Month: March 2011

Total 11 Posts

ASCD 2011

I was sitting in the first of four sessions I attended at ASCD’s annual conference when the presenter asked all of us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors and discuss a particular prompt. I turned to my seatmate and said,”Hi, I’m Dan.”

“I was noticing your press badge,” she said, without introducing herself. “I have an implicit distrust of the press. Do you mind if I make up a fake persona?”

“You know what, don’t worry about it,” I thought, and discontinued the conversation as politely and quickly as I could.

Right. So I’m the press. The fourth estate. ASCD reached out to several local bloggers, offering to comp our registration in exchange for coverage. Let’s get into it. Here are the four sessions I attended in my first and only day at #ASCD11:

  1. Curriculum 21. Heidi Hayes Jacobs.
  2. Made to Stick. Chip Heath.
  3. Moving toward Mobile. Cheryl Davis & John Nickerson.
  4. They Snooze, You Lose: 10 Shots to Recaffeinate Your Presentation. Lynell Burmark.

You can ask any one of 9,000 educators for their impression of Chip Heath’s keynote. (Here is David Cohen with a nice take, for instance.) Lynell Burmark has been on this blog’s radar for a good three years. As someone who occasionally exchanges speaking services for checks made out to “Cash,” I figured I’d attend and see what tips I could pick up and perhaps inquire also about the design decisions that went into the cover of her last book. I took off when it became apparent that I probably wasn’t her target audience.

So I’m only recapping the sessions from Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Davis & Nickerson.

Curriculum 21

Jacobs was an ASCD featured speaker and she gave a confident talk at TEDxNYED a few weeks ago so I settled in. Her recommendation was for both short-term and long-term upgrades to our schools: a) teachers need to make one-to-one replacements of curricula while b) administrators need to replace old systems with new ones, all supporting 21st-century learning. She had both the microscopic and macroscopic lenses. It was a talk that let no one off the hook. No matter what your role in a child’s education, she had a job for you.

My seatmate and I never really recovered from our contentious introduction but even setting that aside, I was irritated throughout most of Jacobs’ talk. I found it difficult to pin down the specific, gnawing source of the irritation but here are some possibilities:

Jacobs pitched her products nine times over ninety minutes — six references to her book, three references to the website of her consultancy.

She recurred frequently to catchphrases (ie. “Paper. Is. Over,” “I have met the enemy: the #2 pencil.”) They were bombastic and guaranteed to pop up a few times on the #ASCD11 hashtag but they were only meaningful to the extent that you brought to them your own meaning.

Her style was passive-aggressive and frequently sarcastic. After dazzling the crowd with a Gapminder demo, she said, “Don’t use it. Use your laminated charts instead.” After demonstrating Wordle and Visual Thesaurus, she said, “Or don’t use them. They’re free.”

Her implementation designs were sketchy. I very much appreciated that she came with a particular rubric to guide our replacements. They should either a) give students more ownership, b) engage them more, c) or create a more quality product. (I’m not saying those are the exact elements I’d choose. I’m just glad she had something more than “new = better.”) Also, she emphasized several times that it wasn’t enough that students are creating new media like (eg.) podcasts – they need to create good podcasts.

Still, she spent a lot of stage-time demoing web apps, dazzling her audience into submission to her message (the times, you see, they are a-changing) with much less clarity on what educators are supposed to do with those apps. For instance, with Wordle and Visual Thesaurus, she recommended students run their essays through Wordle to identify the most frequently-used words and then run those words through Visual Thesaurus to swap them out with synonyms – a find-and-replace strategy that sounds just about right for churning out flimsy essays overburdened with fifty-cent vocabulary. We moved quickly along to the next tool.

Her embrace of new media was quick and uncritical. TED talks? “Students should be giving TED talks.” iOS apps? “By the end of eighth grade every student should create an app.” Screenplays? “I rarely find a school that requires every student to write a screenplay.”

She checked herself there and clarified that screenplays are a 20th-century medium – Curriculum 20 not Curriculum 21. The implication was, I guess, that if the medium has a born-on date older than eleven years, it deserves our skepticism.

Nevertheless, she was enthusiastic about screenplays and I couldn’t really figure it. See, I’ve written short ones and it is a weird medium. Have a look at 2010’s Academy Award-winning best original screenplay:

The camera direction. The blocking. The capitalization. The margins. None of that has anything to do with narrative. None of it is comprehensible to the average reader. None of it serves any purpose unless the screenplay eventually interacts with actors, directors, cinematographers, and so on, en route to the screen. So why, again, are we supposed to assign this idiosyncratic medium to students? Jacobs took the question for granted.

Ditto iOS apps, for a different reason. A student can write an excellent persuasive essay about any area of her expertise without any instruction in how to use a word processor. An excellent app, on the other hand, requires much more extraneous knowledge – Objective-C, for instance, or the Javascript/HTML5/CSS stack. If Jacobs is serious about requiring apps from eighth graders, does she plan on every school offering coursework in those programming languages? And, if so, what is her plan for recruiting those CS teachers from the middle school ranks? Where does she intend to find room for those required classes in the master schedule? Or are we just assuming the students will figure out how to program iOS apps? (“Haven’t you heard, Dan? These kids don’t read instruction manuals.”) Or maybe Jacobs isn’t serious. If she isn’t serious – if she hasn’t considered even the most basic logistical implications of what she’s recommending to thousands of educators – why would she say these things?

“I really mean this.” She said this several times throughout her talk, usually before some grand pronouncement like, “I don’t think any of you can improve Johnny’s performance. The only person who can improve Johnny’s performance is Johnny.” The effect was to make the audience wonder if she really meant what she said when it wasn’t preceded by this explicit assurance that she really meant it.

This was, I suppose, the nut of my irritation with Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ talk. While she heaped responsibility onto the attending teachers and principals, she failed to acknowledge any for herself. What responsibility should you, a consultant, acknowledge for a ninety-minute presentation? For starters, you should acknowledge that you are a consultant giving a ninety-minute presentation. You should acknowledge, if only to yourself, that unless you’re especially vigilant you’ll always favor simple solutions, grand pronouncements, and bombasticism over the details of implementation. You should acknowledge the vast gap in responsibility between you, the consultant, and the audience members, all of whom work with children in classrooms where the constraints on the imagination are much, much tighter than they were for you when you were at your desk reading TechCrunch or Seth Godin. Just like love means never having to say you’re sorry, being a responsible presenter means never having to say you really mean what you’re about to say.

Moving Toward Mobile

Is it a coincidence that the most effective session of the four I attended was the only one whose title wasn’t the same as a book the presenters were hawking? It has to be a coincidence.

Speaking in a much smaller room to a standing-room-only crowd, Davis and Nickerson described their district’s transition from traditional print-based curricula to iPads, iPod Touches, and predominantly digital resources. I can’t recall a single catchphrase from their talk. Instead, they described the content of the bond measures they passed, their outreach to the community, their constant attention to stakeholders within and without their school, their constant evaluation of new technology. (Here is their evaluation form.) They spoke of infrastructure – the wireless vendors that came out of the woodwork at first sign of an RFP and how the school tested each vendor by attempting to stream thirty HD movies from the same router at once. They spoke of professional development – how they sent new devices home with the teachers for the summer, how they involved teachers in micro-level discussions about implementation and macro-level discussions about philosophies of learning.

Their presentation wasn’t bombastic. (Bond measures!) But it was tightly organized and incredibly helpful. (Here are their slides.) They wrangled a large audience using a TodaysMeet backchannel and PollEverywhere. Their talk was extremely practical but it was impossible not to be inspired also.

Job Posting: Google Curriculum Fellow

Google is hiring again for the position I filled last school year. If the listing looks interesting to you (and I can’t really speak to the particulars of the project anymore) and you’re interested in a year-long sabbatical from the classroom, I highly recommend the experience. The management was awesome. You’ll have a better sense of where programming fits into math and science education. Plus, you’ll get to develop some professional muscles that you likely haven’t exercised while teaching. Like creating project specs from scratch, collaborating daily with engineers, forcing your body to urinate even though a bell hasn’t told you you’re allowed to, and trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do with the hours between 5PM and 11PM every day.

The Eager Replacements

Tom Hoffman:

I always felt like teachers like the one portrayed in the article — who understand and relate to their students, who are past the basics of classroom management, who are committed to teaching over the long haul, but are pedagogically not very sophisticated — are the key test for urban school administration and professional development. In the long run, you have to be able to reach those people, they have to be your foundation, or you are screwed. The idea that you’re going to fix your school system by laying these people off first, is, like Russo says, “particularly goofy.” As is the idea that giving these folks financial incentives will improve their instruction.

The weirdest single moment of the Michelle Rhee Q&A I attended last week at the Graduate School of Business came after she reported enthusiastically that nearly 1,000 teachers “were being moved out” at the end of this school year. (That’s a euphemism couched in the passive voice, for anyone keeping score.) Someone behind me asked where her successor planned to find their replacements and whether or not her own policies have had the unintended effect of discouraging recruitment. Her answer was “more merit pay.”

The results of this experiment will be in shortly, right?

Stop Linking To “Top 100 Blogs” Lists

There is a pile of money to be made in tricking people into enrolling in online colleges. A pile.

It’s a trick because these online colleges don’t care if students can succeed at their school or not. They profit either way. How?

The underprepared student takes out loans from the federal government – that’s your money and mine. They give that money to the college. Then they drop out halfway through, either defaulting that debt back to our tab or carrying that debt around with them for decades, unable to discharge it in bankruptcy, unable to get a job or rent an apartment because they’re a credit risk to employers and landlords. Either way, the college gets paid.

It’s a predatory system and whenever you link to a “Top 100 Teacher Blog” list, you are one of the predators. Here’s how it works:

1. The Prey Googles “Get An Online Degree”

Or something close to that. There is incredible competition to be the top result on this list. Why?

2. The Prey Clicks A Link And Looks For A Degree

3. The Predator Returns Results From Online Colleges

This is where the predators get paid off. They have passed the prey up the food chain to a larger predator and they get an awesome conversion fee for their trouble. Those fees add up to a pile of money.

But Where Do You Fit Into The Food Chain?

You’re a predator.

The other predators make big money when they’re Google’s top result. How do they become Google’s top result? They get a bunch of people to link to their website!

How do they get a bunch of people to link to their website? They make a list!

They make dozens. Top 10 social studies blogs. Top 20 writing teacher blogs. Top 100 administrator blogs. They flatter a bunch of people who are underpaid and underappreciated who then relink, reblog, and retweet the list, simply flattered to be included!

For Instance

I got an e-mail 22 February 2010 asking me for some details about my blog. At least 100 of you got the same e-mail. “You’ve been selected as one of the top 100 teacher blogs,” it said. I clicked “Spam.” I got another e-mail a month later:

I was wondering if you could please write an article about this on your site, or include the list in your blog roll. My goal in writing this article was to make it a resource for other teachers…so hopefully by coming across the list it will inspire them to start blogging as well. Please let me know if this is possible via e-mail.

No. You’re a liar. You made that list so you could take money from people who don’t need more predators in their lives.

Click “Spam.” Move on. Don’t look back. Don’t be a predator. And please relink or retweet this post whenever you see someone who doesn’t know better.


  1. Campus Progress gives for-profit colleges a solid infographic treatment.
  2. This undercover video from the Government Accountability Office is nauseating. I dare you to tell these enrollment officers apart from used-car salesmen.
  3. College, Inc.. How online, for-profit college works.
  4. More details on the money in gaming Google’s search results.

Other E-Mails To Ignore:


The other thing to be aware of in this arena is unsolicited emails where someone is asking to write a guest post on your blog. That has happened to me in the last year. They are very flattering. Fortunately, the person who wrote me provided links to examples of her work elsewhere, and I could see the guest posts were littered with links back to a scammy online college website.

They Really Get Motivation, Don’t They?

I’m working on a review of the anti-PBL / pro-PBL fracas of 2006 and I just had the wind knocked out of me by this line from Sweller & Cooper in 1985:

It was assumed that motivation, while reading a worked example, would be increased by the knowledge that a similar problem would need to be solved immediately afterwards. (p. 69)

This is their seminal study that establishes (finally!) the best practice for math instruction: I work out an example, then you work out an example from the same family as the first.

The straw man on which they premise their study (which, in turn, has been the premise of two decades of direct instruction advocacy) has to be seen to be believed. Even if I suspend disbelief for a moment, though, here’s the question I can’t find anywhere in the literature on worked examples:

What if you manage to create a perfect system of worked examples, a perfect lecture, a perfectly-wound informational system, and no one cares? What if the perfect lecture provokes students to truancy? What if a year of perfect explanation produces students who don’t want anything to do with math later in life, whether or not they’re proficient in the near term? (Boaler, 1998).

But the cost-benefit analysis of the perfect lecture is left to the teacher. Sweller, Cooper, and their modern-day acolytes totally punt the issue. “We know what works for an eight-question experiment,” they say. “You figure out how to make it work every day for a year.”

Sweller and Cooper don’t fully discount the issue of motivation but their answer – “You’ll be motivated to watch me work out this example because you’ll be doing one in a moment.” – is simply stunning. This is why teachers find it so easy to dismiss researchers.

2011 Mar 14: Sweller and Cooper’s straw man. In this study, the experimental group is taking a test on a problem while looking at an example of the same kind of problem worked out at the top of the page. The control group just takes the test. Unsurprisingly, the experimental group performs better. Surprisingly, Sweller and Cooper take this as evidence against any amount of guidance less direct than their worked examples.