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Posted by on in Education Technology

The cliché is a fifty-year-old asking some ten year old student for help in making the computer work. Having trouble making working with your device or your software? Just grab one of those digital natives to handle it for you!

Well, not so fast. Here's Jenny Abamu at Edsurge saying what I've been arguing for over a decade-- our digital natives are hugely naïve about technology.

With the adoption of any new technology, there's a curve. In the 1910s, if you owned an automobile, you were also a reasonably savvy mechanic who knew how to work on his own machine. But in the century since, cars have become advanced in a way that has led to fewer and fewer car owners who could actually repair their own vehicle.

It's a simple fact of marketing-- early adopters may be willing to know the nuts and bolts of the tech, but to expand my market, I have to be able to say to non-savvy buyer, "Don't worry-- the tech will take care of everything for you." I have to make the tech user-friendly, and the friendlier it is, the less my customers need to know. The goal is to move from a product that only an aficionado can handle to a product that any dope can use. We are well into Any Dope territory with computer tech (spoiler alert: Linux is not the PC wave of the future).

Fifteen to twenty years ago, I could count on a few students in each class who could code. I used student helpers to build the school website from scratch. But nowadays I have to explain to my students how to save a photo the like on line, or how to use a Google doc. And students at the New Media Consortium Summer Conference echo that:

“Something you can do to prep your students for college is to have one day where you host a workshop on using Google Docs,” suggested Alejandra Cervantes, a junior at UCLA, in response to a question from an educator about the best way to support high school students heading to college. “Something simple like that can be pretty instrumental in helping them succeed in classes in the future.”

And yes-- that quote and the article its from raise its own set of issues. Because Google is working hard to inject themselves into the ed world, and they're not doing it just to be great humanitarians, so pieces like the Edsurge piece are meant to keep banging the drum that your student must know how to use Brand X Software or she'll fail at life.

And yet there is all this cool stuff to use, and my students don't have a clue. They know Snapchat, Instagram, a little twitter, and whatever the hot app of the week is (developers who think they can come up with an educational app that students will use enthusiastically for a year, starting months from now-- those developers have a naivete problem of their own). There are pieces of software that let them collaborate on projects-- they don't know how to use any of them. There are tools for including art and images and videos in one project and they don't know how to use any of them. And why do we keep reading stories about somebody who lost a job or a college spot because they posted something stupid on line? Because the vast majority of my students have no idea how the interwebs actually work.

In some cases it is tunnel vision-- they just use what they use, which is what they picked up from friends or the pre-loaded software on their device. In many cases, it's lack of access. A Pew Research Report from 2015 says that 17.5% of households with children have no internet access. That does not seem out of line with my own student population (though virtually all of my students have their own smartphones).

I have beaten my head against this cyberwall for years. I was hugely excited about the possibilities of web-based projects in which students could take 15 or 20 different works of literature and show a web of relationships between them-- far more complex stuff than could be managed in a traditional paper. But when I gave them the assignment, what I got was a traditional linear paper with each paragraph on its own page, linked so that the reader could go forward or back a paragraph.

I am not a thoughtless technophile, and I never implement tech just to do it. If it's not useful, I don't care. Where it is useful (I have replaced the traditional English teacher keep-em-writing practice of a paper journal with mandatory blogging for my students), I embrace it. But I have had to train and explore and learn myself first, because my digital natives are like people who have grown up in a big metropolitan city but only know their way around their own two-block neighborhood and don't even know the actual names of the streets there.

If you want to get your students into the technofuture, you are going to have to lead them there, just like you have to with Shakespeare and critical realism and new vocabulary words. That's the implication of this kind of article for teachers. The implications for people who think giving standardized tests on over-the-net software-- well, that's another discussion (spoiler alert: it's a bad idea).

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Posted by on in General

This is a line often included in one of those self-reported stories that people feel compelled to share when they discover they are talking to an English teacher. It's not quite as popular as those standards "I Always Hated English Class in High School" or "I Hate To Read" or the super-popular "I Guess I'll Have To Watch My Grammar When I'm Around You." Just today, someone once again summed up her experience by citing what someone, years ago, told her. "You'll Never Be a Writer."

"You'll Never Be a Writer" is different story because, first, it has nothing to do with feelings you had when you were younger, which are perhaps something adult you might want to keep to yourself (nobody of my age need proudly share that classic tale "The Year I Memorized the Shape of Farrah Fawcett's Right Breast in a Red Swimsuit"), nor does the story "You'll Never Be a Writer" include a thinly veiled prediction/criticism of someone's poor social behavior

"You'll Never Be a Writer" is a sad story of crushed dreams and truncated aspirations. But it's also wrong. Sometimes it's just meant as conversational filler, so I would hate to be that guy and correct someone who's just trying to make pleasantries (on the other hand, I am an English teacher and it's possible that I take great joy in correcting others at inappropriate moments). But here's the basic drift of what I have to say about this.

Now, YNBAW is sometimes a pronouncement on economic realties. "Writing," folks say,  "is not a real with which you can support a single grown human, let alone a whole family of them." I always assumed that I would write when I grew up, and I always assumed that I would never make enough to support myself, which was fine because I wanted to teach. I didn't care that I would never make serious money (anyone who wants to prove me wrong by giving me a lucrative book deal or syndication gig is welcome to contact me here). "Writing's very nice and all, " many a student and parent have said to me, "but you can't really make a living at it, can you?"

Well, yes and no. Writing the Great American Novel is not terribly lucrative, and creating the next Highly Profitable Property doesn't necessarily require great writing chops (looking at you, Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown).

But if your goal is not to become a rich and famous fiction writer, other writing jobs exist. Virtually every specialized field in the world is primarily populated by people who know the field, but cannot communicate effectively about it. I have former students who became technical writers, nature writers, and sports writers. Being able to write is important to the writing life, but having a topic that you are knowledgeable and passionate about-- that's huge, too. When a student says, "Well, I'd really like to be a writer, but I really want to work in the widget industry, too," that student's solution is right in front of her.

"You'll Never Be a Writer" is wrong for other reasons as well, the most notable of which is that we are living in a text-based world. Thanks to the internet, we communicate more than ever via the written (typed) word. In both our work and personal worlds, it's now hugely important to be able to say just what you mean, and equally important to be able to read hat others write critically and carefully.

In the years ahead, you will write reports for your job. You will communicate with friends and family via text. You may very well court and couple with the use of text. If you enter politics, you will have to explain yourself through text. If you are an activist for a cause, some of your communication will be through text. Whatever it is you want to say, and whatever audience you want to say it to, you are likely to write it.

It may not bring fortune or fame. But it remains the best ways to communicate and store ideas and feelings across space and time. Much of human history has been spent searching for ways to record, transmit and store our various languages; digitizing it represents a new step forward in that process, meaning that the composing and arranging of that language has become even more important.

Regardless of what someone told you in some misguided attempt to crush your dreams or slap you upside the head with a cold, fishy slab or reality, they were wrong. Good or bad, inspired or flat, enthusiastic or grudging, because you are alive today, you are a writer. You will always be a  writer. Make the best of it you can, because you will always be a writer. Search for your voice and find your way, because like it or not-

You will always be a writer.

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Posted by on in Education Technology

Facebook absolutely insists on showing me "top stories." Every time I open the Facebook page, I have to manually switch back to "most recent," because even though the Facebook Artificial Smartitude Software thinks it knows what I most want to see, it can't figure out that I want to see the "most recent" feed. Mostly because the Facebook software is consistently wrong about what I will consider Top News.

Meanwhile, my Outlook mail software has decided that I should now have the option of Focused, an email listing that lists my emails according to... well, that's not clear, but it seems to think it is "helping" me. It is not. The Artificial Smartitude Software seems to work roughly as well as rolling dice to decide the ranking of each e-mail. This is not helpful.

I pay attention to these sorts of features because we can't afford to ignore new advances in artificial intelligence, because a whole lot of people think that AI is the future of education, that computerized artificial intelligence will do a super-duper job directing the education of tiny humans, eclipsing the lame performance of old-school meat-based biological intelligence.

Take, for instance, this recent profile in Smithsonian, which is basically a puff piece to promote a meat-based biological intelligence unit named Joseph Qualls. Now-Dr Qualls (because getting meat-based biological intelligence degrees is apparently not a waste of time just yet) started his AI business back when he was a lonely BS just out of college, and he has grown the business into.... well, I'm not sure, but apparently he used AI to help train soldiers in Afghanistan among other things.

To his credit, Qualls in his interview correctly notes one of the hugest issues of AI in education or anywhere else-- What if the AI's wrong? Yes, that's a big question. It's a "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln" question. It's such a big question that Quall notes that much AI research is not driven by academics, but by lawyers who want to know how the decisions are made so they can avoid lawsuits. So, hey, it's super-encouraging to know that lawyers are so involved in developing AI. Yikes.

Still, Qualls sees this rather huge question as just a bump in the road, particularly for education.

With education, what’s going to happen, you’re still going to have monitoring. You’re going to have teachers who will be monitoring data. They’ll become more data scientists who understand the AI and can evaluate the data about how students are learning.

You’re going to need someone who’s an expert watching the data and watching the student. There will need to be a human in the loop for some time, maybe for at least 20 years. But I could be completely wrong. Technology moves so fast these days.

So neither the sage on the stage or the guide on the side, but more of a stalker in the closet, watching the data run across the screen while also keeping an eye on the students, and checking everyone's work in the process. But only for the next couple of decades or so; after that, we'll be able to get the meat widgets completely out of education. College freshmen take note-- it's not too late to change your major to something other than education.

Where Qualls' confidence comes form is unsure, since a few paragraphs earlier, he said this:

One of the great engineering challenges now is reverse engineering the human brain. You get in and then you see just how complex the brain is. As engineers, when we look at the mechanics of it, we start to realize that there is no AI system that even comes close to the human brain and what it can do.

We’re looking at the human brain and asking why humans make the decisions they do to see if that can help us understand why AI makes a decision based on a probability matrix. And we’re still no closer.

I took my first computer programming course in 1978; our professor was exceedingly clear on one point-- computers are stupid. They are fast, and they are tireless, and if you tell them to do something stupid or wrong, they will do it swiftly and relentlessly, but they will not correct for your stupid mistake. They do not think; they only do what they're told, as long as you can translate what you want into a series of things they can do.

Much of what is pitched as AI is really the same old kind of stupid, but AI does not simply mean "anything done by a computer program." When a personalized learning advocate pitches an AI-driven program, they're just pitching a huge (or not so huge) library of exercises curated by a piece of software with a complex (or not so complex) set of rules for sequencing those exercises. There is nothing intelligent about it-- it is just as stupid as stupid can be but, but implemented by a stupid machine that is swift and relentless. But that software-driven machine is the opposite of intelligence. It is the bureaucratic clerk who insists that you can't have the material signed out because you left one line on the 188R-23/Q form unfilled.

There are huge issues in directing the education of a tiny human; that is why, historically, we have been careful about who gets to do it. And the issues are not just those of intelligence, but of morals and ethics as well.

We can see these issues being played out on other AI fronts. One of the huge hurdles of self-driven cars are moral questions-- sooner or later a self-driven car is going to have to decide who lives and who dies. And as an AP story noted just last week, self-driven car software also struggles with how to interact with meat-based biological intelligence units. The car software wants a set of rules to follow all the time, every time, but meat units have their own sets of exceptions and rules for special occasions etc etc etc. But to understand and measure and deal and employ all those "rules," one has to have actual intelligence, not simply a slavish, tireless devotion to whatever rules someone programmed into you. And that remains a huge challenge for Artificial So-called-intelligence. Here are two quotes from the AP story:

"There's an endless list of these cases where we as humans know the context, we know when to bend the rules and when to break the rules," says Raj Rajkumar, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who leads the school's autonomous car research.

"Driverless cars are very rule-based, and they don't understand social graces," says Missy Cummings, director of Duke University's Humans and Autonomy Lab.

In other words, computers are stupid.

It makes sense that Personalized Learning mavens would champion the Artificial Stupidity approach to education, because what they call education is really training, and training of the simplest kind, in which a complicated task is broken down into a series of simper tasks and then executed in order without any attention to what sort of whole they add up to. Software-directed education is simply that exact same principle applied to the "task" of teaching. And like the self-driven car fans who talk about how we need to change the roads and the markings and the other cars on the highways so that the self-driven car can work, software-driven education ends up being a "This will work well if you change the task to what we can do instead of what you want to do." You may think you can't build a house with this stapler-- but what if you built the house out of paper! Huh?! Don't tell me you're so stuck in a rut with the status quo that you can't see how awesome it would be!

So, they don't really understand learning. they don't really understand teaching, and they don't really understand what computers can and cannot do-- outside of that, AI-directed Personalized Learning Fans are totally on to something.

And still, nobody is answering the question-- what if the AI is wrong?

What if, as Qualls posits, an AI decides that this budding artist is really supposed to be a math whiz? What if the AI completely mistakes what this tiny human is interested in or motivated by? What if the AI doesn't understand enough about the tiny human's emotional state and psychological well-being to avoid assigning tasks that are damaging? What if the AI encounters a child who is a smarter and more divergent thinker than the meat widget who wrote the software in the first place? What id we decide that we want education to involve deeper understanding and more complicated tasks, but we're stuck with AI that is unable to assess or respond intelligently to any sort of written expression (because, despite corporate assurances to the contrary, the industry has not produced essay-assessment software that is worth a dime, because assessing writing is hard, and computers are stupid)?

And what if it turns out (and how else could it turn out) that the AI is unable to establish the kind of personal relationship with a student that is central to education, particularly the education of tiny humans?

And what, as is no doubt the case with my Top Stories on Facebook, the AI is also tasked with following someone else's agenda, like an advertiser's or even political leader's?

All around us there are examples, demonstrations from the internet to the interstate of how hugely AI is not up to the task. True-believing technocrats keep insisting that any day now we will have the software that can accomplish all these magical things, and yet here I sit, still rebooting some piece of equipment in my house on an almost-daily basis because my computer and my router and my isp and various other devices are all too stupid to talk to each other consistently. My students don't know programming or intricacies of certain software that they use, but they all know that Step #1 with a computer problem is to reboot your device because that is the one computer activity that they all practice on a very regular basis.

Maybe someday actual AI will be a Thing, and then we can have a whole other conversation about what the virtues of replacing meat-based biological intelligence with machine-based intelligence may or may not be. But we are almost there in the sense that the moon landings put us one step closer to visiting Alpha Centauri. In the meantime, beware of vendors bearing AI, because what they are selling is a stupid, swift, relentless worker who is really not up to the task.

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Posted by on in School Culture

In my capacity as Head Stage Manager Guy at my school, I have spent my day on duty for a concert sponsored by a local church. It makes for a long day, but the crowd is always pleasant and the featured band this year is one my kids used to listen to growing up (Audio Adrenaline, for you people both of faith and also of a certain age, though like most decades-old bands, they are now essentially a ghost band made of all-replaced parts).

At any rate, during set-up this afternoon, I ran into a former student I haven't seen in years. I'm going to call him Bob.

I had Bob as a freshman and as a junior. Bob had some real strengths as a reader and a writer, but a low level of achievement. Some days he was a real pleasure to have around-- outgoing and genial. Other days he arrived at school with a great deal anger stuffed inside. He could be that kid who tries to teach you a lesson by figuratively punching himself in the face over and over. And he would periodically disappear for many days at a time. Big on drama, low on responsibility. Occasionally really cruel and thoughtless, but with occasional flashes of real kindness and decency. Still, most days he flopped into his seat like a lanky pile of loosely associated parts, smiling at things like the sheer hilarity of me asking him to try at whatever we were doing.

As a freshman, Bob was an "at-risk" student with no real support system at home (what at my school we sometimes call "better off raised by wolves") and group of friends who shared an interest in better living through pharmaceuticals. As a junior, he was circling the drain, hard to reach and with no effs left to give. Before the end of the year, he dropped out.

That was a few years ago. Today, he approached me and stuck out his hand to say hi. I asked him how he was doing, what he was up to. In the intervening years, he has earned a GED and gone to tech school to become certified as a welder. Now he is considering leaving the area for work or joining the armed services. He says if he does that he'll use the time to leave the area and get a good start elsewhere he comes. "I've seen too many guys come back here and screw it all up," he says.

I've heard versions of this story a thousand thousand times; so has any teacher who's been at the work for more than five years. It is the umpty gazillionth piece of proof that just because a student doesn't march right through twelve years of school and get the good grades and ace the swell tests and show the correct behaviors-- it doesn't mean that young human is doomed.

You know all the stories. Kid takes six years to finish high school and one day a light bulb goes on and she says, "I'm going to make my life different than this." Or the other stories. Honor student blows up his marriage ten years later by getting caught in a motel room trading sex for drugs with a minor. And THEN gets his act together and gets into a healthy marriage with beautiful children. My director of special ed tells the story of a student with special needs who could barely pass, well, anything, but declared her intention to become a nurse and all her special ed teachers tried to gently steer her away from it and now, today, she is a By God Nurse. My director of special ed tells that story and says, "Now I never say 'never'."

These are the stories I think of when some government bureaucrat announces that we should be able to look at a child and declare definitively whether that child is on the correct direct path to College and Career Readyville. Are you nuts? Have you met some actual humans? For anyone to look at a young human and declare, "I know what path you are on " is just nuts. For many, if not most, we reach our destination in our own way, in our own time. Insisting that everyone should reach the same place on the same path in the same way is just... well, dumb.

If you had asked me years ago if I would bet on Bob, I would have balked. He had tools, but not many, and he seemed determined to trash them. And yet there he was, standing before me like a grown-ass man with his act pretty much together, confident and determined.

To imagine that we can see to the very core of another person is startling hubris. To declare that someone is certainly doomed, that their problems are inescapable solid-state fundamentals of who they are, or that we can prescribe for them what they need or have or lack-- that's just a failure to understand what it means to be human.

I've seen the same line on several t-shirts tonight. It seems like an appropriate to this string of thoughts, even with the folksy non-standard English:

Lift your head. It ain't over yet.

To give a student a test, or to sum up their status in school, to tell them, in effect, just put your head down, because it's over for you-- I can't think of a greater crime to commit against the young humans in our charge. Ignore the test. Skip the test. Forget the pronouncements about college and career readiness.

Lift your head.

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Posted by on in Leadership

Many of us spend huge amounts of time discussing and debating education policy. But where the synthetic rubber meets the recycled asphalt, policy is not the most important thing. In every school, in every district, what really matters is the character of the leadership.

In the same way that workers do not quit workplaces so much as they quit a boss, teachers are influenced by the administrators in their building. District administrators are influential primarily in how they affect building administrators. Policy decisions on the state and federal level are most influential to the extent that they influence the behavior of actual educators in actual leadership positions.

Put another way, a sudden implementation of actual good education policies by state and federal governments (boy, what a dream that is) would not suddenly transform a bad building principal who makes staff miserable into a great principal with a happy staff.

In fact, a good principal, given the chance by her superintendent, can seriously blunt the impact of bad policy choices. In Florida, a state that is a champion producer of bad education policy, there are schools where principals actually find reasonable, humane, decent solutions to problems created by stupid policies.

A good manager in any business or institution really has just one job-- to create conditions in which her people can do their best work. If it's raining, a good manager is out there holding an umbrella over the front-line worker; not yelling at that worker for being wet.

It's important to have an administrator who has classroom experience, who knows the regulations, who has a broad understanding of education, and all the other things search committees look for. But one of the most critical issues is character.

At this point in my career, I've worked for many administrators, and I don't remember the various policy decisions and implementations nearly as well as I remember whether they were decent people or not.

A principal might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, might not be on the cutting edge of education, might not even have a clear picture of what's going on in the classroom, but if she's a decent person who treats her teachers with respect, listens to what they have to say, and puts the needs of the students first, I can be happy working for her. Even if she wants to implement or support policies I disagree with, we can work things out. I can advocate for my students without having to watch my back. On the other hand, if she is mean, vindictive, selfish, distrustful, and spiteful, it doesn't matter what policies she supports-- every day is going to be miserable, and I am going to use up a chunk of my energy just deciding which battles to fight and how to fight them and what to do when I lose.

Of course a leader-staff relationship is a two-way street, and teachers can make things better or worse by their own choices. But administrators decide what rules we'll play by and will ultimately decide whether to share power or grab onto it with both hands. Administrators have a huge hand in setting the tone, in creating an atmosphere for their schools.

I write all this to remind myself-- I read and read about schools where things really stink, and often the administration is an invisible hand in that picture-- because I'm privileged to work for a principal who's a decent guy, and while he's not perfect and we don't always agree and I've worked for some pretty not-good examples of the breed in my career, it is easy to forget just how grindingly rough it is to work in some school buildings in this country. It's easy to forget how hard it is to work for a powerful jerk every day when you aren't living it.

Bad policy certainly arms and enables bad administrators, but one of the great undiscussed questions of both ed reform and resistance to it is the question of how to get good people in those front offices. Certainly some reformsters have some cool ideas about how to make a buck putting any warm body in there, as long as it shares their same bad values (looking at you, Relay GSE and Broad Academy), but all of us need to remember that without a decent person in the administrator's seat, it's really hard to drive the education bus anywhere productive and useful. And while we're talking about all the big picture issues, all across this country there are schools whose Number One issue is that they've got a dysfunctional jerk behind the steering wheel.

Can this be addressed on the policy level? Sure-- some. Being a principal and superintendent kind of stinks these days, in that you have all the responsibility for everything short of the weather, and very little power to control any of the outcomes you're responsible for. We talk about the teacher shortage, but mostly smart and capable people in education know better than to get into administration, and so a vast pool of people who could be good at it avoid it like the plague because what ethical decent educator wants to be responsible for implementing state and federal mandated malpractice? So we end up with a handful of good, decent folks, some others who figured they'd like a raise, another handful who just don't understand what the job is, and a bunch of peripatetic egos wandering the country collecting big bucks before they end their three-year local dance.

In the meantime, it takes local action to find local solutions for the problems of bad administrators. It is perhaps a conversation that more people should get involved in.

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