Do not go stupid into that personalized learning blood: Part 1, Mind the evidence

Well, here we go again.

Though very few in education have actual experience with personalized learning, and though many questions remain around recent (but, fairly, somewhat positive) reports of personalized learning’s effectiveness, some very influential groups seem bent on getting the enterprise’s blood pumping about it.

May’s New Schools Venture Fund Summit (think Bonnaroo, only for the Big-‘R’ ed-reform crowd), for example, was heavy with sessions about personalized-learning solutions and potential. The Gates Foundation — with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg riding piggyback — has declared personalized learning its next Big Educational Priority (sigh — been here, done this), and each has engines of truthy journalism again cranking on full to sway hearts and minds. (Note the funding statements, for example, at the end of this and this.)

Close to my Minnesota home, meanwhile, the educationally active Bush Foundation has also prioritized the expansion of personalized learning. And, similar to the Gates/Zuckerberg hype playbook, Bush has promoted personalized learning’s wonders via local events keynoted by the educationally abysmal Sir Ken Robinson and public forums (led mainly by ed media/policy folks, that is) about ‘re-inventing high school’, joined by Minnesota-based ed-innovation outfits like Education Evolving (note some of the breathless ‘personalized learning’-themed content they’ve generated in the past few years here).

While it’s fairly common to see excitement swell over ‘cool practices’ in education, personalized learning’s offer (e.g., foolproof, quickly responsive instruction sculpted to each person’s needs and paces, all powered by innovative, ’21st-century’ delivery methods) has a rare amount of unifying power — something that shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering that personalized learning is so widely appealing.

  • Fans of progressive education, for one, see a tech-assisted realization of the student-centered ideal they’ve had for a century or so, but that all the system’s inept, recalcitrant teachers just can’t seem to get right. (Their characterization of system teachers, by the way, not mine.) Many parents would count in here, too, whether or not they identify as educationally progressive: in short, the idea of personalizing learning is attractive to those who have long wished individual kids’ learning and growth weren’t so tied to whole-group schedules, structures, and methods.
  • Next, the policy wonks who have long chased — and been eluded by — replicable, scalable ed improvements see a solution that could neutralize some of the human element (read: teachers, again) that’s meddled with their vision more times than Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine gang have disrupted dastardly villains.
  • Additionally, education vendors drool over all the hardware, software, training, maintenance, replacement, and even architecture schools will need to pull off personalized learning, as it should earn enough to put their grandkids through college.

Rolled together, all such parties see personalized learning as something akin to John Dewey’s Lab School, only filled with 1:1 digital devices and Interactive Whiteboards. And, as each of those so completely transformed kids’ results, the combined result could only be amaz…uh, scratch that.

And on scores like those — like, looking at histories and evidence alone — personalized learning is another rush of pumping blood I really hope we don’t wade stupidly and fully into. (I have some more practical and theoretical differences with personalized learning, but I’ll share those in a Part 2 to this post. Should be up in a few days.) This hope is not rooted some hatred of technology in the classroom or of student-centered instruction or any of that. I mean…I don’t like either of those things, but certainly not because I oppose them of themselves. I’d feel much differently about them if they’d ever worked as promised, believe me.

The plain fact, however, is that they haven’t. They’ve historically failed loads of kids — most especially those coming to school with the most profound needs — and cost the enterprise immense amounts of time, funding, angst, and opportunity before ultimately being scrapped.

(And please don’t forget: after these kinds of Next Big Things don’t send achievement through the roof as advertised [and they won’t], the system’s teachers will definitely be left holding the bag on their failures. Ask any funder or reformer about why the promised results didn’t materialize [see Gates, again — the above-linked pieces will give a sample of this retort], and they’ll always point back to [a] teachers who were too dense or too stubborn, or to [b] the fortified-against-change conditions the dense, stubborn teachers have aligned to create. Always.)

If you’re skeptical of these claims, thinking it’s all just some know-it-all Luddite’s ranty viewpoint, please read either this, thisthis, this, this, or this. They’re all well-researched works that should give you about all the history and analysis you should need, and they all say pretty well the same thing about ‘revolutionary student-centered approaches’ like personalized learning. (SERENDIPITY ALERT: A hero of mine, Larry Cuban, put out a blog just today touching on just such themes. See it here.)

Hell, even a co-author of the RAND report everyone’s waving around as definitive proof of personalized learning’s greatness is urging caution, reminding that personalized learning’s success seems greatly dependent on school-contextual factors. It’s a caution I appreciate, especially considering that some of the most personalized-learning-effective school contexts being created are being done so at costs upward of $25K per kid annually — and, if you’re a kid from a family that can afford such price tags in the first place, loads of statistics over a long period of time have indicated that you’d likely succeed about anywhere in American education, personalized-learning-enabled or not.

So…RAND as definitive proof? I think not. In light of the histories I linked above, the questionable parts — and there are plenty — become even more questionable.

In short: before rushing stupid into all the blood pumping around personalized learning, join me in reasonably interrogating the hype. You’re going to see a lot of this hype in the months ahead, as lots of passion — supported by money, lots of money — will make sure you do. When you do, though, follow advice from Dan Willingham’s  very wise (and way too overlooked, if you ask me) When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education to slow your rush into the pumping blood:

  1. Strip claims to their essentials (i.e., of emotion, claims persuaders are ‘like you’, analogies, etc) and evaluate for scientific credibility, and Flip promised outcomes to judge whether or not the trade-offs are worth the time/dollars/angst
  2. Trace claims to their original sources to verify when able, don’t just rely on that ‘experts’ or journalists or whoever is giving the fullest, most accurate picture
  3. Analyze claims based on evidence — and ask persuaders to provide such evidence if they do not. Remember, too, that things like Rick Wormeli writings and Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks do not count as evidence. You should care most about how students grew when studied, and preferably across many demographics and contexts. Smoke may be blown, but don’t take it in without sound evidence.
  4. Asking ‘Should I Do It?’ as in, ‘Does it make sense for my context?’ (preferably in light of points 1-3, above) before jumping to the conclusion that anything is roundly good for every student and teacher everywhere.

For more complete breakdowns of these questions and this decision-making process, see Willingham’s When Can You Trust the Experts? chapters 5-8.

…and, well, if you’d rather not do the homework because you’ve made up your mind about PL’s greatness (even though it hasn’t proven much of anything yet), I have no idea what to say to you. Enjoy your evidence-unbothered life, I suppose. At least you’ll have lots of company.

(Part 2 to follow soon with some practical & theoretical points against personalized learning — with evidence, of course.) 🙂


With researchED NYC in sight, reposting 2016’s rED DC reflections

As we’re now two months away from researchED’s next US event, I’m reposting this set of reflections from last year’s rED DC event. If you’re curious about joining us in Brooklyn on 7 October, do take a look at the links herein to get a better idea of a researchED event. And, of course, if you’re sold (and you really should be — it’s hard to imagine a better bang-for-PD-bucks than this: Tom Bennett, Karin Chenoweth, Lucy Crehan, The Learning Scientists, Morgan Polikoff, John Mighton, Pedro de Bruyckere, and SO MANY MORE for only $50?! Bring your whole school!), make sure to visit the researchED NYC event site to register. I’m really looking forward to it, and I’d love to see you there.  

Two weeks ago I had the great privilege to work with researchED — the UK’s practitioner-driven improvement movement — on hosting a conference in Washington, DC, their second ever in the US. And though researchED’s conferences and international network of education professionals have made profound impressions on me for going on two years, the excitement I saw in conference participants and the near-continuous communication I’ve received (and witnessed via social media) in the days since may actually have lifted my researchED-thusiasm to a new height.

For in short, it’s clear that lots of people learned from and became intrigued by all the ideas flying around the event, and it’s clear that many of them are now connecting with each other like mad to chat further—solidifying understandings, debating perspectives, working out collaborations, and such like.

…exactly, in other words, what this researchED thing is all about.

Also: considering researchED’s fierce commitment to building and broadcasting sound educational practices (as opposed to emphasizing structural-reform concerns of accountability, school choice, etc., or any number of intuitively pleasing but unproven methods), the conference provided a healthy dose of exactly what’s missing from our education-improvement conversation.

I’d provide a general recap of events here, but I find it more appropriate to defer to those in attendance, speakers and audience alike. For if all this talk I’ve done about researchED conferences and connections have you interested, it’s really these folks you should pay attention to for confirmation and additional information, not me. My objectivity on the matter, after all, was shot long ago.

(Plus, it’s not like I haven’t put it out there already: If you’d really like to see things through my organizer lens, see this blog post at A Total Ed Case, this tweet-story of the day at Storify, or, of course, any of the researchED-gushing I did through TES in the past couple months. The TES posts aren’t directly about the conference, per se, but I share quite a lot in those pieces about why the researchED influence is so important to get established in North America.)

Below are a few summary pieces generously penned by various participants at 29 October’s DC conference. If you check them out (and you really should), do yourself a favor and follow these blogs and these fine educators on Twitter. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot if you do, and doing so is how we will keep researchED’s learning momentum rolling.

So, it was indeed a special day and researchED is indeed a special movement. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and I’m thrilled to see so many in North America coming together to experience the same. I hope we’ll be able to tell you about another event on this continent sometime soon. In the meantime keep learning, keep connecting to new folks, and keep asking the right questions.

A quick heads-up: npj Science of Learning Community

Hey Ed Cases. I hope everyone’s had a good June.

Very quickly, especially for those of you interested in the science of learning and how it can be brought more intentionally into your schools and classrooms: Nature Partner Journals has built a new community on the science of learning, and their catalog is growing. It seems like it could become a really good resource for those interested. (Special thanks here to Ulrich for connecting me to them, by the way.)

I contributed a piece there this week (an overview of the status of evidence-based ed practices in the US — hoping to build upon it as time allows), and it has made it to lots of folks internationally that I didn’t already know via researchED (NYC conference tix now on sale, by the way–check out that lineup!) or edutwitter. Pretty cool.

Take a look, be in touch with comments/feedback, join the Sci of Learning community, add the site to your bookmarks, look into contributing a piece, or whatever. I’ve found them to be really good folks, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they take it.

Best year and a half ever of ed writing? Hess, Willingham pile on.

Not to turn this into ‘A Total Ed Book Case’ or anything, but I quickly have to recommend a couple more titles before I get back to the types of ed things I’m usually (if infrequently) ranting about. There’s just so much important stuff out at the moment that I can’t really help myself.

I’d go on at length about more of these releases, even, but getting around to posting is a little hard right now: The next researchED is ramping up, work — at Search Institute around student motivation and some independent PD/consulting/writing — has been hectic, my next book is in early stagesI have a kid graduating from high school, etc., etc.

That said, see these reviews I wish I’d have written (Bob Pondiscio on Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight and Checker Finn on  E.D. Hirsch’s Why Knowledge Matters), then go read the Seidenberg and the Hirsch.

And then, as long as you’re on a roll (and hey, we’re in education — you’ve got some reading to catch up on in the next few months, right?), here are a few more for your to-read list:

NOTE: If you’re seeking a prose version of this —    — because you need a shot of  teacher-voice-elevating, it’s for the kids!-type inspiration, I’ll say straight away that the titles above may not be for you. Look here instead, or for one of the many like teacher memoirs…and, of course, hang in there. Comfort food is most certainly in order from time to time.

If, however, you’re looking for something more nutrient-rich to strengthen your practice and understanding, not just your soul — substantive works about how people learn and/or about how ed systems and operations can be improved to aid such learning, that is — the above list should keep you going for a while. Each title is based on loads of evidence, goes hard against many deeply grooved (and progress-hindering) enterprise grains, and holds nothing back about what education immediately has to start doing better.

And it’s not exclusively theory, analysis, or accounts of lab-based studies, as you might be thinking. On the contrary, you’ll find a lot in that list from education’s front lines (see especially the Chenoweth, the Michaela, and the Crehan), just no views cast through the overly idealistic or sentimental lenses so typically used in ‘from the ground’ ed accounts. These are books about sound actions teachers can deploy and why they should (with support, loads of studied support!), and I couldn’t be happier.

In light of this windfall, in fact, I had to ask a school staff I recently presented to if they thought, like I’m beginning to, that something seems to be happening here. I’ve been studying education fairly heavily for around fifteen years, after all, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen another year-and-a-half span so glutted with ed titles this valuable. For total ed cases like me, a wave like this from the publishing world is all rather exciting.

Now on to a few words about the books I started this post by saying I wanted to tell you about. For within the exciting list above, I’d rank these two — Rick Hess’s Letters to a Young Education Reformer and Dan Willingham’s The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads — as way up near the top.

Hess’s excellent and highly readable Letters is the most structural-reform-focused of all the titles gushed over in this post. And while structural-reform concerns usually aren’t really my thing, I’ve waited at least a decade for someone with Hess’s reform-cachet to point out ways reformers’ myopia and mis-steps are interfering with the ed enterprise’s positive progress.

Several of the takes in Letters weren’t real surprising, as I’ve long followed and appreciated Hess’s stances on ed reform (most especially his perfect distinction between big ‘R’ and little ‘r’ reform). In Letters, though, Hess brings many such insights into one clean package, both (1) accurately describing the mindsets, values, and actions of the last decade’s reformers and self-styled ‘education activists’ and (2) wisely urging heavy doses of reason to go with all their unquestionable amounts of passion and potential. He picks apart reformers’ tendencies to over-correct (!) on things like data interpretation/reaction, getting improvements ‘to scale’, kowtows to funders, etc., etc., giving me great comfort that my experience with these same reform types has not all been a complete misread. (And he does all this in a remarkably civil, fair, and humorous style — important, I’d say, in the current ‘with us or against us’ atmosphere, and worth emulating.)

Comforting and insightful as I found it all, however, I have some doubts (much like Gary Rubenstein brought up here) that Letters will do much to puncture the reformers’ considerable hubris. For simply, I just haven’t ever known the hardcore reformers and/or reform-wired leaders I’ve worked around to have very pronounced (or any?) capacities for self-reflection, deeper study, or doubt. In lieu of conversions, then, my personal Big Hope is that enough of us little-‘r’ reform types will read Hess and gather from it the strength and evidence necessary to mount more effective challenges and pushbacks. (Still, I fully intend to mail a few copies of this book out to some of the more craw-jamming reform types I’ve worked with. I figure it’s worth a shot, anyway.)

Switching gears to The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads by Daniel Willingham: it is, pretty well par for Dr. Dan’s course, essential. Here’s the review I left on Amazon after reading it:

Of all the thinkers out there working to improve how education gets done, none is more important than Dan Willingham.

There are all kinds of these thinkers/writers, of course, covering all kinds of publishing territory: ed-reform experts frothing over things like accountability systems and school choice, ‘teacher voices elevating’ from classrooms to say…erm…not all that much (beyond, of course, that teaching is hard), reporters–often without experience in ed (just sayin’)–jumping up to point out this year’s Thing That Will Change Everything, and the like. Through all these characters and the various axes they’re grinding, Willingham remains trained on the single matter all in education should be most concerned about: how people learn–and REALLY how people learn, not what some 19th-century philosopher theorized about how people learn or what some tech provider would love for u$ to believe about how learning i$ evolving or whatever.

And as how people really learn will always be at the center of the educational pursuit (would you take your car to a mechanic, for instance, who wasn’t real clear about how cars work?), I’m always thankful when Willingham throws another book into the world. ‘The Reading Mind’ is yet another Willingham triumph. (Alongside Mark Seidenberg’s ‘Language at the Speed of Sight’ and Doug Lemov’s ‘Reading Reconsidered’ of the past year or so, in fact, 2016-17 may have produced a perfect evidence-supported resource set for your school team’s re-education around reading.)

Though Willingham kicks off the book by saying its foremost purpose is not to be about how people learn to read (but, rather, to describe the processes behind how experienced readers read), there’s more important content here for teachers than can be found in most teacher-training programs, NCTE publications, or district-level professional departments put together. Having read Willingham’s books and other writings for close to 10 years now, I was familiar with several principles and references shared in ‘The Reading Mind’ already but still found many useful and applicable pieces. I appreciated especially the details about vocabulary learning (‘Words, Words, Words’, ch 4), the ideas about reading and one’s self-concept (‘Becoming a Reader’, ch 6), and all the measured (and myth-shattering) responses to the ed-technophiles (‘Reading After the Digital Revolution’, ch 7). Though far from a how-to manual for classrooms, the types of insights Willingham packages here would be a useful filter through which to send teachers’ current practices/assignments/expectations/messages to check for evidence-alignment. I can only imagine that such professional learning would have profound impacts on kids’ outcomes and teachers’ satisfaction.

Oh, and bonus? It’s funny. Try it, I know you’ll agree.

In short: if you’ve been looking to learn more about evidence-supported ed practices but weren’t sure where to jump in, this year’s provided at least two graduate courses’ worth of reading. Happy learning!

How books by Karin Chenoweth and Michaela School blew up my book planning (and why I’m glad they did)

So I’d been working up to writing my second book. Nothing full-tilt or anything, just some exploration around an education issue that had infuriat — er, fascinated — me for a while. I hadn’t yet reached the point of publishers or schedules or anything, but I was feeling pretty good about my research/outlining and figured that, if I could stay on such a ramp, a full proposal by the end of this year was feasible. (And as others I’d shared my early progress with showed real enthusiasm, I’d even started to get a little excited.)

Then, in a span of three months, two new education titles came along and ruined everything. After reading them, I took a long look at all my notes and decided that scrapping the idea was the best way to go. (Well…for now, anyway. It’s still an idea I think has promise, and those don’t come along for me every day. Stay tuned.)

The books that did it — Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Waya volume of essays by staffers at London’s Michaela School, and Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement by the Education Trust‘s Karin Chenoweth — are both brilliant, brimming with vital insights about evidence-informed instruction, philosophies, leadership, and school operations. I find them so valuable, in fact, that I’ve been recommending them left and right to individual ed cases and leadership teams I work with.

NOTE: These books’ accomplishments weren’t real surprising. I’ve come to know several Michaela teachers via researchEDTwitter, and their blogs over the past few years, so I went into their book already knowing a fair amount about their practices and guiding principles. Similarly, Chenoweth has been reporting how ‘unexpected’ schools produce their great results for over a decade, and I still look to her work on regular bases. If you don’t know her It’s Being DoneHow it’s Being Done, and Getting it Done, it’s high time you changed that.

Tiger Teachers and How Schools Succeed differ considerably from typical insightful ed-improvement titles, however, in how they are told. For rather than building up support for certain practices and approaches with lots of structured research, reference, and connection-drawing, they promote effective practices by letting practitioners share their experiences with those practices: what they look like in action, how they needed some trial-and-error to get right, what resources provided key direction, and on and on.

And in reading these books, it was this format that really stood out to me. My ‘writing brain’ kept poking at me, like this:

  1. ‘Hey Eric. Wouldn’t it be great if the ed conversation had more books like these?’
  2. ‘Whoooa! Wouldn’t some of the schools, teachers, and admins you work with love that teacher’s story? And those examples? How powerful was that?! Will the book we’re thinking of doing have anything like that in it? No? Hmmm…’
  3. ‘Funny: there are all kinds of specific success stories in here, but still plenty of sound theory and evidence to hold it all up. For ground-level accounts, they’re really very convincing, credible, and actionable — not at all mushy, whiny, and self-serving like so much ‘from-the-classroom’ education stuff tends to be. I think even less evidence-sensitive educators would really appreciate and respond to this approach, don’t you? And aren’t we always wondering how better to reach them?’
  4. ‘When/if that book we’re sketching comes together, you realize it’s not going to look anything like these, don’t you?’
  5. ‘As we’ve been railing for so long about the need to more thoughtfully frame the ways evidence has proven to be effective, isn’t it kinda dumb for us to proceed with our book idea when 1, 2, 3, and 4 are true?’

…and so on, ultimately making me admit to myself that the book I’d been planning would just be adding to the void I’ve been screaming into for years.

To put it another way: when the book I’d been planning would have rounded fully out, I have little doubt that it would have rung with those out there like me. Those, in other words, who love ed books filled with arguments about the ed establishment’s indifference to evidence, heaps of thoroughly researched supports, pages and pages of references for further study, and all that.

The ‘people like me’ bubble is really very small, though. While our bubble gets all rocked by E.D. Hirsch‘s or Mark Seidenberg‘s latest masterpieces, education’s larger bubble (media and funders and parents included, remember) gets drawn in much higher numbers to the evidence-lite (and ultimately enterprise-damaging) pap of figures like Sir Ken Robinson. Frustrating as this may be, I largely hold back bemoaning or belittling. (Besides: with down-dressings of Sir Ken this good out there, there’s no need to do much more. Perfection achieved.) Better, we should seek to understand why it works this way and what lessons we can apply forward into our own messaging and thought-leadership.

And the lesson, in large, is that figures like Sir Ken ‘work’ on educators by reaching them at values levels (e.g., help kids reach their full potentials, allow them to be joyful, they can be successful and joyful if they are able to create, etc., etc.) first, allowing him to pour in about any damn thing he wants after that, factually ‘healthy’ or not.

It’s Framing 101, basically, but we in the evidence-forward bubble continue to like it the other way round: argument, evidence, more evidence, presenting even more academically/officially to further validate the evidence (or something?), and so on. Rather than intentionally seeking values-based entry points and building our arguments around them, we prefer to insist, over and over again, that our way is right, dammit, and that they’re proven! And until we turn that around a bit, we’re likely to keep getting creamed in the campaign for educators’ hearts and minds. Just ask America’s Democratic Party.

(On this note, I’ve really appreciated recent works by Hirsch and David Didau for framing evidence-supported practices as best from a social-justice view. It’s a great start. Please take some time to read them if you haven’t already.)

Stories of effective practices (READ, AGAIN: not just stories from classrooms in general, as far too many of those aren’t much more than self-expression — good sources of inspiration, maybe, but usually not much help from evidence-informed improvement standpoints) like those in Michaela’s Tiger Teachers and Chenoweth’s Schools That Succeed have great potential to reframe evidence-verified practices. They appeal much more immediately to educators at the level of educators’ values and they offer evidence-informed solutions, rather than attempting to simply overwhelm with rationality.

Look at the long list of education titles over the past 50 years lamenting educators’ resistance to what the evidence actually says, after all, and it should be evident that such an approach is worth rethinking. What is that quote, again, about the definition of insanity…?

Speaking of which, back to that book I’d been planning but that Michaela and Chenoweth helped convince me I should abandon. Right there, I myself was about to launch a proposal to do even more of the thing I’d long considered a problem. Wanting to build a book of the type I so love to read, I kind of blocked all the periphery out until Tiger Teachers and Schools That Succeed woke me up. And for that, I’d like to send even more appreciation Michaela’s and Karin Chenoweth’s ways. I’m on to a different idea now, by the way, one that will make sure to contain a lot more ‘from-the-ground’ perspectives and deliberate framing to, I hope anyway, catalyze the more researchy supports. (In all, I’m kind of modeling things on Robert Putnam’s fine Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis — which, yeah, I’d also recommend highly. If interested in knowing more, I’m happy to share. Just be in touch!) I hope I can move it, too, up the ramp and get working on it in earnest, as I think it’ll be great fun to study and write.


Practice like you want to play: Slowing the homework over-correction

Hello again, Ed Cases! I hope you’ll pardon the blog darkness for the past couple months. I pulled the shades a while to focus on some family things, to do some study for my next book (more on that soon, as I think I’m in the middle of a complete crisis  — er , course-change), and to just generally re-charge.

So…anything interesting happening lately?


I’m easing back into blog-tivity today, though, because people? We really have to talk about this damn homework thing.

We appear to be making one of our classic over-corrections on the homework issue, and you know what educational over-corrections create for our kids’ progress (and, hence, our enterprise’s success and respect).

The ‘homework good-homework bad’ debate is certainly not new. It’s irritated my craw, anyway, for a decade or more, jammed there in the first decade of the 2000s by that accuracy- and evidence-unbothered honeyguide of educationAlfie Kohn.

It’s then popped up a number of times for me in the intervening years, as I’ve worked with quite a few schools/teachers wrestling with their homework expectations and operations. And in pretty well all those cases, the educators involved had been moved to work up responses to parents who, having recently read some piece by Kohn or Sara Bennett (one of Kohn’s homework-haters-in-arms), were pretty well convinced that homework policies were silently killing their kids.

Aside: Though I should be used to it by now, I’m still amazed by how many smart humans get so much from the world’s long line of Kohns, Tony Wagners, Sir Ken Robinsons, et al. I’m sure I’ll rant about it further in another day’s post.

In the meantime, enjoy this perfect takedown of Sir Ken by researchED founder Tom Bennett. If you’re frustrated like I am about the impacts these figures have on the education enterprise, Tom’s review should give some comfort — comfort that, however bad and widespread the trust in these types may seem at times, at least not everyone buys into the dumb-assery. (Added bonus: It’s about as funny as a review of an education title can get.)

So in all, little more than an irritant. ‘No big deal,’ I’ve said time and again in these situations. ‘Go back to your values, go back to what you know about the world beyond schooling’s expectations, examine the quality and purpose of the homework itself (because yes, the homework can be of bad quality, and that’s indeed not good),’ etc., etc., before moving on to bigger issues.

This year, though, thanks to some teachers’ homework epiphanies (i.e.,’I won’t be assigning any because I heard that the research says all homework is a bad idea‘), various social-media-accelerated broadcasts of epiphany-driven homework moratoriumsRace to Nowhwere being screened by fretful-parent groups from coast to coast, and on and on, the homework-pitchforkers are out in force.

And, as happens with all our over-corrections, the pitchforkers are calling for new paradigms and extreme actions to sweep through all of education, all without much sound, objective, or measured reasoning about why. I’ve read the same research these folks have (or that they say they have, anyway), and there are certainly worthwhile points to take away. Agreed, for instance: we should be paying closer attention to the amount of homework for homework’s sake in primary grades. Also, the various points about homework’s instructional utility and rationale in higher grades are very much worth noting and casting forward into educators’ decision-making. Throwing all homework out, though, and because it’s somehow damaging? Seems a bit much.

(Interesting coincidence: while I was writing this today, Barry Garelick mentioned me in a tweet to share still another anti-homework screed from the ‘Teach For Tomorrow’ blog. If you read it, you’ll see just what I mean: a call for readers to pledge against giving homework, justified by no specific evidence. References to ‘what research says’ are included, but no actual links or citations are provided. It’s almost like the evidence the writer’d seen wasn’t all that convincing, conclusive, or fully confirming of his chosen stance, but that he was just dead-set on proselytizing. Weird.)

Rather than just rail against the developing over-correction, I decided to get some up-close experience with it a couple weeks back. I responded to a tweet by Jessica Lahey (a teacher/author who’s shared her thoughtful parental and educational positions on the homework question for a number of years) that shared the anti-homework takes and strategies of Kohn-alike Mark Barnes, and this response eventually led to a couple-days-long exchange between me and Mr Barnes.

Barnes is a teacher who, as quoted by Lahey, believes in project-based learning and lots of student choice and independence. He doesn’t offer much proof outside of, ‘It worked! Kids loved it!’, but he’s clearly a true believer. He’s taken these ideas into his leadership of Hack Learning, a ‘simple answers’ type ed-resource organization that likes to offer solutions without worrying so much about all the boring theory or research-verification. The Hack Learning website, as a matter of fact, touts its book series (a lengthy list of titles purporting to ‘hack’ pretty much everything educational: the Common Core, assessment, converting writers’ workshops [ugh] into makerspaces [double ugh], and many more) like this: ‘Unlike your typical education text, Hack Learning books are light on research and statistics and heavy on practical advice…’

In short, Hack Learning offers that it can make education better with clever, simple, and innovative methods, much like these readily internet-available ‘life hacks’ can provide shortcuts around various life annoyances:

Yes, actuallyAnd they appear to have quite a following. Sigh. (While I was looking through it all, I found myself hoping against hope that no parallel ‘Hack Medicine’ demand/market existed out there for physicians.)

Back to Barnes’ and my exchange, it stretched over a couple of days and was, I appreciated, respectful throughout. I tried to make points about collegiate expectations to him several times, but he didn’t go for it. Rather, he just kept maintaining (and oddly, I should say) that secondary school is way harder than post-secondary, and that we have to work harder to make it more exciting or something. He seemed almost unaware of both how poorly our system’s kids do in the post-K-12 academic environment and how they tend to rate their own readiness for it (see below).

Ultimately, though, I learned that we’re simply too far apart on schooling’s mission to ever come together on the homework issue. I don’t believe kids’ happiness should be K-12 schooling’s first priority/objective (

), and Barnes believes that kids’ happiness is schooling’s number-one job:

And when that’s the deal, people like Barnes aren’t really worth arguing with on an issue like homework. Constantly seeking to make kids happy first, and with their own personal joy (not to mention brand identity — which, for businesspeople like Barnes, is very important) dictating matters, well…let’s just say that their devotion to the magical and/or financial is not one I’ve found I’m very good at penetrating.

(I do wish, though, that people like Barnes — and, again, people like Alfie Kohn, Sir Ken Robinson, etc., etc., would truck in starting up trampoline parks or candy stores or arts programs, and not in ‘assisting’ education. They make the tough stuff of positively preparing young people so much more difficult.)

Though I couldn’t really slow the homework over-correction by getting through to Hack Learning’s Mark Barnes, I’ll finish with a few thoughts I hope we all can consider regarding the homework debate. Feel free, if they resonate, to sprinkle them into the ongoing conversation as appropriate. Perhaps thinking about homework as such will help slow the currently developing over-correction.

  1. As adults, we’ve been in the world beyond K-12 a while. As such, we know what it will demand/expect in terms of habits, obligations, skills, knowledge, and responsibilities.
  2. Though successfully teaching subject matter is important, an equally crucial responsibility of education is getting  young people prepared for the work- and habits-types expectations they’ll face in the world we adults know but students yet don’t.
  3. To ensure that the expectations young people face after K-12 do not overwhelm, it makes good sense where possible to provide similar expectations as preparation toward future independent expectation-management.
  4. As regards collegiate study (an experience not all students will opt into but that educators should prepare all students to be able to succeed within), all education professionals know first-hand that significant study time outside of class meetings is a routine expectation.
  5. Kids are remarkably willing to buy points 1-4 and engage to challenging homework tasks if the homework is instructionally useful and framed in terms of what they value. Assuming that they will not or cannot motivate themselves to engage with tasks they don’t find somehow thrilling underestimates — and does a disservice to — students’ abilities and their aspirations.
  6. Designing preparatory approaches that do not align with the future expectations — which, again, we adults have experienced first-hand — is, as my book put it a couple years ago, upside-down.

To compress the points above into one sentence, I’ll borrow a phrase coaches often throw around their athletic fields: ‘You have to practice like you want to play.’ Or, taken a bit further and expressed more directly, see the featured image on this blog post (from an ad campaign by PowerHandz, an athletic training device): ‘Think practice is hard? Try losing.’

More important than its role in the content-learning process, homework expectations and policies create practice opportunities for students to succeed in college and/or their non-academic lives, where considerable out-of-class/beyond-work-hours time will be expected to be spent in order to achieve success. Using the secondary school ‘practice field’ to build appreciations for the value of earnest practice — yes, using directives and structures, because kids are kids — helps students toward forming habits they’ll need in the higher-demand environment of collegiate study and other post-K-12 settings.

Though honeyguides like Barnes and Alfie Kohn prefer to deal in personal obeservation and lived experience, our system’s statistical outputs seem to suggest that the last thing we should be seeking is how to lighten students’ loads in secondary grades. For in post-secondary settings, far too many students, statistically and by their own report, are ‘losing’ as a result of their poor ‘practice’. majority of the kids we send to college don’t ever leave with a degree, for example (a percentage that’s held fairly steady for far longer than it should), and many of those kids, when surveyed, admit to feeling waylaid by the post-K-12 realities.

While self-appointed Guardians of Childhood Sanctity like Kohn and Barnes make many within the education enterprise question homework’s various values and necessities, we should always be careful to use viewpoints like those above to (1) ask of them a few more questions and (2) challenge them with fuller pictures before over-correcting. If their messages are swallowed whole and made wide practice, we may attempt the impossible or magical, like, say, attempting to make challenging reading more engaging by assigning less-challenging reading. And when we over-correct like this, we risk making choices that ultimately will not prepare our kids for success beyond their time with us.

A Total Ed Case Top 5: 2016 Review (plus some resolutions for 2017)

Happy new year, Ed Cases! I hope your 2016 was good (all things considered).

I’m feeling awfully thankful in my corner of the ed world, as 2016 was crammed with new experiences, new learning, and new connections. Taken together, though, the best way I may have to describe 2016 is that is was a year filled with exciting beginnings. Memorable as so many events were, thinking of them now fills me less with satisfaction and more with excitement/inspiration. Some very positive and long-overdue developments are gaining momentum in education, so I’m looking forward to seeing how they play out — and, of course, figuring out how I can assist to keep them rolling over all the bullshit.

Below is a quick top-five list of things I feel either proud to have been a part of or lucky to have learned from in 2016, as well as a brief list of to-dos for 2017 (and beyond). Cheers to you for reading and for being in touch. No matter what the year is, I wouldn’t trade the connections I’ve made to all you brilliant, warm, and driven people so doggedly seeking to improve education for anything. Onward, y’all.

  1. researchED – Surprise! If you’ve seen this blog before, you know I think quite a lot of Tom Bennett‘s practical-improvement movement. I was thrilled to take my relationship with researchED to the next level in 2016, volunteering to co-organize a conference in Washington, DC. Some of the world’s best ed thinkers (including Dylan Wiliam, Ruth Neild, Robert Pondiscio, Kate Walsh, Sarah Thomas, Ben Riley, Pedro de Bruyckere, etc., etc. — seriously, see the program) were on hand as speakers, and even more were in attendance to get their first up-close look at what all the international excitement is all about. It made for a very tiring few months, but it was all very worth it: I got to hang with a lot of really awesome ed-folk, and I’m confident, based on the reaction we’ve received, that you’ll be seeing a lot more of the org in North America in coming years.
  2. Education Writing, Book Category – In 2015 I resolved to spend less time reading education titles. I’d just come off the research for Education Is Upside-Down and felt it’d probably be healthy to pull myself outside the rabbit hole a bit. My 2016 jump back into more ed reading was richly rewarding, both with 2016’s new titles and things I’d had back-logged. Particularly notable titles — and that I’d really recommend you check out if you have not — from the past year include E.D. Hirsch’s Why Knowledge Matters, Greg Ashman’s Ouroboros, Jeanne Chall’s The Academic Achievement Challenge, Barry Garelick’s Letters From John Dewey/Letters From Huck Finn, and the Michaela School staff’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers (which I’ll blog a fuller review of in the next few days).
  3. Independent Opportunities – I was fortunate to write about framing effects for the Learning Scientists’ site, about practice-level reform in a series for Rick Hess’s ‘Straight Up’ blog at Education Week (three pieces: here, here, and here), about independent research’s role in practice-improvement for TES USA and Education Post, etc. Also, I’ve contracted with a few schools to do consulting/PD around ideas from my book, been invited to speak to staffs and conferences, and all that jazz. Proud as I might be of all the writing and consulting work, though, I’m more excited for what seems to be a growing appetite for these kinds of messages in the ed-improvement conversation. As stated above, another exciting beginning.
  4. Education Writing, Periodical/Journal/Online Media Category – Was it just me, or did I see more measured, honest, and evidence-based takes appearing in education media this past year? Though I’m nowhere near ready to say ed media’s onto all the right moves (there’s still too much attention to ‘cool practices’, for instance, and its tendency toward covering policy debates still woefully misses education’s trees for its forest), I was more hopeful that the right practical messages were getting out there this past year than I have been in many others. Sometimes it meant an independent group (like the Knowledge Matters Campaign, that is, with briefs like this one) had to grab the reins themselves, but, in a land where reform groups start news [sic] outlets to continue to push their agenda, I’ll take what I can get on these fronts. Some other favorite reads from the year: policy guy extraordinaire Rick Hess’s very practice-relevant series on memory and expertise (first series piece here), Max Eden’s straight talk on suspensions, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz on recent (and not rosy, for a change) evidence of ed tech’s actual effectivenessMind/Shift publishing a Paul Tough book excerpt with him correcting a bit on claims from his 2012 How Children Succeed, and Huffpo Education actually running an anti-experiential learning screed by Malkin Dare.  For a fuller list of stuff I found share-worthy, check my Twitter or Facebook pages and scroll away. There, you’ll also see all the bloggers I’ve been inspired by and learned from in the past year. (Omitted here only because I was keeping it to professional media sources. Sorry, all…not a slight, and y’all know who you are!)
  5. Work with Search Institute – Over the summer I joined Search Institute, a long-established applied research firm based in the Twin Cities, to work with schools hoping to more systematically and explicitly build students’ academic motivation. As I’m a big believer that students’ motivation is (1) of incredible importance and (2) the thing our enterprise gets the most wrong in far too many ways, I was thrilled for the opportunity. We still have a ways to go, but I feel hopeful about where our research is heading and proud of the org’s commitment to creating operations that make sense for schools. It’s a cool gig, for sure.

Not an exhaustive list, I know, but still exhausting I’m sure. (And I keep thinking of more to include!) If I don’t stop here, though, I won’t leave enough time to get groceries (and growlers) for tonight’s NYE stay-in bash with my family. Feel free to click around on some of the links in there, you’ll get the idea.

Looking ahead with all these new beginnings, I definitely want to keep adding to what I sense is a growing snowball. Here are a few resolutions/goals in particular:

  • More writing, for sure: This blog, various guest pieces and chapters (stay tuned on those), and a proposal for book #2. I plan to be sketching that this year, so if you know any good publishers or agents I should consider, please feel free to connect us. 🙂
  • More researchED: Attending/speaking when I can, co-organizing a North American event (or more), exploring partnerships based on the foundation being built, etc., etc. Most of all, though, staying connected to all the great folks I’ve met through the rED and continuing to tell everyone I can over here about it.
  • Slowing down enough to really enjoy my family. I’m officially in the backstretch of having two daughters full-time under my roof (my oldest graduates high school this spring), so I will be making a point to live that fully up. Much as I’m excited about all the new beginnings mentioned above, I’m most excited for my little one’s big new beginning this summer. (If I don’t get back to you quickly or go silent for a few weeks, then? It’s probably that. Thanks for understanding.)

Happy new year, Ed Cases. I look forward to building more with you in 2017.