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Why do we question 1:1 effectiveness?

In his blog post Asking the Right Questions for Getting School-Driven Policies into Classroom Practice, professor Larry Cuban writes:

Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.

The answers Cuban gives to each of these questions more or less boils down to: it depends, we don't know, and we can't tell.

Dr. Cuban, the ship has sailed on asking questions like this about 1:1 projects. Technologies, like tablets or smart phones or netbooks or whatever, have become for an increasing percentage of society so embedded in daily life that completing any information-related task or personal learning effort relies upon these "external brains" for a growing segment of parents, teachers, and especially, students.

We don't need to question the if or why of these devices that provide ubiquitous access to information - written, visual, and human - any more than we question whether the old technologies of paper, pen, and print are effective teaching tools. They are simply what our society uses to record, access, manipulate, and communicate information. And it is the application of the tool, not any inherent value of the tool, that should be assessed. (Which tool makes a student a better writer: a number 2 pencil or a ball point pen?)

And as the cost of these devices drop, Internet access becomes more widespread, applications become more powerful and less complicated to use, the remarkability of personal technologies in the classroom will decrease - and we can get back to measuring the efficacy of pedagogy rather than silicon.


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Tech = play - just admit it and be proud

Play is self-controlled and self-directed. ... Childhood [has been] turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building.
                                                  Peter Gray
Truth be told, I think I like working with technology because, at heart, the devices we support, teach, and promote are toys. Our work is play. I've often teased our PD coordinator that both my department and hers want to help teachers become more effective by modifying their teaching methods, but we in tech get to reward such changes with fun and toys and play. My tech integration specialists and librarians are especially good at making their PD sessions light-hearted and enjoyable and humor-filled. 

I thought about this after watching Peter Gray's TedTalk The Decline of Play and Rise of Mental Disorders  (recommended by one of my district's teachers to our school e-mail list).  After watching the video, I asked him: "I think our schools still do a pretty good job of giving kids recess time and other opportunities to play, don't you?" His reply:
Not really.  Most students in elementary schools get 15 minutes to play before or after lunch and then 15 minutes to eat their lunch. Certainly there are teachers who allow more time during the day, but they are the exception. We are almost discouraged from taking breaks because they take time away from instruction, which, heaven forbid, may result in lower test scores. I have found research to the contrary.  Giving students breaks actually increases achievement, not to mention that it is morally and ethically the right thing to do. Here are some of the articles I have accessed.
I found the reply distressing. But despite this teacher's concerns, I'm guessing (based on my own observations of playground use, library activities, after-school programs, continuation of art, music and PE classes, etc.) we are doing better in our district than in many others in honoring play. I do worry that in our attempts to "close the achievement gap" among ethnic groups (or more likely, socio-economic groups), we will allow our middle class kids chances to play, but not those aren't "reading at level by third grade."

So, fellow techies, keep calling your iPads and Chromebooks and laptops and such "tools" rather than "toys." Stress the educational value, rather than the playability. Librarians, document how your efforts are improving reading scores and information literacy. You'll probably sound a lot more valuable to your administration.

In the meantime I'll keep having fun playing with toys and reading for enjoyment and personal pleasure - and hope our students do as well - with a clear professional conscience.


Teens not reading? Why I am not concerned.

Let me play the devil's advocate for just a moment. While I hear a collective sigh or shudder go from the ranks of librarians and teachers around the world on discovering research that shows teens are reading less, I always wonder if we really need to spend energy worrying about this.

Common Sense Media issued a report in May that shows:

  • Reading rates have dropped precipitously among adolescents
    • 53% of 9-year-olds vs.. 17% of 17-year-olds are daily readers
    • The proportion who "never" or "hardly ever" read has tripled since 1984. A third of 13-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds say they've read for pleasure one to two times a year, if that
  • Reading achievement among older teens has stagnated
    • Reading scores of fourth- and eighth-graders have improved, but those of 12th-graders haven't changed in 30 years
  • There's a persistent gap in reading scores between white, black, and Latino kids
    • 18% black and 20% Latino fourth-graders are rated as "proficient" in reading compared to 46% of white kids at that age (this gap has been relatively unchanged over two decades)
  • There's also a gender gap in reading across ages
    • Girls read 10 minutes more per day than boys on average
  • More girls are rated as "proficient" in reading than boys, by 12 percentage points

As a person who not only is always reading a book or two, but is nervous when he doesn't have a least a couple waiting in the wings, these numbers do look startling. However I also recognize that my view of reading and its value are very much a result of my own biases. Especially when it comes to reading as a cultural or recreational pursuit.

I would argue (and I have my librarian hat on here) we need to be more discriminating when making statements about reading, especially by teens. Some questions I ask myself:

1. Is any kind of reading by adolescents always good? Is reading itself a prima facie good, especially for already proficient readers? Like G. Robert Carlson and Stephen Krashen, I do believe any kind of reading builds reading skills, but what about kids who already read well? How is reading a crappy novel any less a time-waster than watching a crappy movie or playing a mindless video game?

2. Are there constructive things teens are doing that may be better than reading? I wonder what kids are doing with the time they previously spent reading. The adult knee-jerk reaction is that they are texting, playing games, or watching video.  But is it as likely that they are writing, making movies, coding, or watching TedTalks? What if they were exercising, playing sports, participating in scouting, or working? I have no evidence this is the case, but I don't remember seeing much evidence that reading is simply being replaced by mind-numbing activities either.

3. If we are encouraging reading because it allows young adults to practice important skills, what skills are those exactly? Just how proficient a "reader" does one need to be in order to be a fully engaged citizen today? Newspapers and magazines are written at about an 8th grade reading level. YouTube has virtually replaced how-to manuals. Critical reading for bias and factual accuracy has grown in importance with the radical politicizing of the press, but does recreational reading make one a more critical reader?

4. Is reading "great literature" a cultural artifact that will be done by a minority of connoisseurs, similar in appeal to those who attend opera today? I suspect that reading classic literature has already become a pastime of a rather small group of "cultural elites." Who actually reads Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austin or Melville or Hemingway or any poet? I don't hear a great outcry that students are spending less time listening to classical music or watching ballet. Yet we fuss about students reading less with the assumption being that they are reading less quality literature or significant non-fiction. (See point number 1 above.)

Given the ubiquity of smart phones and tablets and whatever, is it any wonder that time spent reading by teens has tanked - especially when we in education make reading work rather than pleasure by insisting on trotting out Red Badge of Courage and Great Expectations as a required to considered an educated human being. (See 4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading.) Heck, I spend less time reading (and more time writing, viewing, playing, Tweeting, blogging, etc.) and I like to read.

Worry-warts, get over it. Kids may be reading less, but it doesn't signal the end of civilization as we know it. Kids playing smart video games just may be an improvement over kids reading dumb books. 

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