Book Review: The Monsters of Education Technology

As background, here’s a brief summary of my relationship with Educational Technology, from c. 2003 to the present:
My EdTech Arc
Thanks to my Twitter Archive and apps like TimeHop, I’ve been frequently exposed to my EdTech Pollyanna stage. There sure were lots of excited exclamation points

In the more recent past, I’ve been feeling a bit more like the EdTech Curmudgeon:

  • “Hey, have you heard about this tool? Students can make digital flashcards!” Me: “Ummm…”
  • “Look this tool that automatically grades ScanTron tests!” Me: “Ummm….”
  • “Check out these Khan Academy videos! Students can totally get extra help!” Me: “Ummm….”

Usually I don’t say much when friends and colleagues bring up questionable tools. I mean, that’s pretty much exactly where I was c. 2008. Though I do try to bring up issues with the tools, or their parent companies, or (most often) the type of teaching and learning these tools reinforce when there’s an opportunity, usually I just end up feeling like Debbie Downer in a room full of excited cheerleaders.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed reading Audrey Watters’ The Monsters of Educational Technology so very, very much.
The Monsters of Education Technology
Audrey Watters self-describes as the Cassandra1 of EdTech. As she notes about herself in the book:

"I don’t tend to talk about ed-tech revolution and disruptive innovation unless it’s to critique and challenge those phrases. I don’t give ed-tech pep talks, where you leave the room with a list of 300 new apps you can use in your classroom."

You're not going to walk away from Watters' writing feeling like a world beater: able to revolutionize the whole education in your classroom tomorrow. Instead she stares deep into the soul of so many Silicon Valley edtech startups and finds them to be empty.

But this is an important thing. Education technology has been, and- apropos the Cassandra comparison- will continue to be lauded as “the way” to “fix” what’s “wrong” with teaching and learning today. It’s flashy. It’s shiny. It looks futuristic and fancy to administrators and politicians. Unfortunately, so many of the tools simply replicate or reinforce questionable practices from our past. Instead, Watters challenges us (emphasis mine):

“To transform education and education technology to more progressive and less programmed ends means we do have to address what exactly we think education should look like now and in the future. Do we want programmed instruction? Do we want teaching machines? Do we want videotaped lectures? Do we want content delivery systems? Or do we want education that is more student-centered, more networked-focused. [...] And instead of acting as though ed-tech is free of ideology, we need to recognize that it is very much enmeshed in it.”

When schools adopt new technologies there often isn’t much thought given to the pedagogical or social implications the new technologies bring to the classroom. Very little consideration is given to what the tools really add to the learning process over already existing tools (besides being shinier and newer), and even less consideration is given to how this might affect who we are as humans, as Watters describes in her critique of algorithms designed to grade student essays:

"We have no laws of ‘ed-tech robotics.’ We rarely ask, ‘What are ethical implications of educational technologies?’ Mostly, we want to know ‘will this raise test scores?’ ‘Will this raise graduation rates?’ We rarely ask, ‘Are we building and adopting tools that might harm us? That might destroy our humanity?’"

Despite the picture I’ve painted so far, Watters goes beyond simply prophesying doom upon humanity at the hands of educational technology. Though deeply skeptical and harshly critical of most educational technology, she isn’t anti-technology.

She champions technologies that give students agency. Technologies that places students in control of their own learning.  Technologies that promote learning outside the artificial structures society has created in schools and universities. Clearly one of her favorite ideas is an initiative started at the University of Mary Washington, called a Domain of One’s Own. UMW gives each student their own domain- not just space on a university server- but a domain they can take with them after they graduate:

“Their own domain. Again, the word matters here. Students have their own space on the Web. A space for a blog or multiple blogs. A digital portfolio for their academic work that can become a professional portfolio as well. A place to store their digital stuff in the cloud. Moreover, a lesson on the technologies that underpin the Web. HTML. CSS. RSS. It's not quite “hosted lifebits,” but it’s a solid step in that direction. The initiative represents a kind of open learning – learning on the Web and with the Web, learning that is of the Web. ‘Domain of One’s Own’ offers a resistance to the silos of the learning management system and to the student as a data mine. It highlights the importance of learner agency, of learning in public, of learning together, of control over one’s digital identity and over one’s educational data, and the increasing importance of digital literacies."

This is an idea that seems so simple yet powerful. It’s something that could be done even at the high school level- maybe students don’t receive their own actual domain, but students could be given a space somewhere online where 1) they are in control and 2) that can be taken with them once they’ve graduated.

Audrey Watters’ work is simultaneously deeply informative, insightful, troubling, and hopeful. I highly recommend The Monsters of Education Technology and pretty much everything she’s written online at Hacked Education to anyone working in or near an educational setting.

The book is available directly through Audrey Watters’ website in a variety of print and e-book formats. You should definitely buy it.

"Indeed humanity and learning are deeply intertwined. They are intertwined with love, not with algorithms." - Audrey Watters

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  1. Cassandra of classical mythology was given the gift of prophecy, but when she spurned Apollo’s love she was cursed to always prophesy truthfully, but never to be believed.     (back)

Book Review: Choice Theory in the Classroom

Choice Theory in the ClassroomA week before I went on Spring Break, my principal came in to my room and asked if I had heard of William Glasser (I had), and if I'd read his book, Choice Theory in the Classroom (I had not). She asked if I'd like to read it and at some point talk with her about what I thought about Glasser's ideas on classroom management described in the book. "Sure," I said, "though I probably won't get around to opening it until the middle of Spring Break." Now on the Thursday of my Spring Break week, I've finished and want to get down a few thoughts I had about the book while they're still fresh.

The tl;dr review

Glasser suggests that having students work on meaningful tasks in well-defined groups is an improvement over lecture-based, kill-and-drill, individual work. However, his reasoning as to why this is true border on pseudoscience and his conclusions come across as being obvious and mundane.

The full review

At the outset I was pretty skeptical of what the book would include. The book was pitched to me as being primarily about classroom management and my experience with classroom management books hasn't been all that great. However, after reading the first chapter, in which Glasser convincingly outlines the primary problem he's trying to address (engaging the 50% of students1 who aren't engaged in class), I realized I had probably too harshly prejudged the content of the book.

Except...well...then there were chapters 2 - 7. I found these chapters especially frustrating because I agreed with the main point Glasser was trying to make, but he seemed to rely heavily on poor, over-reaching, unnecessary, and factually questionable evidence to get there. He should've just said:

Students want to have at least some control over their experiences while at school (both learning and social), but the traditional classroom robs them of almost all control. As a result students often disengage in learning and seek to exert control over their school lives in whatever way they can- often in ways that disrupt the learning environment. Students should instead be given more meaningful work that can be done in groups with the teacher serving as a facilitator instead of a controlling dictator.

That was his main point- and I think it's a good point- but instead he spent six chapters and 86 pages trying to make his case using slippery slope examples (evidently students who wanted to exert control over their lives quickly descend into illegal drug use), direct analogies to schools as factories2 and plenty of questionable science:

  • We have 5 basic needs that are genetically ingrained: 1) Survival, 2) Belonging and love, 3) Gaining power, 4) Gaining freedom, and 5) Having fun,
  • Migraines are caused when people choose negative behaviors that then affect our physiology,
  • Drugs for depression and ADHD are unnecessary, people just need to choose positive behaviors to fix these.
So, I agree with Glasser's main point, but disagree with how he gets there. Is this a problem? Yeah, I think it is. Even though I agree with his conclusion, I'm not sure I trust Glasser to address the conclusion based on the tortured path he took to arrive there.
After repeatedly3 mentioning that he'd explain how Choice Theory solves the problem of student disengagement in Chapter 8, I was pretty excited once I actually reached Chapter 8. I would finally find out what he was promoting! Without further ado, let me spoil it for you. What does Glasser's Choice Theory look like in the classroom?
  1. Have students work in mixed-ability groups (what he called learning-teams) of 2 - 5.
  2. Give the learning-teams interesting & relevant problems or projects to complete.
  3. Assign specific roles for each student in the learning-team.
  4. Make sure students are accountable for both their individual work and the collective group work.
  5. The teacher should serve as a facilitator and mentor who works with students instead of dictating at students.
OK, so these aren't bad things. These are even good things. Yes, having students work in groups on an interesting project with well-defined roles and clear expectations is much preferable to lectures and worksheets. However, Glasser's tone conveys a sense that this is a wholly original idea that he (along with a couple other contemporary colleagues) have just recently made. Choice Theory in the Classroom was published 27 years ago, and at first blush I was giving it a pass because there has been a concerted push to make secondary education more student-centric since 1986. But then I was recalling a piece on education and schooling that I'd read awhile ago, where the author of the piece says:
I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative. [...]
I believe that [a child's] interests are neither to be humored nor repressed. To repress interest is to substitute the adult for the child, and so to weaken intellectual curiosity and alertness, to suppress initiative, and to deaden interest. To humor the interests is to substitute the transient for the permanent. The interest is always the sign of some power below; the important thing is to discover this power. To humor the interest is to fail to penetrate below the surface and its sure result is to substitute caprice and whim for genuine interest.
Surely the author of the above piece must have drawn on Glasser's groundbreaking work? Not so much. Those are excerpts from John Dewey's "My Pedagogic Creed," writing in 1897. While I don't need Glasser to specifically name-check Dewey, it does concern me that while writing a substantial piece on education reform Glasser seems to have missed 99 years of other people's work in the area he's specifically addressing.
Choice Theory in the Classroom isn't a bad book, it just comes off feeling extremely dated and somewhat obvious in its conclusions- which is notable because John Dewey's work, written over 110 years ago, still feels modern.4

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  1. Glasser cites this "50% of students aren't working" in class fact over and over. While I agree that a lack of student engagement is a primary problem in the classroom it wouldn't have killed him to throw some citations at this. Instead it came off as a number he drived anecdotally from observing a few classrooms and talking to a few teachers.  (back)
  2. including nearly 10 pages where he uses an LA Times article on the difference between Japanese and American car assembly factories to "help" make his point.  (back)
  3. I didn't keep an accurate count, but I'd bet he mentioned how he'd explain everything in Chapter 8 around ten times.   (back)
  4. I mean, "I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living," is an amazingly challenging statement even today.  (back)

Book Review: The Students Are Watching

The Students Are Watching- Schools and the Moral Contract

Somewhere along my journey of teaching, I realized I had started paying an awful lot of attention to more than just the content of what I was saying and having students do in class. I was paying attention to the messages and values communicated through the classroom rules, routines, and activities I was designing for the students. I started to purposefully promote particular values in my classroom.

There was no singular moment (that I can recall) where I decided to align the happenings of my classroom meshed with values that I felt were important. Yet now I find myself thinking (perhaps too much) about what the classroom structures and routines are really telling students. Do they emphasize fairness? Do they treat students as valuable individuals?

"What does it tell students when we make them sign in and out to use the bathroom? That we feel they're trustworthy? That we assume they're going to abuse the privilege? Do the safety and security benefits from having a record of students out of the classroom outweigh the implicit message to students that we don't trust them? How does a school community decide upon these routines?"

Similar issues are discussed in with greater clarity, insight, and detail by Nancy and Ted Sizer in their book, The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract. The each look at the routines and rituals of a school through the lens of common verbs that happen in all schools: Modeling, Grappling, Bluffing, etc.). Throughout the book it is argued that we (as individual educators as well as school communities) need to think through how we model or grapple or bluff. We are teaching students about what things we value- whether we've taken the effort as a community to design our routines to closely match our values or not.

In my own experience, I've found schools will pay lip service to values- such as treating every student as an individual- while sadly lacking to provide structures that allow students to be known as individuals. The book doesn't condemn these schools and those that work in them as being hypocrites or incompetent. Instead, it points out that rules and routines are often well intended, but without specifically thinking through the procedures (and including students and parents in the decision making process) we often fall to a default mode of that which is easiest. However, the easiest routines usually put the adults' needs ahead of the students' or allow a subgroup of students to get lost in the system.

I found The Students Are Watching a challenging read. I often would stop part way through a passage and think through my own practices and how I might improve them. It doesn't purport to provide a silver bullet to solve all of a school's problems, but it does provide a tangible framework for thinking more carefully about what values our schools are actually promoting- and whether those values are the values we really want to be promoting.

Go read this book. If you need a copy, I have one I'm no longer reading. I'd be happy to send it along if you're interested- as long as you don't mind some of my messy writing in the margins (see below).

[Update]: This article on The Slacktivist is a sad example of a school's decision making process teaching the students and community about the real moral values of the school. In this case it's further exaggerated due to the school being a religious school.