Swimming in the Deep End

I’m late to the Cal Newport bandwagon, but better late than never.  I’ve about finished Deep Work, and coincidentally ran across this tweet earlier this week:


It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Great Hearts Academies, and classical education, in general.  The question of how technology is best used (if at all) in classrooms is a heated one, and I’ve written about it a little bit here.  I’m heartened but not surprised by the growing number of reports (beginning as early as 2011) that the engineers and designers of most useful (and addictive) technologies are limiting their own kids’ exposure to these very products.

There are situations in which I think tech can be very helpful, especially in some urban and rural areas, where it is often difficult to find funding for a teacher of advanced math or foreign languages.  Giving students access to highly competent teachers via video-conferencing gives them opportunities that they would not otherwise have had.

But it has always irritated me to hear that kids “need” technology in classrooms in order to get ready for 21st century jobs or some such.  The truth is that they (even students from the lowest income backgrounds) have loads of exposure to technology outside of school.  Part of the point of iPads and iPhones is that they are “closed gardens” in the sense that they are idiot-proof and also hard to hack.  If that’s the case, how much time does it really take to learn how to operate today’s tech?  It’s super easy.  Kids catch on and surpass grown-ups without so much as darkening a classroom door.

In other words, if you’re really trying to get kids ready for the 21st century, take a page out of Deep Work and help them develop the habits and taste for deep work.  Help them develop the space within themselves to think the revolutionary and disruptive thoughts that will lay the groundwork for 22nd century jobs (and beyond).  Help them learn what their elders can’t seem to do — develop the self-control in a context of digital distraction to go deeper than this generation can.

Learning to read a hard book, write a report, take apart computers and put them back together, hold an extended and deep conversation — these are the real advantages that some kids will gain to as part of their formal education.  The question, as the NY Times article above asks, is which ones?

The best ways that technology can truly improve education should probably be invisible to students, or as seemless as possible, and integrated into very human interactions and as part of a rhythm that allows for deep work.

If we treat tech as a “quick fix” for systems broken by profound and long-standing social, political, and economic issues, we shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t deliver.  We shouldn’t be surprised when it does what it does best — amplify and extend human wisdom and weakness.

In many ways, tech in education is a boon and a blessing.  I’m personally involved in some efforts to make the classics more accessible through technology.  Finding the right way to integrate it will take time and wisdom and reflection.  We humans invent new tools and then figure out what they’re really for.

Let’s not assume that they way the big tech companies envision (or prefer) their products being used in classrooms will be the real and best application of these tools to the ed space.

And let’s be careful of cronyistic schemes that give large tech companies leverage over the lives and minds of students who are not operating in the context of true educational freedom.  Let’s strive to give all families the ability to choose schools that support their beliefs and values, including their preferences about how much screen time their kids get.


The Playlist’s (Not) The Thing

Yesterday in my Twitter-browsing, I came across an article in New York Magazine by Nick Tabor (h/t Emily Hanford @ehanford) – Mark Zuckerberg is Trying to Transform Education.  This Town Fought Back

Look, I think it would be a mistake to assume that all of the 380 public and charter schools that have adopted the Facebook-funded Summit personalized-learning platform have had an experience as bad as the Cheshire, CT elementary and middle schools did.  It’s clear from the article that this town’s experience seems to be an outlier (at least for now).

Furthermore, I’m not on the bandwagon with the idea that it is a malum in se for corporations to make investments in U.S. education.  In fact, I think this would be good if more private companies supported education for students in need — something that tax-credit scholarships programs make very attractive, BTW.

With those caveats out of the way, let me just say this — beware tech moguls bearing gifts.  The reason has nothing to do with “greed” as conventionally understood.  It has everything to do with the paradox of massive tech companies:

  • they are by nature disruptive
  • they are by nature homogenizing.

The NY Magazine story highlights the first problem — the townspeople were not consulted about this massive change that adopting the Summit personalized-learning platform would bring to both curriculum and pedagogy.  There was, as the story points out, not a chance to opt-in or opt-out.  So, that’s mistake #1.

The second problem is apparent on a few levels.  The core idea of this platform is a very old notion about the role of education.  The author notes:

The modern notion of personalized learning, in which lesson plans are adapted for each individual student, dates back to the Progressive era, and is the general basis for Montessori- and Waldorf-style education, but has never taken hold broadly in the U.S.

I think Mr Tabor is right that the idea of personalized learning is old, but I think it’s a mistake to trace its ultimate origin back to the Progressive era.  The core idea goes back to our friend Rousseau and his Romantic idea that civilization corrupts the child.

Furthermore, while Montessori-style education is not generally practiced in public schools, the philosophy of the role of the teacher as a “guide on the side not sage on the stage” is 100% the conventional view in schools of education and in most school districts.  Again, theory and practice are different things, but Zuck’s ideological commitment is indistinguishable from what most professors of education espouse.

On the surface, it would appear that a philosophy or platform that adapts to the individual student would enhance diversity, not homogeneity.  I think this is one reason that some well-meaning libertarian education reformers are attracted to tech-enabled personalized learning.

But pay close attention to the way that these programs are actually implemented.  Here,  Mr Tabor gives the students’ perspective on what it was actually like to have the “playlist” be your teacher (emphasis mine):

They also noticed the computer was easier to trick than a teacher. They could skip the lessons and pass the multiple-choice tests, if they were so inclined, either by making educated guesses, or by working the odds, retaking them until they answered eight out of ten questions correctly (even though the teacher would get pinged after a few consecutive failures). Other students realized they could open two separate browser tabs, one with the questions and another with the answers, and cheat their way through.

That’s right.  As you’re likely aware, computers as we know them run on zeros and ones, yeses and noes, on and off.  Binary choices.  In the core educational context, relying on “playlists” that students can game to determine mastery (based on multiple choice quizzes) seems to be pretty much the opposite of enhancing student individuality, creativity, and problem-solving.

BTW, as an official TED-Talk-Speaker-Approved™ metaphor for a framework of learning, “playlist” might be one of the dumbest ones yet.  I mean, it’s already outdated – content is streaming and/or algorithm-optimized now.

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I don’t want to be unfair to Montessori fans.  The approach has much to recommend itself when done well.  But it might not be scalable, at least in conventional school settings.  In fact, it might cause a good deal of harm if it is imposed in inappropriate contexts, and it might be particularly bad when it’s computerized.

This is where the tech moguls and sometimes other philanthropists really screw things up — they take an idea that might work in a smaller setting, with well-trained teachers and lots of community buy-in (hello school choice) and then say, well, technology brings down the price of everything else it touches (disruption) so if we (badly) map this idea onto some code and bring our (homogenous) platform to any particular community, it must bring about the desired results.

When the power of education is concentrated in just a few institutions, it makes it a lot easier for bad ideas to be imposed from the top down and do lots of damage.  One of the most compelling arguments for educational freedom is that it will bring about more pluralism in education — more groups, organizations, and more families will become gatekeepers.

And I think that brings me to the thing that really nagged me about this story.  It’s clear that the community that fought Zuck and won is a rather affluent one.  It’s clear that parents had the power of both voice and exit (emphasis mine):

As the school year in Connecticut went on, some parents tried to move their kids into classes that weren’t using the platform — but administrators said they couldn’t, because it would disrupt the distribution of students to teachers. A few reportedly pulled their kids from the district. And a cadre of others committed to getting the program suspended.

They created a group on Slack, the workplace messaging system, and a private forum on Facebook, where they could share links to relevant news articles and social-science research.

I’m very interested in the demographics of the 380 other schools that have adopted the Summit platform.  I’m interested to learn whether the ones that have had a problem with it tend to be in more affluent areas than the ones that have not raised the same kind of ruckus.  If you are a parent with limited choices for your child’s education, you may not be as effective in advocating against changes that are having a negative effect on your child.

As I’ve discussed here before, I’m actually a fan of online education.  What I’m deeply skeptical of is whether conventional school settings are the place where the power of online learning can truly and meaningfully be unleashed.  It may be that in conventional school settings, a combination of lecture and Socratic methodologies works best.

If that’s not palatable to you, then we need to figure out a way to make it possible for more families to afford schools that are narrowly tailored to meet their needs.  These schools will adopt a variety of approaches to learning.  And if they are accountable to families, they are far more likely to produce better outcomes — no matter their approach.



Education in Your Earbuds

Today is the 20th anniversary of a BBC Radio 4 program(me) called In Our Time.  I stumbled across it in its first year on my shortwave radio.

That’s right, shortwave radio.  In high school, I was very interested in radio broadcasting — its practice and science.  I went to Radio Shack, bought a model radio kit, and built it.  I think it picked up signals from the local airport, but it’s a little fuzzy now.  My big next step was to save my babysitting money and buy the best shortwave radio $150 could buy (I wish I still had it).

There was this thing that shortwave nerds did (may still be a thing) where you send away to a station that you pick up with a written request for a postcard.  The farther away, the better.  Different times of day were good for stations from different parts of the world.  Stations liked to know where their listeners were, and listeners enjoyed collecting postcards from exotic locations.  I particularly prized my postcards from Radio Finland and the Vatican (both had broadcasts in Latin).

The BBC had frequencies that were strong throughout the day and night in central Texas.  I enjoyed the programming on Radio 4 the best.  It specialized in spoken content, including comedies, music, and cultural topics.  In a household that wisely restricted TV viewing, it was my primary form of non-reading entertainment.

I brought my shortwave radio with me to college and continued to use it to pick up the Beeb.  When it arrived on the air in late 1998, In Our Time struck me as a standout even among Radio 4’s great content.  I think what made it so compelling was its host, Melvyn Bragg.  Mr Bragg invites 3 or 4 academics to discuss a set historical, scientific, or literary topic each week.  He is not himself an expert on the topics (usually).  He is something rarer in public life — a curious, well-educated layman.

Mr Bragg never lets the professors get away with academic B.S. – he confidently, even doggedly, challenges his guests to explain the ideas or events under discussion without jargon or over-reliance on pet theories.  He demands that they make their knowledge comprehensible to his audience.  In this way, he doesn’t condescend to his listeners — he assumes that they, like him, are intelligent, informed, and curious — but not experts.  In fact, I’d say he sort of turns the tables by holding academics, who are used to a certain deference, up to a kind of accountability.  He demands that they engage in nothing less than educating the public.

I dare say if you listened to all the episodes on various themes, from Roman history to Shakespeare to physics, you’d gain as good an overview of the subject as most 101 level university courses.

Moreover, you’d learn that the stance of intelligent skepticism — of the spirit of energetic inquiry — is just as important to education as the facts themselves.

For these reasons, I rejoice that In Our Time has been available as a podcast for years now, and that all of its magnificent back-catalog is available for free — no analog shortwave radios required.


Online Education

My opinion on the subject of online education has evolved over the past ten years.  In part, it’s because the technology is catching up to the previously unique aspects of in-person education, and in part, it’s because I’ve benefitted both as a student and teacher using online tools.

In 2010 and 2011, I ran a Latin and Greek tutoring business.  I found that I could not keep up with demand and that travel time was eating into my profits.  I think if I had kept at it a little longer, one way to manage this would have been to raise my rates.

The other way to maximize my productivity would be to take the travel out of the equation.  I worked with a great homeschooling family who lived a good distance from my home, so traveling to work with them was costing me about an hour a day.  I took what I thought was a big risk at the time and asked if they would be willing to work with me via Skype.

They agreed.  It didn’t take me very long to realize that if I could find other like-minded teachers, we could actually start our own online school.  I chickened out on that dream, and went back to teaching in a conventional school setting.

I’m glad that by now, there are some really excellent online options for classical education.  I hope that more teachers will begin to feel empowered to start their own schools, eliminating (or at least significantly reducing) the overhead by leveraging technology.  Students will benefit from the increased innovation and customization that will be unleashed.

In-person education will always have a place.  But the increasing pressure on mediocre or poorly-differentiated schools and institutions of higher education will mean that we’ll see more close, merge, or evolve.

The in-person education of the future will look a lot like the kind of settings that would have been familiar to previous generations – tutor-led small groups, specialized curriculum, and opportunities for students to engage in apprenticeships during the day.

Teachers can and should be excited about these changes that are shifting the power away from administrators and that will allow them to become artists and entrepreneurs.  Families will be able to better match their child’s education to their abilities and interests.

So, yes, my opinions about online education have evolved.  The problems with the status quo are so fundamental and pervasive that I don’t think they can truly be solved from within the system.  I’m open to being proven wrong about that, too.  If you care about increasing opportunities for students, I hope you’ll engage with others from a place of learning and humility.  We owe that to the future.