Friday, October 14, 2016

Tracking trends in education: A fool's errand?

The other day I wrote about how eager we are to find The Next Big Thing in education but how often we do so without a clear vision of what we hope that thing, or any thing, will accomplish.
So I decided to take a look at some of the prognostications about the trends for 2016.

In December 2015, D. Frank Smith writing for EdTech wrote "5 Tech Trends that Could Supercharge Education in 2016." Supercharge. Okay.

The first trend is virtual reality. Jon Phillips, managing director of strategy for worldwide education at Dell, said "I think as we head into the next year, we're going to see more grassroots approaches to bringing technologies like that into the classroom, allowing students to learn experientially." Well, there may be more apps, but the headsets remain expensive for most classrooms, especially when teachers are still trying to decide between laptops or tablets and just hoping to get a cart of one or the other for their grade or maybe even their classroom.

The second trend is 3D printing. Yawn. That was a big deal for some folks. 3D printers are not cheap, though there are some less expensive ones available. The filament and cartridges are not cheap, especially if you want options. Is a 3D printer a cool thing to have? Yes and yes it could provide a fabulous learning resource for some of your students. Invest wisely.

The third trend is the Internet of Things. The industry is still figuring out IoT, what it is, and what it means. Some universities may be able to do something with IoT in helping it find its feet and its way, but not so much in K-12. Not yet.

The fourth trend is wearables. In my opinion, this is a technology trying to find a reason to be in the classroom. In reading the article, I kept thinking of a dozen or more ways teachers could do the same things without wearables.

The fifth trend is harder to define because Mr. Smith referred to interactive technology but also robotics. So that one seems a bit more on the horizon that some of the others, and still not yet in focus as we head towards the close of 2016.

There were others who spoke of trends, of course. I use Mr. Smith and his article as a benchmark. Susan Patrick of iNACOL had a list of 11 Big Trends for 2016. Let's take a look.
  1. New definitions of success. Well, I don't think we had a good old definition of success to come up with new definitions for this abstract concept. I used to tell my students that what looks like success for one of them may not look like or feel like success for others. That they should not measure their abilities, their knowledge, their capabilities, or their grades against anyone else's. That one student's B could feel like an A+ because that student would know how far she had come or what he had learned to achieve that B. Success comes in many guises and forms so I think we're doing a pretty crappy job of defining it, ESSA or not.
  2. Rethinking measurements. See above. Long before we talked about constructivism or personalized learning or proficiency or mastery, I came up with a student final project designed to save my sanity. I was teaching general education literature courses. Kids were taking this literature courses mostly because they had to and, after a few years, I was dreading reading the compulsory final papers of all of these students. So I decided to let them choose their final project. Yes, I told them, by all means write a paper if that's what you want to do. But if you'd rather paint a picture or write a song or make a movie or write a play or create a game or design a story quilt or something else, please do. I asked them to give me an abstract or an idea of what they were planning to do and why. I also asked them to do a short write-up of their project if they weren't writing a paper to explain to me how it connected to the class. Of course, then I had to figure out how to grade those projects but I got some AMAZING work. I distinctly remember story quilts, paintings, movies, and sculptures with wonderfully succinct and clear write-ups, often less than a page, that made it clear what that student had learned from the class and how their work connected to their learning, which was, by the way, often not limited to the literature class! It was brilliant. And the papers I read were generally good papers and written by students more comfortable with writing though there were those written by students who had no better idea for a final project. But even those were immensely more readable than those papers written by students who would rather have a root canal without painkillers. When we finally rethink measurements, let's make it meaningful. To the students.
  3. Student-centered environments. We're getting there. I see a lot of teachers doing great things with their classrooms and not just chasing after the latest craze for classroom furnishings. But really thinking about what a student-centered environment means.
  4. Personalized professional development. We're working on getting there. As someone who earns her living (so far) through providing professional development, I'm okay with that for now. Still, I'm often frustrated for participants who are clearly attending a session under some sort of duress. On the other hand, because most teachers already put in a 12+-hour day, asking them to get their professional development on their own time is asking a lot. On yet another hand, I've also seen districts being more mindful of choice in the ways they provide professional development offerings, including in-service days.
  5. Managing change. At the end of this item is this: ". . .so must our leaders take on roles for managing change for continuous improvement." Ugh. I have issues with "leaders" and "continuous improvement." What do we mean by "leaders"? I fear we tend to think of leaders as the administrators when we have leadership in our classrooms. All the time. I also fear we do not trust our teacher leaders to be leaders of change and to help manage change.
  6. Data-informed decisions + world-class standards. This is a two-fer. Ms. Patrick makes very clear that world-class standards are imperative. "Standards still matter to achieve world-class, internationally-benchmarked levels of learning but academics, skills and knowledge come together in new ways to support whole child development." In other words, if we're going to compete in a global economy, our standards must have a global view AND must be world-class. Further, if we're going to compete in a global economy, the decisions we make need to be based on relevant and realistic data. But making solid data-informed decisions is not for the weak. There is a lot of work involved in separating the relevant and useful data from the buzz of a thousand data points. Which data gets you closer to achieving your vision? Which data helps your teachers and you make better decisions for student learning opportunities, for resources, for community involvement, for parent involvement, for teacher development? And when you examine that data, against what standards and benchmarks are you analyzing and making decisions?
  7. Balanced approaches: Asking to what end. Yes this is basically "begin with the end in mind." How does what this is help my students? help my teachers? How does this get us closer to our goals? closer to our vision? How does this inform how our vision needs to adjust for the next iteration of who we are becoming? Why is this more important than that? We cannot be afraid to ask questions. We cannot be afraid to challenge our own status quo. If we change our minds, we might be accused of flip flopping, but if we know why we have changed course and how this decision will make a difference, the change may be more welcomed.
  8. Programming, robotics, and the Maker Movement. The global economy is increasingly a digital economy. Middle skills workers--those workers with more than an high school diploma but perhaps less than a bachelor's degree--are in increasing demand, but so is the training for these folks. Students who are not adverse to tinkering, who have sufficient curiosity and inquiry skills to figure things out, who are not afraid to make mistakes or fail because they know how to learn from mistakes and missteps are going to have remarkable opportunities. They don't all have to become coders, but knowing how to code if only to know how to make logic-based decisions is no small thing.
  9. Neuroscience, youth development research, and how kids learn best. We've been studying this stuff for as long as kids have been learning and I'm not sure we're any further along that we were decades ago. And why do we have to keep creating learning models. If we're all that gung-ho for student-focused learning, then we figure out how to provide options for students and let them figure out how they learn best. Oh my goodness so much learning happens that way! And if we want kids to be able to take ownership of their learning, why are so we adamant about developing learning models? Because you know the next thing that happens is we try to figure out which model best suits which student when, in fact, it's likely one model suits Johnny when he's fiddling with coding apps and another model suits him when he's working on something else.
  10. Mobile learning. Based on Ms. Patrick's observations, we're still figuring out what we mean by "mobile." Is it the devices we used for learning? Or is that we can be mobile when we're learning? Or is it that we can use a range of devices and tools to interconnect with other learners? I think it's all of the above which is, in my mind, what we mean by digital learning. Even so, I'd love for us to stop differentiating digital learning as though it's some other kind of learning. We're talking about ways of learning, ways of discovery and exploration. Maybe a student will use an app or a web-based resource. Or maybe a student will open a book. . .while he's sitting in the bleachers waiting for his sister to finish soccer practice. . . and do additional research using his smartphone, tablet, or wearable.
  11. Cloud computing. In school after school I've already seen how cloud computing is changing the way teachers interact with students and parents, and the way administrators are working, collaborating, and sharing change management with their teachers.
What's not listed in any of these is growth mindset, mindfulness, and a handful of other movements. Some of them are repackaged approaches we've tried and cast off, which speaks to one of the challenges of trends. We want something to change and to change quickly though we're not always sure what we want to change other than "student achievement."

But meaningful change takes time.

I don't think it's foolish to track trends in education, but I also believe we need to be judicious in choosing which trends we try to implement in our schools. I think wise administrators work collaboratively to find that which will help their schools--teachers, students, and parents--make progress toward achieving their goals and their vision. And really wise administrators make sure they allow sufficient time for some new thing to prove itself before racing off to the next new shiny.