Friday, October 29, 2010

Poor Pedagogy + Technology = Accelerated Malpractice

A couple days ago, I wrote a post that was critical of how some people use technology in education. It turns out that my critical words for Richard Byrne and his post on how to create self-graded quizzes in Google Docs were not well received by some.

Essentially, my point is this:

I often see teachers so enamored over technology that the appeal for it often trumps pedagogy, and so I think teachers who choose to share their resources have an obligation to share it mindfullyAlfie Kohn offers this:

Seymour Papert, known for his work on artificial intelligence, began one of his books by inviting us to imagine a group of surgeons and a group of teachers, both from a century ago, who are magically transported to the present day. The surgeons visit a modern operating room and struggle to understand what's going on, but the teachers feel right at home in today's schools. Kids, they discover, are still segregated by age in rows of classrooms; are still made to sit passively and listen (or practice skills) most of the time; are still tested and graded, rewarded or punished; still set against one another in contests and deprived of any real say about what they're doing.
Those tempted to point defensively to updates in the delivery system only end up underscoring how education is still about delivering knowledge to empty receptacles. In fact, snazzier technology -- say, posting grades or homework assignments on-line -- mostly serves to distract us from rethinking the pedagogy. Interactive whiteboards in classrooms amount to a 21st-century veneer on old-fashioned, teacher-centered instruction.

Take a look at Richard Byrne's YouTube video below on self-graded quizzes. Can you see how this is an example of what Kohn and Papert speak of? Can you see that using Google Docs in this manner is simply a 21st century veneer on sit-and-get-spit-and-forget, select a response assessments? Isn't this still about delivering knowledge to empty receptacles packaged as snazzy technology? I wonder what Seymour Papert would say about this video? Take a look for yourself...

Before I go into my pedagogical objections to such an assessment practice, let's read this comment left by Richard Byrne...

...preaching is not the intent of my blog. I'll leave that to others that I think are more qualified for that and to those who think they are qualified to preach. The ones that I think are qualified, I refer others to (some of those include Scott McLeod, Gary Stager, Chris Lehmann). Those that I don't think are qualified, I ignore.
Since I didn't see my name on Richard Byrne's Pedagogy VIP list, I get the feeling that I, like many other people who are just teachers, will likely be ignored; so let's look at what some of these Pedagogical Heavy Hitters have to say about using technology in this manner:

We have to be careful not to let what should be a discussion centered around education become hijacked into a discussion about technology. Chris Lehman writes:

We should have a great debate in this country about education. Educational ideas are -- and should be -- controversial. The space between people like Alfie Kohn and Robert Marzano, between Deborah Meier and Ed Hirsch, could fill volumes. How we teach, what we teach, how we assess students... these ideas should be debated and discussed at dinner tables and PTA meetings across this country.
That's not the discussion we're having.
What is going on right now has little to do with education. We are having a labor debate masquerading as an education debate. And that's an important debate to have, but it's not really about education, and we should recognize that.
The conversation we should have is actually about education. Most high schools in this country are still structured off of the Taylor Scientific Method decades after business moved on. We still, in so many classrooms, put the desks in rows and put textbooks on the desks and expect learning to happen. In too many schools the innovations that have touched every other aspect of our society are absent. And in too many schools, the only thing that matters is how well students perform on someone else's test.
I say as both an educator and a parent -- we need a great debate about education in this country. 
Rather than talk about how Google Documents can save teachers time in perpetuating the status quo (creating and delivering select-a-response quizzes, then grading them based on one right answer and averaging the scores into percentages or letter grades) I would rather talk about how Google Docs can be used for real learning.

But that's hard to do if teachers wash their hands of their responsibility for being mindful of their pedagogical practices. Teachers can choose to blog or not to blog; they can choose to share or not to share, but I don't believe they can choose to ignore pedagogy. And because pedagogy should never be reserved for the elite, all teachers and all parents should engage in this discussion. If someone wants to create a blog that shares free technology with teachers and manages to get a Google Readership of 7,000 subscribers, and 11,000 followers on Twitter, they have a glorious opportunity to initiate and influence the education debate that Chris Lehmann speaks of above. However, such an opportunity can also become a crisis. In other words, Alfie Kohn puts it this way:

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent.

So why do so many educators opt out of this discussion? Why are we having a technology debate masquerading as an education debate?  And why can't we recognize the difference? 

Gary Stager offers this insight:

I often joke that the difference between a novice computer-using educator and an expert is a two-hour workshop. Our expectations for what teachers might actually do with computers are so low that those goals are easily achieved. Well, one would think so. Human nature suggests that the less we expect of others, the less they will actually achieve. The goals of simple word processing, web surfing and strapping kids to a drill and practice program seem hardly beyond the reach of a living-breathing teacher, yet even these modest goals remain elusive. One look at a state or national educational computing conference and you would have to conclude that ‘cutting and pasting’ represents the post-doctoral level of the field. The banality of most conference programs would suggest that the ceiling for learning with and about learning with computers is low indeed.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that we should not expect teachers to use computers in more creative intellectually empowering ways if they are incapable of achieving the most pedestrian of objectives. This line of reasoning misses two fundamental variables – motivation and scarcity of resources. Inspiring teachers by the limitless potential of computers to empower students to learn and express themselves in previously unimaginable ways requires a different manifestation of expertise, leadership, and a community’s desire to embrace the construction what’s new. Experience would suggest that schools excited by the potential to engage more kids in rich learning adventures would challenge teachers to ‘think different’ and provide the support necessary to support such motivation.
Using cool technology to efficiently facilitate bad assessments won't help Chris Lehmann spark the education debate he wants us to have, and it sure won't dispel the ill-conceived conventional wisdom Gary Stager warns us of.

Despite all I've just put before you, perhaps Richard Byrne has a point when he commented:

Over the last three year I've helped tens of thousands of educators do the jobs that they're required to do more efficiently thereby giving them more time to do the things that make teaching the best profession in the world. The fact of the matter is that many many teachers are required to show administrators test and quiz scores. I'm not saying that is a good thing, I'm simply stating it as a part of the profession. Should that change? Probably, however while we work toward that change we also need to work with requirements of our employers. 
At no point in my blog post that you criticize did I say that giving quizzes was a good educational practice (although I do tend to agree with Dave's comment about the use of quizzes). The point that I intimated at the end is if an educator can spend less time doing the tedious task of grading formal tests and quizzes, he or she can spend more time developing engaging learning experiences for their students.
Richard Byrne does have some very valid points here. Indeed, he has helped tens of thousands of educators do the jobs that they're required to do more efficiently (and I'm one of them)... but this is true in two very different senses. Alfie Kohn describes this situation better than I could:
Whenever something in the schools is amiss, it makes sense for us to work on two tracks at once. We must do our best in the short term to protect students from the worst effects of a given policy, but we must also work to change or eliminate that policy. If we overlook the former – the need to minimize the harm of what is currently taking place, to devise effective coping strategies -- then we do a disservice to children in the here and now. But (and this is by far the more common error) if we overlook the latter – the need to alter the current reality -- then we are condemning our children’s children to having to make the best of the same unacceptable situation because it will still exist.
Too often technology has been less about creating more meaningful assessments and more about online grading that has simply led to more data - therefore amplifying the already less-than optimal assessment practices. It is very true that, "by saving time on grading you can give students feedback quicker than before." But we have to ask ourselves what kind of feedback are we providing? In Byrne's video, I saw children and their learning being efficiently reduced to numbers and averages... it sounds like a case of an assessment road-trip where we are lost while making good time. This really does give insight into what Gerald Bracey meant when he said:

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all."

While I provided a critique of Richard Byrne's use of Google Docs, I too received critiques on the tone of my post. There were two comments I found most notable:

From Scott:
I don't agree, at all, with your final statement nor the tone of the post. It exemplifies the divide between those who are trying to make the shift and those sorting through many of the realities of a flawed system. It is a remark that I would not expect from someone trying to demonstrate the evolution of education and teaching. It shows one-mindedness and definitely not the tone that would encourage these educators to re-think their practice.

From Joanne:
If you wish to see change take place in education, perhaps it would help to model the behavior you'd like to see. How does attempting to shame practicing teachers fit into your philosophy?
To quote one of my favorite bloggers (dy/dan - google it): You have seriously overestimated the effectiveness of contempt as a precondition of reform.
Scott and Joanne both make good points. Dan Meyer's quote is very powerful and I can see myself using it in the future.

While my intent was to draw attention to this topic, even at the cost of a heated debate and even bruised egos, my intent was never to polarize the discussion to a halt (Richard has chosen to block me on Twitter).

Again, I will draw from Alfie Kohn's wisdom. Here is how Kohn begins Chapter 5: The Questions left Unasked in his book The Homework Myth. I believe it outlines why I was outraged by all this:

Too many of us sound like Robert Frost's neighbor, the man who "will not go behind his father's saying." Too many of us, when pressed about some habit or belief we've adopted, are apt to reply, " Well, that's just the way I was raised," as if it were impossible to critically examine the values one was taught. Too many of us, including some who work in the field of education, seem to have lost our capacity to be outraged by the outrageous; when handed foolish and destructive mandates, we respond by asking for guidance on how best to carry them out.
Even when we do regard something as objectionable, that doesn't mean we will object to it. Indeed, We're apt to see the situation like the weather - something you just learn to live with. We may not "accept" (that is, believe) everything we're told by public officials and professionals, but in the other sense of that world, we tend to accept (that is, put up with) what they do.

If we simply resign ourselves to the status quo, and find ways to more efficiently comply and cope with the way things are now, nothing will ever change and our children will grow into adults who will do the same to their own children.

At the very least, we need to be able to ask these tough questions that challenge the pedagogical fabric our everyday classroom activities are built upon.


  1. Just a clarification. That video was created by Dr. Mark Wagner, not me (as I said in the post).

    Why did I block you on Twitter? Not because I don't want to engage in conversations. Rather I blocked you because I find you rude and condescending in your tone. I'm happy to discuss and debate with polite people. I follow plenty of people that I don't always agree with on ideology.

    I believe my readers are smart enough to think for themselves. I'll let them decide what to do with technology. And with that I'll let my body of work speak for itself.

  2. I actually followed the comment section of the original post and the discussion between you and Mr. Byrne on Twitter.

    You will find that most educators agree with your pedagogy and the idea of having students choose from prefabricated answers is not THE BEST method. But that is the state of education and I was disappointed that you, as an educator, would attack another educator for trying to provide other teachers a less time consuming method to meet the requirements of their districts whether you agree with the state that education is in or not.

    The discussion on Twitter came across to me as you constantly trying to rebuttal instead of discuss the issue. That is your passion getting in the way of being openminded to arguments against your pedagogy.

    I applaud you for your passion towards fighting multiple choice testing. I disagree with your approach to sharing that passion.

    But like Mr. Byrne said, sometimes, we will have to agree to disagree.

  3. So, Joe, what you are basically saying is that since standardized testing is detrimental (no real argument there), none of th einstruments used in any form of standardized test can ever be used for any form of assessment.
    Since MC questions are used on standardized tests, I cannot use a simple MC survey as a means of formative or diagnostic assessment to determine whether I need to reinforce those concepts before moving on?
    'Cause it seems to me that what Byrne is providing is just that - a means to use technology for rapid feedback to determine whether some basic or key concepts have been understood. I don't see him promoting this for exams, just as ONE mechanism for assessment that can be used efficiently when appropriate, and appropriateness to be determined by the needs of the teacher.

  4. Hi Joe,

    One thing I'll bring up here is that we usually have to give people the time and space to transition from old practices to new. This usually means that new uses of technology look very much at the beginning like old educational practices but with a few more bells and whistles - what Bernajean Porter likely would call 'Adapting Uses' rather than 'Transforming Uses.'

    So do the examples you show transform educational practice - or move us to better practice? No, probably not. But they may be a necessary first step toward something better? (and may make teachers more efficient, freeing up some time for them along the way)

  5. Scott,

    I am not sure what you mean 'But they may be a necessary first step toward something better? '

    Imho the type of assessment drives teaching and when computers start to make life easier , it will not stop at multiple choices but using programs to assess essays etc ( there are already such programs). These types of programs are so appealing to those in control of education because it provides data and fast. It won't free up time because there will be just more of it to come.

    Joe's passion etc - I have been following Joe for some time and found him polite and generally restrained compared to other teachers who have the same passion. Agreed , he was not so careful this time , but imho there has been an over reaction which has diverted the discussion away from the topic.

    I am pretty passionate about Collaborative problem solving when it comes to discipline. Am I against giving teachers and parents skills to manage kids and restore their authority - Yes.
    Because when parents or teachers become better disciplinarians they tend to rely less on problem solving. Change is a process , it is not all or nothing appoach as AK puts it , moving from compliance to community.

    I appreciate Joe's insight showing that programs that make grading more easier just get in the way of the paradigm shift needed to move away from grades and support those in education who want more testing and data.

  6. Joe, there's another issue I sense in some of your posts. A small danger, but pervasive in some circles. It's the danger of the teacher-as-maverick myth, aka Nonconformist Teacher, aka I Buck the System, Therefore I'm Better syndrome.

    Your ideas about abolishing grading, reducing/eliminating multiple choice quizzes and tests, and applying natural consequences as a disciplinary measure are as contestable and possibly mundane as anyone else's. Just because they veer against current trends doesn't make them cool, and the ideas themselves (when put into practice) don't necessarily make a more engaging or effective teacher.

    I've had plenty of outstanding and rather traditional teachers. One teacher was a particularly tough grader, and I'm grateful for it. Your way is not necessarily the best, and may not work for all.


  7. IMHO -- setting up a quiz/checkpoint/check-in in an automated way could be a great tool for personalizing in the classroom. Having just started using Googleforms I see the potential for feedback/feedforward. A phrase I have heard that has resonated with me is "Responsive Teaching".

    I wouldn't use Google forms to generate marks or grades but I can see how I could use it to check for Knowledge OR for Understanding (working out of the KUD framework used by Cindy Strickland and others when looking at Differentiated Instruction).

    I can see how scoring knowledge questions (for my own use) would be helpful for quickly identifying the readiness-level of each student -- and what the next steps may be.

    I have used Google forms to survey students (particularly after a major project or assessment) and can see how I could use Paragraph text to check for deeper understanding in a current unit of study and for a pre-assessment to check for readiness & interest. No need to score, just one way for me to poll my students (between classes) and get a quick snapshot of where they are in their learning.

  8. Yes, ask tough questions, but ask them softly.



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