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Category — Teaching and Learning

Of Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives Teaching the Net Generation

We have devoted a number of posts over the last few years to the idea that there are two different sets of computer users: digital natives and digital immigrants. In addition, we have discussed the terms multitasking, power browsing and bouncing out and their importance to teachers.

For educators and/or parents seeking additional clarity on these and other terms, Ofer Zur, self-proclaimed digital immigrant, and his digital native daughter Azzia Zur, provide a great summary at the Zur Institute. Their overview is particularly compelling because it focuses on the patterns one sees as opposed to trying to formulate absolutes.

The Zurs note that the term digital immigrant is generally used for those born prior to 1964, a sort of unofficial cutoff for the influx of technology to everyday life. Those born after that date are generally lumped into the digital native category.

However, first and foremost, they point out the obvious, that not all digital immigrants and digital natives are created equal. To get a basic sense of the difference they generalize to three basic categories of technology users for each group.

In the digital immigrant world they use these broad descriptors: the avoiders, the reluctant adopters and the enthusiastic adopters. The Zurs offer, and we concur, that the latter group, irrespective of when they were born, has the full potential to keep up with digital natives. They also suggest that anyone in the first two categories seeking to move to the last would be best served by hiring “a patient, pleasant digital native to help build up the skill set.”

They also divide digital natives into three separate groups: the avoiders, the minimalists and the enthusiastic participants. It is pleasant to see some additional experts note that being born during the digital period does not necessarily mean that one has a knack for or an interest in computers. That said, the Zurs insist that the largest segment of the digital native population resides firmly in the latter category and will turn to technology first when almost any type of need arises.

They acknowledge that these simple distinctions contrast with the work of Feeney (2010) and Toledo (2007) who described a continuum of people’s relationships to the digital world based not on their age but on their attitudes and implementation of digital technologies. The breakdown here is far more detailed: the avoider, the minimalist, the tourist, the enthusiastic adopter, the innovator and the over-user or addict.

Great Chart for Parents and Teachers

Irrespective of the level of detail, the Zurs go on to provide a fantastic chart of the preferred behaviors of digital immigrants versus those preferred by natives. For example while digital immigrants may become technology tourists and even enthusiastic adopters, they still generally prefer to talk in person or on the phone. On the flip side, digital natives generally prefer to text rather than call and to connect via the net.

A critical distinction for educators revolves around the preferences when either group seeks to learn new things. Most often, digital immigrants were raised with the instructional manual approach. They therefore are more reflective learners and prefer clear sequential steps presented linearly and logically.

Digital natives basically abhor such manuals. They are used to trial and error as a learning format and thus prefer direct experimentation and interaction rather than reflection. Based on the multiple inputs technology can provide, they also prefer to receive information quickly and from multiple channels.

There are many other clear distinctions provided in the Zur chart, from the general preferences for each group related to gratification and rewards, the idea of tackling one task at a time versus multi-tasking or task-switching, and the preference for more knowledge, just-in-case learning, versus the rejection of useless info in favor of a just-in-time mentality.

The Zurs also note that immigrants should simply drop the idea that too much time spent online is a time waster if they want to successfully work with kids. The reason? Those youngsters are convinced that many aspects of life are only happening online.

Like it or not, these developments have profound implications for educators. Kids today are used to having “control over the exploration of material.” That is their norm.

Therefore, teachers insisting on providing traditional directions like open a book and go to page 5 are “completely archaic to most digital natives.” Instead, when they are handed the book, they will open it and begin to explore themselves, just as they will when they are given a digital device.

Digital Immigrants and Natives as Educators

Ultimately, the message is a simple one. Educators, whether they were born prior to’64 or after, will find little classroom success if they remain in the avoider, reluctant adopter, minimalist or tourist categories. There is now great clarity that educators must be at a minimum in the enthusiastic adopter category if they are to successfully teach the digital generation.

In fact, we would contend that the best teachers moving forward will need to take their technology to an even higher level. To be successful, they will need, at least at times, to move into the category of user often dubbed innovator.

That does not mean that some traditional elements of education should be tossed by the wayside. Educators will still want to help youngsters increase their ability to defer gratification but it must be understood that this will be an incredibly difficult task. Likewise, the newer learning models will challenge teachers to find ways to help students increase their attention spans even as we learn to deal with students “bouncing out” when they are uninspired.

But the successful teachers of the 21st century will recognize that these will be ongoing challenges. To avoid consistent frustration, they must not be at odds with the youngsters in their classrooms.

Instead, 21st century teachers will accept the embedded preferences of our youngsters and adjust accordingly.

March 1, 2011   2 Comments

The Enormous Technological Challenges Facing Education

Advances in technology continue to change how adults view and interact with the world. Of course, those same advances are available to teachers and the youngsters who populate their classrooms.

These developments are leading to enormous challenges for teachers regarding the role digital devices can and should play in the learning process. For some educators, the view is that technology should only be utilized as a tool to help facilitate student understanding and mastery of the current curriculum. For other educators, technology is as fundamental to learning as reading and writing and therefore must become a separate segment of the school curriculum.

To get a sense of the differences in these viewpoints, we turn to the 2011 Horizon Report (pdf), the eighth in the ongoing annual series of reports from Educause focused on emerging technology in higher education. As in the past, the current Horizon Report seeks to highlight the six emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use within three adoption horizons: near-term (those technologies that will see adoption over the next twelve months), mid-term (those that will be adopted over a 12-36 month period), and far-term (those that will be pursued over the 36-60 month time frame).

The 2011 report identified the following specific areas as technologies to watch:

- Near-term: mobile computing and open content.
– Mid-term: electronic books and simple augmented reality.
– Far-term: gesture-based computing and visual data analysis.

Most educators are no doubt very familiar with the first three elements noted in the Horizon report. These topics have garnered a lot of press over the last couple of years and their use is becoming more common in Pre K-12 classrooms.

The last three, on the other hand, are not generally seeing much if any time in the current learning environment. But if tomorrow’s workers are going to be ready to take advantage of the incredible technological progress available to them, teachers will need to become more knowledgeable of these incredible new options.

In that regard, one of the critical findings of the report centers on the issue of digital media literacy and the subsequent challenges that literacy creates for educators. The report reveals the significance of digital media literacy in every discipline and profession but that formal training in digital literacy skills and techniques is rarely found in teacher education programs. Worse yet, the Horizon report reveals that formal training is virtually non-existent in higher education.

While many educators are working on the topic in an informal manner, the fact remains that literacy is deemed to be “less about tools and more about thinking.” Therefore, a systems approach to digital literacy is necessary if we are to ensure that teachers are ready and able to lead students down this ever-evolving path.

Below we examine the six areas briefly and the challenges facing educators in implementing these short-term, mid-term, and far-term technologies. For greater depth, readers may simply turn to the Horizon’s 2011 detailed report (pdf – 40 pages).

1. Mobile Technology

Today, we have a wealth of options for staying connected while on the go. While many equate the idea of mobile technology with the cell phone, the term mobile device is used to categorize everything from smart phones to netbooks.

Today, not only are there many devices (smart phones, netbooks, laptops and the like) to choose from, each of these options is capable of performing multiple functions. Whatever the choice, the ability to access the Internet and personal data from anywhere in the world is becoming ever more important especially as technology becomes cloud-based.

Ultimately, this online data storage is creating a totally new view of IT support. It also creates the requirement that our information be accessible to us no matter what our choice of device or our location.

The result is that more and more people are looking to mobiles as their device of choice. Furthermore, they are generally seen as cheaper and easier to use than desktop or laptop computers.

While many have long espoused the potential of mobile devices to revolutionize learning, educators continue to have concerns with the privacy and classroom management issues that come with student use of such devices. But clearly the digital world is headed firmly in this direction and education must follow suit.

2. Open Content

Open content appears to carry fewer concerns for educators and is generally seen as critical to addressing the ever-rising costs of higher education. Perhaps even more importantly, open content has the ability to provide the level of flexibility today’s students are beginning to demand.

Providing individual choice as to when and how to learn, open content is already becoming a critical format for colleges and universities. As traditional lines of learning get further blurred by the needs of adults to constantly upgrade skills to remain competitive in the workplace, education must follow suit.

The ability to learn informally, without constant direction and supervision, is a skill that we must increasingly begin to utilize in the classrooms of tomorrow. And whereas education used to center on a just-in-case format (becoming knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics to ensure future flexibility) the easy access to information requires a switch to “just-in-time” and “found” learning. Both of these formats will ensure that learning is far more timely and efficient.

This demands a new educational perspective where knowledge is not held by a select few and shared only upon demand but instead is collective in nature and sharable. This will continue to push teachers towards a new model where they focus on guiding and coaching students on methods for accessing and evaluating the volume of information available.

3. Electronic Books

While the Horizon report notes that “electronic books have been available in some form for nearly four decades,” the last twelve months “have seen a dramatic upswing in their acceptance and use.” Add to the mix the various assortment of electronic reading devices now available and it is easy to see why “electronic books are appearing on campuses with increasing frequency.”

For the student with the overweight backpack, the idea of being able to carry an entire library in their book bag is enormously appealing. On the college campus, electronic books are not only proving to be a cost-effective and portable alternative to heavy textbooks, these devices are able to store all syllabi and supplemental reading selections for even the most intense courses.

The latest e-book readers not only rival the experience of reading a paper book, they offer the ability to easily mark up and highlight text when desired, annotations that can be easily exported and shared with fellow students. Perhaps even more importantly, electronic readers offer keyword searching and instant dictionary lookups, two elements that can greatly enhance the learning possibilities for students.

Today we see the list of available titles is growing rapidly and with that development, the new format’s convenience will also yield even greater cost-effectiveness over time. Throw the fact that our wireless devices enable individuals to purchase materials from nearly anywhere on the planet means that entire libraries are now available to both teachers and students without ever leaving their home or the walls of their respective classroom.

4. Simple Augmented Reality

The ability to combine the real world with virtual information is the fundamental tenet of what is referred to as augmented reality. It involves the blending of virtual data, the information available to users via technology, with live action and what we see in the real world.

According to the Horizon report, AR dates back to the late 1960s and 1970 though it was not until the 1990s that major companies put the technology to use for visualization and training purposes. Those applications once required headsets that kept users tethered to their desktop computers but now the camera and screen embedded in smart phones and other mobile devices (our basic GPS system) can serve as the tools to blend the real world with virtual data.

Augmented reality applications exist in two basic formats: marker-based, whereby a “camera must perceive a specific visual cue in order for the software to call up the correct information,’ and markerless, whereby “positional data, such as a mobile’s GPS and compass is compared against a library of images to find a match.”

For education, the major focus could well be on augmented reality gaming. Such games would be based on real world situations that are then augmented with networked data, bringing incredible life to the study of both history and geography.

For the extremely futuristic minded, there is also the development of augmented reality books. Though the books are printed normally, they are made so as to include AR elements. After purchase, special software installed on a webcam allows the camera to interact with the book to create three dimensional visualizations.

5. Gesture Based Computing

Gesture-based computing gives rise to truly transformative technology where devices are created “that react to us instead of requiring us to learn to work with them.” Therefore, instead of teaching children how to use a mouse and keyboard, we would instead teach them to use natural movements to engage their technology.

Most of us are familiar with the iPhone or the Nintendo Wii, gesture-based systems that accept input in the form of taps, swipes, motion, pressure, and the number of fingers touching the devices. Incorporating the potential for more kinesthetic classroom would also take away one of the current fears associated with computers and those popular video games, the sedentary lifestyle that often accompanies those activities.

In addition, yet another one of the most important elements would be the collaborative nature gesture-based computing would offer teachers. By removing the need to share a keyboard and mouse, gestural interfaces would allow multiple users to potentially interact with a single computer simultaneously.

More than simply making technology easier to engage, gesture-based computing has been shown to enhance fine motor skills. One such study revealed that surgeons-in-training who warmed up with the Wii scored an average of 48% higher on tool tests and simulated surgical procedures than those who did not.

6. Visual Data Analysis

Visual data analysis is a new field that blends highly advanced computational methods with sophisticated graphic generating tools. These computer enhancements make it possible for almost anyone to see any existing patterns and/or structure in even the most complex of data settings.

Data collection and compilation has long been seen as a tedious process. While computers removed some of the manual challenges of this process, analyzing, interpreting, and displaying data was largely a field only statisticians and engineers fully grasped.

Most people see these tools as being useful when studying scientific topics such as climate change and global warming trends. But if we can make “it possible for anyone to sift through, display, and understand complex concepts and relationships,” then visual data representation will soon lead to applications in the social sciences and humanities.

As for the implications for educators, the field is deemed to be more consistent with the pattern matching skills that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain. But the greatest impact could well be the concept’s ability to enable educational researchers to finally isolate the specific variables that truly impact learning and identify the most effective educational practices to employ in the classroom.

February 22, 2011   2 Comments

In Breaking Down Walls, Does Online Education Sacrifice Quality?

There are certainly two camps when it comes to the notion of open courseware and its ability to educate tomorrow’s students. Some, like Mark Pesce, see the concept as breaking down the ivy-covered walls in both the literal and figurative sense. For them, open courseware would eliminate current admission barriers, allowing the common man with access to a computer and an Internet connection a world class education.

Others see the notion quite differently. They note that an exceptionally high college dropout rate is even higher in online programs. They further insist that online education, considered by most to be the tool to a more cost-effective course delivery system, actually is more expensive currently as schools cover the cost of specific software (that does not come cheap) on top of having to pay someone to hover over the students enrolled.

Two Schools of Thought

Steve Kolowic recently took a look at the current state of the open courseware movement at Inside Higher Education. In discussing the likes of the so-called elite institutions (Columbia, Oxford, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Kolowic indicates that these schools have defined their value “by exclusivity as much as by excellence” and that “the classrooms and curriculums that ostensibly transform talented high-schoolers into cardholding members of the adult elite have been walled off from the general public.”

But elsewhere on the University front, Kolowic writes that online education has been “all but cleansed of its original stigma” and thus become commonplace.

“The University of Massachusetts and Penn State University rake in tens of millions of dollars each year from their online programs,” explains Kolowic. “The University of California is considering using online education to help recoup the revenue lost to massive cuts in state funding.”

In contrast, those considered the elite of higher education have not offered online pathways for a degree. Instead, they are giving away certain courses for free.

“The elites took the road less traveled,” writes Kolowic, and instead published “the raw materials — and in some cases videotaped lectures — for certain courses on the Web, but would not offer online pathways for their coveted degrees.”

All of these thoughts are presented as a lead in to an interview with Taylor Walsh, the author of Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access. In the interview with Taylor, one clear thought comes through. The elite schools know they need to have a presence on the web in a market that is clearly growing in possibilities. A presence of some sort appears essential to further the global brand of these schools at a time when competition is keen.

The Real Challenge

Randall Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University, is a veteran when it comes to teaching courses online. Writing about the release of Walsh’s book and the future of the open courseware movement, Stross yanks more than a few chains with his opening assertion.

“When colleges and universities finally decide to make full use of the Internet, most professors will lose their jobs.”

But his chain doesn’t seem to come with a noose. Despite the prediction of the end of the teaching profession as we know it, Stross goes on to calmly insist he is not worried.

“Amid acute budget crises, state universities like mine can’t afford to take that very big step — adopting the technology that renders human instructors obsolete.”

Indeed, Stross does a great job of articulating one critical fundamental. While he is a veteran online educator, he insists the descriptor currently being used is misleading.

Stross teaches what educators now refer to as a hybrid course. It does feature some elements that make use of software. But it also features a full-fledged teacher, a “hovering human” as Stross describes.

To one day replace teachers, an online course would have to remove the need for the hovering human. It would be 100% software based and would handle all tasks that the aforementioned human (including assessing students and providing relevant feedback on their performance) previously handled.

Of the open courseware movement, Stross notes the costs involved.

“Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each. But neither Carnegie Mellon nor other institutions, which are invited to use its online courses, dares to use them without having a human instructor, too.”

Those costs have Stross confident that his job is safe, especially given the current shortfall of funds most institutions currently face.

Above and Beyond the Monetary Factor

I would contend that Stross might be safe for yet another reason if I can at least assume he is typical of the vast majority of teachers and professors. While it is easy to imagine the use of technology and open courseware resources to both supplement and even replace textbooks and the like, it cannot replace the figure orchestrating the learning process provided that person does in fact do more than simply hover.

It is in this realm that we turn to Wendy Brown, the Emanuel Heller Professor Political Science at UC Berkeley. Professor Brown unloaded last October when discussing the approval of the California Regents to test the viability of offering a bachelor’s degree program 100% online.

Speaking at the Graduate Student Association Forum on the Cyber Campus, Brown delivered a scathing rebuke of the suggestion. When she was done, Professor Brown was on another planet from the likes of the forward-thinking Mark Pesce or the pragmatic Stross.

“I have many thoughts about the differences between the virtual and live classroom,” states Brown. “Differences between, on the one hand, classes featuring professors with an avowed point of view, modestly attuned to the abilities of their students, working closely with their GSIs, and, on the other, authorless curriculums with instructors of record and hundreds of low-paid teaching assistants.

“Differences between, on the one hand, students in a hushed auditorium, shorn of electronic connections and other distractions, listening to a line of Shakespeare, a measure of Chopin, a principle of physics–taking them apart together to discover the kernel of their brilliance–and, on the other, a student staring at the line, the measure, the principle on a MacBook, perhaps at a Starbucks with email and Facebook portals open, perhaps at home flanked by children whining, bosses calling, friends texting.”

Brown questions the financial implications before revealing some of the less than flattering data emerging regarding online instruction. “The drop-out rate for students taking on-line courses is persistently and consistently high, paralleling the drop-out rate of for-profit colleges. It is routinely 20% higher than drop-out rates from on campus courses and runs as high as 70% for some courses and programs.”

But for Brown, the real key is the inherent human element, the notion that education is fundamentally a people-business. Quality courses feature a skilled and passionate educator inspiring his or her students, poking and prodding so as to unleash the potential of those he or she is tasked with teaching. This human touch simply cannot be produced in a class delivered at a distance entirely over the net.

“What is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely ‘deliver content’ to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away? Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious? Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited? Where there are moments of epiphany during or after a lecture, where one is transformed by thinking with or against one’s teacher or peers about a text, event or problem? Where a single question from a student or response from a professor can clarify the presuppositions of a complex notion or crystallize the dark, shocking or exciting implications of a proposition or value?”

Brown moves beyond the rhetorical to provide two very interesting, concrete examples. She first notes that “while on-line law schools exist, none are accredited by the American Bar Association, and 49 states refuse to permit students graduating from the on-line schools to sit for the bar.”

If that were not a significant red flag as to how online education is viewed, she then furthered her point by explaining a recent development from her own life.

“Last winter, alas, I collected a speeding ticket in the Sierra foothills. Although eligible for traffic school to clear the ticket, I was surprised to discover that Calavaras County did not allow use of the ubiquitous on-line traffic schools. Curious, I phoned the traffic court clerk to ask why: “is it just because I could pay my teenage son to take it for me?” No, she replied, “it’s because studies show that people don’t change their driving after taking the on-line courses but do with the in-person ones.”

To complete her rebuke, Brown summarizes thus:

If, “from traffic schools to law schools,” fully on-line education has been deemed inadequate to the task of educating and changing the student, what does it mean to unleash it in the most transformative period in the life of young adults, the early years of college?

Delivering Open Courseware

Truth be told, the two views are entirely valid. Open courseware has the power to transform the national curriculum, increasing rigor and creating up-to-date, content-rich courses where lectures are delivered by the best the profession has to offer. It should also eliminate the need for those impersonal, 500 seat lecture halls. In this way, the materials offered students could nearly match those currently offered at the so-called elite institutions.

But there will always be a need for that facilitator, the person with the ability to poke and prod, to provide the timely pats on the back and the occasional kick in the seat of the pants. It is for this reason that public school teachers are talking about the transformation from “being sages on the stage” to “guides on the side.”

Open courseware should provide the sage – but the learning process will still need that orchestrator. My guess is that the elite colleges came to this realization a long time ago.

So those course materials are indeed available in an effort to further that brand recognition. But those schools are banking on that critical fundamental tenet, that education is first and foremost a people-business.

February 10, 2011   3 Comments

Free Software for Writing Mathematical Equations in a Word Document

I am not sure what the going price per share is for Google stock but their Google Docs tool features so many neat little tricks for teachers and bloggers that it is easy to see why many people have moved to Gmail for their email service. One aspect of Google Docs I have used a lot is their equation inserting tool to create sophisticated equations like the famous quadratic formula.

If you have not created a Gmail account but are interested in expanding your word processing or HTML creating powers, you need to set one up. The ability to share editable documents with others also offers a nice little feature for math and science teachers who want to produce more professional looking slides or class handouts featuring complex formulas for their own use. While you can share these with others as well, you can also obviously share them by emailing them back to your own account to then use for your own purposes.

However, as often seems to be the case with software these days, the latest version of Google Docs did take a step backward when it comes to formula insertion. I am sure that has led many to purchase MathType which is available at a very reasonable cost if you do a lot of this kind of work. But with very modest effort you can make great use of the equation insert tool with Google Docs without expending any funds.

If you already have an existing Gmail account and some Google Docs created, you are very fortunate. You will still have access to the old editor and some great features. If you do not, there are still some things you can do (see below).

Existing Gmail and Google Docs Users

If you have an existing Gmail account, sign in and then go to Google Docs where you will be taken to a screen listing prior documents that have been created or shared. If this window is blank, then you would need to create a new document that will contain the formula or formulas you want to use. We will discuss two options to consider if you do not have an existing Google Doc in our next subsection but if you do have existing documents you can get started right away.

Those account holders wanting to implement the equation insert tool can head over to Prof Hacker at The Chronicle where Heather M. Whitney, an assistant professor of Physics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL, walks readers through the process using the older version of Google Docs. Her slides are great and she takes the process step-by-step so we will not waste time by repeating her instructions here.

However, the method she provides will not work with the new editor. You can easily tell if you have a Google Doc document that was constructed with their prior editor. If you begin to work on the document you have called up, when you click on the insert tab followed by the equation option, you will get a double window screen that features the two boxes depicted in Professor Whitney’s slides. If you only get a single text box for writing your formula, you are using the latest editor and will not be able to use all of the wonderful features Professor Whitney notes.

Below is a screen shot of someone who had an Gmail account but thought they had never used Google Docs. Note the one option sent to her that was a recipe. Because that recipe was created with the older version of Google Docs, this user can edit that existing document utilizing the formula features as described by Professor Whitney. Again, to tell, simply open the document, try the insert equation option and see if you get the two boxes, one to insert an equation and the second that provides the preview. If you get a single box you are working with the new editor.

Unfortunately, the new editor does not allow direct pasting of LaTeX into the box as the older version did (more on LaTeX follows below). For example, Professor Whitney uses this coded format rather than the pop up menu to create the formula for the quadratic equation but trying the copy and paste function in the new editor yields an error statement.

In addition to not being able to paste this code in the latest editor, the new version requires some playing with the tool to get an order of entry of symbols and variables that produces the desired result. Therefore if you know someone with some older versions of a Google Doc, have them forward a copy of a document for the easier process. To do so, they simply need to call up their document and click the share tab in the upper right. The document can then be shared with the new recipient by installing their email address (again, to use Google Docs be sure to forward to the newly created or existing Gmail account). The default sharing tab allows the recipient to be able to edit the document when they receive it – be sure to leave that setting so the person can use the equation editor.

We can’t say enough about this option – if you can get an old edited Google Doc you will be in much better shape.

Creating a New Google Doc

If you are creating a brand new document, you will get a different window than is depicted in Professor Whitney’s slides. Instead of two boxes, one where you type the formula and a second which previews what you have entered, you will get a single box similar to a text box. In addition, as you insert symbols or LaTeX code, the formula will morph before your eyes. Initially, it is difficult to get a handle on this as it is not a “what you see is what get look” when entering.

When clicked, the equation editor will pop up and five smaller rectangles will appear with a few basic symbols displayed. You can use these symbols by clicking on the appropriate rectangle then scrolling to the appropriate term you want.

A left click of the mouse on the first rectangle will yield a pop up menu featuring all Greek letters. To grab the square root symbol, slide over to the fourth rectangle, click once to reveal all possible items you could select, then scroll and click on the square root symbol to start building your formula. You can continue selecting symbols and insert appropriate letter variables from the keyboard to build your formula.

A second option is to use the code associated with LaTeX notation. The code for this format may not be something you are familiar with but thanks to the web and L. Kocbach, you can find a thorough list of them to directly type them in. In addition, the Google Docs help site reveals how each of their available symbols can be written using the LaTeX code.

To give readers a sense of some of the steps, we will create one of the basic equations from physics relating an object’s distance to its initial velocity if the object undergoes uniform acceleration. To create the formula we begin by inserting the basic variables and symbols without any subscripts, i.e. we type in d=vt+at (see below).

To insert our subscripts and add the exponents we work backwards to add them in (unfortunately, we could not consistently insert them as we worked our way through the formula). The basic step is use the underscore (_) to insert subscripts and the Caret or up-arrow symbol (^) to insert exponents. But to ensure the formula holds format I found the need to insert those elements last.

Once we have entered the basic equation we space back to the point directly following the letter v and hit shift underscore. This command creates a space and allows us to insert the variable i as a subscript to represent the initial velocity. To get the factor of one-half inserted we type \frac before the variables at. We then hit the space bar and the \frac disappears (that morphing we talked about) and the fraction bar is created. We type 1 for the numerator, hit the enter key to get to the denominator and then type 2. Our fraction complete, we move to squaring the variable t. We space with the right arrow key to the end of the formula, hit shift ^ and we see the cursor rise to the superscript position where we can insert the 2.

Simple as that we have the formula complete and can then use it for insertion in a word or Google Document.

Unfortunately, we have found that not all of the LaTeX code works with the new editor. Instead of the \subscript or \superscript code commands for example, you must use the underscore (_) and the Caret (^) to create these formats. In addition, it can be a bit cumbersome to get the feel at first for how to insert the finishing touches.

But with a little experimentation, you can quickly determine which aspects do work and those for which you must rely on the Google pop up menus.

February 1, 2011   6 Comments

Latest Study Validates Testing, Forced Retrieval and SQRRR

Good old-fashioned testing and a comprehensive reading theory developed in 1946 remain great learning tools.

It is a practice born of yesteryear and quite frankly appears to be giving way to concept-mapping and other forms of study habits. But yet another new study has confirmed that the practice known as forced retrieval today continues to be one of the best methods for learning new material.
In the latest report, “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping,” researchers Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt actually cast a negative light on one of the most popular current practices. They contend that educators rely “more heavily on learning activities that encourage elaborative studying” and do so at the expense of the traditional and extremely successful practice of “retrieving and reconstructing knowledge.”

And when these researchers say learning, they include three extremely important elements. First, forced retrieval continues to be one of the best methods for helping students retain new material.

But even more importantly than this retention, forced retrieval was deemed to be the best method for helping teach students to draw inferences as well as apply concepts to new settings.

Forced Retrieval

The term forced retrieval is used to describe the practice of formal testing or quizzing. In the case of the most recent study, forced retrieval is used to describe the process by which a student studies a specific passage for a fixed length of time, then sets that material aside to write down everything he or she can remember about the passage.

Of course, educators essentially use that same concept when they cover material for a period of time then give a written assessment. The assessment takes the place of self-quizzing and thus forces students to retrieve the information they have been studying.

Those who worry today that in testing students we are harming their learning will be extremely disappointed with the results of this study. In fact, these researchers reveal that tests, when used appropriately, are much more than a passive learning activity and thus are great tools for helping students learn new material.

In essence, the very method educators use to assess the current level of student understanding requires students to employ the forced-retrieval technique. So this research expresses strong support for testing students at appropriate points in time.

In fact, if you dig deeply into the results, the researchers support the idea that frequent, low-stakes classroom quizzes with multiple options to make up marginal work could well be one of the most viable learning tools educators can use.

The Recent Study

In coming up with their support for forced retrieval, the researchers compared this form of learning with two other learning formats. One involved repeatedly reading the material over and over again while the other involved one of the latest educational techniques, concept mapping (whereby students create detailed diagrams that theoretically help them understand and make connections among the various facts they have read).

For one of the experiments, the researchers divided students into four groups. To get at the heart of the basic idea of studying material, one group spent five minutes reading a text while a second group was provided four consecutive five-minute sessions to read and reread the passage.

The third group utilized the “concept mapping” technique and arranged the information in a diagram while the text was in front of them. The fourth and final group, after being given time to read the passage, was asked to take a simple “retrieval practice” test where they were tasked with writing down what they remembered. However, that fourth and final group was then allowed to reread the passage yet a second time, then asked to repeat the retrieval practice test.

To determine the best learning approach, one week later the researchers gave each group a short-answer test that focused on both the students ability to recall facts as well as draw logical inferences and conclusions. The fourth and final group of students, those who first read the passage and wrote down the material they had read retained about 50 percent more of the information one week later than those students who used the other two methods.

Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it, creating our own cues and making critical connections within our own brains. It might just also be that the struggle to recall information is critical to further reinforcement within our brains. Lastly, perhaps by practicing the recall of information, the information then becomes easier for us to recall it at a later time.

For students, the latest study supports that critical ingredient so many professors espouse: to determine what you know, put your book and notes aside and try to recall everything you can. During the recall attempt, it does not seem to matter whether or not students write it down or say it out loud – it is only the idea of self-quizzing or forcing recall that matters.

Past Practice

This latest study also reinforces a practice that many teachers employed before the turn of this century. Veteran teachers reading the study will no doubt recall a recitation-based learning practice dubbed “SQRRR” or “SQ3R.” The concept is indeed one from the past having been popularized in the book, “Effective Study,” written in 1946 by Francis P. Robinson.

SQ3R or SQRRR was generally used as a method to teach reading comprehension to children. The letters represented the five step process: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review.

Of course, most sophisticated college reading material requires strong reading comprehension skills. As SQ3R reveals, internalizing and retaining what one has read demands much more than simply rereading passages multiple times or reading and providing an accompanying concept map.

As for questioning, it can of course be done by the teacher but the prior learning practice encouraged students themselves to lead the way by self quizzing. In doing so, students themselves can determine the extent to which they need to reread and review.

The latest study in fact reinforces this longstanding practice fully.

Tried and True and Still Valid

There are no doubt still many educators who believe that the forced retrieval method focuses too much on testing and an excessive emphasis on memorization. But it is clear that the demands of college require students with the necessary knowledge base to do higher order thinking and inquiry-based problem-solving.

First, testing can help teachers and students identify gaps in existing knowledge. Such recognition can then lead students to revisit those elements that may not have been clear and subsequently help them gain further insight.

In addition, when information is internalized, it can be more easily recalled when necessary, especially when it comes time to make connections with new ideas. That is where the reciting comes in SQ3R. In writing out or reciting aloud, students can actually discern what elements they can retrieve from memory when asked and which elements remain elusive.

The bottom line of course is that if we could create totally reflective students, teacher assessments could give way to self-quizzing. But given the nature of young people, having a teacher pushing the assessment process may well be necessary to ensure that youngsters take this critical step.

And that is precisely what these researchers determined: the external pressure that leads students to exercise the forced retrieval technique continues to be a viable approach for educators to employ.

January 25, 2011   2 Comments

Teacher Pay – Current Model Definitely Outdated

The first step towards merit pay is to begin paying teachers according to what research has already proven to be critical.

Research indicates that the two most effective correlates of higher student achievement are the value a family places on education and the quality of instruction that children receive.

In simple terms, students from homes that value education are very successful in school even when they receive average or below average instruction. But at the same time, the positive impact associated with quality instruction can be dramatic with the effect most notable for minority children and those from less affluent families.

Moving forward, it is essential that education place greater emphasis on teacher effectiveness. Doing so will require an entirely new approach to paying teachers.

As states and local communities grapple with funding shortfalls, negotiating teacher contracts will have to be a place that government officials and school board officials look to determine bang for buck. With as much as 80% of a school district’s expenses being attributed to total salaries, pay for those working in education has to be carefully examined.

Teacher and student on a lesson.The push for merit pay is now on though most teachers in the trenches still do not readily accept it. But at a minimum, any move towards pay for performance should begin by addressing current payment practices that are inconsistent with research.

Current Model

Those outside the field of education can’t quite understand why every fifth year teacher in a school district earns the same pay as every other fifth year teacher irrespective of responsibilities and assignment. But that is standard operating procedure in most school districts.

It is true whether or not a person teaches at the elementary or secondary level. It is true regardless of teaching assignment and responsibilities at each level. An elementary classroom teacher responsible for all of each student’s academic subject instruction receives the same pay as the elementary art, music or physical education teacher.

Likewise every high school teacher, whether it is in English, math, science or physical education, receives the same pay and does so despite the number of different preparations he or she may face, the number of students they are assigned, and the amount of grading that must take place outside the classroom. Perhaps even more astonishingly, a teacher certified to teach multiple subject areas receives no additional pay despite his or her ability to provide flexibility in teaching assignments.

Instead, pay differentials are based on just two fundamental elements. First a set of salary scales is created and a teacher moves along the scale as he or she gains teaching experience. In most cases, a second year teacher earns more than a first year, a third year teacher more than a second, etc., though in a few cases these scales are paired, first and second year teachers earning one salary, third and fourth another, or some variation.

Second, multiple salary scales are created with different base pay and increments for further study. Most schools have a pay scale for teachers with 30 credits beyond a bachelor’s, another scale for the attainment of a master’s degree, and even higher scales for those having furthered those academic credentials by attaining a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) or doctorate, etc. One final bonus payment has been negotiated in many districts for those teachers holding national board certification.

Rethinking the General Master’s Degree

When America is considered as a whole, school systems pay an additional $8.6 billion in wages to those teachers holding a master’s degree. However, a decade of research has demonstrated that this money is for the most part poorly spent.

In a recent speech at an American Enterprise Institute forum, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, essentially called the idea of rewarding teachers for a achieving a masters degree a waste of taxpayer money. The reason is that there is little evidence to show that a teacher holding a master’s degree significantly impacts the achievement of his or her students over that of a teacher with just a bachelor’s degree.

In addition, the concept of a 15 or 20-year step contract whereby a teacher gains additional pay for each year of experience is not necessarily associated with teacher effectiveness. Data reflects improved teacher effectiveness can be substantial over the first few years but that in most cases there is a plateau effect that varies from teacher to teacher.

But these two ways of paying teachers are so ingrained that most people consider them almost untouchable. Billionaire Bill Gates, a man who has given a great deal of his accumulated fortune to grants to improve education calls the discussion of changing teacher pay is analogous to kicking a beehive. Others have said the idea of changing teacher pay is as controversial and unpopular as cutting chocolate milk from the school cafeteria menu.

The Need for a Revamped System

While the system demands changes, it is important to note that teacher effectiveness is correlated in certain instances with these basic elements already in place. Specific aspects do correlate with teacher certification, academic credentials, and experience. Current research reveals:

iStock_000004218407XSmallTraditional certification is a worthy concept especially when discussing a teacher delivering specific subject matter. Traditional certification programs require successful completion of a university-based teacher preparation program that meets state specifications and the passing of a state licensure examination.

Most importantly, certification in the particular subject or subjects being taught correlates with student success especially at the middle and high school levels. Studies have found that subject-area certification in mathematics for secondary teachers is associated with higher student performance in the subject and that students in an English class are better off being taught by a teacher who is certified in English.

Those schools paying additional funds for teachers who have earned National Board Certification appear to have taken a positive step. Research indicates that students taught by National Board Certified teachers do score higher on standardized tests of reading and mathematics when compared to students of similar ability that are taught by teachers who are not Board certified. But at the same time, National Board-certified teachers tend to disproportionately teach more advantaged students, assignments that could account for the additional success of board certified teachers.

In addition to certification in the field that he or she teaches, a degree in the subject being taught also matters. Simply stated, teachers must have a deep understanding of the subject matter they are assigned to teach and thus must have a degree in the subjects assigned.

It is interesting to note this is the one area where an advanced degree does in fact matter. In other words, earning an advanced degree in the specific subject area does correlate with increases in student achievement while a general master’s degree does not.

What seems to matter is the intellectual capacity of the individual including strong SAT or ACT scores along with a sound academic record at a selective college.

Two other key criteria include scores on the teacher assessment exams, whether it is the Praxis or other standardized test and some basic classroom teaching experience. Data reflects that students of teachers with four or more years of experience demonstrate greater achievement.

Some Basic Changes

As part of a move towards hiring the best and the brightest, it is time that school boards eliminate the lock step pay concept and replace it with a flexible approach. For example, the data clearly indicates that school districts need the flexibility to pay new teachers varying salaries based upon specific levels of academic achievement on nationalized tests, their college transcripts and the scores attained on the state required assessment. Boards need to be able to take concrete steps to find qualified teachers for the specialty subjects.

Likewise, simple step schedules must also be eliminated that provide pay differentials for advanced degrees and additional certifications unless such credentials are associated with greater student achievement. That means teachers with different assignments could see varied pay depending on that assignment as well as the credentials they have earned.

Lastly, contracts must begin to reflect the workload assigned to an individual teacher. Simply stated, not all teaching positions carry the same workload. It is time that pay differentials based on the responsibilities associated with a specific position are established that are dependent on number of students assigned, number of subjects to prepare for, and corresponding correcting time spent outside the school day.

November 29, 2010   3 Comments

One Way Schools Could Develop Creative Thinkers!

It just might be time for K-12 education to make video games a fundamental part of the curricula.

Everywhere we turn these days we hear the same thing.

Our students need things we don’t teach and that our school structures do not allow for a focus on learning and thus all too often sustain the current social hierarchy. Some would insist that our schools are crushing every ounce of creativity from our young (see accompanying video).

In her article on “The Things We Don’t Teach,” Jenifer Fox quotes extensively from the publication “Tough Choices or Tough Times (pdf),” a document calling for the development of youngsters who are creative and innovative. The report further stresses the need for developing adaptable and cooperative workers who will be “constantly organizing and reorganizing in a never-ending array of teams.”

Fox hammers the current school culture:

“In an age when most jobs require intuitive decision-making, where more mental activities replace physical ones, traditional instruction and assessment is ineffective (i.e. the teacher demonstrates how to do something and the student who repeats the performance best receives a high grade). In the 21st century workplace, a new premium is placed on creative problem solving, teamwork and collaboration. Our schools will “bridge” students into the workforce when they begin to focus on developing student strengths and teach students how to bring those strengths to the teams they work on.

Using Video Games to Teach

We have noted on many occasions that one of the most intriguing options for the future of education is the use of video games to teach higher order thinking skills. We have offered our Eleven Video Games to Unlock Your Inner Genious as well as a suggestion as to how gaming behavior could be used to instruct students on the all-important scientific method.

To date we have read little about public K-12 education doing anything in the way of organizing their curricula around this idea and/or implementing the concept in the classroom in a meaningful way. But as always, higher education appears to be the first to grasp the idea and is at least seeing the option as a viable elective.

University of Florida students in the honors program now have just such an option. The video game “StarCraft” is used to teach critical thinking, problem solving and resource management skills in the online course IDS2935, “21st Century Skills in StarCraft.” Nate Poling, the UF doctoral student teaching the class, told news reporters that the game is a tool and a resource, that the game is an anchor in the same way that other courses might use a textbook to reinforce specific concepts. Poling believes that ultimately games can be a great teaching tool and cites his early infatuation with the popular Apple “Oregon Trail” option often made available to students during free time in elementary school.

For those unfamiliar with the game, “StarCraft” is a strategy game in which as many as eight players can compete online. Poling selected the game because it reinforces lessons related to balancing resources and the managing of risks, two skills important to anyone starting a business.

As homework the students are required to play the game for as many as two hours each week. Ironically, grading comes from typical educational formats – students must keep a log, write papers and do a final presentation.

iStock_000005207063XSmallIt’s just that everything centers upon the game: the log documents student attempts to play the game while the papers focus on the decisions students made while playing. But the one way that contrasts with traditional educational practices is that grading will not be correlated with student skills playing the game.

Of course, if one peruses the Internet, the web is loaded with specific references to this very course with the vast majority offering a “you must be kidding” tone. While the gaming community attempts to keep a straight face even as they use the story as a selling point, independent sites seem to focus on the “ha ha” concept, the proverbial, I too want to earn a bachelor’s degree in Starcraft.

But we have heard tell that the University of California at Berkeley began using “StarCraft” in the classroom last year while the puzzle video game “Portal” is among required material this fall for freshmen at Wabash College in Indiana.

Video Games as an Assessment Tool

It will no doubt take some time for the skeptics to be won over but it is interesting to note that the concept of stealth assessments is taking hold and here again video games could offer a key component to making the concept work. Stealth assessment recognizes that complications from test anxiety can make it difficult to capture specific abilities. In addition, traditional testing formats can’t help but bring in outside factors based on students existing knowledge or lack of specific knowledge in regards to a topic.

So as educators and independent assessors seek ways to measure skills like critical thinking, creativity, and persistence, new ways of testing those traits are developing. One such way is to allow students to immerse themselves in a fun activity and then watch how they behave.

Allowing a small group to play a video game reduces test anxiety even as it creates a setting where an observer can watch students interacting as they solve a complex task. Researchers insist that a lot of important stuff happens when individuals play video games.

Because every aspect of what transpires allows an educator to observe how students process specific tasks, such an option is being considered a possible method for assessing an individual’s higher order thinking skill level as well as a person’s ability to function as part of a team.

domestic lifeThis of course represents yet another step in the video game evolution – in the earlier arena discussed the game is used to supplement classroom instruction and thus help develop higher order thinking skills. In the second instance of stealth assessments, video games are utilized as a method for assessing what a student has acquired for skills.

The result is that video games could actually form that final critical educational bridge, the one that blurs the distinction between learning and assessment.

Time Has Come

In sum total, it is clear that at this time our schools are falling short in regards to developing the next generation of creative thinkers. No doubt, the time has come for new and innovative teaching options be explored.

But the radical nature of using video games as teaching and assessment tools doesn’t appear likely to fly in public education where the traditionalists are convinced that education involving video games has to be devoid of rigor.

So it will likely fall on some entrepreneur convincing some board to allow a new charter school to be created that focuses on developing 21st century skills. Imagine a school where reading, writing and arithmetic are integrated with technology, the world wide web and video gaming.

Of course, some basic skills will never change – the ability to read and write and think logically all remain important elements in any school. But at the same time, our future is dependent on developing yet another set of core skills centered upon the world wide web: the ability to research, think creatively and collaboratively problem solve.

The first set of entrepreneurs who can redesign schools around this theme and then contrast it with the limitations of traditional educational formats are going to make themselves a whole lot of money.

Because I have no doubt that video games and virtual worlds represent the future of learning.

November 21, 2010   No Comments

Is Digital Media Producing a Less-Empathic Generation of Young People?

There is little doubt that we have entered a wondrous new age, one where every facet of life is evolving and generally doing so in ways we could never have anticipated. As we make our way through what is now dubbed the digital era, early assessments have many concerned for our young.

There are those who see the digital age as creating a group of youngsters with the shortest attention spans in history. Still others express concern that the digital age may actually be interfering with the intellectual development of young people.

iStock_000004111604XSmallIn fairness, there is another group that sees the developments positively and believes that a new, wired generation is able to do things we older folks could never have dreamed up. Those with such a view throw around the new term, multi-tasking, and refer to today’s young positively as digital natives.

However, the alarmists seem to be winning out. And a new study released late spring added one more layer of concern for those who work with children.

The Work of Sara Konrath

One of the disconcerting developments involves a three-decade analysis of prior research conducted by Sara Konrath, a professor affiliated with the psychiatry department at the University of Rochester. Also a researcher for the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, Konrath found that today’s college students are not as empathic as those of prior generations.

The professor arrives at her conclusions after reviewing 72 studies measuring this specific personality trait conducted over a 30-year period (1979-2009). When college students are compared with those from the late 1970s, Konrath found that today’s college students were “less likely to make an effort to understand their friends’ perspectives,” or to “feel tenderness or concern for the less fortunate.”

With the most significant drop occurring after the year 2000, Konrath found that “kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.” These findings mirror the concerns of those who see today’s young as being extremely self-centered, an attribute that has some folks calling today’s youngsters Generation Me.

Digital Media Responsible?

The alarming development could result from a number of factors though it is clear that Konrath believes the largest culprit is digital media. And when she places the blame, she hits on virtually every one of the concerns often expressed by others.

“In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games,” she told US News. “And a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

Konrath goes on to point fingers at another popular phenomenon, social media. The professor theorizes that a shift towards online friendships provides youngsters with the ability to “tune out” when they wish. The ability to tune out when conversing online could then spill over to the point that students may tune out even when peers are expressing themselves in face-to-face settings.

This raises new flags and throws a bit of a wrench into the growing sentiment that social media can play a positive role in the education process of young people.

While focusing primarily on the role of digital media, Konrath did speculate that our hyper-competitive society and its unbridled focus on success could also be playing a role. In some cases, it could be the cutthroat nature of such a lifestyle, but it could just as likely be that our fast-paced world prevents us from being able to tune in to the needs of others.

Educator Interest

togetherFurther review of the professor’s work reveals a very interesting assessment of what constitutes a healthy self-focus. By the term healthy, Konrath talks of a youngster developing a strong, confident sense of self, referred to as individualism. This contrasts with unhealthy self-focus that is so inflated it borders on narcissism.

What is also of interest is the professor’s view that self-focus can develop alongside other-focus. Most importantly, in her view, positive levels of individualism can develop alongside collectivism and empathic behavior if nurtured properly.

Such a theory means that people can actually be high in category and low in the other, high in both, or low in both. Konrath has developed a theory around the consequences of an excess in self-focus without a simultaneous focus on others, a situation the researcher calls “social atomization.”

“Socially atomized people have difficulty considering the larger web-like social context in which all humans are embedded,” notes Konrath. Yet another interesting development in those with excessive narcissism is a certain level of aggression.

Konrath’s work could have enormous implication for teachers moving forward. If indeed our digital culture is rendering a generation of self-centered individuals, it will likely fall on schools to construct educational opportunities to combat this negative trend.

October 17, 2010   1 Comment

Of Values, Paying it Forward and Why American Test Scores Are So Low

I am a Tom Friedman fan and have been for quite some time. The New York Times columnist and best-selling author is an ideas man with an ability to connect the dots.

His book The World Is Flat is a great example of his ability to see things in ways others do not. And his more recent, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, utilizes the most important word, the real pink elephant in my mind, when it comes to the future of our country and our world: crowded.

In contrast, Michael O’Hare has been and continues to be relatively unknown to me. But he too seems like an ideas man with that same ability.

I became aware of the professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, only by virtue of a piece he recently published, A letter to my students.

He, along with several other professors, blog at The Reality-Based Community. The blog has a most provocative subheader, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

More on Friedman

My infatuation with Friedman comes in great part from his books but it also comes from his occasional column on education. His essay entitled “One Great Teacher” remains one of my favorite educational stories because it serves as a reminder that the best educators have a sense of presence as well as an ability to set high expectations for students.

In his recent column We’re No. 1(1)!, Friedman weaves together a myriad of ideas as he tackles one of our continuing problems: poor student test scores despite spending gobs of money on school reform. Friedman begins by noting the recent Newsweek list of the best 100 countries in the world and the disappointing revelation that America is not even ranked in the top 10.

The New York Times columnist moves on to discuss another article, this one by the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson. In it Samuelson conjectures that the issue with schools might actually transcend the buildings, teachers and administrators. The idea of school failure could well reside with “shrunken student motivation.”

Friedman quotes Samuelson thus:

“Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.

“Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

The words of Samuelson echoing, Friedman notes what may well be the biggest issue schools face today.

“We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.”

America’s “Greatest Generation” is revered, notes Friedman, because they faced extraordinary problems (Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism) and solved them. And they did so by asking people to also do hard things: to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country.

“Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation,” writes Friedman. “Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ All solutions must be painless.”

Friedman further insists that he “would get excited about U.S. politics when our national debate is between Democrats and Republicans who start by acknowledging that we can’t cut deficits without both tax increases and spending cuts — and then debate which ones and when — who acknowledge that we can’t compete unless we demand more of our students — and then debate longer school days versus school years — who acknowledge that bad parents who don’t read to their kids and do indulge them with video games are as responsible for poor test scores as bad teachers — and debate what to do about that.”

More on O’Hare

The issue of our current generation’s failure to live up to the standards set forth by its predecessors is also the focus of O’Hare’s letter to his student. O’Hare begins:

“Welcome to Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere. The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.”

The positive spirit and upbeat persona end after this single opening paragraph.

“That’s the good news,” writes O’Hare. “The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits. And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine.”

“… they agreed to invest money they could have spent on bigger houses, vacations, clothes, and cars into the world’s greatest educational system, and into building and operating water systems, roads, parks, and other public facilities, an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. They didn’t get everything right: too much highway and not enough public transportation. But they did a pretty good job.

“…this deal held until about thirty years ago, when for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves.”

After further taking the current leadership to task, O’Hare arrives at a similar conclusion to Friedman in relation to our political leadership.

“We can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.”

And that is not the only fault he finds with parents.

“Many of your parents took a hike as well, somehow getting the idea that the schools had taken over their duties to keep you learning,” writes O’Hare, “or so beat-up working two jobs each and commuting two hours a day to put food on the table that they couldn’t be there for you. A quarter of your classmates didn’t finish high school, discouraged and defeated; but they didn’t leave the planet, even if you don’t run into them in the gated community you will be tempted to hide out in. They have to eat just like you, and they aren’t equipped to do their share of the work, so you will have to support them.”

A Need for Values

While many will find fault with O’Hare for his support of greater educational spending (just throwing more money at the problem they say), it is difficult not to begin head nodding as you read. In essence, he is, in his own way, talking about the current generation in the same manner as Friedman.

But one of the reasons I enjoy reading Friedman is that he goes beyond characterizing and describing an issue to actually proposing some solutions. As he winds down, he gets right at the heart of why America may only be the 11th best country in the world.

Friedman notes that the countries on the rise have “values like our Greatest Generation” had. They have the ability and the “willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.’

No it is not about cheap labor or the chance at a free enterprise system alone. It is about what people have inside of them.

“In a flat world where everyone has access to everything,” writes Friedman, “values matter more than ever.”

Collectively these two men offer a similar vein – improving schools, and ultimately, restoring America’s place in the global order, will come only when we see a cosmic shift in societal attitudes and values.

Perhaps those low test scores are indeed a function of more than just what goes on within the walls of the schools themselves.

September 20, 2010   3 Comments

Education in Maine at a Pivotal Crossroad

I cannot say that I am a fan of my local newspaper the Kennebec Journal. Like most citizens, I subscribe and I dutifully work my way through it on a daily basis.

But it doesn’t take very long to do so. In fact, it seems with each passing year the time spent reviewing the document has dropped significantly.

One reason is that it is no longer truly a local newspaper. Instead, so as to cut costs yet provide a product, several dailies in Maine are now under one umbrella where the content is written once yet printed multiple times across the state.

A second reason is the lack of timeliness with so much of what is published. So many of the printed articles used are available on the web for reading the evening before making what appears in the paper truly seem like old news.

Then there is the editorial board, the one that has delivered so much support for our current Governor (particularly his school district consolidation proposal) pointing out the obvious to us. Sadly, given the state of education in Maine those in the field could not come together in support of a government application seeking federal “Race to the Top” funds.

I am still waiting for this board to question what has happened since Governor King left office. To ask aloud how the state has moved from a position of leadership and high educational performance (one of the nation’s highest performers in fact) to its current position where it is seen as out-of-touch with current reform measures being discussed.

4147973284_f9c68108b8But once in a while the paper does seem to get a piece of the puzzle right. Of course, this time it is yet another case of one editorial being written and resold (in the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel) but at least there is some merit to the main discussion point.

In this instance, the editors were discussing the upcoming visit of Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Portland. They nailed the title:

Our View: Duncan delivers dual message to teachers

Because the message being carried from the nation’s capital is one of educational change, the natural tendency is to assume the work teachers have been doing does not measure up. The editors note:

The secretary of education says he supports their work but also asks them to change.

They then correctly point out what is an amazing dichotomy – that educational leadership “must enlist teachers to bring new ideas into the classroom” yet the teacher’s union is opposed to so many of the reform measures being proposed: the expansion of charter schools, tying pay to performance and evaluating teachers by measuring student progress.

How well Duncan can strike a meaningful balance in this arena is critical. It will take enormous skill to walk this difficult line and we will see over the next few years whether Duncan possesses the talent to bring about some much-needed change in our country.

But it will be next to impossible to do so here, in our home state, given the current environment. To get teachers on board, Duncan will first have to overcome the current ill will that transcends the classroom, the pervasive negative spirit that is in place due to a school consolidation manifesto that unfairly targeted rural and less affluent communities, and has been subsequently fueled by deep budget cuts that have made the daily working lives of educators ever more difficult (if not downright impossible).

Sadly, after expressing the challenge so well, the paper rears it lack of understanding. They write:

Duncan’s programs are seen by some as anti-teacher, but they are not. Recognizing and rewarding the highest performers, while weeding out the ones who are not getting the job done, Duncan is betting that schools will be able to decrease the gap between rich and poor.

Furthermore, the issues, according to these editors, must be placed firmly at the foot of those currently in the field and their union leadership:

The onus is now on Maine’s teachers and their unions to explain why continuing to operate under current rules will do more to give children the tools to succeed than Duncan’s data-driven attempt to make room for innovation and elevate the teaching profession.

What a crock of …….

The editors demonstrate a complete failure to comprehend the individuals who have toiled so long in what was once a proud profession. The idea that teachers are not interested in giving children the tools to succeed can only come from people outside this traditionally people-focused career.

Instead, those in the profession are concerned that this rush to improve test scores will in turn lead to fewer students graduating. The concern is always that school is about children first and foremost.

Of course it is highly possible that education can have both. New, innovative methods and different school structures could well mean improved student performances and improved graduation rates (i.e., that what is being proposed is good for all children from all of Maine’s diverse communities).

4854671511_47609ebbb3But leadership must convince the profession that the changes are not analogous to throwing out the baby with the bath water. Leadership must help staff transition to a new era where teachers are in fact paid different amounts based on what they teach and how well they do it.

Those who have worked diligently for 20 plus years to ensure that no child is left behind cannot fathom a model where student performance becomes the one driving focus. Not when their experience tells them that nurturing is a far more important focal point for children from homes where such an element is missing.

No, it is not the teachers that must convince anyone. I would contend that leaders are called leaders because it is their job to help subordinates through challenging times. Even more importantly, leaders are called leaders because of an ability to inspire others to do what is right for the greater good and to put self-interests aside.

Once upon a time Maine was an educational leader – its test scores were among the best the nation could offer and its educational system held up as an innovative model for others.

To get there once more, I contend that the state will need some real leadership once again. It will begin in the Blaine House and spill over to the state’s next Commissioner of Education.

In fact, with the right people at the helm, this incredible dichotomy facing the field just might become manageable.

Flickr photos courtesy of American Progress and jimmywayne.

September 1, 2010   No Comments