Thursday, August 12, 2010

Response to M. Horn's comments

I appreciate very much the engagement of Michael Horn with my post about the book he co-authored with Clayton Christensen and Curt Johnson (see previous post and his comment there.)

So, Michael, why then did you focus so much in the book, Disrupting Class, on computer based student-centric instruction that substitutes or replaces teachers? You barely mention blended (computer and F2F) classes in the book, the model that is growing the most. You also didn't really pursue how computers might enhance the student teacher relationship and improve both teaching and learning; you stuck with the notion of using computers to substitute for or replace teachers. Then, you noted that when you consulted with veterans of the battles of school reform you learned that these veterans didn't think that 80% of courses taken in 2024 would be online because teacher unions wouldn't allow it. The evidence cited by these veterans who were consulted was their battle scars. On page 102 you write, “Veterans of the battles of school reform with whom we've consulted for this project have been uniformly skeptical about these predictions, primarily because, as evidenced by their battle scars, the teachers unions will not allow it.” Really !

I think there's more than one problem with the above assertion, but let's look at where you go with it. You say that if the substitution is managed disruptively, it will happen, even though these institutions, the teacher unions, can wield self protective power in the political processes. You then go on to explain why a change in the political (governance ) structure of schools is necessary. What exactly is the evidence of battle scars? This argument for a regime change is shakier than the weapons of mass destruction one used by you know who.

Your logic also got a little fuzzy when you started speculating about all of the student-centric individualized software that would be developed by user networks. I suppose that might make sense if all we wanted to do was get students to pass standardized tests on a standardized core curriculum. If everyone were home schooled or conveniently placed in the little boutique schools you envision, having a broad selection of software packages that you could take off the shelves of the new user network supply warehouses (probably a branch of Wal-mart) might actually make sense. But as I've pointed out earlier, I don't think the primary political organizations of our society (school districts) are going to go along with your schema. Standardized tests on standardized curriculum are a long way from reality (that's a long discussion that got cut way too short in your book.)

And, then, you say that “the influence that teachers unions can wield over textbook and instructional software adoption decisions looms so large that many would-be school reformers have abandoned hope of significant change.” (p142) You're kidding me, right? That must be another of those facts based on somebody's scars. Come on, at least try a little evidence on me before you jump to the conclusion that “administrators, unions, and school boards will CAPITULATE to the FAIT ACCOMPLI of larger and larger numbers of students acquiring and using superior, customized learning tools on their own. That sounds like the pyramid scheme model. It's certainly not something that's based in any experience that I've had when it comes to text book or software adoption. I've been very active on the District Technology Advisory Committee and have pretty much given up on me or any other teacher ever being consulted again before any kind of acquisition. That's consistent with what I'm hearing from teachers in other districts, too, so I'm really curious where you got your 'fact.' Usually the 'teachers' who are consulted are TOSAs (teachers on special assignment) who are really administrators in training still being counted as teachers for purposes of tax referendum public relations.

I do think you're on the right track some times, but you've confused yourselves with theories, as you were warned. You provide insufficient evidence, in my opinion, for jumping to governance change, which is another name for highly nuanced teacher union bashing. Can I get in on the next book in this series?

Monday, August 9, 2010


My new hard bound copy of Clayton Christensen, Curt Johnson and Michael Horn's Disrupting Class arrived the other day (It was signed by Curt Johnson. I won it by re-tweeting something from Education Evolving.)

The disruptive thing is intriguing and probably true in the instances they cite in the book, but they don't really offer much in the way of what their new school will look like except that it will be student-centric, and they'd like to see a new form of governance, which is to say that they'd like all schools to be private, or chartered, or TPPs, or 'new schools' of some kind.

Essentially, they're talking about wiping out public schools as we know them. In the future they're seeing, we'll be rid of those nasty teacher unions and the bloated bureaucracies that run public schools. All schools will be tailored to the aspirations and learning styles of all of the students.

As proof that this notion is to going happen the authors talk about various commercial innovations that have been disruptive technologies – the transistor, and … well, their examples are all in the book. I spent the first 18 years of my adult life in regional, national, and international ICT business markets doing sales, sales management and consulting; I learned about disruptive technologies. When I first starting selling telephone systems in competition with the mega monopoly of all monopolies in the 70s, there were businessmen (pretty much all men, then) who seriously thought I was doing something illegal. In fact, the Bell System spent a whole lot of money on lobbyists trying to make what I was doing at the time illegal. (My adventures in D.C. lobbying against the Bell 'advances' are a good story for another post.)

The divestiture of AT&T and the almost total dissolution of the CWA certainly qualify as disruptions of major purport ions. Some very intelligent people actually believed at the time that the telephone system was a true natural monopoly. Christensen et al are likening public education and the teacher unions to major corporations and their dependent unions. There are certainly similarities, but it's the differences that are important. Public education is not a single entity, never has been. The teacher unions, though politically powerful, are nothing like the CWA. The power of the teacher unions, and the thing that so irks their opponents, does not come from their collectivity; it comes from the fact that they're respected solid citizens in most every community in the country and they very closely mirror the primary political organization in those communities- the local school boards. And, yes, they're left leaning, but not nearly so much as many would have you believe.

The authors' vision won't leave intact the primary political organizations in the U.S. of A. Local school boards would not survive the kind of political and organizational disruption that is suggested in this book. AT&T's stockholders, for the most part, did very well, Thank You, after only a bit of anxiety. McKinsey and Co. and the Reagan administration greased the deal so that the only ones who took much of hit in the disruption were the members of the CWA. They got hit big time, and there really wasn't much they could do about it. The unions are the target in the author's vision; school boards will merely be collateral damage, which will leave our local communities scrambling even more than they are now to maintain a functional identity.

The unintended consequences of the kind of disruption that the authors promote has not been adequately thought through. If you think busing created a mess; they're talking about busing on steroids. Busing was an attempt to do part of what the authors think would be a good idea, except that busing kept the school boards mostly intact.

The authors are actually on the right track when they talk about software innovations and changes in assessment being the key to the future of education. The disrupting force that is already in process might even be bigger than the notion they promote. Teacher unions will surely need to change, but not in the ways that Horn, Johnson and Christensen think they should change.

The hardware and software already exists to make learning truly student centric, and make assessments individually relevant, and I think the authors already know that to be true, or certainly should. So why then are the authors are so insistent that no change will come to public education unless governance of schools and the governance of the teachers in the schools change? Might the authors be more interested in governance change than they are in actually improving teaching and learning. They want to shift the political power when that isn't even necessary, and I would argue, desirable.

What needs to change is attitudes and understanding. The education system needs to understand that the tools to make learning student centric are already available. Let's innovate the teaching and learning and not change the governance structure of our schools. Let's kick the big corporations out of our schools and let our local governance structures use the tools of education that are already freely available to them. What would happen if all of the money that is spent by the U.S. Department of Education was simply given to the local schools without strings attached? Do you trust the people you leave your kids with every day to know how to spend the money necessary to make that classroom all that it needs to be.

The unwieldy confusing testing system is not working because it's not being used for teaching and learning but as a tool to change the governance structure of public education. Let's assess individual student learning instead. Portfolios can replace testing, very quickly. Portfolio assessment will actually save the system a lot of time and money. Portfolio assessment will create the professional status for teachers that ED/Evolving is pushing as part of its current drive for political change . New and improved standardized testing, by definition, can't document student centric learning - portfolios will be the documentation of student centric learning. They already exist.

The administrations of our schools don't need to bother with wondering how to deploy literacy devices in classrooms (The authors talk a little about computers, but mostly they're focused on computers that are at least a decade old.) The administrations of our schools simply need to decide to let students use the literacy devices that are already deployed and owned by most students for teaching and learning instead of as distractions to teaching and learning. The disruption has already happened – the new void that was filled was the ability for everyone to be connected 24/7 to each other and to the increasingly vast archives of information. The job of administrations is to support teachers in learning how to teach with the literacy devices that are already in most of their students backpacks or on their shelves at home because they're outlawed at school.

Using open source learning management systems like Moodle puts the power to create individualized learning in the hands of teachers. It already exists, it's tested, it's available in almost a hundred languages, and it's free. Moodle will work with most of the literacy devices that students already own; teachers just need to be gently shown how to use it. Things will change, that's certain. Most of the change is going to happen, though, between the ears, as many a teacher has often said.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Writing Tools

Last week I spent four days with 120 of my elementary teacher colleagues in the MPS Summer Science Institute. This was a premiere staff development of the MPS. We were treated to some very effective hands-on learning lessons that we'll be able to use with our students. Well, that is if we can fit it in to our class schedules. There's a little competition from the Literacy and Math Departments for minutes of instruction, but that's a blog for another day.

What's on my mind now is the full day session we spent the first day with Karen Worth. Ms Worth is a delightful person; she's got the personality that every parent hopes their kid's 1st grade teacher will possess.

The day long session was an in person delivery of her book, The Essentials of Science and Literacy: A Guide for Teachers -we got a paperback copy of the book, too. The day included a demonstration of how to conduct an inquiry discussion in a circle, and video showing us some of the finer points of leading discussions, and we talked about writing, why it's important. Mostly, the day was a power point version of the book - talking about science and writing about science is important. Got that! The link above will let you sample a chapter and get a good feel for the book.

Here's my concern - the book is prescribing 19th Century teaching techniques, maybe 18th Century, whenever it was that was before we started separating science from the 'other' subject areas. It's a good thing to integrate reading, writing, math, and the arts with science; that's not my concern. My concern is that Ms Worth and her book ignore the tools that scientists use for writing, math, and integrating art with science.

We're a full decade into the 21st Century. Twenty five years ago, Donald Murray, the father of the process theory of writing instruction, in the revision of his seminal book , A Writer Teaches Writing noticed how useful computers were for writing. Murray probably wouldn't consider his observations to be scientific, but when it comes to writing about writing, he had a pretty good grasp of the 'current research' on how you teach writing. The appendix of his book lists almost everything that's been said about the teaching of writing in the 20th Century.

Murray said:

“The principal advantages of the word processor include:

* A good typist can type aster on a word processor than on a typewriter, because the typist is typing only one continuous line. The machine does the carriage return automatically, and this speeds up the process immensely. A poor typist can type quickly on the machine and then clean up errors easily later.

* The writer has increased freedom to create a discovery draft without worrying about anything that will have to be corrected later. The writer can feel an enormous freedom to get something down that will be developed and refined later. I have found, for example, that sometimes I write in bursts of one to five paragraphs on the word processor; then cut, add, and reorder, shaping the fragment’ the polish it line by line, checking each word, each phrase, each sentence; then write in another burst. That’s a very different pattern for me, and it’s made possible by the word processor.

* The writer can produce a section of a longer piece of writing whenever it comes to mind, because it can be moved around easily and inserted wherever it belongs later on.

* The writer doesn’t have to worry about the internal order of paragraphs as much as in ‘normal’ (my emphasis) writing. The writer can get the paragraphs down, then reorder them easily later.

* The three main functions of revising and editing - cutting, adding, and reordering - can be done with amazing skill and ease on a word processor. The writer can cut - zap - just like that. The writer can insert easily, and since most writing is undeveloped, the word processor makes it easy to do the necessary developing. The writer can reorder words, sentences, paragraphs, sections and re-reorder.

* The writer can see a clear text immediately after each change instead of the messy, scrawled-over drafts that are normal for a writer (using paper and pen.)

* The act of writing that always has been a satisfying form of play for most prolific writers is available as play to more people. For many people, the word processor does seem to make writing a game. They can enjoy the fun of making a text come clear on the tube.

* Many word processor have programs that spell. Educators may worry about this, but the fact is that many writers - present company included - are poor spellers, and the ability of the machine to check this allows spelling to b put in its proper lace, at the end of the writing process, so that it is not a matter of primary anxiety on every draft.

* The writing can be stored away easily and recalled whenever the writer has somethingv to do to the draft. These changes may be small or large. No matter, they can be added to the draft, and the draft can be stored away efficiently, ready to be called up again.

* Most writers will confess that in the past they have not made changes that should have been made because of the time and energy it took to produce a new draft. With a word processor you don’t have to worry. The draft remains flexible, changeable, until it is printed.

* The writing remains in process for a longer time. There is a wonderful impermanence about the draft on the video tube. It is always writing in process, ready to be changed.”

So, writing is crucial to learning, in any subject, and technology has been observed by someone who knows writing to be a tremendous aid in writing. Why is there even a question about whether or not technology has an effect on teaching and learning, and why wouldn't we want to use computers in a science classroom ?

Murray never got to use modern learning management systems like Moodle to teach writing, but if he had, I’m sure he would have been as appreciative of Moodle as he was of word processors. Moodle allows teachers to do all of the things that Murray advocates but even more quickly and more easily. All of the advantages of the word processor that Murray delineates are extended and expanded with Moodle. I’ve taught reading and writing to 3rd and 4th graders without word processors, with word processors but without Moodle, and with Moodle. There’s no reason not to use Moodle, or Google apps, or one of the many new technologies that adds global collaboration to the advantages that Murray listed of using word processors in the writing process. I really never want to see the tears welling up behind the eyes of another 3rd grader when I tell them that most everything they’ve written needs to be reordered when they’ve just labored mightily with a pencil to get their story onto the page, especially when the usual response to revising with a computer is, "Hey, this is kinda fun." The computer provides the power and access to language that most of us adults who've used a computer for a while have come to expect. For me, the question is not whether or not technology has an effect in the classroom, it’s why isn’t everyone using technology in the classroom.

So why, then, does Ms Worth actually caution against using technology in an elementary science classroom. And why does the MPS, in 2010, buy books for their elementary science teachers that don't even mention how the current tools of science might be used in a classroom? Those are really important questions.