There is No Master Plan

Tuesday, 4. December 2012

I had the opportunity to meet Massie Ritsch, deputy assistant secretary for External Affairs and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, among other Department staffers, in December – 2012. Massie, along with his colleagues, was attentive and friendly.

I came away from the meeting with a fresh perspective about the Federal Government’s involvement in education, which is primarily state funded. One of my observations is that there is no master plan. Although ESEA (reauthorized as NCLB) identifies influential legal structures, entitlements, and compliance activities, the importance of communication and local cooperation are critical to sustaining successful change.

Clear communication is difficult to achieve. Initiatives begin at one end of the country, Washington DC, and are discriminated to state governments, districts, administrators, and finally classroom teachers. The intent of these initiatives is altered as they circulate from one entity to the next. Context and purpose are stripped. Teachers often feel that they are on the objective (business end) of these efforts, without the benefit of understanding ideas as they were formed, spoken, and written by original authors.

Another observation, one that was a little inspiring, was that our educational leaders need our help. Without the commitment of locals (teachers, administrators, and parents) on the ground to follow through, reform efforts will be relegated to the “graveyard of lost ships,” or worse, future reform efforts will be met with cynicism (a some are already). A critical element of local cooperation is leadership. Schools are full of leadership opportunities since teaching and learning is a social endeavor. It might be an oversimplification, but without teachers taking the lead in their schools, not much will change.

A Few Tips for Enhancing Instruction Through Technology

Tuesday, 11. September 2012

I presented a few ideas to a mix of Seattle Pacific University faculty at the Autumn retreat at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island. The presentation shows simple to complex techniques for enhancing pedagogy through technology, such as collaborative learning with cloud computing and traditional desktop publishing methods. Some of my favorite ideas include the less than $100 online class, Screenr feedback, Google Drive coauthoring, and kiosk PowerPoint presentations.

According to International Society for Technology in Education, one National Education Technology Standard for Teachers is to Model Digital Age Work and Learning. This seems to suggest that students learn how to use technology to prepare them for work life as well as for enhancing learning. This is easy to do when students engage in traditional computing methods, such as using calculators, writing a paper on word processing software, and creating presentations. The meaning and relevance of this standard when cloud technologies or new technologies are used is less clear. For example, it is unlikely that students would create and maintain an electronic portfolio for work, although such a technology could be used for learning. Alternatively, personal or business web pages are useful for work, but perhaps less so for learning, unless as a container for presenting a class project.

Nevertheless, online technologies do enhance collaboration, both in the workplace and educational settings and collaboration is a critical element of human activity, regardless of context.

If the presentation is expanded, viewers can access online Screencast instructions by pressing the play button in the lower right corner.

Revisiting Foundational Ideas

Friday, 7. September 2012

Publications focusing on education show a wide array of topics, from MOOCs to school choice reform. There are so many areas of interest that we are perhaps scattered in our efforts at improving teaching and learning. However, examining foundational ideas enables us to articulate common purpose. Promoting autonomy is one of these ideas, and it is a central goal of all educational endeavors.

There are numerous sources that discuss the relationship between autonomy and education. However, Aristotle provided a unique perspective through his description of rhetoric. Aristotle wrote that all people have the ability to comprehend the art and skill of speaking. One facet of speaking is defense and criticism of ideas. For Aristotle, engaging in rhetoric also meant engaging in its counterpart, dialectic, or reasoned discussion, which leads to meaningful conclusion. Rhetoric and dialectic are not confined to any special set of abilities (one reason Aristotle may have emphasized this was to counter the efforts of Sophists, who were traveling around Attica charging money for their educational services). Instead, every person has these abilities since words are used to defend, explain, criticize, and justify one’s words and deeds and the words and deeds of others.

According to Aristotle, the raw material used to engage in rhetoric and dialectic is the enthymeme, which is a premise and serves as the basis for constructing logical arguments.

Promoting student autonomy involves training students to use their minds to form ideas and arguments through logical thought. Ideally, this training enables learners to assemble inferences and conclusions from thoroughly examined proofs. Exploration, investigation, and experimentation are characteristic of this type of training. While, not wholly ineffective for purposes of learning, recitation, duplication, and automation are not.

Systems characteristic of the standards-based approach to teaching and learning seem more vulnerable to marginalizing educational activity which promotes autonomous thinking. Standards are published and recited by teachers and students. Assessments align with standards, and achievement is defined as a measure of the accuracy with which students replicate knowledge and skills on tests. The same standards are integrated into curricula, thereby prescribing instructional methods that efficiently connect learners with information.

The universal ability to form arguments, engage in deliberative discussion, and arrive at meaningful conclusions is in danger of neglect, under current reform efforts. The priority of reformers has been to equalize educational inputs, such as curriculum and instruction, to ensure greater consistency in outputs, specifically assessment results. However, reform disconnected from foundational ideas leads to excess and dissolution of effort.