Thursday, August 31, 2017

Building a Better (Robot) Teacher

An article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times this week caught my eye. It was entitled, The Secret of a Good Robot Teacher. The article begins with the question, Why is educational technology such a disappointment? You can read the article if you like, but, spoiler alert, I can tell you the answer the authors provide in one sentence: technology has failed because it cannot replicate what a teacher does.

Now I am the last person on earth to pooh pooh good research and the authors of this article have apparently done some solid research on the topic of educational technology. But I believe that any thinking human being could have come to the same conclusion as these researchers at least 50 years ago. In fact, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov did come to that conclusion in a short story called, The Fun They Had, written in 1951. In the story, Asimov imagines a time in the future when children are taught at home via a computer screen "teacher" that is calibrated to provide lessons based on the individual child's aptitudes. The kids hate it and long for the time when kids went to school together, were instructed by a real human, and read something called "books."

In the times article the authors cite a six-year study that examined different cybertechnology programs across thousands of students in hundreds of schools and found little evidence that it improved academic performance. The authors believe that the problem is that we just have not built a good enough robot yet, one that is responsive to the social cues so necessary in learning, and that we need to spend our time (and presumably money) on building robots that are socially responsive. In fact, they built one. A "robot that looked like a cute plush creature" with an animated face that allowed for expressions and eye movements. The researchers found that kids learned better from the expressive robot than they did from a "flat" one.

I wish the world of cybertechnology good luck in building a robot that is more successful in helping children learn, but I would suggest that this is not the best way to use scarce resources. We already have technology in place to provide the needed social interaction, feedback and authority necessary for learning. We call it the classroom teacher. The really important use of this kind of research should be, I believe, to help us understand more about how children learn and help teachers learn to more effectively use technology as an aid in student learning.

Technology is a tool. Like paper and pencil, technology offers the teacher one more tool to enhance student learning - a learning that will never be unmoored from social interaction with adults and other children. We need to work to refine the tool, not to make it more like a human being, but to make it more useful to actual human beings.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Confederate Statues: A History Lesson

President Donald Trump displays his ignorance of American history in his recent tweets about statues celebrating the Confederacy. It will be the responsibility of teachers, returning to school soon, to ensure that the President's ignorance does not gain traction and spread. Here is what he said through his favorite communication medium, Twitter:

I will agree with the President that you can't change history, but you can learn from it. What should school children learn from the controversy over Confederate statues? The first lesson to be learned, I believe, is that these statues were not intended as art or as a commemoration of Confederate "heroes", but as tools of intimidation and propaganda. The statues were built, largely during two periods 1890 - 1930 and the 1960s. The first period coincided with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the second period was during the Civil Rights Movement. 

The message was clear during both these periods. The statues were built to glorify white supremacy and to stand as a constant reminder to African Americans that they were not welcome to equality in the South even if the South had lost the Civil War. As the artist Austin Pendleton put it in a New York Times article,

These are not works of art; they're propaganda. To equate them with how a work of art exists in the world is a false equation. They're instruments of a political agenda and it would be real folly to suggest that there is any kind of ambiguity.

Like all monuments, these statues say more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of an exclusionary definition of America.

The "culture" that Mr. Trump sees being "ripped apart" is not "our" culture, but the culture of a defeated ideology, an ideology of white supremacy, an ideology that says one race has the right to subjugate another, an ideology that says one race is somehow a lesser race than another, an ideology that says that one race can abuse another with impunity. This is not a culture we need to be celebrating.

But is a legacy we need to remember, because the horror of this legacy must stand as a cautionary tale for all Americans in the future. We can remember that history by placing these statues in historical context. About 10 years ago I had a chance to visit Budapest, Hungary. Hungary, you will remember, was under the control of the Soviet Union from the end of WWII until 1990. The Soviets put down a revolution in Hungary in 1956, brutally and bloodily. 

The Soviets constructed dozens of statues celebrating Communism in the occupied city of Budapest. After the Soviets were kicked out, the city fathers wanted the statuary symbols of their subjugation out of the city, but they did not want to "destroy" history. They wanted future generations to remember what had happened to them, so they moved the statues out of town to a place called Memento Park, where they could be viewed altogether in a context that made the history of Soviet repression clear. 

We could do the same with the Confederate statues. They belong in a park or museum where they can be given the proper context. Where future generations can learn about a shameful part of our history and where they cannot stand as continuing symbols of subjugation and hate. 

As teachers the monument controversy offers a teachable moment that goes to the heart of the American ideal. Are we a country of inclusion or a country of exclusion? Are we a country with an open mind, unafraid to confront our shameful past in the hopes that it leads to a better future? Are we a country that truly aspires to the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? Or are we a country with a narrow mind, consumed by fear, hate, and base self-interest?

Yes, Mr. President, we can learn from this history. I hope you will. I hope our school students will. I hope we all will.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

High Expectations? Yes, But...

About the time that the No Child Left Behind legislation went into effect in 2002, then President George W. Bush famously decried the "soft-bigotry of low expectations" that was holding too many students back. President Bush had a point, if teachers and educational leaders did not expect high achievement from their students then low achievement would be the inevitable result. Bush's decree led to a spate of calls for teachers to have "high expectations" of their students. And as so often happens in education, this call was misunderstood and misapplied to the detriment of learners.

Telling new teachers, or veteran teachers for that matter, that they need to have high expectations for their learners is dangerously vague and unhelpful. The advice that teachers need is that we should set high, but achievable, goals for each of our students and that these high, but achievable, goals will be different for each of our students. As with all educational bromides, the real answers are much more subtle and more difficult to implement than just having "high expectations."

In 1954 the British track star Roger Bannister ran the first ever 4 minute mile. There can be no question that Bannister had high expectations for himself to achieve this goal. He had to train hard, get excellent coaching, and then drive himself to the brink of collapse to achieve his goal. In the 63 years since Bannister broke the four minute mile the record time has been lowered to 3:43.13 by the Moroccan track star, Hicham El Guerrouj. That is, with all the advances in training and equipment, just short of 17 seconds has been shaved off this record. Now, I suppose runners who have followed Bannister over all those years could have set a goal of running the first 3 minute mile. That would certainly be a high expectation. But the quest would have certainly ended in frustration and failure, because human beings have so far proven incapable of running that fast. So instead, runners set themselves the high, but achievable, goal of shaving hundredths of seconds off the existing record.

Back in my high school days, football players were expected to run a six minute mile. This was definitely a high expectation for me that demanded a full summer of training before ever walking onto the football field. Six minutes was a high, but (barely) achievable goal for me and most of my fellow football players, but a four minute mile would be out of the question and would have led to me giving up on football.

The point is that what constitutes high expectations depends on the individual and also on what can reasonably be achieved given our human limitations. I think it is ill advised to tell teachers to have high expectations of their students. If the teacher aims too high, students will become frustrated, lose confidence in themselves as learners and question the ability of their teacher to assist their learning.

How does a teacher craft high, but achievable, expectations for students? Here are a few keys.

  • Follow the Goldilocks principle. Work to find the amount of challenge that is "just right" for that individual student. This means working with the child in what Vygotsky called the "zone of proximal development", that area slightly above where the student can function independently, but well below where the student becomes frustrated. 
  • Provide high levels of support. Provide consistent specific feedback, provide additional and varied instruction, build positive relationships, teach students explicitly how to get help.
  • Give students opportunities to contribute. Make sure all students have an opportunity to voice their ideas and opinions regularly. Vary who gets called upon in class.
  • Show confidence in your students. Let students know that you believe they are competent learners who can learn and thrive in your classroom. Start off with goals that are a little easier to accomplish to build confidence and stamina for more difficult work.
  • Listen closely to students. Conferring with students individually about there learning provides the teacher with the information she needs to help the student to the next level of learning.
  • Praise student efforts and achievements often. Make sure the praise is both genuine and specific. I wrote about the role of praise in this post 
As teachers we must go into each interaction believing the students can learn and believing that we can help them learn, but simply having high expectations is not adequate. A high expectation for one student is another student's insurmountable barrier. As professionals, providing for the needs of all students is the high expectation we must hold for ourselves. It is a constant challenge that cannot be boiled down to a simplistic cliche like "have high expectations."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

In Praise of Praise as a Teaching Tool

Yesterday, my wife Cindy Mershon and I took our 3 1/2 year-old granddaughter, Schuyler,on a trip to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. We took the light rail train to get there. Schuyler is fascinated by trains and was particularly fascinated by the fold-down seats in the train that she could push down to sit in and then watch snap up when she got out of the seat. Schuyler was sitting in a regular seat as we sat in the station and she asked if she could move to a fold down seat. I said, "Yes", but tried to make it clear to her that for reasons of her own safety she could only get in or out of a seat when the train was not moving. When the train started moving, Schuyler told me that she could not get out of the seat. She understood. As soon as the train rolled to a halt at the next station, however, Schuyler hopped out of the seat to watch it snap back into place.

I said, "Schuyler, I like the way you waited until the train came to a stop before you left your seat. You are being safe. Good job." I was trying to practice what I had learned as a teacher many years before. In order for praise to be effective it must describe the desired behavior, be specific, and be positive. I repeated this for each of the many stops the train made over the next hour. Full disclosure here, Schuyler was imperfect in her application of the rule, so once or twice my feedback was corrective, not praising.

At any rate, it is an important reminder to all of us that praise is a powerful tool for teachers, if used genuinely and appropriately. By genuinely, I mean that the behavior being praised must be genuinely praiseworthy (kids can easily spot false praise) and by appropriately I mean it must reinforce the desired behavior by placing that behavior in a specific context, what psychologists call behavior specific praise (BSP).

In literacy instruction, behavior specific praise can help reinforce desired reading behavior. When a reader stumbles on a word and then figures it out, or successfully identifies a word by working through it, or self-corrects, we can use praise to help make sure these desirable behaviors continue.

Tommy, I like the way you reread the passage and then said the first letter of the new word to help you figure it out. Good job.

Nice work, Mary. You noticed that the word didn't look like "house", so you went back and corrected it by making it look right.

Jimmy, you did something good readers do. You realized that "house" didn't make sense in that sentence so you made it make sense by changing the word to "horse."

In reading comprehension, too, praise can be used to both reinforce desired behaviors and also extend thinking. Suppose you were reading Katherine Paterson's A Bridge to Terabithia with the students.

Lisa, I like the way you were able to identify Terabithia as a fantasy land for Leslie and Jess by using your background knowledge of other fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia. Yet, A Bridge to Terabithia is a very different kind of book from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. How would you say these books differ? 

Eric, you have correctly identified the "love letter" that Jess and Leslie wrote to Janice Avery as an act of revenge against a bully. Nice work. Good readers make inferences by combining their own knowledge with information from the reading. Do you think Jess and Leslie were right to do this? Were they acting like bullies themselves? What evidence do you find in the story to support your answer?

Used properly praise is a powerful tool for the teacher. There is no reason to withhold genuine praise from students. Indeed, psychiatrists tell us that praise should outweigh correction by a ratio of 4:1. You may want to track your own praise giving behaviors in reading instruction situations. With struggling readers it can be tempting to get this praise/correction ratio out of whack. I advise teachers working with strugglers or with students who misbehave to try to "Catch the child doing something right!" Well structured and genuine praise may be a better route to changed behavior than correction. As that sage of children's literature, Mary Poppins, might say, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."