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Posted by on in Early Childhood

Well, here's a piece of research you might not have expected.

The sexy headline reductive title is the Batman Effect (published almost a year ago but recently re-circulating), but the idea being tested here was a little broader than "Always Be Batman." From the abstract:

This study investigated the benefits of self-distancing (i.e., taking an outsider's view of one's own situation) on young children's perseverance. Four- and 6-year-old children (N = 180) were asked to complete a repetitive task for 10 min while having the option to take breaks by playing an extremely attractive video game. Six-year-olds persevered longer than 4-year-olds. Nonetheless, across both ages, children who impersonated an exemplar other—in this case a character, such as Batman—spent the most time working, followed by children who took a third-person perspective on the self, or finally, a first-person perspective.

While I generally support the idea of Being Batman, there are some hugely troubling implications of this study (and I'm not even counting that Queen of Grit Angela Duckworth is one of the co-authors). One problem is captured by this review of the study at Big Think:

With the onset of early childhood and attending preschool, increased demands are placed on the self-regulatory skills of kids.  

This underlines the problem we see with more and more or what passes for early childhood education these days -- we're not worried about whether the school is ready to appropriately handle the students, but instead are busy trying to beat three-, four- and five-year-olds into developmentally inappropriate states to get them "ready" for their early years of education. It is precisely and absolutely backwards. I can't say this hard enough-- if early childhood programs are requiring "increased demands" on the self-regulatory skills of kids, it is the programs that are wrong, not the kids. Full stop. 

What this study offers is a solution that is more damning than the "problem" that it addresses. If a four-year-old child has to disassociate, to pretend that she is someone else, in order to cope with the demands of your program, your program needs to stop, today. 

Because you know where else you hear this kind of behavior described? In accounts of victims of intense, repeated trauma. In victims of torture who talk about dealing by just pretending they aren't even there, that someone else is occupying their body while they float away from the horror. 

That should not be a description of How To Cope With Preschool. 

Nor should the primary lesson of early childhood education be, "You can't really cut it as yourself. You'll need to be somebody else to get ahead in life." I cannot even begin to wrap my head around what a destructive message that is for a small child. 

The researchers minimize this effect as just role play. The kids, they say, simply imitated someone they thought had the qualities needed to deal with the task. And hey-- role play is fun. But it's appropriate that Duckworth is in this pack, because we are just talking about other ways to grow grit:

Perseverance can pave the pathway to success. The current research suggests that perseverance can be taught through role play, a skill that is accessible to even very young children.

No.  I mean, I'm not a psychologist, nor do I play one on TV, but I have to believe that the root of grit or perseverance is the certainty that whatever happens, you'll deal with it. When my high school students are anxious or afraid, it's because when they imagine what's coming, they don't imagine themselves being enough to deal with it. I can't imagine ever telling them, "Well, you probably aren't, but maybe you can pretend to be somebody else." Because the "you probably aren't" part drowns out everything else. The most useful message for them is "You can handle this. You will be okay."

With my high schoolers, we're talking about challenging schoolwork, but we're also talking about real-life challenges that the world has put in their way. In Preschool, it's different.

Let's be clear what the study is suggesting as a process for four year old tiny humans:

1) Set standards and goals that the students are not equipped to meet.

2) Tell the students that they arn't able to handle the challenge, so they'd better pretend to be someone else.

I am thinking the solution to all the problems here lies in Step 1. Encourage play? Absolutely. Require it? No. Let's give small children tasks to perform that are developmentally appropriate. Let's set them up for success, and not for failure. Then when they someday discover on their own that you should, in fact, always be Batman, it will be so that they can have some fun with their friends, and not so that they can survive in school.

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Posted by on in General

During the last week, Pat has shown a 6.3 rate of response in class, with a score of 75 on the Hendrix Orientation Scale. Informal assessment yield a 82 (well within the "moderate" range) for response accuracy. In a forty-minute period Pat showed a 45 for Attentiveness Measure, but Pat's interactions with peers score a 21 on Hemmings Interaction Index. However, that places Pat's Optimal Utilization Index Score well under the minimum desired level of 55. 

That's one report I could fill out for Imaginary Student Pat. Or I could say:

Pat has some trouble paying attention, but Pat can still answer questions if I call on Pat. Pat's not really distracting any of the other students, but it's pretty clear that Pat isn't trying and is still managing to do just enough to get by. Pat's a good kid; just kind of bored.

In fact, the first one is composed entirely of fake data measures, but you weren't sure, were you. It sounds more official than the second one. Because it's data, with numbers.

The thing is-- the second explanation is also packed with data. In fact, it's the same data, but expressed in human terms rather than in numbers and technobabble. Reform-resistant teachers are often accused of being anti-data, but the problem with much of the data we're offered by education technicians is that it is flat and meager compared to what we are used to gathering on a daily basis. To reduce and aspect of a student's behavior, performance or existence to a single digit on some manufactured scale means I must actually flatten or simplify the data I have, throwing out plenty that is valuable.

It's like coming up with a digital rating for a kiss. It can be done, but what I end up with will be far less descriptive, rich or thorough than a poem or a song or a description.

Data Overlords don't like verbal packages of data because they are "messy," but the only way to make them less messy is to throw a bunch of "extra" data out. The resulting digit score actually contains less data than the messy version-- and the mess that we've thrown out can be hugely important. We complain a lot about what the Data Overlords decide to focus on, but what they choose to ignore is at least as large a part of the problem.

But Big Data requires digital data so that it can be crunched and spread-sheeted and used for big picture centralized measuring and planning (someday we will have to talk about Seeing Like a State, a somewhat wonky but also brilliant book about this phenomenon). And in the process, Big Data has also usurped the anser to the question, "What data are important, and which can be safely ignored."

In fact, the shift to digital data is about a shift in audience-- schools are no longer expected to be accountable to local taxpayers and parents, but to some larger government or corporate entity. If I give Pat's parents that digital data report, their first question will be some version of "What does that mean in plain English." And then I'll give them the second explanation, which will have far more data in a far more useful context.

Do not buy the idea that teachers do not gather data. We have never done anything except gather data. What we haven't done is gather bad flattened data selected according to the instructions of functionaries who are far away from the intersection of the rubber and the road. And just because it's a digit, that doesn't mean it's good data-- in fact, it may be exactly the opposite.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

money and computer

We have seen the future, and we can't afford to live in it.

Altschool has just let out word that the tech-powered boutique of personalized education will become one more purveyor of off-the-rack computer-centered education-flavored product. There are many lessons underlined here-- I want to focus on the reminder of why, exactly, we can't have nice things.

Altschool's original vision was ambitious. Hire really good teachers. Keep class sizes small. Back up that teacher with a high-powered array of tech resources, allowing the teacher to perfectly track each student's progress in nearly-real time, then give that teacher unparalleled power to select a perfectly personalized set of materials for every single student. Keep a full IT department right on the site.

What do we dream of when we dream of True Personalized Education? Teacher-directed, with support from a powerful array of resources and facilities.

The problem is, this would be really, really expensive. Really expensive. You have to pay top dollar to lure those super-star teachers, then design your perfect educational ecosystem, then get top-of-the-line tech and hire IT people to keep it running, then buy up the resources needed to meet every possible individual student need or interest that might arrive. Ultimately you have several staff people hired for every single child. Expensive. Altschool was dropping something like $40 million a year.

You can't afford it. Hell, even the rich folks in Silicon Valley couldn't afford it.

So what happens? And how does the Personalized Education dream turn into the "personalized" education nightmare?

There are only a couple of ways to deal with the huge expense of a personalized boutique school.

One is to cut corners

To be prepared for any individual interest or need, really prepared, you'd need a library of tens of thousands of units, covering tens of thousands of content areas at dozens of different ability levels cross-filed by particular skill or knowledge sets involved. The library would be huge, and would need to be reviewed and updated every year. That would be expensive, and the software needed to search it for the material with just the right qualities for Pat or Chris would have to be pretty heavy duty as well.

So let's, you know, cut that library down to a couple hundred items. Let's just focus on the most common stuff, and if we find some students who aren't a perfect fit, well, if we've got materials that are Close Enough, that should do. And we can reduce some of this coursework to simple sequencing. Take the pre-test, and if you miss numbers 1 and 2, you get Drill Sheet A, and if you miss numbers 3 and 4, you get Drill Sheet B. Simple, easy to manage, fewer materials to store. Cheaper.

And getting the very best teachers to run the classroom-- well, that would be pricey, too. Let's just round up some teachers who are Good Enough. In fact, since really good teachers might start to question all the corners we've cut, let's just grab some warm bodies, train them in how to operate our system, and let it go at that. If we let the classroom be driven by the software system and not the teacher, then it's easier and cheaper to just fill in the meat widget job with a handy warm body.

But if I started this "personalized" program because I thought I could really make school awesome, why would I cut so many corners that I hurt the quality of the school.

Because I need investors

The other way to take care of the enormous amount of money I need is to get somebody to give me that money. And investors look at my classroom a little differently.

First of all, the corner cutting appeals to them hugely. To them, every dollar I spend on that classroom is one of their dollars. Do we really need three tech guys? Couldn't one handle everything by himself? Couldn't we scale back on the library of units that we're buying every quarter?

And having a highly-qualified and experienced super-teacher in each classroom-- that's great and all, but we can't really monetize that, can we? We can't sell it as a special secret. That proprietary software, on the other hand-- we could sell that to other schools and sell them the computers to run it on. And if we could streamline that whole software program and lesson library a little more, it would be easy to package as one-size-fits-all "personalization" for any classroom in the country. Because the more All our One Size fits, the bigger the potential market for this.

By all means, keep the Original Boutique School going-- when we bring people to see this or we show them videos or we send the master teachers out to talk about it, people will pee themselves with joy and fight to buy our off-the-rack version. We will make a mint.

But investors are not showing up to pump money into a Personalized School just so every schlubb's kid can actually attend there.

And asking those investors to work around a mountain of delicious, valuable student data and leave it alone is like asking someone to come to work every day and work at a desk that sits on a mountain of $100 bills without ever touching one. Theoretically possible, but sooner or later some investor is going to say, "You know, as long as the software is already working with all this student data anyway..." In fact, that's why some of the investors are going to show up in the first place.

This is how it works

This is how "personalized learning" ends up meaning two things-- actual personalized learning in which teachers lead a classroom armed with mighty tools and resources, and faux personalized learning where the classroom is software-directed, education is algorithmically-centered, and data is mined daily and promiscuously.

We cannot afford real Personalized Learning. Okay, if we can afford trillion dollar wars without end, we could afford real Personalized Learning. But as a country, we want education cheap (particular education for children who are not our own). So real Personalized Learning remains one of those things we know how to do, but we won't do it because we don't want to. So we'll cut corners and hustle for some ROI and just generally try to look like we're doing Personalized Learning when we're really doing something else entirely.

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Posted by on in Education Technology

computer frustration

It has been a typical couple of days with tech.

I spent a bunch of time on the phone with various offices of a major telecommunications company (rhymes with "Shmerizon") in an effort to upgrade our wireless plan, but this, it turns out, requires an actual phone call which in turn involves being passed around to various departments, each one of which requires a new explanation of what you're trying to do and why. This is all because we were using a Shmerizon feature that allowed us get just one bill for all of our services, but because our wireless is sharing a bill with "another company", there were extra steps. So apparently this large corporation is really several corporations, or one corporation whose internal communication is so bad that it might as well be several separate companies.

Which seems not uncommon, as meanwhile I am trying to settle issues with my tablet from Shmicroshmoft which has strange glitches that keep it from working well with other Shmicroshmoft products, for some reason that nobody knows. This particular issue I solve on my own, pretty much by randomly switching some settings and stumbling across something that neither the message boards.

Both of these take a while because on my home computer, I must deal with a browser that balloons up to huge KB use until it has to be restarted, which is also slow because the Shmerizon DSL into my home is a terribly noisy line that repeated attempts by the  company to fix have, in five years, been unsuccessful. It is especially bad when it rains, to the point that you can't have a conversation on the land line. There are no other reliable internet providers locally,

That's actually why we need the improved wireless plan-- for when we anchor our household wi-fi on the phones. This trick does not work at school, where signal is bad that the phone is basically unusable (and has to be either plugged in or turned off to avoid draining all power). I can take care of some prep work at school, provided I have what I need unblocked. And because our school has gone Google, the sites and services that are Google uncompatable are a no-go at school, too.

Many of these issues are exacerbated by the age of my equipment, but I can't afford to upgrade every six months to keep everything high grade and current. My home desktop is practically a dinosaur at five years old, which may be one more reason I need to reboot the modem almost daily to keep the connection working.

And I am not a Luddite or a digital dope. But this kind of constant maintenance and nursing and workarounds is part of my daily tech routine.

So tell me again how ed tech is going to revolutionize schools.

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Posted by on in School Culture

clock

Talk to teachers-- or former teachers-- across the country, and you hear similar complaints. An increase of job responsibilities, without the necessary time or resources to complete them. When we talk about unfunded mandates, we usually mean some program for which the government has told the district, "You must do this, but we will not give you any money to pay for it." But it is another kind of unfunded mandate when a school says to a teacher, "You are being given new tasks to complete, but we expect you to donate the time to do them on your own."

In addition to your regular teaching duties, and preparing to teach, and grading papers, and recording the grades, we would like you to also administer some pre-testing tests and then crunch the data. We'd like you to create your lesson plans in a new piece of software, and use that software to build scope and sequence for your courses. Create some emotional and social development programs for the students. Call every parent. Keep everything up to date and entered on your school website (using the new software that we expect you to teach yourself).

Before you squawk back, here are two things I know about this.

One is that teachers are not alone. I have nurses in my family, and I have watched how the health care providers solve budget issues by the not-very-clever method of simply reducing the number of staff, which can be done by declaring, "You still-employed people will now do your old job and also somebody else's old job." Many companies also use the technique of cutting employee hours, but not employee responsibilities. "Do what you've always done-- just do it in half the time." So, yeah-- I now that teaching is not the only place suffering from these unfunded mandates.

Another thing I know is that teachers are professionals and not hourly wage workers. When I signed up for an English teacher job, I knew that those essays wouldn't grade themselves, and I wouldn't have six unassigned hours during the school day in which to grade them. Any teacher who thinks she can do the job within the hours of the school day and no more is kidding herself. The out-of-school hours are part of the gig.

But teachers are good team players, and therefor terrific institutional enablers. Administrators add hours to the teaching day like drunks add gin to their glass, and some teachers just keep saying, "Well, that's okay. I'll make sure the kids have a normal Christmas and take the phone calls from your mother."

Teachers suck it up and squeeze in the new duties instead of telling their administrator, "I can do this, but I'll need direction from you on which duties you wold like me to stop performing." They donate the extra hours to the district, and then complain that administrators aren't fixing the problem, but here's the thing-- from the administrator's perspective, there is no problem. The fact that Mrs. Bagshot is sad about all the hours she spent at work is not an administrative problem. It's not an administrative problem until the job doesn't get done and Mrs. Bagshot is telling her boss, "No, I didn't get it done. I ran out of time."

Of course, if Mrs. Bagshot works in a charter school or a state that has "freed" its teachers from the "inflexible" union rules, Mrs. Bagshot will donate the extra hours or else suffer unemployment.

But for the rest of us can draw lines.

That raises the question of where, exactly, to draw those lines. Because in some cases, failure to donate free time to the district creates more problems for us or the students than we really want to see. It's decision that everyone has to make on their own; you're the one who has to live with your choice. For me, it boils down to this-- my job, the job I signed up for, is to use my expertise and knowledge to help students learn how to be better at reading, writing, speaking and listening. On the bigger scale, my work is to help them discover and grow toward the best version of themselves, to help them better envision what it means to be fully human, how to be in the world. So anything that helps me do my job is worth my time. And anything that doesn't, isn't.

I can't tell anyone else where to draw their lines. But if we want to be respected as professionals, we need to be careful about giving away our time for free. After all, how can we expect someone else  to value our time if we don't seem to?

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