Yikes and ‘Aww’ at Education Nation

I just returned from an exciting couple of days at Education Nation, a “summit” put on by NBC News in New York. All the great and good were there: President Obama (by tape), Mitt Romney (in person), Colin Powell, Arne Duncan, Margaret Spellings, Jeb Bush, Chelsea Clinton, Randi Weingarten, Michelle Rhee, and many more.

The most heartening aspect of Education Nation was that it focused on what works, and what can be brought to scale. In the general media, if education gets reported at all, there are just two kinds of stories: Heartwarming local stories (Aww. . .) and large-scale disaster and political wrangling (Yikes!). Much of Education Nation followed this pattern, with speaker after speaker sharing dismal international comparisons or evoking the Chicago teacher’s strike (Yikes!) followed by examples of plucky schools beating the odds (Aww…). What was different, however, is that from time to time speakers tried to connect solving the Yikes! problems to evaluating and scaling up Aww… solutions. President Obama talked about scaling up proven programs, as did Arne Duncan. District of Columbia Superintendent Kaya Henderson and Intel CEO Craig Barrett, judges on a panel evaluating promising technology start-ups, spoke about the importance of evidence and plans for scale-up. Barrett said something like, “We know what to do. We just don’t know how to bring what works to scale.”

Education Nation was still mostly Yikes! And Aww…, but the theme of scaling up proven programs at least got a little air time. Perhaps this could start to engage a broader audience in rethinking how to transform our schools, building from success to success using evidence-proven methods rather than ripping everything up every four or eight years to implement more untested national solutions.

Can we find out which of the Aww… solutions really work and can go to scale? Yes we can. And the results would be Awwwesome.

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Broader Evidence for Bigger Impact?

Harvard’s Lisbeth Schorr is one of America’s most thoughtful observers of social innovations. In a recent article she discusses her concerns about the growing focus in government on programs with evidence from randomized experiments. She’s glad to see the rise of experimentation to evaluate well-defined interventions with clear theories of action, but worries that a focus on experimentally proven programs will overly limit reformers to approaches that lend themselves to experiments.

Most of Schorr’s concerns are valid; there are indeed some kinds of programs that appear to be effective but are just too complex or localized to be readily evaluated in randomized experiments. She gives the Harlem Children’s Zone as an example. Yet I would also argue that she is worrying far too soon.

The evidence-based revolution that I write about in this blog is far from dominant in education or any other area of children’s services. In fact, it’s hardly gotten started. In education, the only serious investment in evidence-base reform is Investing in Innovation (i3), which is building up the capacity and evidence base of proven and promising practices but does not require or even provide incentives for schools to use proven programs. Quite to the contrary, the really big federal programs, such as Title I, School Improvement Grants (SIG), and Race to the Top, do not contain any encouragement, much less mandate, for schools to use proven programs. With the possible exception of programs resembling Nurse-Family Partnerships, programs for children outside of PK-16 education are also just dipping a toe in the evidence pool, at best.

While Schorr is correct in saying that not everything lends itself to experiments, there is far more that does. Examples would include instructional reforms in every subject and at all grade levels, dropout prevention, programs to prevent the need for special education, programs for English language learners, whole-school reform, and more. No one is arguing that schools should be required to use proven programs; they are arguing that there should be incentives for schools to use programs proven to be effective.

Just as Schorr says, we need to find an appropriate place for programs that cannot readily be evaluated in randomized experiments. But excessive concern for overdoing experimental evaluations has held back progress for decades. I hope we can embrace the exceptions without undoing the promising but still fragile progress that has been made in evidence-based reform in recent years.

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The Future of Instruction II: Technology and the Engaged Classroom

Last week, I wrote about how the future of instruction needs to rely on both non-technology and technology-based innovations. It may sound like a hedge, but trust me that I am excited about the promise technology has to offer! In work we’re doing in England and the U.S., we’re using interactive whiteboards to help teachers manage complex instruction using many teaching resources. Whiteboards are not particularly interesting technology in themselves; they merely make it possible for all students in a class to see anything that can be put on a computer screen.

However, if set up to do so, interactive whiteboards can help teachers orchestrate lessons. Prepared lesson resources for teachers can, for example, provide brief video segments at a point in the lesson where visualization is needed. They can present problems or exercises for students to do on their own or in cooperative groups. With currently available electronic learner response devices, they can help teachers obtain immediate, timely, formative feedback on students’ understandings of the lesson, so that they can respond right away. Whiteboards or separate student-level devices can assess student understanding of summative lesson objectives, and provide instant summaries and diagnostic information. Rich, exciting, and research-proven lessons can be provided for each lesson, and teachers can be given access to additional electronic resources and tools to adapt or extend the prepared lessons to meet their particular needs.

Interactive whiteboards and other whole-class technologies can give teachers and students cues and modeling to use particular non-technology strategies. For example, a prepared lesson can note that it’s now time for students to get into their teams to help one another solve a difficult problem or carry out a laboratory exercise. It can show videos to model to students what they’re expected to do, or to tease or inspire them to want to learn the content. The prepared lesson on the whiteboard can provide outlines, concept diagrams, still pictures, graphs, charts, and other content to help teachers teach effective lessons.

Each element of the lesson can be carefully designed, evaluated, and improved over time. Imagine appealing, humorous puppets or actors modeling effective behaviors for cooperative learning, problem solving, laboratory work, or creative writing. Imagine state-of-the-art computer-adaptive assessments embedded in day-to-day lessons. Then imagine all of this getting progressively better and better over time, as technology innovations invariably develop. Teachers could be encouraged to submit improvements or alternatives they design to enhance given lessons. Could complex, technology-enriched cooperative lessons of this kind make kids go rabid for reading? Gaga for grammar? Ape for algebra? Coo-coo for chemistry? Passionate for poetry? Fou for francais? Of course they could.

It’s daunting to imagine all the development needed to cover all subjects and all grade levels. But ask yourself whether America’s best developers of educational, technology, and entertainment content, working closely with outstanding teachers, could combine available or incipient technologies to create the world’s best approach to teaching fractions, or correct use of commas, or science inquiry. If they could, and who could doubt it, then the rest is just a long but entirely possible process of invention, testing, and progressive improvement.

The nation that won the space race can win the education race, too, using exactly the same R&D processes. All we have to do is set the goal, engage the right creative people, and set a process in motion that would utterly transform school where it counts-in the classroom.

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The Future of Instruction I: Teachers and Technology

Think about the best teacher, the best class, the best learning experience you ever had. In that class, you were engaged. You were challenged. You were excited. You had new insights, and left the class a different person, confident in your new knowledge and skill, but even more, confident in yourself as a learner.

In educational innovation, all we have to do is to make every hour of every educational day as good as that best learning day of your life. How hard could that be?

The path to creating outstanding lessons every hour in every subject is being made a lot easier by new technologies, but it’s not the technologies you’re probably thinking about. Research on computer-assisted instruction (CAI), where students are assessed, placed at the appropriate level, given on-line lessons, and assessed on key outcomes, is not showing much of an impact on learning in math or reading.

While CAI will surely continue to play a role, I believe that real breakthroughs in teaching methods will come from classroom (as opposed to individualized) technologies that help teachers orchestrate diverse technological as well as non-technological resources.

The problem in designing effective and replicable teaching methods is that different approaches are likely to be effective for different objectives and for different parts of the lesson itself. For example, well-designed video may be ideal for presenting new content where visual input is essential, but not for practice, mastery, or assessment. Cooperative learning (non-technology) may be ideal for practice and mastery, but not for introducing new concepts to students. Teachers may be optimal at explaining ideas to students and adapting to the learning needs of a particular class, and they can be good at motivating and personally engaging students, but technology can help them give students a visual image of concepts, and can help with assessment and individualization. Computers may be ideal for assessment and for differentiation (e.g., allowing high achievers to go on to “challenge” content), and they can offer exciting games and simulations, but are not yet very good at teaching new material.

In theory, every lesson might contain some appropriate mix of all of these technology and non-technology resources, but an unaided teacher would have difficulty organizing all of this and adapting it in light of children’s responses on the fly. The future of instruction may be in exciting new technologies, but those technologies alone will not transform the classroom–we will always need an equal focus on new tools AND effective human methods paired with effective professional development.

Next week, tune in for more thoughts on the promise of technology and teachers working together.