“His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem…Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.” ~ Luke 2:41-47
The presentations at the Education Innovation Summit left me with little hope about the future. Our panel discussion that followed, however, did provide a glimmer of opportunity.
At the very least, it created a buzz similar to the boy Jesus at the temple (again, forgive the Biblical references…I’m on a roll).
The panel discussion that followed the presentations would be in the Palo Verde Room, a space slightly smaller than my classroom with lower ceilings and worse light. Even worse, the chairs were arranged in the typical convention manner: rows of tightly-packed catering seats facing a speaker of nominal importance.
To make it a true discussion, the seats were arranged in concentric circles, with my colleagues and I occupying most of the center and the conventioneers taking up space in the periphery. Even as the minutes started to tick toward our start time, I–and most of us, for that matter–weren’t even sure if we could fill the room.
To everyone’s surprise, the room filled rather quickly. Seat after seat was occupied, leaving many of the attendees to huddle around the perimeter wall. Within minutes of the presentation’s beginning, the crowd was so large outside the room that a microphone was needed to broadcast what we were saying.
Believe me, we said a mouthful.
The panel was moderated by Michael Horn, founder of the Innosight Institute and an author on digital learning. It featured the LearnZillion teachers answering questions about education technology, the new start-ups we saw, and the road ahead for education. Horn is best known for his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the way the World Learns, so his role seemed very apropos to manage a group of educators not happy with things as they are.
I’m not going to critique the comments from my colleagues; it would be unfair, and their thoughts were as varied and as valuable as the people themselves. One (my friend who loved Bloomboard) who’s very tech-savvy and extremely enthusiastic, hit on the need for a more harmonious development of ed-tech products, using tech buzzwords like “convergence” and whatnot. Another brought home the need for a more active role for teachers in the product development process—a tenet LearnZillion stakes its reputation on. Others stressed the need for more content instruction (science and social studies), less reliance on numerical data, standardized testing, and the need to reach all learners.
I was one of a handful of teachers that spoke multiple times—and among the most biting and vicious, at least in my opinion. Here’s some highlights of what I said:
The “Kid-Friendly” problem – This was really pointed both at ed-tech developers and some of my colleagues who raved about certain programs that provide “kid-friendly” graphics and animation to assist in learning. Now, most readers of this blog know my thoughts on terms like “kid-friendly” (hint: it has to do with waste products). It’s a buzzword that too often is used to dumb content down. Furthermore, it misreads the student population: my kids have grown past most “kid-friendly” content and want real, rigorous, often controversial material to read and analyze. Developers should not be afraid to let children explore the world in a real, meaningful, grown-up way—they’re more ready than you think.
The “Teaching Experience” problem – In an effort to achieve much-needed credibility from both investors and the education community, many of the ed-tech companies tout their collective experience in education. Their PowerPoint slides show various numbers of years experience on the team “20+ years K-12 experience,” “Over a decade of experience.” What that actually means is a mystery, and I made it abundantly clear to them: “We’re not fooled…when your pitch says ’20 years experience’, that could mean one teacher with 20 years experience or 10 TFA nitwits with 2 years in who all jumped into the corporate sector. Not all experience is the same.”
The Content Knowledge problem – Here I’m harping the Core Knowledge line, but it’s a good one nonetheless: the achievement gap goes hand in hand with the knowledge gap. Without content knowledge, students cannot translate their newfound language and math skills into results. The new Common Core based tests are heavy in content, so for those of you who pushed aside science and social studies all these years in order to put in more ELA and math time: who’s sorry now?
Even if the content is difficult (and it usually is, in my class anyway), the key to reaching all students is not changing the content, but the approach to the content. Break up large documents into smaller texts. Differentiate activities on a text based on ability and readiness. Don’t dumb down history and science: make history and science accessible to all your students.
The Teacher Involvement problem – I didn’t introduce this topic, but I did add to my colleague’s discussion of teacher involvement. Too many products in the education universe have little if no input from teachers in their design and implementation. It still amazes me that an education technology conference like that one never involved teachers at all until now. Shouldn’t an end user play a meaningful role in product development, as they are the ones that need to use it for their students?
This is the reason I pinned my star on LearnZillion. If Eric and Alix (the co-founders) simply cranked out video lessons and sold them to school districts to be shoved down teachers’ throats, I wouldn’t have given them a minute of my time. Yet they didn’t, to their infinite credit. Their model is, admittingly, more complex, more labor intensive and I would guess more costly. Yet hiring real veteran teachers as product developers makes sense in ed-tech: end users as developers virtually guarantee a product that is professional, high-quality, necessary and useful. If other companies really care about their products’ effects on education, then their development requires at least a partial bottom-up approach. Teachers have to be part of the development process, period.
One audience member asked what they can do to help define the Common Core. I answered that she was asking the wrong question. The real question is “How can we turn your ideas about the Common Core into tangible products for the classroom?”
The Teacher Evaluation/Data Collection problem—I really hope Bloomboard boy was in the audience to hear this…I saved my most venomous comments for this part. Someone had mentioned a trend in the corporate pitches towards different products for data collection. It was as a follow-up that I shared my thoughts on the Bloomboard presentation with the audience and thus my central point: if these collection and evaluation systems are meant to provide meaningful feedback to teachers, then the systems must be more than a dump of numbers. A number in a category on a spreadsheet like a box score does not define my practice. Observational, qualitative feedback does. Data-based systems simply give administrators a number to (a) give to higher administrators, and (b) fire “bad” teachers. Any ambulance-chaser of a lawyer can fight these evaluations easily.
On this not, one particular colleague of mine said the quote of the conference, and I want to honor him personally. Cory Howard is a math teacher from Indiana who seems, at first, like a typical shit-kicking hick. He fools a lot of folks with that drawl.
He’s far from a typical country boy: getting to know Cory, he’s among the most honest, down-to-Earth, and among the most prescient thinkers I’ve ever met. When asked about evaluations and the use of data, he brought the house down with the following (and I’m paraphrasing):
“You can measure a pig all you want…but it won’t make it grow any faster.”
Apparently, our panel was the hit of the conference that day. Twitter feeds were ablaze as the crowd outside our room grew and grew. Horn mentioned to me that it was the easiest moderating job of all, simply passing a mike to each of us who had loads to say. The room didn’t empty right away as audience members lingered to speak with us.
This was a good sign…or a bad sign.
Now that I’m in my classroom, reflecting on the weekend, I take stock in that the discussions and feedback we gave could be a huge step in changing the way education technology is created. If the moneyfolks and the entrepreneurs really took our advice seriously, it could create a shift in process and focus that could finally combat the glut of inferior education products that serve little purpose to classrooms and students.
On the other hand, they could be simply paying us lip service and continuing with business as usual once we left. After all, despite all the posturing and proclamations of doing it “for the children,” it’s doubtful that a class of struggling students in the South Bronx is getting a profit share in the IPO. No student in Harlem, Detroit, south side of Chicago, southeast DC or south-central Los Angeles is securing seed money for expansion of these folks.
This is, after all, about making a buck.
My only worry is that the chase for the almighty dollar overshadows the need to educate our children.