Book review – Education unbound

My goal for June: 30 days, 30 book reviews. This post is a review of Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling by Rick Hess. My short recommendation? I believe that this is a book that will substantially stretch educators and policymakers and should be required reading for any university educational leadership program’s education policy course.

What I liked about the book

Hess’ essential premise is that we need more innovation and entrepreneurship in K-12 schooling. He believes that the “greatest challenge for teaching and learning is the creaky, rule-bound system in which they unfold” (p. 3) and that school organizations are “so hobbled [by various legacy characteristics] that even sensible efforts will fall short” (p. 3). He advocates for a greenfield approach to schooling, one that clears the ground for innovation and allows reform efforts to proceed unhindered by restrictive policies, mindsets, and other constraints.

Education Unbound, by Rick HessThis is not just a book about school choice. As Hess notes, greenfield approaches to schooling require “that choice be coupled with opportunities for entrepreneurs to enter the field, obtain resources, recruit talent, try new approaches, develop new products, compete fairly, and benefit from their successes. . . . [We] have paid little attention to the development of the infrastructure, quality control, and policy environment needed to turn school choice plans into greenfield” (p. 33).

In Chapter 2, Hess identifies four tasks that are crucial to greenfield educational reform: “removing obstacles, ensuring quality, and supplying both talent and financial resources” (p. 41). He then describes in detail in Chapters 3 through 6 the issues, the challenges, and some potential solutions in each of those four areas. Unfortunately, as Hess notes, “for all their virtues, [American] schools … are not noted for their embrace of creative problem solvers” (p. 1) and that “the vast majority of superintendents [and principals] have learned to regard precedent-breaking action as risky and conflict as something to be avoided” (p. 61).

I liked Hess’ recognition that we tolerate wide discrepancies in outcomes when it comes to public education but not when it comes to for-profit educational services. For example, he says that “in education, we … are much more squeamish about [for-profit] approaches that may yield uneven quality (even if we quietly tolerate massive mediocrity and unevenness among existing school districts)” (p. 85). I think that’s an important point worth emphasizing. We are so afraid that for-profit solutions will cause harm to students. Of course some will. They already do, and we should work to prevent those from happening as much as we can. But the same is true for public education. We shouldn’t stifle opportunities for innovation for some perceived notion of educational quality that, in reality, is also variable in the public sector. Instead, as he advocates, we need better oversight and better mechanisms for accountabilty, ones that go far beyond – and are more robust and complex than – the simplistic bubble-sheet accountability measures that we have now.

Key quotes

We routinely look at new learning tools and ask only how they might be used to improve traditional classrooms rather than how they might revolutionize schooling. . . . Technology is not a way to augment yesterday’s classrooms but rather a tool with which to revolutionize schooling. (pp. 27–28)

AND

The dysfunction that limns our school systems is like the air we breathe. It’s so familiar and accepted that, after a while, we take it for granted. We forget that things might be otherwise – that there’s no reason choosing to be an educator should mean accepting bureacracy, standardization, and inept management. (p. x)

AND

It is hard to see how even souped-up versions of existing approaches will recruit or prepare the kind of talent needed to fundamentally improve K-12 education. (p. 87)

AND

[An] often overlooked operational barrier is the tendency of district leaders to regard staff time and salaries as sunk costs. . . . Districts typically do not eliminate teaching or staff positions, even if an innovation allows nine employees to accomplish what used to take ten. The result is that school and district leaders have a hard time seeing labor-saving technologies or services as cost-effective. . . . A management style that ignores cost efficiencies in staff time and salaries constitutes an enormous obstacle . . . Rather than ask whether a tutoring program would allow a district to reduce the number of paraprofessionals or whether a more sophisticated diagnostic tool might allow talented elementary teachers to accommodate more students, . . . officials seemingly operate from the premise that technology and service providers must “supplement but not supplant” personnel. (p. 59)

AND

The failure of most [best practices-oriented reform] efforts is due to barnacles that encumber today’s school systems, including inefficient human resource departments, intrusive collective bargaining agreements, outdated technology, poorly designed management information systems, and other structural impediments. Greenfielders do not reject the utility of sensible best practices, but they question the assumption that the best practice mind-set will be enough to overcome these obstacles. . . . If we are to deliver transformative improvement, it is not enough to wedge new practices into familiar schools and districts; we must re-imagine the system itself. (pp. 6–7)

Questions I have after reading this book

  • What is the likelihood of us ever achieving even some of the greenfield approaches that Hess advocates?
  • What are the best ways to address the “supplement but not supplant” mindsent of school leaders, teachers unions, and policymakers when it comes to technology and personnel?
  • Can we get educators to recognize that digital technologies will supplant some of their work – and some of them – and that this will be a good thing for students?

Rating

I liked this book a LOT. I like any book that really stretches my own thinking and pushes me into new areas that I haven’t considered much. This is one of those books and I bet it will be for you too. I give it 5 highlighters (out of 5).

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[See my other reviews and recommended reading]

Disclosure

This book was sent to me gratis by the publisher. I was not compensated in any way for this review and was not asked by the author or the publisher to write positively about this book.

Book review – Teaching with wikis, blogs, podcasts, & more

My goal for June: 30 days, 30 book reviews. Today’s book is Teaching With Wikis, Blogs, Podcasts, & More: Dozens of Easy Ideas for Using Technology to Get Kids Excited About Learning, by Kathleen Fitzgibbon. My short recommendation? Stay away from this book.

What I liked about the book

TeachingwithwikisThe only redeeming aspect of this book is that the author gives some ideas for classroom lessons and projects that may be useful for educators who are new to social media.

What I didn’t like about the book

There’s not much in this book. It’s only 48 pages long and is intended for grades 3 and higher. We bought this book thinking that it would be an interesting end-of-year gift for our son’s 4th-grade teacher. When it arrived from Amazon and we saw what it was, we gave her Will Richardson’s book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcats, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms, instead.

The back cover of the book says “This book of quick tips and practical ideas shows how to fuse technology with everyday teaching. Readers will learn ways to use presentation software, e-portfolios, digital cameras, interactive whiteboards, and other teacher-tested tools to enhance learning and motivate students.” What you get, however, is simplistic and fairly unhelpful.

Key quotes

Here are a couple of examples of what’s in the book…

Have students go online and find a free software tool for creating blogs. They name their blogs and create a blog address or URL. Encourage students to make the title catchy. Have students choose a template, a tool that creates the page where they write and categorizes content. Have students write their first blog posting. (p. 16)

That’s it. That’s the kind of advice you get for setting up your students’ blogs. If you can navigate these instructions successfully, you don’t need the book in the first place because you already know enough about blogs to make this happen.

Here’s another one…

Publish the podcast. Go to any free online server that provides a server for uploading audio files. (p. 32)

Again, I’m thinking that any educator that can do this successfully with the given instructions has no need for the book. The book is full of stuff like this.

Rating

I give this book 1 highlighter (out of a possible 5). I was tempted to give it 0, but there are some redeeming ideas for future lessons scattered throughout the book. As far as I can tell, there isn’t much other reason for anyone to buy this book. Whatever’s in here can be better found on web sites and blogs.

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[See my other reviews and recommended reading]

Book review – Rethinking education in the age of technology

My goal for June: 30 days, 30 book reviews. Today’s book is Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America, by Allan Collins and Richard (Rich) Halverson. This book is a worthy addition to any school administrator’s nightstand and should be required reading in university educational leadership preparation programs or teacher education programs’ history of education courses.

What I liked about the book

rethinkingeducationThe authors blend a historical perspective on schooling with a keen understanding of the potential of technology for the present and future of learning. Notice the distinction between schooling and learning. In this book, that distinction is important. As the authors say early on, “It is time that educators and policymakers start to rethink education apart from schooling” (p. xiv, emphasis added). They also note that “most of the changes in the way people acquire information are occurring outside of schools” (p. 5) rather than in them.

Collins and Halverson state that our society already made the shift from an apprenticeship model of education to the universal schooling era. At present time we are living through a new shift: a move from universal schooling to an era of lifelong learning. This is resulting in big changes related to responsibility, expectations, academic content, pedagogy, assessment, location, culture, and relationships (see Chapter 6). The authors emphasize that the local school will not be replaced, but the role of new alternatives such as community-based learning centers where students and adults work side by side, workplace learning, home schooling, and virtual schooling “will make us rethink the dominant role of K-12 public schools” (pp. 3–4).

I liked how the authors devoted a chapter apiece to the arguments of technology enthusiasts (Chapter 2) and technology skeptics (Chapter 3). While they are admitted technology enthusiasts, I thought they did a pretty good job of presenting the opposing arguments fairly and thoughtfully, particularly when one also adds in Chapter 7, which addresses what we might gain and lose in a new educational paradigm. I also liked the discussion in the book about the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. As the authors note, “if educators cannot successfully integrate new technologies into what it means to be a school, . . . students with the means and ability will pursue their learning outside of the public school” (p. xv). We are not talking enough about these social justice / equity issues.

One of the key points of the book is that there are “deep incompatibilities” between current schooling practices and the “demands” of new technologies (p. 6). Significantly, the authors recognize that technology makes teachers’ work more difficult: it requires instructors to acquire new skills, undercuts the lockstep model of schooling, and undermines educators’ classroom expertise (p. 6). Many technology enthusiasts – including myself – often don’t pay enough attention to the complexity and difficulty of what we’re asking educators to do.

Halverson has done a great deal of work related to educational gaming. I’m glad that he and Collins integrated throughout the book some discussion of the enormous potential of computer simulations for both student and adult learning.

Key quotes

While the imperatives of the industrial-age learning technologies can be thought of as uniformity, didactism, and teacher control, the knowledge-age learning technologies have their own imperatives of customization, interaction, and user-control. (p. 4)

AND

We are not going to fix education by fixing the schools. (p. 142)

AND

Apprenticeship was not a viable pedagogy for mass schooling. . . . The pedagogy of computer tutors echoes the apprenticeship model in setting individual tasks for learners and offering guidance and feedback as they work. (p. 97)

AND

We suspect that someday it will occur to people that these certifications are more valuable than high school diplomas, in the sense that they specify more precisely what a person can do in some area of knowledge. (p. 88) 

Questions I have after reading this book

  • How many parents will really pull their students out of school because of learning concerns? Will credentialing concerns, historical affection for local schools, and/or child care issues trump more abstract issues related to “learning?”
  • Could / will we create certificates of mastery in other fields like the ones that have been developed for information technology professionals? If so, will those eventually replace to some degree the credentialing role that typically has belonged to secondary and postsecondary institutions?
  • Will we see the re-emergence of the apprenticeship model, this time facilitated by online mentors, software, and/or simulations?
  • Are technology skeptics looking at and assessing relevant, appropriate student outcomes? For that matter, are technology enthusiasts?

Rating

This book was probably my favorite educational technology book that I read in 2009. I gave a copy to Will Richardson when he visited Iowa last December and he liked it too. It’s a very thoughtful, insightful work and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have known Rich Halverson a long time and am absolutely delighted to award his book 5 highlighters (out of 5).

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[See my other reviews and recommended reading]

Book review – Liberating learning: Technology, politics, and the future of American education

My goal for June: 30 days, 30 book reviews. Today’s book is Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education by Terry Moe and John Chubb. I posted seven quotes from the book last fall. Several readers asked me to chime in with my opinion of the book. I’m finally getting around to doing so!

What I liked about the book

Moe and Chubb’s book can be summarized by two quotations from page 145:

  • To the powers that be, innovations of true consequence are not attractive. They are threatening – and they need to be stopped, whatever advantages they might offer to children and the nation’s education system. That is why, in state after state, what we see . . . [is] political action by the defenders of the system – mainly the unions – to defuse change and keep the system pretty much as it is.
  • There is . . . something unique about technology that sets it apart from the other sources of education reform. It is a social force that is essentially out of control. No one is in charge of it. No one can really stop it.

Chapters 3 and 5 elaborate most fully on the first premise. Chapter 6 is where the authors explain most of their second premise. I agree with the authors’ assertion that technology is

an exogenous social force that originates from outside the education system, is transforming nearly every aspect of American . . . life, and will keep transforming it in the decades ahead. (p. 151)

I liked the authors’ discussions of both virtual schooling and data-informed teacher evaluation. I didn’t always agree with what the authors said on these topics but they gave me much food for thought.

I also appreciated learning more about the two charter schools in Dayton, Ohio that the authors profiled. I’d like to learn more about those schools’ day-to-day operations in order to get a better sense of the students’ experience.

The authors gave me LOTS to think about in this book. Several of their perspectives on educational technology are ones to which I hadn’t given much attention. I’m not informed enough yet to have a definite opinion about some of their assertions, but at least I now know that I’ve got some new cognitive roads to travel.

What I didn’t like about the book

I was really excited to read this book after Chapter 1, which was a short, 12–page introduction. Chapter 2 was fine (and expected): a restatement of international test results and other indicators of American schools’ current struggles. Then I read Chapter 3, which was essentially a 27–page rant against teachers unions:

if anything is stone-cold certain about the current structure of power, it is that technological change is destined to be resisted by the teachers unions and their allies. This is “their” system, and they are compelled by their own interests to preserve and protect it. They will go to the ramparts to see that technology does not have real transformative effects. (p. 55)

Although I got the authors’ point (quite clearly!), and even agreed with some of what they said, I thought that the tone and overall approach of the chapter was over-the-top. Many educators will not make it through Chapter 3 because they’re too disgusted – not with what the authors say but how they say it. This is too bad because I think the book is definitely worth reading.

The other main problem I had with the book is that the authors seemed to make a large jump from correlation to causation in Chapter 5. They had several graphs that are intended to illustrate teacher unions’ resistance to desired reforms. However, I would have liked to have seen more concrete examples of teacher unions’ opposition to various educational technology initiatives. Although they do this somewhat within the contexts of virtual schooling and data-informed teacher evaluation, those are only two of the many, many issues related to P-12 educational technology. It’s a leap to say that unions’ objections to certain aspects of these specific reforms are equivalent to an overall resistance to technology integration in the classroom. I have yet to see many teachers unions at any level come out with explicit policy statements or bargaining actions against classroom-level uses of technology (if you have some, I’d love too see them).

Key quotes

See these quotes from last fall:

AND ALSO

Teachers and administrators . . . are subject to expectations all around that they modernize their schools and keep up with the times. They also live in the same technologically oriented society that parents, students, and public officials do. . . .  they have good reasons to seek out technology on their own, and not to remain permanently stuck in the outdated pencil-and-paper mode of yesteryear. The problem, however, is that they only have incentives to make the most incremental of changes – changes that are helpful but don’t threaten anyone’s jobs or established routines. Their approach to technology is rooted in the status quo. It is about how to make the existing system work better without really changing it. (pp. 104–105, emphasis added)

AND

The common theme [of student surveys] is one of frustration. Students complain that there are too few computers, too many limits on computer time and Internet use, and too little reliance on computers for class assignments and research. . . . What they want is a technology-rich educational environment in which they have the freedom to roam and discover and interact. What they get . . . are limited computer and Internet resources, lots of restrictions, teachers who lack knowledge and interest in technology – and an approach to education that looks pretty much as it always did. (pp. 105–106).

AND

The long-standing idea that there is something intrinsic to schooling that makes it immutably labor intensive and immune to technological change is simply not true. Maybe it was in the past. But it isn’t now. Technology can be substituted for labor. (p. 157)

Questions I have after reading this book

  • Are teachers’ unions really against educational technology generally or do they only oppose specific aspects of specific reforms?
  • Are teachers’ unions really against educational technology generally or are they mostly ignorant of / apathetic about the true issues?
  • Are most teachers’ unions thinking or talking about educational technology issues and the potential impact on their classroom practice or job security? [I’m guessing not]
  • How long will it take for the elimination of geography and time as barriers to learning to truly impact most teachers’ jobs or school systems’ day-to-day practices? [the authors guess 20 years or more]

Rating

I give this book 4 highlighters (out of 5). Although the incessant bashing of teachers unions gets old pretty quick, the authors also gave me many new lenses through which to view educational technology policy and reform. Take Chapters 3 and 5 with a grain of salt, but don’t avoid the book because of them.

[See my other reviews and recommended reading]

Book review – Ignore everybody: And 39 other keys to creativity

I’ve set an ambitious goal for this June: 30 days, 30 book reviews. I’m going to start with what probably was my favorite book from last year, Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity, by Hugh MacLeod (the author and I are not direct relatives).

Things I liked about the book

ignoreeverybodyMacLeod starts off with a bang. In the first chapter, he says “The more original your idea, the less good advice other people will be able to give you” (p. 1) and “a big idea will change you” (p. 2). I was hooked from that moment. I’ve been breaking new ground in educational leadership academe for years now and have consistently found that the vast majority of my peers don’t have much to offer me in terms of insight or direction. I don’t know where all of this social-media-and-tribe-building-as-an-alternative-to-traditional-measures-of-success-for-research-faculty stuff is going to go. But it sure is an interesting ride. And MacLeod is correct – it has changed my thinking substantially.

Each chapter is short. Just enough to give you some context and get you thinking about your life and your job. And think you will…

MacLeod is a popular cartoonist. He punctuates his writing with some of his art. Awesome.

Key quotes

Here are a few key quotes:

Good ideas alter the power balance in relationships. That is why good ideas are always initially resisted. (p. 2)

Boy, I’ve lived this one several hundred times over the past few years. Either I’m ahead of my time (in my field) or I’m completely insane. Time will tell!

AND

Your wee [creative] voice came back because your soul somehow depends on it. There’s something you haven’t said, something you haven’t done, some light that needs to be switched on, and it needs to be taken care of. Now.

So you have to listen to the wee voice or it will die … taking a big chunk of you along with it. (p. 28)

The peer-review publication paradigm – where your writing goes in places that educators never visit – never made a lot of sense to me. Blogging and other social media have given me different outlets and a different voice. And I’m much, much happier for it. My wee voice was crying out for something different. I just didn’t know it.

AND

Don’t make excuses. Just shut the hell up and get on with it. (p. 82)

AND

The ease with which a blog (or whatever social medium you prefer) can circumvent the gatekeepers is staggering. (p. 140)

Questions I have after reading this book

  • Am I brave enough to never publish a peer-reviewed article again?
  • Is there enough space in my day job as a professor to accommodate my non-peer-review writing and social media passions?
  • What should I be working on next? Where do I want to go and what do I want to be doing in 5 years?
  • How do I reach school leaders when most are not yet active in social media?
  • How many graduating high school seniors can I give this book to before a parent complains about the language (some of which is a bit crude)?

Rating

I give this book 5 highlighters (out of 5) to reflect a) the amount of yellow ink in my copy, and b) the affirmation of much of what I believe (or would like to believe) about myself and my work. Extra credit for the author’s last name!

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[See my other reviews and recommended reading]

Laptops and the Social Web are dangerous!

A while back I shared one of my two favorite passages from Pamela Livingston’s excellent book, 1-to-1 Learning: Laptop Programs That Work. Here's the other one:

[W]e need to make “The Shift.” The Shift: to classrooms that are not solely teacher-centric, with the teacher as lone disseminator of knowledge and the children in the awe-stricken and lesser role of recipients of the knowledge. The Shift: where the teacher sometimes has the central role when he or she explains and coaches and elaborates on work to be done … but not always. The Shift: where the learners sometimes have the central role, either individually or in groups. The Shift: where the roles of teacher and learner are fuzzy; sometimes the teacher learns from the students; sometimes the students learn from one another; and, yes, sometimes the students learn from the teacher. The Shift: where sometimes it’s hard to know who has the central role, where activities are buzzing along, learning is happening, dynamics are shifting, and no one is “looking up” to anyone as the sole source of knowledge.

Nothing jumpstarts The Shift quite like 1–to-1. Because when every student in the room has a [laptop], he or she does not have to look “up” to the teacher for resources or ideas – the student has resources at his or her fingertips. There is no distribution or retrieval of materials, no sole purveyor of information, and no firm start or stop to learning because it can continue beyond the classroom into the library, or home, or anywhere.

Some find The Shift dangerous. And in a way, it is. It’s dangerous to the educator who controls the classroom with an iron fist and wants all the answers on the test to be things he or she said in class, repeated word-for-word. It’s dangerous to educators who have assigned the same report on Gandhi over the past 20 years and haven’t started to require synthesis or analysis of information. It’s dangerous to teachers who physically stay in one place – the front of the classroom – and move only to write on the chalkboard or whiteboard. It’s dangerous to educators who don’t want anyone to “read ahead” or to “think ahead.”

It’s dangerous to educators who view themselves as the most knowledgeable person in the room and are personally invested in staying that way. It’s dangerous to teachers who haven’t paid attention to their unengaged students and keep covering the material anyway, they way they think it ought to be covered, believing students should adapt to their approach.

If you haven’t checked out Pamela’s book, it’s well worth the read. I give it 4 highlighters.

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