Category Archives: technology

We’re the Grown-ups, and We’re in Charge*

In the interest of closing out a few more open tabs in a hurry, we’re going to take a quick look at behavior and school culture. As Tom Bennett says (this time in his book The Behaviour Guru: Behaviour Management Solutions for Teachers p. 72):

If the class can’t behave, then they can’t learn, and that is our first priority and duty to them.

The Behaviour Guru is a fun read, but Bennett has recently authored an independent report aimed at school leaders (rather than classroom teachers, who can only do so much–no matter how talented–without administrative support): Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour.

Here’s Bennett talking about his report in his article ‘Developing a school-wide culture of good behaviour is way too important to trust to luck’:

I didn’t just want to see schools where behaviour was gorgeous because the intake was statistically advantaged; I wanted to see schools where the intake suggested higher-than-average rates of poverty, challenge and difficulty, but that had still thrived. I wanted to see schools that had turned behaviour around in a few years. I wanted to see schools where great results and behaviour had been maintained over long periods, rather than bought in a gulp of unsustainable exertion or administrative legerdemain. I wanted to see primary. I wanted to see secondary. I wanted coastal, inner city, rural, remote, alternative provision. And I got it.

And what I saw gave me more hope than I think I’ve had in years, for what we have in education, and what we can achieve. Because everywhere I went, for every school under siege, I found a school where law, kindness and industry were the norm; for every Ofsted-chasing bureaucracy digging itself deeper into a slough of workload despair, I saw a beautiful engine of people where everyone was valued, and ambition, compassion and cooperation were the call to prayer.

It was clear to me that how these schools were run was crucial to their success; their cultures didn’t happen spontaneously. Someone – or a group of someones – made them happen. And while cultures are made of their participants, how they are led and what levers are applied to them, are desperately important. The culture of a school – or “how we do things around here, and the assumptions we have the underpin that” in short form- became my obsession. How did it happen?

Leadership was key. That was what they all had in common.

I’m not in schools often enough to speak to the quality of school culture, but cell phone policies are one issue that I am aware that secondary principals and central administrators are still working on. Here is a discussion of cell phone policies from the February 14 board work session:

For what it is worth, here are Bennett’s findings on technology, starting on page 50 of the behavior report:

All the schools visited had precise and fairly restrictive codes of practice relating to student use of personal technology, such as, tablets and smartphones. All had a minimum default of ‘no visibility’ for smartphones and only permitted their usage in closely prescribed circumstances. While some teachers found utility in their integration, this was only in classrooms where high levels of self-regulation and restraint were already evident. Most teachers and school leaders interviewed believed that the possibility of distraction outweighed the possible benefits, and many expressed that their usage was largely unnecessary.

This is supported by 2015 research from the London School of Economics[17], which found that after schools banned unrestricted access mobile phones, the test scores of students aged 16 improved on average by 6.4%, and time lost in classes that permitted free access to smartphones was equivalent to around five days of schooling per year.

Smartphones should only be used in circumstances where the teacher has clearly defined a specific learning need they can satisfy. Many students find them irresistibly distracting, and this has a damaging effect on their focus and learning. While some students can reliably avoid using them irresponsibly, unless all students are equally mature then some students will suffer from their availability. Research has shown that this group is predominantly composed of the least able and furthest behind.

School leaders should decide for themselves where the line lies, but should be cautious about the dangers as well as any perceived opportunities, weighing up the benefits and costs.

Added: another school’s take on cell phone policies: Kindness – Why phones don’t work, and why disruption-free classrooms do. And that’s one more tab closed. 🙂

*This post title is a borrowed from p. 61 of The Behaviour Guru. Original quote is “You’re the grown-up, and you’re in charge.”

“We’re Not Entertainers, and This Isn’t a Bouncy Castle”*

I have sometimes heard that curriculum and instruction should be left to the professionals, sometimes as a reason school boards should stick to setting student achievement targets and leaving how to get there to the superintendent. So,  a few thoughts.

To talk about curriculum and instruction is to talk about the purpose of our schools, about our educational values. The curriculum and instruction offered by public schools–publicly funded and publicly governed through an elected school board–is, inescapably, a matter of public concern.

You wouldn’t know it from the lack of debate in our community, but there are public debates about curriculum and instruction going on in many other communities. The math wars, phonics versus balanced literacy, 21st century skills versus knowledge, and so on. It isn’t impossibly hard to get up to speed on these debates. Bennett’s Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What It Claims, and What You Can Do About It and Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education are particularly good places to start, as they both speak directly to the evidence basis of some current educational practices and guiding ideas, which matters as we aim for evidence-based universal instruction.

Christodoulou’s book is really focused on the importance of knowledge and evidence that facts and subject content knowledge are not in opposition to, but in fact support conceptual understanding, critical thinking, creativity, or whatever supposed “higher-order” thinking skill one prefers to facts. Christodoulou organizes her chapters into evidence establishing the myth is influencing practice and then examines modern research or evidence that demonstrates why the myth is a myth.

In Part I of his book, Bennett provides an overview of the difficulties of social science and educational science research and translating that research into practice. In Part II of his book, Bennett examines the research or evidence basis of currently or recently popular educational practices and ideas.

Spoiler alert: There isn’t much, if any, evidence supporting the educational practices and ideas discussed in these two books, as you might guess from the use of the word myth in Christodoulou’s title or if you knew that Part II of Bennett’s book is titled “Voodoo teaching.” There is far too much good material in these books for me to tackle in a blogpost or two, so instead of trying to summarize all of the arguments, research, and evidence presented in these books, I want to try to collect some links here to demonstrate that some of the educational practices and ideas described in these books are alive and well in Iowa. [Note: I’ve read both these books on a Kindle reader with no page numbers, so I’ll be making references to chapters.]

Christodoulou’s Myth 1: Facts prevent understanding [Chapter 1]. Christodoulou presents evidence of facts and content knowledge being stripped out of standards, with a focus on skills or understanding, as if we could have those without facts and content knowledge (we can’t).

This is a problem in Iowa, too, starting at the top with the Department of Education (DE). See for example, the proposed draft social studies standards, focused on “civic competence” as understanding and skills–light on content, but kids, starting in Kindergarten, are going to get a lot of practice writing letters to the editor. Here are two statements from the DE website subtly disparaging acquisition of factual knowledge as “rote memorization”, the first one about social studies instruction,:

It goes without saying that Iowa’s History Teacher of the Year knows a thing or two about history. But he may know even more on how to make history come alive, engaging students to pursue a subject that in the past emphasized rote memorization of dates and places.

And a second one about science instruction:

The new science standards are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. They don’t put as much emphasis on content facts that teachers need to deliver to students in a classroom, but instead focus on what students should be able to do with the content they have learned.

The standards focus on student application of science content and skills versus the rote memorization of content facts. The standards are written to focus on teaching students how to be scientists and do science versus separating out the skills and content from the standards. By teaching students in a manner that makes them feel like a “real” scientist, we will be able to foster a sense of curiosity, increase creativity, boost confidence, and strengthen critical thinking skills.

Christodoulou’s Myth 2: Teacher-led instruction is passive [Chapter 2]If you are skeptical of the value of facts, you will probably also be skeptical of the value of the teacher-led instruction that effectively assists students to acquire factual and subject content knowledge in favor of teacher as facilitator, discovery or minimal guidance instruction. [See Nick Gibb: the evidence in favour of teacher-led instruction for a short run down of the evidence.]

You don’t have to look much further than our district’s motto (child-centered: future focused) for evidence that skepticism of teacher-led instruction is also an issue here. See also, for example, the district science curriculum review report that lists the following two points among the strengths of district science instructional methods:

  • Teachers are utilizing a student-centered, activity based approach to teaching science.
  • Students at all levels are involved in inquiry investigations and collaborate with their peers.

Christodoulou returns to this theme in chapter six, where she examines the myth that projects and activities are the best way to learn.

Christodoulou’s Myth 3: The 21st century fundamentally changes everything [Chapter 3]. It just doesn’t. If you are paying attention at all, it should be obvious that ideas about 21st century education are driving an awful lot of decision-making and spending in our “future focused” district right now, from 1:1 Chromebooks at the secondary level to serving as part of the FMP/GO bond sales pitch:

Christodoulou has some important commentary in this chapter that this idea about the 21st century being fundamentally different, and the actual technology difference, can be used to push content knowledge out of the curriculum, and thus deprive children of the opportunity to learn what they need to know to develop 21st century skills (which are actually not unique to the 21st century). However, here we’ll pop over to Bennett’s book, Teacher Proof, for some of his pull-no-punches words on 21st century skills and technology.

From chapter 9, titled “Buck Rogers and the twenty-first-century curriculum”, Bennett sums up the evidence for the 21st century skills movement as follows:

21st Century Skills: nice rhetoric, but empty of any evidence to back up its terrifying, prescient claims. Every time I hear a claim made by the movement about the absolute, vital, and over-reaching necessity that everyone, everywhere suddenly adopt these practices, I check out where they get their opinions from and find that, yes, they really are opinions. Opinions, based on opinions, based on opinions and we’re back to the turtles all the way down again. It seems a tremendously shaky platform, by which to base a transformation of the entire education sector. It seems a bad grounding by which schools are turned upside down, classrooms flipped and content stripped from the classroom. But there it is; it’s how it’s been justified, and it’s still happening. I kind of feel it’s my duty to point this out as often as possible because so much is happening so fast and on such little evidence; in fact, no evidence. It is, in the clearest possible way, a scandal.

There is loads more where that came from, but we’ll dash over to Bennett’s chapter 10 now, titled “Techno, techno, techno, TECHNO: Digital natives in flipped classrooms”, described by Bennett as “the Temple of Doom to 21st Century Skills’ Lost Ark.”

I think here we can remember that district administrators have already acknowledged that research does not support an expectation that student achievement will be increased by our technology programs. Here’s Bennett’s take on IT:

Use IT if it suits your style. Use it if it helps you. But don’t use it because you must, and certainly (if you have a budget for such things) don’t buy it because you don’t know what else to do. Good teaching relies on things that have been around for millennia: good subject knowledge; good classroom control; good communication skills; heart and guts. You don’t need anything else. Maybe a pen, if you’re feeling profligate. Everything else is chaff. Everything else obscures the teacher. I don’t need a damn thing other than my voice and a room full of kids. The rest is bull, dressed up as Buck Rogers.

I’m exhausted, and we haven’t reached Christodoulou’s chapter 6 on Myth 6: Projects and activities are the best way to learn (which calls into question the underlying premises of our statewide science and proposed draft social studies standards) or most of Bennett’s chapters on voodoo teaching that may or may not be relevant to us, including:

  • Multiple intelligences: if everyone’s smart, no one is (chapter 5)
  • Group work: failing better, together (chapter 7)
  • There are no such things as learning styles (chapter 12)
  • Game over: the gamification of education (chapter 13)
  • Learning to learn to learn to learn . . . . (chapter 14)

In any case, I haven’t really set out to have the debate about evidence for our curricular and instructional decisions, but encourage you to consider the possibility that this debate is needed. So, I’ll leave you with two more local examples.

Listen carefully to the GO bond presentation above and you’ll hear a reference to an action based learning classroom (right about 1:07:19) followed by an assertion that kids learn in different ways and a comment about brain research. Based on multiple payments made for purchases of materials and training (accounts payable 2/24/15, 3/24/15, and 6/23/15), I’m guessing that they are Action Based Learning classrooms. Here’s the compelling articles and research page, here’s a reference (book description) that the program is based on–wait for it–multiple intelligences and learning styles, and here’s a handout explaining Action Based Learning.

Check out this recent ICCSD Innovation & Technology Blog post, listing a benefit of technology program upgrades as being able to “facilitate promising new pedagogical approaches such as blended learning and personalized learning,  among myriad other benefits.” [Links within the quotes are from the original blog post.] The personalized learning link leads to an ISTE article with this assertion:

Personalized learning capitalizes on today’s students’ almost instinctual ability to use technology, but it is so much more than letting them use iPads, smartphones, whiteboards and other devices in the classroom. It is the purposeful design of instruction to combine face-to-face teaching, technology-assisted instruction and collaboration to leverage each student’s learning style and interests for deeper learning.

Digital natives and leveraging learning styles? Awesome. We really need to talk as a community, sooner rather than later.

*The title of this post is taken from Bennett’s Teacher Proof, chapter 7 on group work. The downside of having to pick a post title at the outset, is sometimes (more often than not?) a post can end up looking quite different than you anticipated when you set out to write it (weeks ago now). But I like it and I’m too tired to cast about for something better. So here’s the quote with more context:

There is nothing wrong with injecting a bit of fun into an activity by putting them in teams or getting them to cooperate with each other in a way that they find pleasant. As long as you remember that fun is an extrinsic aim of education, not an intrinsic one. We’re not entertainers, and this isn’t a bouncy castle, and I say that because I take their education seriously, and won’t waste a moment of their time when they could be learning.

Parenting Advice from the District

Here is some (unsolicited) parenting advice from the District as they move forward on plans for 1:1 devices in secondary schools:

Tip 2: Put away your screens

Attempt to make the time your teens are home screen-free. Tuck your phone into a kitchen drawer with the ringer off. Turn off the TV. Tuck your iPad and laptop away. Put them out-of-sight. Monitor your need to impulsively check in for work or social reasons. There’s 168 hours in a week. The reality is that you likely only get to spend 10 – 15 hours per week with your teen, if that. Save your screen time for when they are not around.

Cell Phones and School Locker Rooms

Concerns about cell phones and locker rooms came up at a parent meeting at the beginning of the school year. Student handbooks for City HS (p. 6) and NWJH (p.19) have identical language prohibiting the use of cell phones in locker rooms:

Cell phones with cameras and other portable Handheld Technology Devices capable of storing and/or transmitting and/or receiving images are banned from use for any purpose in locker rooms and restrooms at ALL times. Students may be disciplined for any use of Handheld Technology Devices in school locker rooms or restrooms.

West HS (p.24) has nearly identical language:

Cell phones with cameras and other portable technology devices capable of storing and/or transmitting and/or receiving images are banned from use for any purpose in locker rooms and restrooms at all times. students may be disciplined for any use of technology devices in school locker rooms or restrooms.

Interestingly, SEJH and NCJH handbooks don’t seem to directly address cell phones and locker rooms. Here’s the NCJH handbook language on cell phones (p. 7) [note: the most recent handbook linked on the NCJH webpage is the 2015-16 version]:

Students are not permitted to use cell phones without teacher or administrator permission at any time between 8:00 AM and 3:10 PM. Cell phones must be shut off during this time period. We ask that parents not contact their students via their cell phones during the school day. This creates a disruption to the learning environment and may result in a school consequence for the student. North Central will not be responsible for lost or stolen phones.

Here’s the SEJH handbook language on cell phones (p. 14):


Students are allowed to use electronic devices before and after school and during their lunch period. All other times during the school day students should refrain from using their devices unless granted permission by a South East staff member. Staff will have the right to determine cell phone and electronic device policies and procedures that are appropriate for their classrooms. All students will abide by classroom policies. If there is inappropriate or unauthorized use, the device may be confiscated by staff, and may be held until a parent can retrieve the device. Any student who photographs someone else without their permission will be subject to disciplinary consequences and may have their phone confiscated by staff. Any student who videotapes a fight/disruption, or actively encourages inappropriate behaviors will be subject to disciplinary consequences up to suspension from school.

I haven’t thought through how similar student handbooks should generally be, but it seems to me that there should be a uniform and explicit districtwide policy prohibiting any use of cell phones in school locker rooms and restrooms.

Of course, policy is just the beginning. As one parent asked at the meeting, “can you enforce it?”

Is anyone else concerned about cell phones in locker rooms or at school generally? Are these policies enforceable and being adequately enforced at all secondary schools?

Smarter Balanced Assessments 39

I had no idea that Legislative Services did this sort of thing, but here’s a thirty-four minute Fiscal One-On-One interview with DE Deputy Director Dave Tilly on Smarter Balanced Assessments:


Topics include statewide technology readiness, data security, costs, assessment funding sources, and science assessment.

The DE is planning the following actions for implementing the Smarter Balanced Assessments in Iowa.

  • Technology audit
  • Request for Proposal
  • Professional development and communications activities

Look for these to get started once the rules process is completed with a final review of the rules by the Administrative Rules Review Committee in January 2016.

Skills That Stand the Test of Time

Or why I’m not caught up in 21st century skills hysteria.

I read Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris a few weeks back. It was a fun read for a person who happens to keep paper dictionaries, pencil sharpeners, and a stash of pencils close at hand. As a reader, and a person who punctuates by ear, I appreciate that there are copy editors out there somewhere, with knowledge of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, debating the placement of commas.

[Here’s an article about the importance of a particular comma and a use of quotation marks that gives me pause:


What are we to make of “experts” rather than experts, if anything? Intentional snark or other commentary, or just a proofreading oversight?]

I particularly enjoyed the comparison of the editorial process to making sure that the “tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up” (page 36). No doubt mine is frequently poking up around here, as blogging (for me) tends to be a bit of a publishing a first draft sort of enterprise.

Norris makes the case for copy editors in a world with spell-checkers. When it isn’t unusual to see educators question the need for teaching computational skills in a world with calculators and general knowledge (“mere facts”) in a world with Google, I hope educators take heed that spelling, grammar, and usage are still worth teaching.

Here’s a snippet from my college writing textbook, The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing (2nd Edition), getting at the same idea, in a somewhat hilarious, in hindsight, pitch for using computer word processors, “a valuable new tool for writers” (page 15-16):

As useful as computers may be, however, it is important to remember that they cannot do the work for us. They can neither compose nor make decisions about revising and editing, although they certainly can make the work easier for us.

Funny now to think that we might have needed to be convinced to give word processors a try!

Interesting, if also somewhat hilarious and familiar, is this caution (page 3):

The United States is now an “information” society, one in which the ability to organize and synthesize information and to write intelligently and effectively is even more important than it was in the past.

As it happens, what you can do with what you know being more important that just what you know isn’t strictly a new 21st century concern. Also not new to the 21st century? Critical thinking, understanding, and active learning.

From pages 2 and 3 of St. Martin’s:

Writing also contributes uniquely to the way we learn. When we take notes during lectures or as we read, writing enables us to sort out the information and to highlight what is important. Taking notes helps us to remember what we are learning and yields a written record that we can review later for tests or essays. Outlining or summarizing new information provides an overview of the subject and also fosters close analysis of it. Annotating as we read by underlining and making marginal comments involves us in conversation–even debate–with the author. Thus, writing makes us more effective learners and critical thinkers.

But writing makes another important contribution to learning. Because it is always a composing of new meaning, writing helps us to find and establish our own networks of information and ideas. It allows us to bring together and connect new and old ideas. Writing enables us to clarify and deepen our understanding of a new concept and to find ways to relate it to other ideas within a discipline. Thus, writing tests, clarifies, and extends understanding.

Writing does still more: it contributes to personal development. As we write we become more potent thinkers and active learners, and we come eventually to a better understanding of ourselves through the recording, clarifying, and organizing of our personal experiences and our innermost thoughts.

Besides contributing to the way we think and learn, writing helps us connect to others, to communicate. The impulse to write can be as urgent as the need to converse with someone siting across the table in a restaurant or to respond to a provocative comment in a classroom discussion. Sometimes we want readers to know what we know; we want to share something new. Sometimes we want to influence our readers’ decisions, actions, or beliefs. We may even want to irritate or outrage readers. Or we may want to amuse or flatter them. Writing allows us to overcome our isolation and to communicate in all of these ways.

It wouldn’t take much to update this for the 21st century, perhaps a reference to the impulse to respond to provocative blog posts and internet comments, and definitely striking suggestions to keep an extra typewriter ribbon handy and the use of scissors and tape, paste, or staplers for revising (page 9).


One Step Closer to SBAC in Iowa

With the assertion of the State Board of Education yesterday that the Board has the authority to select the next statewide assessment for accountability purposes, we are now one step closer to the end of the long and winding road to the Smarter Balanced assessments in Iowa.

The only thing (slightly) surprising about this assertion is that the Des Moines Register actually sent a reporter to cover the meeting. Here is the explanation for the assertion of authority from the Des Moines Register coverage:

David Tilly, deputy director of the Department of Education, told board members Thursday that he reviewed Iowa law, Board of Education minutes and other documents dating back to the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 as part of the analysis.

In 2003, minutes show that the Board of Education had the authority in selecting the Iowa exams. That changed in 2012, when legislation gave lawmakers the authority. Then in 2014, legislation passed that Tilly says allows the authority to revert back to the board.

“It appears that unless the legislator exercises that authority, the authority reverts back to the state board,” Tilly said.

The most obvious question is why would a deputy director conduct a legal analysis rather than assigning the task to one of the DE staff attorneys? Either this is an error in reporting or something that should have prompted follow up questions by the reporter.

It isn’t clear from the reporting, but the argument is apparently that subparagraph (2) of Iowa Code section 256.7(21)(b) acts to sunset subparagraph (1) for the 2016-2017 school year.

(1) Annually, the department shall report state data for each indicator in the condition of education report. Rules adopted pursuant to this subsection shall specify that the approved district-wide assessment of student progress administered for purposes of the core academic indicators shall be the assessment utilized by school districts statewide in the school year beginning July 1, 2011, or a successor assessment administered by the same assessment provider.

(2) Notwithstanding subparagraph (1), for the school year beginning July 1, 2016, and each succeeding school year, the rules shall provide that all students enrolled in school districts in grades three through eleven shall be administered an assessment during the last quarter of the school year that at a minimum assesses the core academic indicators identified in this paragraph “b”; is aligned with the Iowa common core standards in both content and rigor; accurately describes student achievement and growth for purposes of the school, the school district, and state accountability systems; and provides valid, reliable, and fair measures of student progress toward college or career readiness.

Please see this blogpost for a more complete explanation, but it isn’t at all clear that the Legislature intended subparagraph (2) to operate as a sunset provision as to parts, really, of subparagraph (1), as no one seems to be arguing that DE’s annual reporting requirement will also be sunset by paragraph (2).

There is no factual conflict between the subparagraphs as the Iowa Testing Programs (the assessment provider referenced in subparagraph (1)) is in fact developing a successor assessment for the 2016-2017 school year that meets the minimum legislative requirements enumerated in subparagraph (2). In which case, the Legislature would not need to take affirmative action unless the Legislature wanted to adopt an assessment from a different assessment provider (the Smarter Balanced assessments, for example) or wanted to grant the State Board the authority to select the statewide assessment.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that subparagraph (2) does in fact operate as a sunset provision as described above–that unless the Legislature affirmatively exercises the authority to select an assessment, that the authority reverts to the State Board of Education. Why is now, rather than the end of the 2016 legislative session, for example, the legally appropriate time to determine that reversion of authority to the State Board has occurred? The Des Moines Register article offers this explanation:

The 2014 law also says the tests should be implemented for the 2016-17 school year. And Tilly reiterated that school districts need time to implement the new exams, such as training staff and ensuring computers and technology are in place to support computer testing.

No doubt this is all true, though note that Assessment Task Force materials provided to the Legislature have minimized technology readiness concerns (see here, here, here, or here). See also Board member Mary Ellen Miller’s comments in The Gazette:

Supporters of the status quo will use misleading cost estimates or technology concerns to argue against the Smarter Balanced assessments. In reality, these cost estimates don’t include the dollars our school districts are already spending on additional tests to get the ongoing feedback that Smarter Balanced’s assessment package would provide. Additionally, results from a survey of district readiness shows 99 percent of our public schools meet the minimum bandwidth requirements and have adequate computer resources to administer the Smarter Balanced assessments.

So, it is interesting to see this used as a reason for the Board to take action immediately. Perhaps these issues, and the need to issue a Request for Proposal for any new assessment, might have been emphasized more strongly to legislators when Rep. Forristall asked if it would be harmful to push off this decision a year. However, it isn’t obvious that these issues would trigger a reversion of authority based on failure of the Legislature to act now, rather than just prior to the 2016-2017 school year.

Of course, the question of authority is an academic one at this point as the State Board appears prepared to move forward without further legislative action. The next steps toward the use of the Smarter Balanced assessments in Iowa should be through the administrative rules process in upcoming months. Find an overview of the administrative rulemaking process here and watch for notice of intended rules on the DE page here.*

*The administrative rules website isn’t running well at the moment, but hopefully will be operating properly soon.