tone of decency and trust
  • Commitment to the entire school
  • Resources dedicated to teaching and learning
  • Democracy and equity

Those of us who never taught in a Coalition school wondered aloud about some principles until we had the chance to read his groundbreaking book, Horace’s Compromise. Page by page, the book revealed the shortcomings of the 1980’s high school construct, offering a set of ideas that collectively had one wondering how we were able to accomplish anything of note in the factory model of education.

sizerThough I never met Mr.Sizer, after reading Horace’s Compromise and his later follow-ups, Horace’s School and Horace’s Hope, I felt somehow like I actually knew him, or at least had a sense of what he was all about. At times, Mr. Sizer took on the image of his character, “Horace,” the fictionalized English teacher doing his very best to provide a meaningful educational environment for some 100 plus students a day. At other times, I was Horace, the one making all the compromises to survive, and Sizer my administrator, deftly observing and pointing out that I too was often settling for good enough.

My understanding is that Ted Sizer was the epitome of what an educational leader should be. The former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover was a brilliant yet reflective practitioner. He clearly subscribed to the Robert Kennedy school of thought, seeing things as they could be and wondering why not.

People spoke highly of his style and his propensity to listen to teachers. His respect for the educational process also meant he spent time with students seeking to determine their views on school and what they had learned.

Most importantly, Sizer’s work represented the antithesis of the current NCLB push, that somehow educational reform can be simplified and codified. Sizer understood real learning was not linear and that mastery could and should be demonstrated in multiple ways.

The current emphases on making larger schools feel smaller and on high expectations for all students were fundamental to Sizer’s principles. Other concepts like the change in teacher role from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” were fueled by Sizer’s teacher as coach model.

Gerald Bracey

Reportedly fearless in the face of power, Bracey was often described in very different terms than Sizer. Adjectives like pugnacious and abrasive were generally used to describe the man who saw Washington as being ignorant and intellectually lazy.

In 1991 he founded the Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency or EDDRA. To most folks it did not seem to matter the subject – whether it was charter schools, teacher merit pay, or high-stakes testing — Bracey stood in opposition.
Even when it came to the concept of standards, Bracey stood in opposition. He was reported as offering this as one of his last Tweets:

“Thinking that the light at the end of the education tunnel is a standards freight train coming our way. Gonna hurt bad.”
Bracey taught the non-statistical world about Simpson’s paradox and the concept of averages. The concept reveals the possibility that data collectively could contradict what happened within subgroups creating the total.

braceySuch was the case with American SAT scores. While minorities and white majorities were each increasing their scores, the large number of minorities now taking the test meant the overall average test scores were decreasing.

Once a person begins to understand Simpson’s Paradox, any thought of supporting NCLB and its various subgroup expectations goes out the window.

Bracey also pointed out in his book, Reading Educational Research, How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered, the workings of former President George Bush and his tax cuts. Bush used the concept of average to create the illusion that Americans as a group were seeing significant tax reductions, about $1500 per person per year.

However, Bracey pointed out that was “on average.” Citing the work of the Washington Post, Bracey noted how the typical teacher would receive a tax reduction equal to the cost of a new television set while someone earning a million dollars a year received a tax break that was roughly twice as large as the typical teacher’s salary. But when these amounts were averaged, every American appeared to receive a substantial break.

Each year Bracey would offer his annual Rotten Apples in Education awards and with it he would take no prisoners. It must be noted that while an enormous critic of George Bush and a one time advocate and campaigner for Barack Obama, he was quick to call Obama to task earlier this year regarding his assertions that three-fourths of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma.

“Not really,” Bracey was quoted. “Look it up.”

It was classic Bracey who had one consistent response to many of the claims being asserted regarding public education, “Show me the data.”

November 17, 2009   No Comments

Beyond Textbooks – Andy Chlup Discusses Digital Learning Models

There was a large touch of irony in an August NY Times post discussing the demise of a fixture in the world of education, the school textbook. The article, In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History, predicts the death of an industry that is becoming “antiquated” with each passing tech innovation.

Though always considered exceedingly expensive, textbooks were once deemed as fundamental to the classroom learning experience as the teacher. These tombs were the source of knowledge, the drivers of curriculum, and the teacher’s most important resource.

But all that has changed in the digital world. According to experts, there are two critical factors.

First, there is the assessment of the value (learning produced per dollar) of these texts:

Dollars in the books, isolated on white background, business tra“They are expensive,” writes Seth Godin. “$50 is the low end, $200 is more typical.”


“Textbooks have very little narrative,” writes Godin. “They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best … textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.”

And of course, in today’s lightening-fast world, they are out of date before the ink is even dry.

Second, while the books are essentially considered less than ideal, we are seeing an enormous change in students based on the fact they have grown up with technology. From the NY Times:

“Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite.

“They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote,” Dr. Abshire continued. “Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.”

Beyond Textbooks

Today we offer a Q & A with Andy Chlup of the Vail School District. With experience as a classroom teacher and technology coordinator, Andy is a perfect choice to head up one of the digital learning movements cited in the aforementioned NY Times article, Beyond Textbooks.

Andy notes he has been passionate about utilizing technology in the classroom from the first day he walked into a classroom. His interest in digital learning was spurred on by the wide-spread availability of open-source web-based tools such as WordPressMU, Moodle, DekiWiki, and many more.

Below, Andy discusses the move to a digital learning model, one that actually transcends any discussion of textbooks.

What would you categorize as the three biggest advantages to moving away from textbooks and replacing that tradition with a digital learning model?

* Instant updates. Our superintendent, Calvin Baker, proudly sent out an email message to the school board when Pluto was demoted. In the message he said, we are one of the only districts in the country who’s textbooks are not obsolete.

* Collaboration. At this phase the primary collaboration is happening between teachers but as the tools become more familiar students will be working with each other, their teachers, and the community more and more.

* Costs. While the technology that enables digital learning still costs slightly more than a set of textbooks, it can do so much more. A digital device provides access to content and gives students a platform to create, share, and work.

Do you share the view that the digital world will be the real driver of educational innovations moving forward (as opposed to the concept of vouchers and charter schools)? Why or why not?

iStock_000007128193XSmallI’m sure that I see technology as an alternative to these on-going debates. What I’ve learned is that technology is an accelerant. If you use it on a system that isn’t very good it just allows you to do a bad job faster and more efficiently. I believe that technology should be used to accelerate things that are already working well. For example portfolio assessment is great, unless you’re the teacher trying to keep it all organized. Take that content and put it on a blog server and you’ve not only got an organized structure built into the system but a way to add pictures, videos, and audio to the portfolio.

The same can be said of digital instruction. If the instruction/pedagogy is poor then you are just being better at teaching badly. However, if the instruction is about understanding and connecting then technology can enable and accelerate that process by orders of magnitude.

While everyone has some sense of what is meant by a digital textbook, can you explain to readers the fundamental differences between a traditional book format and a digital text? And can you explain what is meant by a flexbook?

I’m not familiar with flex books. Alternatively, we aren’t even using a true digital text. Our teachers are connecting and/or creating their own content to meet the learning needs of their students. In my opinion, the major differences between a traditional text and digital text are:

* It is easier to copy/distribute digital texts. There are virtually no transactional costs beyond appropriate copyright compensation.

* Digital texts can be living documents with video and sounds plus hyperlinks to outside supporting materials.

* Digital texts can be more easily appended and modified either by students taking notes or teachers choosing exactly the right resource for a given lesson.

It seems that folks today have begun truly questioning the concept of a textbook, that such a resource is finite and linear yet real learning is infinite and multi-pronged. Are today’s tech-savvy kids the driving force behind the digital move or are educators finally seeing the light?

For me it is about economics. The simple fact is that it will soon be cheaper to buy a device that can be used to access digital content freely available on the web than it will be to purchase a set of textbooks. This fact has driven our Beyond Textbooks program. We want to be ready to fully embrace this dream.

Beyond TextbooksWe are going about it in two ways. The first is identifying subscription resources that meet our instructional needs and begin categorizing them so that they are more accessible to teachers and students. The second is to begin creating the instructional resources that will be needed to teach with these devices. That means Moodle courses, portfolio blogs, wiki projects, etc…

As schools head into the digital age, what will this new digital format do to the fundamental structures of school: grade levels, subjects, and the units of time (class periods)?

I think that as long as there is standardized testing and traditional schools it will be hard to escape these boundaries. Unless we get to a point that students no longer attend their school, I just don’t see there being much change. The systemic changes necessary to bring down these boundaries is well beyond the power of one public school district.

That being said, there is a glimmer of hope. As the instructional tools continue to develop and students become more adept at academic learning with technology tools, I think the relatively arbitrary distinctions we currently use in education will fade away.

The key is finding transformative technologies and pedagogies. At this point, it seems that teachers and students are still utilizing many web 2.0 tools in superficial ways. It is like the PowerPoint phase all over again. What I mean is teachers are impressed by the technologies that students demonstrate, not what students actually do with the technology. We’ve got to make sure that the technologies adopted positively affect student learning outcomes.

I know a lot is made of teachers making the adjustment to the digital age but how are you finding parents adapting? The idea of a course without a textbook must be troubling to parents who attended schools where the text formed the framework of every course?

It can be very difficult because parents may not be particularly computer savvy. A teacher can post their entire day as a podcast, but if a parent doesn’t understand how to access the content then they are frustrated. For the most part, parents just want to be able to help their child with school work so you have to be sure that those resources are still available.

The teachers that teach without textbooks all have course blogs that contain the content they use to teach during the day. These are run on WordPressMU and have a wide variety of access controls depending on the grade level and teacher preferences. Parents have access viewer access to these blogs, so they can see the materials their children are using.

One major concern for many is the number of students who may not have access to computers at home. Do you share the concern that the digital model could further widen the gap between the children of affluent families and those who are not able to afford such technology?

I do. The bright side is that personal computing devices are quickly dropping below the $300 mark.

iStock_000003852273XSmallWhat we see is a future where every student has a minimum spec device that is provided by the district. As one of my co-workers said, “It is like the bus….if you don’t have a car or your parents won’t let you drive you ride the bus.” We’d like to get to the point where all students have the option to either use the district minimum spec machine or bring their own. We feel this gives the best opportunity to both underprivileged students and those who have the means to have more.

The content and applications that we are developing as our standard are all wrapped around the web, so it doesn’t really matter if you access those application via a netbook running linux or a hot-rod Macbook pro. Obviously, those that bring their own computers still have an advantage, but to realize the potential benefits of a digital curriculum you don’t need a super fast machine.

The move towards Opensource materials has folks insisting that educational costs should drop considerably – is that so? Will there not be significant technology costs as schools attempt to stay up-to-date on the tech side?

While I’m a huge fan and proponent of open-source, it isn’t necessarily cheaper to run. For example, while Linux if free, finding somebody that understands how to set it up and keep it running is not. I think regardless of the approach you take, be it Windows, OS X, or Linux an organization needs to determine the TOC before making any big decisions.

If you have the talent to tap into open-source projects then I say go for it. Just realize there are research and development costs that cannot be ignored.

As for refresh, I have two thoughts.

First, this is where having a technology team that doesn’t understand education can be detrimental. The Tech industry is on a 12-24 month cycle and education is on a 36-60 month cycle – this causes more problems than any other tech issue I can think of. Just when a teacher is finally comfortable with a program something new comes down the pipeline.

So, if your tech department is pushing out updates every 24 months, teachers haven’t had time to fully integrate the technology into their teaching. This can eventually lead to teachers being frustrated with technology.

Basically, I encourage other ed tech professionals to start thinking about the educational cycle and not get wrapped in the technology cycle. Sometimes, it pays off. Just compare Vista to Windows 7.

Next, districts have to accept that tech costs money. I do believe that these costs will be offset when you stop buying textbooks.

While much is being made of the move away from traditional textbooks, the program you are involved with, Beyond Textbooks, seems to be far more sophisticated than simply removing a text from the equation. Can you briefly discuss the initiative?

To start with it is about moving away from the textbook as a metaphor or schema, whether paper or digital.

Beyond Textbooks is really about looking at learning objectives independent of a text. The whole approach involves using the learning objective as your starting point, then choosing the most effective resource to teach that objective to your current class.

Teachers are able to focus on what is the best way to creatively teach the learning objectives. So, often teachers are limited to teaching with the resources they have. We aim to leverage the nearly unlimited potential of the Internet to give teachers access to virtually any resource they can dream up. This includes materials created by other teachers, subscription services, and many incredible free resources out on the web.

The key is organizing these resources in a way that allows teachers to connect them to their learning objectives.

Is there anything I did not touch on that you think is a key element to the digital learning or Beyond Textbooks movement?

I think the most important thing is that BT is a grassroots, “For Teachers, By Teachers,” approach to school reform. Each of the steps involved have required input and guidance by teachers. One of the biggest problems with many educational resources is that they are written by academics or professional writers instead of professional educators.

September 17, 2009   5 Comments

Frank McCourt – Great Teachers Find Classroom Lessons Everywhere

With the passing of Frank McCourt, remembrances are understandable. His brilliant Angela Ashes, of course, marks him as a literary giant, but to many kids he was far more important, he was their teacher.

WikipediaWhat a superb teacher he must have been. As with most of the great ones, he could create a lesson out of anything imaginable, including the art of forged notes and excuses for missing school or unfinished homework.

The true brilliance of course lay in his ability to first reach kids where they were at, then take them someplace they would never have gone on their own.

He doesn’t just get these kids to review the notes they forged, he takes them on a creative journey, having them write such notes for some of the world’s most famous historical figures.

A brilliant author.

An equally brilliant teacher.

July 23, 2009   No Comments

The Future of Books (and Authors) in the Digital Age

The release of the latest version of the Kindle has many waxing poetic on the future of books in the digital age.

While books seem to gather the most interest, perhaps a more important and certainly more sophisticated notion is to examine what it will mean to be called a writer/author in the age of new media.

Current Status

Tim O’Reilly of describes the idea of putting a book on an electronic device as analogous to “pointing a camera at a stage play, and calling it a movie.”

While that might have been the initial thrust of Hollywood, O’Reilly points out that the “tools of production and consumption actually changed the format of what was produced and consumed. Camera angles, pacing, editing techniques, lighting, location shooting, special effects: all these innovations make the movies (and television) of today very different from the earliest movies.”

Amazon.comLikewise, we are in the early stages of a new world, one that is shifting to an online medium featuring greater and greater portability. The question thus arises, how will books change in the digital age?

To get a sense of the basics, we turn back to the latest version of the Kindle. The device features the ability to display a wealth of different document styles and formats. As one would expect, the Kindle 2 provides access to and readily displays books, newspapers, and magazines. However, the latest version also displays a vast array of other document formats: Microsoft Word, PDF, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC and MOBI files. Therefore the Kindle now has the potential to be a document repository and full-fledged library.

Perhaps an even more exciting option, albeit still in its infancy as a polished product, is that the Kindle 2 can turn a traditional book into an audiobook. There is still much work to be done before the device can be considered a perfect swap for the audio created by a soothing and polished human voice, but the device offers an amazing step forward in the overall reading process.

As proponents tout, one can use the Kindle as an ebook reader on a train or airplane just as you could pull out a book to read. But then later, the earbuds can be connected and you can continue to read (as in listen to the audio production) as you walk through the station or airport.

Amazon.comOf course, the new ereader means that no book has to be printed and therefore there is no such thing as a truly finished product. The ereader concept certainly makes nonfiction works more practical as updates can be easily uploaded to ensure that the book available for purchase always represents the latest edition.

Mixing Platforms

Of course, one of the beauties of the internet and thus the Kindle is the ability to provide documents that then hyperlink immediately to provide a relevant citation or reference. Perhaps even more importantly, nonfiction works can consist of fewer collected chapters as some of the text that would normally be incorporated to build upon or explain certain concepts can instead be simply linked to.

Readers without expertise can peruse the linked material at their leisure while those who have a grasp may forgo those links and delve directly into the new material.

According to O’Reilly, such a concept likely means we will need to develop useful modular formats. In such cases, many books could become more of a collection of loosely-related pages allowing for greater depth and breadth of issue exploration.

Therein comes the real challenge: how does one actually write material for the potential to cross platforms? How can the author ensure her book translates well to an ereader or iPhone application?

As but one example, what happens if a writer uses hyperlinks instead of footnotes but the reader doesn’t have internet access? And even when the reader does have such access, how can writers ensure such cross-referencing links are still active and reliable at the the time the reader examines the link?

Scott Meyers, an independent author and consultant, examines the notion of cross-platforming in “Authoring Challenges in a Multiplatform World.” To the right we present a visual of one of his slides that depicts some of the existing challenges (click to enlarge).

Currently, the conventional manuscript from an author is often designed for the traditional book format. Later, that document is translated where it is viewed on a computer or laptop, an ereader, or PDA or listened to on one of those same devices.

While most everything that works in printed form will work on these devices, simply translating existing documents fails to take advantage of the new technology available. As Meyer notes, text, diagrams, tables, photographs, etc. all work with new media, they just might not work as well.

At the same time, new media offers so much more: color, video/animations and audio are what make the newer platforms so enticing. It is truly as O’Reilly notes, the stage when movies were simply still films of stage plays.

Author Issues

Meyer notes that effective multi-platform publication will require greater author cooperation. It will also mean that writers may well need to develop additional skills if they are to ensure the portability of their work to different platforms.

As it is currently constructed, the idea of designing and writing for traditional print formats then attempting to translate or port that work to other new media platforms makes little sense. Instead, according to Meyer, we will soon see the adoption of new expository and software tools that allow for the construction of documents that are easily ported among devices.

It will also demand new writing skills and that authors understand two relatively new concepts: how to properly express capability-dependent content (eg., displaying a table on devices that have limited viewing screen sizes) and how to apply capability-dependent formatting (eg. including colors when such an option is available, falling back to black and white when color is not present). And as we noted, there will need to be careful consideration for how cross-references and links are utilized, especially given that documents and web sites will not remain static over time.

Teachers are fond of saying that we are educating students for jobs that do not even exist today. Thanks to ereaders and other portable electronic devices, one of the world’s greatest inventions, the book, is undergoing a major review.

At the same time, the notion of what it means to be a writer or author is also undergoing a thorough look. Perhaps it will give rise to a new descriptor or title.

And to a wealth of new career options, much as we saw with the development of the movie industry.

May 29, 2009   No Comments

Fountas and Pinnell – Early Literacy Experts Offer New Reading Intervention Program

When it comes to early literacy and the teaching of reading, Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell may well be the two most recognized experts in America. More than a decade after releasing “Guided Reading, Good First Teaching for All Children,” the number one selling professional teacher resource in the US, these two literacy experts have released another noteworthy book as part of a new program called Leveled Literacy Intervention.

Fountas and Pinnell

When it comes to reading instruction in the early grades, the names Fountas and Pinnell are likely the two most referenced authors in the country. Fountas is currently a professor in the School of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The former classroom teacher, language arts specialist, and consultant currently directs the Literacy Collaborative within the School of Education at Lesley.

Pinnell, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University, is the recipient of the International Reading Association’s Albert J. Harris Award for research and the Charles A. Dana Foundation Award for contributions to the field of education. Generally considered the catalyst for bringing Reading Recovery to schools in the US, she too has an extensive background in classroom teaching and the development of comprehensive approaches to literacy education.

Amazon.comIn 1996, the two reading experts revolutionized classroom teaching with their systematic approach to small-group reading instruction. Today, the concept of Guided Reading is a featured technique in nearly every elementary school in America.

Their latest efforts, the Leveled Literacy Intervention program was created in response to the demands of teachers and administrators for a scientifically-based, early intervention program for struggling readers. Utilizing a comprehensive anchoring text, “When Readers Struggle: Teaching that Works,” the program focuses on preventing difficulties before they become long-term educational challenges.

Featuring an A–Z Text Gradient, “Benchmark Assessment System,” LLI provides teachers critical feedback on both the strengths and the needs of readers in kindergarten through Grade 3. While some aspects involve support within the whole class settings, a critical component of the program involves small group intervention and individual one-on-one sessions.

Response to Intervention

The new work from Fountas and Pinnell comes on the heels of a new educational term causing great consternation in many corners, Response to Intervention (RTI). The phrase is a result of
recent legal language changes in special education law that have resulted in a renewed focus on learners who struggle in the early grades.

There is growing body of evidence regarding the importance of reading at or above grade level in early childhood. One of the most sobering of educational research elements is the revelation that a child not reading on grade level by the third grade will in most cases be destined for significant educational challenges for the remainder of their schooling years.

In its simplest terms, “response to intervention” is a multi-step approach to providing children who struggle with learning additional educational instruction. The process involves teachers making specific teaching adjustments to help struggling students be more successful.

Such steps differ significantly from taking a student aside and simply offering more time utilizing the same instructional techniques. RTI features a fundamental tenet that if students struggle with the initial instruction, teachers must use differentiated teaching practices for the additional sessions.

Those adjustments, referred to as specific intervention techniques, are then closely monitored to determine the effectiveness of each practice. Because the interventions are graduated and vary in intensity, teachers then have a much larger tool box for helping students master specific concepts.

The ongoing assessment process, referred to as progress monitoring, involves scientifically-validated measurement tools. Frequent and regular assessment of students helps teachers identify specific learning goals for those students.

Ultimately, the philosophy ensures that students who are struggling with learning are not doing so because they have been exposed to just one teaching technique that simply did not work for those students.

Most importantly, considering a child for special education services is postponed until such interventions have been used. At the same time, these practices can lead to an earlier identification of those children who have real disabilities and therefore require special education services.

Program Predates Current Stimulus Funding Measures

Begun entirely outside of the RTI push, Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention program is a small group, intensive, supplementary intervention system designed specifically to help struggling readers and writers. In direct response to the urgency to have students on grade level in the early years, LLI seeks to bring each student to grade-level competency in just 14-18 weeks.

Under President Barack Obama, federal officials continue to focus on accountability measures such as test scores and the use of scientifically-based research learning tools. This push towards “outcome based” education, backed now by federal stimulus funds, has many companies hard at work developing new products to fit updated literacy theories and match the Response to Intervention concept.

However, well before funds were to become available from the federal government, Fountas and Pinnell were at work on their intervention program for students and teachers. The authors clearly understood one key issue early on. For as long as educators can remember, there have been few options available for struggling students unless they were referred for special education services.

Amazon.comPlacing a learning disability or other special education label on a six year old has always been a concern for educators. By the same token, elementary teachers, reluctant to refer a child to special education, had little in the way of proven strategies to work with students who were performing below grade level.

Most importantly, the program focuses on the students within the teacher’s classroom, not the instructional materials.

“It’s about teaching children,” states Fountas. “It is about teachers becoming better observers of the learners.”

Uniqueness of LLI

Unfortunately, the over-arching issue of greater accountability is leading towards entire canned, intervention programs that are extremely expensive. Schools seeking grant money to tackle this important issue are often required to adopt one of these specific programs.

However, with Fountas and Pinnell, the approach is more of a two-fold process focusing on teacher actions that are known to garner proven results. It begins with a focus on high-quality instructional practices that ensure teachers utilize time-tested, proven first teaching techniques.

LLI features a fairly tight framework of 300 lessons based on 300 separate reading texts that give educators an arsenal of effective tools. Those reading materials include fiction, non-fiction, story series featuring recurring characters and some classic tales.

It follows with timely and developmentally appropriate intervention techniques based on the feedback obtained from progress-monitoring students. Therefore the program is less about purchasing a canned package of materials and more about developing sound teaching practices.

May 15, 2009   5 Comments

Intelligence and IQ – It Is More than Just the Genes

When it comes to intelligence, there has always been one fundamental question:

Is it a function of nature? Is it simply encoded in a child’s genes?

Or is it a function of nurture? Is it more about the environment that a child grows up in?

NisbettRichard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, addresses the topic in fundamental detail in his new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It.” And thank goodness for teachers, Nisbett insists that nurture is in fact paramount to intellectual development.

In fact, his message matches almost verbatim what we have discussed previously on our site:

  • Praise the effort, not the achievement
  • Teach the concept of delayed gratification
  • Limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity.

The Nature versus Nurture Question

Nisbett takes exception to the notion that IQ is 75 to 85 percent inherited. Instead, he sees the gene implications at something less than 50 percent.

Nicholas D. Kristoff recently took a look at the nature versus nurture question and came away with enormous support of Nisbett’s book. The NY Times columnist notes the work of Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia who has conducted research that indicates IQ is minimally the result of genetics.

Kristof further cites studies that indicate that “when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their IQ’s rise by 12 points to 18 points.”

As for the importance of school, Kristof also notes that “children’s IQ’s drop or stagnate over the summer months when they are on vacation (particularly for kids whose parents don’t inflict books or summer programs on them).”

Professor NisbettIn Nisbett’s book, there is a strong push for early childhood education. Here again, Kristof offers support of Professor Nisbett by taking a look at the “Milwaukee Project.”

Assigning African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation randomly to two groups, the project offers enormous support for early childhood education. The mothers of the infants selected all had IQ’s below 80 and in many cases the fathers were absent.

The children were assigned either to a control group that received no additional support or to a group that enjoyed day care and educational programming from 6 months of age until the children were to enter first grade.

By the age of six the children experimental group had an IQ average of 120.7 as compared to the control group’s 87.2

Quality Pre-School for All

We previously noted the enormous educational success of Finland. Kati Tuurala, Microsoft’s education manager in Finland, indicates that the majority of Finland’s educational success can be traced to major reforms implemented in the 1970s.

One of those reforms centered upon an emphasis on primary education for every single child in the country. In Finland, students do not begin formal schooling until at age seven, two years after most American children begin school.

However, prior to entering school, all children have participated in a high-quality government funded preschool program. Interestingly, instead of focusing on getting a jump academically, Finland’s early-childhood program focuses on self-reflection and social behavior.

The early focus on self-reflection is seen as a key component for developing a level of personal responsibility towards learning. It is a focus more in line with the original theory of kindergarten set forth in 1837 by German Educator Friedrich Froebel. His kindergarten, literally meaning a “children’s garden,” was envisioned as a place and time where children could learn through play opportunities.

Ultimately, Finland appears to focus on the nurturing process during the preschool years and that appears to be the first step to eliminating socioeconomic differences within the school setting within the country.

Presidential Support

When it comes to the question of nature versus nurture, the data clearly indicates that the latter is indeed more than 50% of the equation. That is good news for educators, but even better news for society as a whole.

Fortunately, President Obama has come out in strong support of early childhood education, particularly for those children most at risk of school failure. Investing in quality pre-school opportunities clearly helps give children from poverty-stricken areas the chance at a stronger start in school and in life.

If we are serious about helping our children succeed in school, if we are truly interested in “Leaving No Child Behind,” we will take a hard look at this compelling data and begin investing greater sums at the early childhood level.

April 23, 2009   2 Comments

Is Nothing Sacred? Taking Apart “The Elements of Style”

A little while back we acknowledged the beauty of today’s blogging world, one where information is rich and plentiful. It was in regards to a great educational myth that has become known as the “Bastardization of Dale’s Cone.”

Will at Work Learning

Often overlayed against Dale’s “Cone of Experience,” an intuitive model to describe “the concreteness of various audio-visual media,” are a series of percentages. They are part of what has come to be a longstanding educational assertion regarding learning processes. It begins with: “people remember 10% of what they read.” It goes on to “20% of what they see,” and so on.

While Dale’s cone serves as nice schematic to help with analysis, Dale did not conduct any research or use the research of others to construct his model. In addition, it seems that these percentages, presented to educators for the better part of 40 years, are also not backed by research.

Thus the neat or cute summary diagram that is often used as a way to describe the learning process is not backed by any meaningful research.

The Theory of Grammar

April 16th just so happened to be the 50th anniversary of the release of one of the biggest selling grammar manuals of all time, “The Elements of Style.” It is a book that virtually every college graduate has been exposed to at some point, either in advanced composition class in high school or within the first two years of college when students must meet their composition requirement.

But the standard-bearer thousands of teachers and professors have foisted upon students for so many years may not quite be the gem it is proclaimed to be. In fact, it is more of an unpolished stone, at least if you read Geoffrey K. Pullum’s assessment of William Strunk and E.B. White’s famous style guide.

Pullum is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh. He is also the co-author of “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.”

Cambridge GrammarThe author writes:

“The Elements of Style” does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.”

And of Strunk and White, Pullum adds:

“This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less.”

And as for making students better grammarians, consider this summary assessment:

“Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.”

Some of Pullum’s criticisms:

• Some of the recommendations are vapid, like “Be clear” (how could one disagree?).
• Some are tautologous, like “Do not explain too much.” (Explaining too much means explaining more than you should, so of course you shouldn’t.)

• Many are useless, like “Omit needless words.” (The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.)

• Even the truly silly advice, like “Do not inject opinion,” doesn’t really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion. And anyway, sometimes that is just what we want from them.)

Pullam takes the book apart bit by bit and offers examples from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea as well as general looks at the summary work of Mark Twain and Henry James.

Nothing Sacred

Undoubtably, the knowledge explosion is tough to keep up with. But one of the great aspects of the internet is the rightful taking apart of some longstanding myths.

Whereas I was taught about George Washington and the story of a cherry tree or that Columbus was a great man and the discoverer of America, today we thankfully see truth winning out.

Hopefully educators are on to the issues of Dale’s Cone by now. But we are not so certain where English teachers stand on The Elements of Style. Is it time to follow Pullum’s lead and relegate Strunk and White’s famous tome to the educational scrap heap as well?

April 16, 2009   6 Comments