March 20th, 2014

One Mom’s Struggle With School and Tests

I can always tell when testing season arrives here in New Jersey as I start getting e-mails from parents wanting to know more about my experiences in opting my son Tucker out of the test. It’s not a deluge, mind you, but one or two a week that I try to reply to with more info and links. 

Some are more than about testing, however. Some, like the one I’ve gotten permission to reprint below, get to the heart of the larger tension between schools as they’re currently constructed and learning. I’m not saying this is every person’s experience, but when I read e-mails like this, it gives me pause. I think it should give us all pause. 

I know this mom would love to hear your response in the comments.

Hi Will,

I’m sorry if this email turns out rambling… but I am at my wits end. I came across your website for the first time tonight, and have not had a chance to read your book yet… but let me give you some background on why I’m writing you…

Tonight, I yelled at my 7 year old child because she misspelled one of her spelling words… the word ‘rainbows’. Yes you read that correctly. I yelled at her. She sobbed uncontrollably as I refused to let her erase the mistake. This I know is ludicrous. Why the hell would I do that? Mistakes happen. That’s why pencils have erasers, right? Well its because of what public school is doing to my child and I cannot stand to watch it anymore. Tonight it turned me into a monster. Its been over 6 hours since this incident and I’m still overwhelmingly disgusted with myself as if it had just happened.

My daughter is a wonderful, bright, funny, delightful little 2nd grader. Most adults that meet her marvel at the obvious level of intelligence she has. This is not me trying to brag or call my child a genius - but what it is… is me standing up for her where she is being made to feel insecure and unintelligent. 

For too many nights to count, I have watched my child come apart at the seams trying to make sense of homework that I deem to be complete and utter bullshit and a complete waste of time. I watch her write letters, words and numbers…. only to erase and write again, erase and write again…. because it’s not perfect, it’s not what the teacher said to do, it’s not what will get her perfect scores and make everyone happy. I watch her trying to think of multiple ways to write out a math sentence such as ‘5+4=9’. I mean, how many ways does a 7 year old need to write it? She even gets math equations that look like this: ‘16+12=__’. Ask her what the ones and tens places are and she couldn’t tell you. (I have explained them to her… and she is beginning to understand, but isn’t allowed to use that method at school(WTF?). The math that is being taught isn’t math at all. Its all comprehension. Why is she getting comprehension shoved down her throat before she even has the basic building blocks in the fundamentals of addition and subtract? I know the answer - NJ ASK. I’m sick of erasing, and the tears and wasted nights. I sick of watching this beautiful creature being snuffed out by school work that really isn’t teaching anything.

Every night we do 2 hours of homework. I dread homework. I’m not anti-homework. What I’m against is homework hijacking my night 5 days a week. A typical day she gets home at 4pm. I let her have a snack and unwind for an hour. Then we begin this awful homework regime. She is tired. Why is she doing school work from 9am to 7pm( if I’m lucky)? She isn’t learning at this rate… she is just going through the motions to get it done. 

Tonight as my child sobbed, curled up in my arms, with her little body trembling, she tells me what a bad reader she is and that’s why she tries to read more than what’s required; so she can get better. She’s a bad speller too. She’s afraid she won’t get to go to 3rd grade. Everything feels hard for her. These are the words coming from her mouth.

In my mind, I could not even begin to fully process what she was saying to me at the time. I read with her every night. She reads well. She stumbles on words sometimes, but she is only 7 and I thought that was to be expected. So where are these feelings of inadequacy coming from? I give her only praise at home, so I must believe it stems from something happening at school. I find it disgusting that my child is made to feel that way in an environment that is supposed to be building her up, cheering her on and not making her feel like the class dunce. 

At the same time, I have loved every teacher she has had. I believe the school and the people in it are honestly doing their best to help my child succeed. So I just don’t understand what is happening or where the breakdown is.

I’m confused about my feelings for Common Core… It’s political, it’s a dirty word, it has ‘good intentions’ but its implementation sucks….

My quest isn’t political. I have no hidden agenda. My only goal is for my child to be afforded an education that nurtures real critical thinking, teaches her grammar and arithmetic, teaches her to love learning, to question, explore and so much more. 

I dread NJ ASK when 3rd grade comes. But I don’t want to just ‘opt out’ of the test… because I don’t see how that solves the greater problem. I’ve tried to search for alternative educations solutions but I really don’t know where to even begin.

We live in *******, where the school district claims to be one of the best in the state. I often feel alone in my opinion of the education she is receiving. So many friends and family members have told me to not worry. That the school system is fine. Its not fine. I am not fine and she is not fine. Tonight was horrible. Its not the first night that we have had like this. But I vowed it will be the last.

Do you have any recommendations as a starting place for alternative school options that don’t teach using Common Core standards? I can’t afford a private school. I just really don’t know what to do anymore.
March 13th, 2014

Classrooms as “Shapeless and Unmoored”

Grant McCracken:

Here is my present idea of the corporation, give or take. The corporation is a thing of people, processes, places, and products (give or take). And these 4 Ps are relatively well-defined, organized, boundaried, and anchored (more or less).  

But that’s a problem. This corporation is deeply at odds with the future. Because the future is never defined, organized, boundaried, or anchored. Really, it’s all just hints and whispers. Fragile melody, no refrain.

Hence, the great antagonism between corporations and time. A creature that defines itself out of definition, organization, boundary, and anchoring, must hate a future that is shapeless and unmoored. To the corporations, the future looks like the enemy, a risk that can’t be managed, an idea that can’t be thought.  

The corporation puts a particular boundary between now and the future. And it guards this border ferociously. New ideas are scrutinized with tough mindedness and high indignation. If we can’t see the business model, we’re not interested. If we can’t see how to “monitize this sucker,” we’re not interested. When the future manifests itself merely as a murmur of possibility, we are not interested.  

Too bad. There is really only one way to live in a world of speed, surprise, noise, and responsiveness, and that’s to visit the future frequently. And, if we have the intellectual capital, maybe get a pied-à-terre. Well, and if we’re really committed, we need someone to take up residence full time.  

Most of all, we want a corporation that is porous in ways it was not before. We want it to cantilever out into the future. We want to make pieces of the future to happen inside the corporation. We want pieces of the corporation to happen out there in the future. In sum, we want the corporation and the future, once so completely separated from one another, to have a new reciprocity and transparency.

Now, go back and read that again, replacing the word “corporation” with “classroom.” It’s not a perfect fit, but you get the idea. There’s a lot here that compares.

Most places I go, the future (and to some extent, it’s a future that’s already here,) feels like the enemy. That’s why 98% of our technology use in schools conserves the past. That’s why the bar for innovation is set at “flipped classrooms.” We’re not thinking about “making pieces of the future happen in the [classroom.]” And while we may not always articulate it in the same way, we educators abhor a future that is “shapeless and unmoored.” There’s no curriculum in that.

The tension with “inventing the future” is that it doesn’t happen in isolation. While some may be busy with “invention” in schools, it falls against a larger backdrop of invention all over the place. The contexts for our work to invent the future is constantly changing, and if we’re not constantly relearning and embracing those contexts, we’re simply reinventing the past.

(H/T to Britt Wattwood for the link and for an equally thoughtful post.)

March 7th, 2014

SAT as Scandal

Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times:

All in all, the changes are intended to make SAT scores more accurately mirror the grades a student gets in school.  

The thing is, though, there already is something that accurately mirrors the grades a student gets in school. Namely: the grades a student gets in school. A better way of revising the SAT, from what I can see, would be to do away with it once and for all.  

The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture. The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.

March 3rd, 2014

The Text Focused Common Core

While it would be nice if I could figure out who “John” is who posted the following to the “Art of Learning” Facebook group, I agree with the sentiment nonetheless:

The Common Core will not prepare our students for the challenges of 21st century careers because it focuses primarily on text-based literacy skills that are more appropriate and suited for the 19th and early 20th century classroom and workplace.  David Coleman, supports a “close reading” approach to literacy that was first introduced in the mid 1900’s.  “He embraces what in the 1940′s and 1950′s was called New Criticism, a movement in U.S. universities that emphasized sticking tenaciously to the text of whatever one is reading…New Criticism cautions the reader not to go beyond the text to consider, for example, the biography of the author, the social or historical period in which he/she was writing, or, for that matter, even one’s own personal feelings, attitudes, and experiences in relation to the text.“

While supporters of the Common Core are quick to point out that there are also CCSS anchor standards for media literacy and 21st century skills, Appendix A clearly states that media other than text is inferior and not a priority when it comes to classroom activities and instruction.  “These sources [video, podcasts…], while not without value, cannot capture the nuance, subtlety, depth, or breadth of ideas developed through complex text. As Adams (2009) puts it, “There may one day be modes and methods of information delivery that are as efficient and powerful as text, but for now there is no contest…”

While being able to use and understand words in text are no doubt still a basic part of communication and a fundamental literacy, we’re now coummicating and creating meaning in the world in interesting new ways that are profound and important and, as the author suggests, basically missing from the CCSS. And while reading and writing in traditional ways need to be mastered, using video and and audio and photos and other forms of multimedia to communicate ideas are now a requirement as well, a “common” requirement if you will. Note (again) the NCTE literacies, i.e. “Active, successful participants in this global society must be able to…create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts” among other things.

But since it’s not explicit in the standards, we’ll most likely leave that up to kids to figure out for themselves.  

February 20th, 2014

A World Upended…”Get Ready”

From the “I Really Don’t Mean to Be Debbie Downer Department” comes this analysis from a fascinating and scary newish blog from John Robb:

Technological change is rapidly killing entire industries and job categories without replacing them.   Across the board, incremental productivity improvements are making it possible for employers to get by without hiring new people (even the head of the biggest employer in the World has plans to replace most of his workers with robots).  However, that won’t be where we see the greatest losses.   Those losses will occur in the industries that are completely gutted from the arrival of products and services that make them obsolete.

As this trend strengthens, we may see results similar to what we saw with the agrarian economy.   If that occurs, the extreme endpoint of this decline may be a world where most of the commercial activity in goods and services we see today — from education to health care to manufacturing to transportation to retail to legal services — is accomplished by less than 1% of the people it used to require.  

That means only 1 of the hundred jobs being done currently will be left.  More strikingly, it’s very likely this won’t take the 200 years it took agriculture to go from 95% of the population to less than 1%.  It’s going to be much, much faster this time due to the speed at which improvements can be distributed (software/data).  Given this catalyst, we may find ourselves more than half of the way there within twenty years.

Not quite the world we’re educating our kids for, huh?

February 17th, 2014

How Common is the Common Core, Really?

From a New York Times piece today:

Recently, at Public School 253 in Brooklyn, Myra Wenger applied her new curriculum in a lesson on ancient Athens, asking her second graders why the city adopted Athena, not Poseidon, in naming itself. A pupil, Daniel Gornak, 8, answered, “Because Athena gave more uses than Poseidon did, and more healthy things for Athenians,” and Ms. Wenger lauded his methods in consulting his marble notebook for the facts.

“They love it,” Ms. Wenger said of her lesson plans. “They’re very engaged, more than last year.”

In another room, a group of first graders sat on a mat, eagerly raising their hands to explain similarities between farming in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.

“They needed water,” one student, Rabiha Islam, 6, said.

“And, and, and,” she continued, searching for another answer, “they didn’t have, so they made canals.”

The school chose one of the country’s most popular Common Core curriculums, called Core Knowledge. It is based on the ideas of E. D. Hirsch Jr., whose 1987 book, “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” argued that mastery of a common set of facts was critical to learning.

Beyond the testing difficulties, one of the criticisms of the Common Core, in New York and elsewhere, is that it can be too demanding for young grades. Diane Ravitch, an educational historian, has said that very little of what is taught to first graders about ancient civilizations will stick with them; Mr. Hirsch and other defenders of the Common Core say children in early grades need lessons in history, civics, science and literature to build vocabularies and thrive.

This captures the question that I get asked more often than any other during discussion around change: Where is the balance when it comes to what every child needs to know now and making sure kids become deep learners in the context of having access to abundant information, knowledge, tools, and teachers? And are we really saying that “what every American needs to know” has to be learned in school? At the same time as everyone else? If you asked a random selection of 100 adults who Poseidon and Athena were, how many could answer? 10? 20? And are those who can’t failures? And by the way, who decides what facts are worthy of “learning?”

Seems easy enough to test this hypothesis. Why don’t we do a large scale assessment on 30-year olds to see how many of them are Common Core or culturally literate and them correlate that to their “success” in life. (Defining success is a long conversation in an of itself.) My guess would be that “success” is much more based on dispositions than it is on content knowledge and the ability to have a conversation about Mesopotamia.

February 13th, 2014

Making is Modern Learning

Gary Stager:

Maker faires, where adults and children are gathering in ever-growing numbers, celebrate the inventor in all of us, but they also seem to be brewing an anti-school streak among some parents and children. “School is boring” has given way to “School is destroying my child. Look at what they are capable of doing! School is oblivious to my child’s interests, talents, and expertise.” I am not willing to give up on school, simply because that is where the kids are. We can and should make classrooms more like Maker Faires.

Often parents are torn between their respect for the institution of school and their intuition that something is not working for their child. Be clear while making your case that although your plans may not look exactly like traditional school, you are not abandoning high standards or a quest for learning. The argument for making, tinkering, and engineering should not be as an “alternative” way to learn, but what modern learning really looks like.

February 9th, 2014

Discovery “Double-Talk”

Seymour Papert in The Children’s Machine (excerpted here.):

It is simply double talk to ask children to take charge of their own learning and at the same time order them to “discover” something that can have no role in helping them understand anything they care about or are interested in or are curious about.

This isn’t rocket science. Each one of us lives this. We learn what we have an interest in learning. The deeper our interest, the less we will let stand in our way. I’m struck by stories like that of Jack Andraka, 15 years-old, who wouldn’t let school stand in the way. (Listen carefully from 1:19 - 2:05.) 

It’s easy for a lot of people now to say “we’re moving.” Every kid has an iPad. We’re doing project-based learning. We’re flipping the classroom to make more time for problem-solving. And on.

I can’t speak for him, but I doubt Papert is impressed. Our hubris in education is still that we think we know what, when, and how every child needs to learn. While our rhetoric changes, we remain teacher / curriculum centered despite announcements that our “better” assessments, our “better” curriclum, our “better” uses of technology are transferring ownership of learning to children. 

They’re not. We’re not.

February 7th, 2014

Not What We Think

danah boyd, in her great new book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens:

Many adults I meet assume that their own childhoods were better and richer, simpler and safer, than the digitally mediated ones contemporary youth experience. They associate the rise of digital technology with decline—social, intellectual, and moral. The research I present here suggests that the opposite is often true. For adults to hear the voices of youth, they must let go of their nostalgia and suspend their fears. This is not easy.


February 7th, 2014

This is Why We Need Tablets? Really?

Oxford University Press:

One of the most convincing arguments for using tablets in the classroom is the possibility for students to then take that learning outside of the classroom – they can use the digital materials they are familiar with from class on their own devices at home.


February 3rd, 2014

Why I Deleted Candy Crush

Nick Statt:

Like most endless runners, Flappy Bird is a game with no conclusion that subsists solely on your hunger for a higher score and your dumb, completely illogical belief that you will in fact get any value out of playing, let alone feel like you’re getting better at the task at all…

…Therein lies the worst part: We know the game is preying on us, and we let it. There is little else as substantive and convincing as Flappy Bird that the smartphone era has driven us to the cliff of insanity when it comes to compulsive behavior, contracting attention spans, and a desire to succeed at something arbitrary and meaningless.

Because ultimately there is absolutely nothing admirable about dusting yourself off from a Game Over and trying again when there’s literally no goal in sight but a higher number and a larger expenditure of your time.

January 30th, 2014

Rethinking Our Roles

Clay Shirky:

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.

It will also require us to abandon any hope of restoring the Golden Age. It was a nice time, but it wasn’t stable, and it didn’t last, and it’s not coming back. It’s been gone ten years more than it lasted, in fact, and in the time since it ended, we’ve done more damage to our institutions, and our students, and our junior colleagues, by trying to preserve it than we would have by trying to adapt. Arguing that we need to keep the current system going just long enough to get the subsidy the world owes us is really just a way of preserving an arrangement that works well for elites—tenured professors, rich students, endowed institutions—but increasingly badly for everyone else.

Read the whole thing. 

There are similar pressures on the K-12 level that make supporting the current system difficult. To date, however, we’ve been stuck almost wholly in preservation mode. 

January 29th, 2014

It’s the Delivery, Silly

Winter weather may have kept Bishop Donahue High School students home from school Monday, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have to go class.

So starts a story in a West Virginia paper yesterday titled “Snow Days Become ‘Cyber Days’ at BDHS.” It’s as if school is now taking on the postal service’s famous creed: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these teachers from the swift completion of their appointed deliveries of education…thanks to the internet.”


Words matter here, right? So, it’s interesting that the “cyber day” has nothing to do with learning. (The word itself is mentioned just once when talking about “distance learning”being offered by colleges.) Instead, it’s “the school’s answer to lost instruction time.” Because all that instruction time is just way more important than playing in the snow or reading a good book or going on Minecraft or watching a few hours of tv and just chillin’.

Words matter:

The principal says “This way, we can keep students engaged and continue with lessons with school is canceled.” Really? This is engagement?

"Teachers sent online assignments in the morning through email and students were expected to get the work done by early evening. Students could ask questions by email in the early afternoon and the assignments were graded at the end of the day."

And why can they do this? Because every student has an…wait for it…iPad “they can take with them to complete schoolwork.”


And here is the absolute worst part.

"It’s a benefit if a child is sick or hospitalized or if they are on vacation, they still have access to school. It’s a real benefit. You’ll never replace a teacher in a classroom, but this is an awful good way to still have education continue on days that would have been lost."

Now, read that again.

It still shocks me, the extent to which we continue to dumb down the affordances of the Web and technology for authentic learning in the service of keeping the system grinding no matter what the obstacle. It still shocks me that even before we get to the tech discussion, we can’t seem to even get to the learning discussion. It’s all about schooling. This is the narrative we need to push back hard against.

I’m sure most read this article and think “Progress!” Instead, we should be thinking “Why?”

(See also.)

January 23rd, 2014

Making and Learning

Phil Shapiro:

Treating human beings more humanely can never be a mistake. Learning by making is one of the most humane ways for students to learn. If we were wise, we’d move all our schools—private schools and public schools—rapidly in this direction. In years hence, youth will laugh at old movies showing students sitting obediently in rows of desks in a classroom. “What were they thinking back then?” our youth will mutter. “Were they really so clueless about learning?”
Yes, we really were so clueless about learning.
January 21st, 2014

Announcing: Educating Modern Learners

Today, I’m happy to announce that my friend and colleague Bruce Dixon and I are starting a new membership website, Educating Modern Learners (EML). It’s a site and an accompanying newsletter that’s aimed specifically at helping school leaders and policy makers from around the globe be better informed about the huge technological changes that are impacting education, and to help them make better, more pertinent decisions for the students they serve. And I’m equally excited to announce that we’ve hired one of the best education bloggers / thinkers we know, Audrey Watters, to be the editorial director / lead writer for the site. Our official launch is scheduled for mid-February.

Our hope is that EML will offer a reader-supported, independent voice to help articulate what is as yet a struggling but growing new narrative in the school reform discussion, one that provokes serious conversation at the leadership level around a more learner-centered, inquiry-based, technology and access-rich school experience that more powerfully and relevantly serves children in this fast-changing modern world. We’ll be commissioning some of the best writers and thought-leaders in the world to produce analysis and commentary on all aspects of modern learning, from local, state and ministry level policy issues, new literacies and pedagogies for 21st Century learners, effective change-centered leadership, new technologies, and best school practices, among others. Also in the mix are regular whitepapers, live events, podcasts, and more. More details to come.

Here’s some of where we’re starting from in our thinking about this:

  • We believe that we live and learn at a moment of rapid and radical change across institutions and cultures, and that technologies are in large part driving those changes.
  • We believe that today’s students will be immersed in creative and connected technologies throughout their adult learning lives, and that they require new skills, literacies, and dispositions to succeed in the modern world.
  • We believe that the web and other technologies can be a powerful source for good in the world.
  • We believe that schools must move away from “delivering” an education to, instead, empowering students to organize their own education.
  • We believe technology implemented with vision can be a powerful part of effective teaching and learning in schools.
  • We believe that relevant reforms are occurring too slowly because not enough of our efforts are aimed at those who make decisions regarding technology’s role in learning in schools.
  • We believe that top level decision makers often act without a relevant, global, modern lens for how technologies can best serve progressive teaching and learning. This is through no fault of their own as much as it is the consequence of leading at a moment of rapid and radical change.
  • We believe there is a real need for a diverse set of expert voices to use a global lens to intelligently curate and contextualize the changes, new technologies, future trends, best practices and more on a regular basis.
  • We believe this is a time of unprecedented opportunity. A time for boldness, and a time for well-informed leadership to shape new thinking around what schools could and should be; about where, when, and how learning takes place.  A time for us to truly rethink the possibilities that technology offers education, and a time for creative and courageous leadership to show the way.

EML is hopefully just the first step in what we hope will be a collection of resources and events that will help expand the contexts for learning and leading in the education leadership space. If you’d like to be notified when we officially launch, just sign up on our "Coming Soon!" page

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