Monday, July 23, 2012

Spinning the Definition: an Analysis of "Highly Qualified"

It started with a really simple tweet:

Tweet in reference to Washington Post Answer Sheet
The article I referenced describes a decision by the US House of Representative Appropriations Subcommittee to extend the definition of "Highly Qualified Teachers" to include bachelor-degree holding candidates that are still in training to be a teacher or that have recently graduated from training preparation programs such as Teach for America.

I quickly became embroiled with @msmooreenglish, a TFA graduate, in a twitter chat that ranged through the meaning of Highly Qualified, the good and bad of TFA, and other issues. To be clear, my complaint is not with Teach for America or other teacher transition programs. I enjoyed my preparation at Bradley University, but I believe their should be other paths into the field and two of my most respected colleagues have come to education through transition-to-teaching programs (yes, i just went with the "but I have a fill-in-the-blank friend" defense).

My problem is that the requirements for Teach for America and the training that ensues, do not meet the standard of "highly qualified" that was in my head (note: this becomes an important distinction, later):
  • Requirements: Bachelors Degree, 2.5 minimum GPA, US Citizenship
  • Training: A five+ week institute that covers the teaching essentials: practice teaching, observation, feedback, reflection, lesson planning, curriculum and more.
  • Common State Requirement: Passing subject specific test
My counterpart was not arguing against me, but pointed out that Teach-for-America, in opposition to the Answer Sheet's characterization, has high standards of acceptance (fewer than 10% of applicants are accepted, GPA requirement, etc.) and that many of the people entering, herself included, do it to become teachers and not as a career stepping stone. While I think there are some statistical arguments that could be made in counter, she didn't disagree with the crux of my point:

Bachelors + 5 Weeks of training does not make one highly qualified.

I felt a blog post brewing, but realized that I didn't have enough information to make an informed argument about the differences yet. I quickly flipped to the Indiana DOE website to find the checklist for a traditional teacher, fully expecting to create a chart that would show in no uncertain terms what puts the "HIGHLY" in HQT.

My but that is a confusing and not very explanatory or user-friendly site.

So I went to which was MUCH clearer. According to the site (other states are similar - some more and some less rigorous), to be a highly qualified teacher in Indiana...Get ready:
  • Bachelor's Degree
  • Completion of a teacher preparation program (traditional or transition available). This MAY require a basic skills test for math, reading, and writing, but there are opt-out paths.
  • And a subject specific test
Now, we could nitpick a few things here:

  • Teach-for-America is working hard to place math and science and asks candidates to be open to the area in which they will teach, so you could argue that candidates will be placed out of their field of expertise -- but that not generally the experience of TFA candidates and, regardless, a subject mastery state test is relatively common.
  • You could argue that semesters of classes and longer periods of reflection and feedback make for a stronger preparation than a 5-week summer school intensive (I probably would make that argument, but not strongly).
  • We could read a lot into the political, economic, and motivational reasons for getting as many teachers classroom ready as possible in a time where staff is being cut and people are leaving the teaching field because of workplace conditions, lack of job security, and a feeling disempowerment with regard to how they are viewed as professionals (psst...that's you "value-added-metrics").

But, for now, lets just talk about definitions:

In order to be a HIGHLY QUALIFIED TEACHER in the United States, you need the standard degree beyond High School, some training in classroom management and a little practical experience, and some demonstration that you know your subject matter.
  • A doctor who graduates medical school with a lot of clocked classroom hours, tons of testing, and a not-insignificant number of hours of clinical, hands-on experience becomes a licensed doctor called a "resident" -- because they still need three or more years of supervised practice (although they do get to wear the long coat)
  • Lawyers who pass the bar may join firms with strong training programs as become junior associates. {see comments below}
  • Mechanics, plumbers, construction workers apprentice for a time period before getting the titles of Journeyman or Master
The dictionary definition of "highly qualified" is roughly "fulfilling necessary requirements to a high degree" ( of "highly" and "qualified"). I believe the common-man definition also includes the secondary implication that they are "high in the hierarchy" -- or in other words, not novices.

But, and this might be important, in education "Highly Qualified" is the common man equivalent to "MINIMALLY Qualified" or if that is too harsh, "Basically Qualified."

I am sure that it sounds much better in a political stump speech to say that we want every teacher to be "highly" qualified. But the common man implication of that term does not match the reality of the beginning teacher. We become highly qualified as we have experience, reflect on practices and techniques that work and don't work in the actual day-to-day grind and get feedback from our peers and supervisors.

We should not be classifying our teachers based on what sounds good in a soundbyte. We should not give any teacher designations which make parents and students believe something that is not true. It is word-play like this that makes it more difficult to justify professional development dollars or release time for master teachers to mentor. It becomes easier to discount the impact of an experienced educator on the life and learning of a child It becomes more likely that parents will trade in the teacher-student relationship for a low-cost, low-quality youtube video that walks through the steps of a problem without addressing its meaning.

Rather than debate on whether one particular training program should be given the golden ticket of being qualified to teach a class without hand-holding, lets go back to the basics of what we should expect in teacher preparation and, more importantly, in those critical three years when the teacher is first introduced to the classroom. Let's not only "raise the bar" for teachers, but give them the support they need after they get their certification. Let's acknowledge that a new teacher is not yet "highly" qualified, but can get there with time and effort while at the same time providing an environment that allows students to succeed.

People learn by reflection on their experiences. Its true of students in the classroom. Its true of teachers beginning their careers. Let's honor the learning process in our schools -- and ask the politicians to do the same.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Information Skills for the 24/7 News Cycle Age: An Analysis of the Reporting of #theatershooting

Abstract: an analysis of high-impact news stories and the 24 hour analysis-reporting cycle as it impacts the teaching of communications and information literacy.

I think the best description of the news-commentary-begets-more-news cycle I have heard came from Jon Stewart on the daily show. I looked (lightly) for the specific clip, but could not find it. If I do, I will be sure to link to it (thx to commenter Slowdog for the link). Essentially:

  • News Channel Reports factual data
  • During the commentary/analysis period, the data is interpreted to draw a more meaningful/slanted conclusion to the benefit of the station, political bias, commentator, ratings, etc.
  • During the next NEWS period, the conclusion is reported as breaking news about the original story citing experts, sources, etc.
This is one of the examples that we use in #digcit to discuss PLN bias and the need to be more savvy about news in the modern era than ever before.

Tragic News Reporting in a 24/7 World
When I woke up this morning, I had every intention of working on a blog post ranting on the House committee hearings to give "Highly Qualified" designation to Teach-for-America graduates or finish up my #bbw12 posts with thoughts on the last keynote...

but, when it rains, it pours.

The first item on my news-reader described the tragedy of the Colorado shooting at the premiere of "Dark Knight Rises" midnight showing -- details are still coming in about this awful event (which is part of the point) and I will leave it to others to assign blame and find meaning...that is for another day and more ambitious people than me.

As I walked into the living room, the TV was already on a national news channel piecing together information and trying to put some meaning or reason upon the chaos. There were very few details at that point and within about 30 minutes the repeat of information made it clear that all of the essential data that the news had, I had absorbed. One hour later (Note: I am in a house full of people watching the news -- my inclination would have been to change the channel -- "0" on Feeling according to the Myers-Briggs), only one new piece of information was being reported:
the mother of the suspect had said to ABC news, "You have the right person. I need to call the police. I need to fly to Colorado," (exact words from Mercury News).
When the mother's statement was released, a careful caveat was given, namely that the statement a) could have been nothing more than confirming a name, b) could be that statement of a person in shock or coping with overwhelming information (certainly), c) did not imply much of anything on face.

My wife and I left the cabin to replace a flat tire.

When we returned, the news was still on. There was still only one story. The significant change was that we had moved out of the fact-news part of the news cycle/day and into the commentary part of the day, which was filled with analysis..

A few hours later, the mother's same statement was being picked apart by multiple retired profilers, three news analysts, and a supplemental scroll of social media commentary along the bottom of the screen. One expert went so far as explain that this mother's statement along with the incident itself was enough to show that there would probably have been indications of psychopathic tendencies demonstrated as early as age 5 (I added the emphasis) - so much for those caveats, neh?

As the afternoon commentary gave way to a news break, my jaw dropped as the news reporter updated the facts of the case known, including a tidbit that experts have begun piecing together a profile of the suspect, including potential childhood signs of behavior. After searching for an hour, looking through different sources, and checking my handy-dandy PLN, there was no indication of this information beyond the speculative comment of one person who had researched no background, conducted no personal interviews, and had no firsthand contact with the suspect, parents, neighbors, or even a kindergarten teacher.

The Stewart Cycle was complete.

Reflection: The Impact of the News-Commentary Symbiosis on Classroom Teaching

I hesitated to write this one so early, since I do NOT want to trade on the misery of others (even we strong "T"s have some couth). But this was such a clear example of something that I suspect goes on every single day. And, if it does, we need to completely rework what we think of in terms of Communications 101, the teaching of research and biases, and even some of the newer lessons on #infowhelm such as PLN development and filtering skills.

Roughly speaking, students should be developing the following skills or, lacking that, should be learning systems that will give them the following information:

Trackback Mechanisms: The ability to trace the origin of a piece of information to its original source. This becomes particularly complicated in the 24-hour news-commentary-news cycle since the need to tag sources in a 30 second soundbyte is often severely diminished to "experts" or "this just in, some say that..."

Development of Strong, Muli-level, Variable bias PLNs: A persons learning network, the web of trusted sources, must include more than echo-chamber inducing conclusions, particularly in an age where commentators provide the analysis that becomes the next hour's news brief. This will be a longer post as we get closer to the school year and the information literacy/research section of the #digcit class. (I started discussing this as it applies to classrooms here, applied to to politics in the Big Tents post, and added a little bit of religion to the mix in this post --ok, this one i think about a lot).

Opportunities to practice Claim Analysis: So much of what we are told takes place in a tone of incontrovertible facts (complete with colorful infographics) that we must allow students the chance to pick apart the actual data and see if the conclusion matches. We cannot rely on the the fact-checking of the news agencies, but must instead use their articles as the source of our own fact-checking.

Credential Analysis: I watched at one point as a CIA profiler, an FBI former profiler, and a psychiatrist who consulted on multiple spree killings went at each other in a barely moderated forum. They referred to the others as ill-informed, dangerous, and irresponsible. I am sure that it made for great TV, but in terms of developing any kind of understanding of the topic at hand, the undercutting made for awful conclusion drawing. We must help students develop a filter of not just information but also a filter of the credentials of potential sources. The critical questioning ability that used to only be necessary for reporters, lawyers, and job interviewers is now an essential skill for well-informed citizens in general.

This is in addition to an added emphasis on the development of information filtering systems (both automated such as RSS feeds and manual scans for much of what was describe above). And introductory lessons on logical constructions and common logical fallacies, would probably also be necessary to be able to pick apart some of the issues I have described.

Where do we teach this? At Brebeuf Jesuit, the first taste of this will come formally in the Digital Citizenship class. Every Freshman takes the course. In order to increase the time given to this we have moved away from other topics that we have felt are less vital. But a one semester freshman class will not be enough. Opportunities to practice this level of information criticism must be used throughout high-school and college (and probably introduced even earlier). Application opportunities exist in Social Studies, English, Religion and more.

We are past the time where we can rely on the conclusions of experts and those who interview the experts to act as our filters. We are past the time where students need only be taught to make sure that a source has the  proper bona fides to be trusted.

It is time that we take responsibility for our own information management systems and develop tools and curriculum that provide students the skills and capacity to take responsibility for theirs.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Educational Analytics: A #bbw12 Idea that Might Not Be Ready for Prime(number) Time

JDs note: This was originally going to be my final blogpost from #bbw12. Turns out I had a lot to say about analytics. Khan Academy Keynote review later in the week.

I am sitting on a porch lakeside in Michigan trying to get motivated to write the last blog on #bbw12. Although, as we get farther and  farther away from the sultry weather, the dazzling lightshows, and amazing food, I realize that there are only a few more things to cover...Away we go...

But first...

Interlude: G-drive and Chromebooks go great together
When I powered up my chromebook yesterday (yes, I have been thinking about typing for over a day now), I was happy to see an upgrade for the old Chromium OS. Clicked the restart and when I logged in, didn't notice much difference. But as I started to flip through G+ photos to prepare for the blog and some updates to the IHSFA website (yeah, I got a webmaster gig), Look what I saw:

Screen capture, saved to G-Drive, Edited in Aviary, Linked to Blog - Cloud Win
first mentioned way back in my "To the Clouds" review of G-drive and apps, I longed for my G-drive to be integrated into the file system of the chromebook so that other apps would see the files with save&open functionality. Now its a reality. Haven't played much to see if it hold cross-users, but this boosted my productivity a lot.
End Interlude

An Introduction to Analytics: What they are, why they matter and what educators need to know

I wish that title described what this blog was going to be about, but I am not sure if I was able to glean from this session what the succinct description said it would be about. So here's what i got:

Ellen Wagner, @edwsonoma, gave the presentation. All credit to her, she made me think a lot about analytics. The session began with a picture on the screen of a tornado barreling down the road -- the simple message: analytics are not going anywhere. We need to learn how to deal with them in education.

She began by describing the levels and roles of analytics. It is not just seeing patterns in fact, that might be considered the lowest level of analysis. It is also looking to find actions that can be taken based on those patterns to influence outcomes. Even better, to be able to predict actions that WILL BE TAKEN based on the digital breadcrumbs left of actions that were taken in the past. Sounds like a lot of science fiction? It probably should: This is what Google, Amazon, and other big-techs have been working on for years (Note from speaker: I won't even go to a shopping website that doesn't have a decent suggestion engine). As data migrates to the cloud and computers have the power locally or cloud-based to crunch the numbers, these predictions become a lot more useful than knowing that JD will buy anything featuring JoCo or @feliciaday.

OK: lots of data. Lots of computing power. We will have the ability to predict and work in advance instead of constantly playing a reactionary game of catch-up. No problems so far...

Question One: To Mine or not-to-mine
Wagner draws a distinction between research, which is predominately empirical analysis and business use, which is a lot of predictive data-mining. "We have been trained that data mining is bad," she notes. She then goes on to explain differences on the structure, collection, and tools based on these two different outlooks. But she begged a question that was not ever answered? Is Data Mining Bad or were we all taught wrong in our master's classes? It is not enough to say, "Business does it". If there are inherent problems with data-mining, those need to be addressed BEFORE we adopt these processes as the educational norm.

She reiterates that educational data is already being tracked and crunched now and that there is no way to avoid it. She talks about analytics maturing to be the biggest thing to hit the classroom since computers

She points out that we (and by "we" she means "the data whisperers" -her AWESOME term - who do this analytic magic) are not sure where to start, which metrics will be most useful, or which permutations to use. -- No wonder some educators are nervous!

She lays out some of the challenges: siloed data (LMS, transactions and outcomes, latent data, demographic data, perceptual data, financials, operations... *whew*). She lays out some of the methodological differences that need to be addressed (including that data-mining question above). She refers to this and the half-hearted attempt to analyze this as leading to "bowls of data spaghetti"

Question Two: Which is the Dog? Which is the tail?
Another challenge she draws out but does not pin down is the move to personalize education. She acknowledges that personalization does (and may continue to) play directly against the need to extract normalized and useable data for the prediction engines. Wow. When put that way, i have a sinking feeling that all of these data acolytes might just be paying lip-service to Student-Centered learning -- say it ain't so Gates Foundation!

Her penultimate example was Moneyball -- a baseball team using analytics to analyze what it takes to win so that they could hire accordingly. "They solved their problems through recruiting...we will have to do it through other means" -- don't get excited. She didn't say what those means were.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

#bbw12 Day 2: Discovering You are the Red-headed Stepchild + keynote coverage and some not-quite-so-public info

So, this is the day that I was conflicted about with regards to Blackboard World, attending, applying to be an official Blogger (they liked the olive sauce post by the way -- and it was worth it! yummy!). Today was the big keynote with cool announcements and features that Blackboard wants shouted from the rooftops...and while I will be doing some shouting...even some positive shouting :), I want to put this in context:

We are not Blackboard Learn users. We use the newly acquired Blackboard Engage (formerly Edline). Jen and I were asked to come present our use of the LMS within our 1:1 BYOT system. We presented yesterday and it seemed successful...great audience and questions. We even got to make a short promo video for Blackboard, although without the Android w/ a surfboard, it will pale in comparison to the latest Jen&JD Show. We have also worked with some great people MoodleRooms (another Blackboard acquisition) and some great people from Blackboard as we put together the school's new technology plan.

We like Blackboard...but we also like the free and open internet.
We understand the need for an LMS and the potential it has to shape things...but we hate lock-in

...and so with that, my view from the blogger's table:

The keynote begins with an impressive look at the world of Blackboard. I smile when I see the 20,000+ schools under the Blackboard Engage umbrella -- we were a great acquisition for the company which had not been able to make real in-roads into the k-12 market. I am excited to hear how Engage will become a part of the Blackboard community as a whole.

The presentation kicks off with a "I am a digital native" animation that puts some of the youtube infographs to shame in terms of production quality. It  does reinforce the idea that #digitalnative is synonymous with #digitalcitizen and the back channel picked up on that and grumbled a little bit. It's interesting, because based on other RTs and reactions, some people were eating it up. I am not sure if this is due to conflicting idea, differing experiences, or an evolutionary opinion that develops over time.

They come out of the gate with the big announcement. It is called ProjectXP (visions of decades old operating systems cross anyone else's mind? maybe the guys at Moodlerooms who helped work on some of this are big Dungeons&Dragons fans). Its Goal: to integrate the learning communities of 25,000+ campuses, enabling them to share resources, ideas, and connections in a way that is integrated with the LMS...whichever LMS you are using. Now that is ambitious!

The first part of this is to be called xpLore and we got to see the demo from the keynote. Using a search bar, the user can search for keywords and then use some pretty powerful filtering to narrow down by grade, by course, by state or common core standards,  etc. until the right lesson shows up. If that lesson is in the form of a learning object (cute term) such as a quiz, interactive handout, worksheet or the like, it can be imported to the teacher's courseware with a few clicks (I think I counted three).

The Jen&JD Show, Episode 3: We're on Location! (Cajun Style) #bbw12

We're back!
After three weeks apart, you knew that this video podcast was going to be the one rocked the world and took it to new heights. And if you didn't know that, it's can still jump on the bandwagon now and no one will be the wiser.

Live...then recorded...then edited from New Orleans and Blackboard World, get Jen and JD's take on some of their summer travels and the first Blackboard Keynote. Want to know more about Blackboard? keep following JD's blog, he is doing the daily update thing, although at a slower pace than #iste12

Without further ado...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

#bbw12 Day1b: Social Media, Data, and Inspiration

(haven't read day 1a yet? you missed some great pictures of food and well as a review of the Future of Interactive Learning Presentation...)

Harnessing the Power of Social Media with @NMHS_Principal

Talk about a change...this session is what keynotes should be: focused on education, challenging and inspiring, with real-world examples and a smattering of sappy inspirational videos.

The lead in was a challenge: 
It is a problem that those who are tasked with leading our schools, with developing 21st century skills are sometimes the least knowledgeable. While a few schools are reinventing themselves for the digital age, most are not.

We want our teachers to be adapters, communicators, learners, visionaries, leaders, models, collaborators, and risk-takers. -- whew. When you look at that list, it is overwhelming. But imagine if we created a system where the teachers who left the profession left because they did not fit that model, not because they were drained from 45 days of examinations per year or because their checklist evaluations combined with a metric of student-value-add indicated that they were only so-so. Its a stretch goal, but its achievable.

How do we start? We start by getting teachers to share their getting teachers to converse with using social media.

Interesting point: Education is changing (collaborative, student centered), the landscape is changing (content overload, distributed learning opportunities, free sources), the learners are changing (connected, social learners, gamers, tech-as-default) -- but education keeps looking the same.

He preached the #digcit mantra and talked about PLNs

He showed the social media revolution YouTube video:

Ultimately, he gave six basic reasons why social media must be considered by schools:

  • Communications - the quick way to get information out to many audiences
  • Public Relations - totally controlled, always good news, easy pickup for media outlets
  • Branding - Who we are is clear and photos and blogs give examples of the good
  • Professional Growth - Hashtag chats anyone?
  • Student Engagement - meeting them where they are. showing respect for their mode gives them the opportunity to reciprocate
  • Opportunity - as a result of the PR, the branding, the new ideas and new systems, Vendors and companies and alumni gave the students MORE opportunities -- to test equipment, visit new places, converse with experts in a variety of fields.
...and it only cost time.

Reflection: I have been a big fan of @nmhs_principal on twitter and was happy to find him passionate, engaging, inspiring, and approachable. Why this person did not keynote the lackluster mainfloor shows at #iste12 is beyond me. We need real, passionate, actual administrators in our schools.

#bbw12 Day 1 (part a): In the future, #iceiscold + Sightseeing

Woke up after an intense first half-day of Blackboard World. This may be a pattern given that I started #iste12 blogging the same way, but I think I might line-by-line the day and see if anything pops out for anyone. If you want expansion, are here and would like to add, or see something wrong, please feel free to comment below.

Monday Night: DevCon Party
We crashed. It was so classic as they searched for our names on a list and we laid down the "but we know a guy line". I felt like I was in a bad 80s moving trying to get into the club with all the cool kids. Yeah, I said it, at Blackboard World, the developer's are the new kids.

He who controls the camera...
Expect a lot of @40ishoracle pix
  • I met the new CTO of Edline Blackboard Engage, he has been in the position about 3 mos. The @40ishoracle and he talked Apple interface issues and dreamed of JD taking attendance on the chromebook.
  • I had a lovely conversation with a lady dressed right out of the SCA who turns out to be so high up in the Blackboard echelon that her title is almost as obscure as when I was dubbed "Director of Strategery" -- that may have been her title, actually.
  • We played wall flowers while our friend @phjmille was dragged onto the dancefloor by a sultry vampire, a scruffy werewolf, and Jake from the Blues Brothers. 
  • Highlight of the evening was when the amazing band solo'd through each instrument on "So you say it's your birthday" in celebration of Heather who made the most of the spotlight.

(and now you know what happens when geeks get down - jealous yet?)

Tuesday - Before the Con:

...and food.

  • Wandering the streets of New Orleans in search of beignets (found them along with crawfish omelets and scones)
  • Wandered through the rain ("oh, so that's what rain is like" said the drought-stricken midwesterners)
  • Registered and with three hours to kill went Catholic Tourist sight seeing.

Interlude: (as if this whole section weren't and interlude)
I love talking to people who make their living on the street and when a shoe-shiner caught my eye, just couldn't resist. Hats off to him, cause he was smooth and knew how to play the game, complete with 10-ccent wisdom, a partner who showed cash from another happy customer, and politeness to Jen. He didn't get $20 dollars off of me for a spitshine, but he did try his best. "The punchline is "you got them ON YOUR FEET"
End Interlude

Breakout Session One: "The Future of Interactive Education"

This was presented by Kate Worlock (awesome name) who works for OUTSELL, a technology number-crunching company. She positioned her talk well at the beginning of the day, laying out trends and themes to keep in mind for the rest of the conference.

While I am a sucker for a british accent, there was a lot of #iceiscold remarks. I guess that the data supports it is interesting:
  • We teach in rooms of about 30 students that have very different worldviews and ways of learning
  • We should be teaching 21st century skills -- it is no longer about just knowledge transfer (was it ever?)
  • We are expected to teach more students, more things, with less money (this is the educaitonal equivalent to walking uphill both ways through snow)
  • Education is traditionally a market that is evolutionary, not revolutionary
So, what is the future of education?

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Blackboard Prelection: Open and Curious - #bbw12 Day 0


@40ishoracle and the last journey
of her large  Macbook
I am sitting in an airport in Houston, with about a half-hour before the flight to New Orleans takes off. The @40ishoracle survived leg one on a puddle-jumper express and was able to finish a guest-blog (aside: wow. I am really impressed with gDocs offline mode that was announced at Google I/O -- there is a decent feature set offline and the sync when back on the ground was seamless).

 One of the context setting activities we do in Jesuit Schools is called the Prelection. While they take a variety of forms, the prelection helps set tone and context for the experiences that are to come. It is a way to begin to access prior knowledge, think about the tools that one brings to the task ahead, and generally get "ready", whatever that means.

As I gear up for Blackboard world, I feel the need to clear my mental palatte, in part because I am heading to this conference with little preconceived notion or expectation. At #iste12 I wanted to share our BYOT experience and learn more about the others (some success but a lot of fear), I wanted to learn how people were coping with my personal obsession, #digcit, and the changing ways that our students are learning in light of so much information and so little content (some really cool risk-takers that are more scared of test-culture than students), and I wanted to meet some of my friends from Twitter and the blogosphere (hit and miss...problem with being a watcher by nature).

 As I move into this new event after a hectic week of preparing our new network for a 1:1 BYOT rollout, upgrading teacher computers with an eye toward giving them the same type of choice that we give our student-users, and gearing up for a week of Cajun and Creole (win!), I feel

 Blackboard's Self Description:
 It is the once a year event where you can get the answers you need, network with over 2,000 peers, meet experts, explore Blackboard partners, learn about our product roadmap, and have the opportunity to share your ideas on how to shape Blackboard's products and services in the future. As past BbWorld® attendees have said, "there is no better place to discover, share and learn, experience and participate in leveraging Blackboard."
 What I am intrigued by (and hence this sense of non-opinion, which is a little unlike me) is that, while I am very open to learning how to leverage our Blackboard product (the newly re-branded ENGAGE, formerly Edline), I feel that any attempt to put all of our educational eggs in one basket is doomed to frustration (I blogged about this more in-depth here).

I am interested as a consumer in what can Blackboard do for me when I am unwilling to let my teachers be dominated by a single platform if there are other avenues that offer more educational potential. I am interested as an educators in what Blackboard does in the face of tablets, phones, chromebooks, laptops, and e-readers all looking to break out of a platform-specific experience. I am looking forward to meeting people who have both drunk the LMS kool-aid and who have used that to create amazing learning environments for their students.

So, in the best tradition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I am preparing myself mentally for a experience with no particular goal in mind other to be and interact. Not easy for a type-A geek.

My supplies list:

JD still loves PicSay Pro

  • Chromebook (my goto mobile device. 10 hr battery, 8 sec startup, 3g built-in)
  • Transformer Prime (with keyboard and fancy leather case. I have found one use-case for this beyond consumption -- I am now maintaining 4 email accts. It is much easier to stay up on notifications, particularly 3 gmails, from a tablet.)
  • 2 Kodak Play cameras, a flex tri-pod, lav mics -- Jen and JD will do at least one episode from #bbw12.
  • The Android Robot, because it wouldn't be The Jen&JD show without the star.
  • #edtech and #edlingo Bingo Prizes for anyone who is brave enough to call out bingo in the middle of a session.
  • My GalaxyNote and Bluetooth
  • The paperback Joshua by Robert Girzone, SJ for those annoying airplane rules
  • My Kindle Fire for the Movie&TV app. -- one week before the Nexus 7 goes for a mini-tab displacement.
  • Distinctly missing are comicbooks. I loaded a bunch that had free download combo-codes from this week's purchases. I have real concern for the comic-book shop model, but that is a different post entirely.

The plane is boarding. Expect some on the ground updates. Some instagrams of really unhealthy food. At least one video podcast. And some educational insights with a touch of snark -- everything you have come to expect from this blog.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Teaching Discourse within Disagreement - A Quora-inspired blogpost

I am an occasional Quora user. I love the concept of answering a question as fully and accurately as possible and having it crowdsourced for accuracy.It is the next extension of Wikipedia. I also feel guilty that I really only feel qualified to answer questions about Batman, BYOT, and an occasional entry on some aspect of #digcit.

So when is saw this question come across my screen:
How can Obamacare be explained in layman's terms?

I was determined to take a crack at it. I sat down to write and opened up a few screens to fact check and when I was finished, I realized that I had not come even close to answering the question. So I never posted.

This was the first paragraph of what i wrote:
Wow. This might be one of the most challenging questions I have seen recently. Urban Dictionary describes "Layman's Terms" as an attempt to "describe a complex or technical issue using words and terms that the average individual can understand" -- I would add to that dictionary that most people who ask the question are seeking "just the facts" without a particular bias or slant, since they often are looking to draw their own conclusions. And even the term "Obamacare" was, and to many still is, a pejorative term for the Affordable Care Act that was meant to imply, among other things, a) that it was one person's idea and  b) a big brother-esque totalitarian solutions (remember the "death boards"?). 
So I scrapped my attempt to answer the question. But that started one of those thought spirals that brought me back to my "Teach the Controversy" series (Part I, Part II, and the PLN-based Part III). This was made even more poignant by Sunday's Mass and the subsequent discussions that happened (I'll get to that part in a second).

Interlude - A Peek Behind the Curtain
I remember one of the more frustrating moments of my Senior year was receiving an assignment to write a research paper. Attached to the assignment description was a list of verboten topics such as abortion, the death penalty, and passing out condoms in school. There were the usual grumbles but the teacher was adamant that these topics had been written about to death. 

A year later, I had the opportunity to do one of my first observations in teacher-training at that high school. During this one week intensive, I got to look behind the curtain into the mysterious teacher's lounge. In classic fly-on-the-wall mode, I got to hear about a variety of things. I remember my shock that teachers knew exactly what was going on in the back of the debate bus (yikes!) as well as who-was-dating-whom and other top-secret teenage lore.

During one of these discussions, the topic of the research paper topics came up. I listened as I heard teachers extol the policy of limiting topics that would cause the student's to lose focus on correct structure, cause arguments that would never be settled, and force teacher's to tip their hand to their own opinions. Through the conversation, it became clear that for all but a few of the oldest teachers, these topics had not been written about "to death" in class -- they had not been written about at all for years!
End Interlude 

I think that we are beginning to reap the results of this policy...and as educators, I think it falls to us to begin to fix the problem -- one controversy at a time.

Fortnight of Freedom:
A Real World "Teach the Controversy" Application

If you are not Catholic, you may not be aware that we are currently in the middle of a celebration, a movement, a protest called the Fortnight for Freedom. This is the name of a series of articles, speeches, homilies, etc. in protest over the Combination of the Affordable Care Act's demand for insurance coverage of certain routine/preventative/health promoting services and an HHS sub-committee's determination that one of those services in the area of women's health should be contraception. You can read the Kaiser Family Foundation's summary here. Note I did not say its unbiased description -- that is kind of the point I am going to try to make -- While I think the summary is accurate and accounts for arguments on both sides of a controversial topic, that is no longer the measure of "unbiased" in American discourse.

Unbiased, has taken an Orwellian shift to mean its opposite. In order to be considered "unbiased" you must now present information from the political, religious or other perspective of the reader.

I sat in church and listened to the homily of my friend and Priest as he explained that this was not an issue of contraception but was an issue of Religious Freedom. More importantly, it was an issue of religious discrimination, since insular churches (predominantly ministering, educating, helping) people of a single faith could be exempt but churches with outreach (read Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, among others) could not be exempt. -- In a moment i have since come to regret, I walked out.

  • I sat on the steps of the parish with my Transformer Prime and began reading the letter from the Bishop that the priest had been quoting -- it outlined the case for religious discrimination
  • I went back and read the reaction from Church leader's when the coverage was first announced -- very little about Religious Freedom in that context. The concern then was that Church dollars (in the form of payments to insurers) would be used to fund contraception that is against the tenets of that faith -- good point, thought I. 
  • Reading further, I found that there had been a compromise made that would force the insurance companies in these situations to cover the full cost of contraception without payment from the Church or the individual being a factored into the cost model.
  • I went back to the Bishop's letter written weeks after this compromise. It clearly talked about the church being forced to "fund and facilitate" contraception. No mention of the policy change. The language was now much more nuanced with the vague "facilitate" taking on strange, non-layman meanings and the term "funding" being applied only under that  "if-we-pay-for-thing-A-then-there-will-be-money-for-someone-else-to-pay-for-thing-B" kind of way.
This was a lot more complicated than the homily made it out to be. The homily was a call to arms, complete with a concluding litany-of-saints invoking images of people being forced to say prayers in homes with darkened curtains and underground Eucharist.

My wife, an OBGYN and much better writer than I am, wrote a letter outlining her reaction to the priest and he asked if we could have dinner. After a wonderful evening with chatting, fellowship, and a good meal, we sat down to discuss.

Let me repeat that last line, it's important: We sat down to discuss.
  • We outlined points of view. 
  • We repeated what each other said to be sure that we understood it. 
  • We spoke with passion about our feelings, but not dismissive of the passionate feelings of others. At one point, my wife was reading the language of the final rule, the priest was reading documents from the Bishops at, and the Google TV, was showing the news articles during the shift in tone from the funding-issue to the religious-freedom issue.
We identified areas of common ground and areas of further discussion. We talked about actions that could be taken to address the larger issue of a corruption of human sexuality. We learned from each other.

In a broader context, we talked about the polarization of politics, religion and society in general. We talked about confirmation bias and echo-chambers, where we dismiss that with which we do not immediately because there are always hundreds of sources that confirm our belief, so how could we be wrong? We talked about raising a generation of children without the ability to see past their own perspective.


As educators, we have to embrace the opportunities for controversy. In those moments and those topics lie the opportunity to teach the fundamentals of discourse and persuasion. To teach how to dissect the biases of our own perspective and work with people from differing points of view on finding common ground. 

Gary Stager, at #ISTE12, chastised educators who force students to "make presentations on topics they don't care about to audiences that don't actually exist". We need to listen to this truth. Teach the controversy...better yet, let the students teach the controversy while we guide them on the fundamentals of finding accurate information, deconstructing claims and identifying evidence and flaws in logic, and building consensus with people who did not already agree with us.

Will this increase standardized test scores? Probably, but that's not why we should do it.

  • We should do this because it is too easy today to live in an info-laden world where everyone agrees with you.
  • We should do this because students need a place and an environment in which they can learn to ask questions, disagree, and change the minds of other while being open to having their own opinion change
  • We should do this because it might be the most important 21st century skill.
Let's stop having students write about "safe" topics they don't care about. Let's stop hiding behind a bland vernier of unbiased objectivity that no student believes anyway. 

We have a month left until school begins...let's start changing the world.