“Dewey Didn’t Disrupt Education…and Neither Are We”: An Interview with Ben Stern

Reposted from MOUSE.org

We welcome Ben Stern (Manager of Educational Partnerships at TeachBoost) as our guest on the MOUSE Blog. His comments below are his own, i.e., they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either TeachBoost or MOUSE; TeachBoost and MOUSE have no relationship.



Daniel: Ben, in your Sept. 11th EdSurge post “Software Will Not Eat Education” you assert: “…many issues in K-12 […] are not software problems. They are human issues, political issues.”

If so, how do educators, entrepreneurs and investors differentiate which issues are most appropriately addressed with software and which with other means? And, to the extent that software is a human construct, how do we truly separate the dancer from the dance?

Ben: Daniel, first of all, thanks for following up on the article with these great questions. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you and MOUSE.

Great question here. Let me take a stab.

All important problems are human problems. A computer can’t tell me how I should be living my life. Similarly, if I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird with a group of students, a computer cannot effectively lead a discussion that draws on students’ interests, personalities, and our relationship cultivated over a whole year to get every student to grapple with central themes in their own way. Software can help me better understand their interests, or allow me to surface trends across their work, or allow me to connect with them outside of my 45-minute class period. But it cannot replace me, the teacher, in the most important part of the whole teaching process. Good teaching relies on non-rational, non-computational, distinctly human elements like relationships, personality, and instincts that cannot possibly be digitized. How to teach well is an important, difficult, yet partially unresolved problem.

I argued that political problems are also beyond the scope of software. The access to education provided by technology may play a role in closing the achievement gap, but learning is more than listening to lectures and typing up answers to questions. MOOCs will continue to have no real impact on K12 education. Software on its own, without legislative and infrastructural changes, isn’t about to resolve the disparate quality of education among all American schools entirely. Education reform will happen through policy and legislation first and foremost — would you trust a law written by IBM’s Watson? Would you trust Watson to teach your kids?

Daniel: You also state that companies should focus on narrow sets of problems and recognize that they operate under constraints. Isn’t that a bit of a straw man, i.e., don’t ed tech (indeed, most) companies understand the need to focus, focus, focus and know quite well the confines against which they collide?

Ben: Well, hopefully! My thinking here was that I see a lot of software that overreaches, that fails to address most teachers where they are today. There are some amazing, innovative teachers who speak at conferences and have huge Twitter followings. But these teachers are outliers. Just like we see a lot of startups coming out of Silicon Valley whose product only gains traction with the technology elite but never with the general public (and die accordingly), we see plenty of edtech built for the Twitter community, not for the more typical American classroom. Yet, the latter is exactly where edtech is needed and can help the most.

Daniel: Aren’t you being overly cautious in suggesting that ed tech companies seek iterative, not disruptive, change? After all, those who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created the foundations of today’s American K-12 structure were hardly shy about proclaiming a revolution. For instance, Dewey said that “every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.”

Ben: Sure, but did Dewey disrupt education? Reading him today is a lot like reading Edutopia or BIE’s publications. It’s great stuff, and I agree with it. But the fundamentals of teaching and schools, the actual act and its relevant institutions (as opposed to the content), really haven’t changed all that much for thousands of years, much less these past two centuries. They’ve evolved, but they haven’t been disrupted. I’ll double down on my claim from my article that iterative, software-driven change in education is ambitious.

Perhaps in dispute is what we mean by change. When I hear Marc Andreesson say software will eat education, I believe he means a fundamental rethinking of schools and teaching, with software becoming essential to and even replacing both. He’s talking about the end of school buildings, of class periods, of 20:1 teacher-to-student ratios, of grades, etc. That would be disruption. Besides the clear obstacles to such fundamental change – there’s a lot of money, legislation, infrastructure, institutions, expectations, other industries, etc. tied up in this current model – it’s not evidently good to replace it. Education is a different industry than, for example, transportation. Disrupting the taxi industry makes my life considerably better; Uber is disruptive and for the good. Would a software-based, teacherless K-12 education improve our lives?

The institution of a school and its practices has worked in varying degrees for many centuries. Of course, the content of what students learn has, will, and should change, but that sort of change isn’t really the sort of disruption that Andreesson or we are talking about. Rather, the edifice of education as we know it, everything besides the content of what we teach, will probably not change completely. In my view, it shouldn’t. We can use software to improve it, to iron out inefficiencies, but not to replace it. I’m advocating for iterative change, like we already have seen over the centuries in education.

I’ve received some really strong responses to my article, particularly on this point. While most have been positive, some argue either that I’m not dreaming big enough, or that the irresolvable nature of these problems by software indicates that the whole model needs be blown up, to be disrupted.

To the former point, I’ve just responded that I never said innovation is impossible in education. It’s possible — it’s already happening. I deeply believe that the company I work for, TeachBoost, is making a meaningful impact on schools using software. Streamlining educator effectiveness programs and taking something painful and unproductive (teacher evaluations) and turning them into opportunities for professional growth is innovative. But we’re not replacing instructional leaders; we’re empowering them. That’s innovation, not disruption.

Innovation is different from disruption, and disruption is what I wanted to critique in my article. The dogma of disruption – faith in the inevitability and inherent good of disruption in any and all industries – is a bit dangerous. 90% of startups fail for a reason. And the VC bubble that’s formed around this dogma makes it harder for truly innovative – but not disruptive – companies to compete. I do think software will continue to fundamentally change a great deal about our lives in good ways, and for the most part believe the rise in entrepreneurship and innovation generally is a good thing. But we need to maintain reasoned, cautious optimism. “Disruption” and “software eating the world” make for great rhetoric, just as Dewey’s call for a “revolution” continues to inspire. But those of us in the trenches fighting for our companies need to be mindful of certain realities that our rhetoricians don’t.

Daniel: Thank you for your insights, Ben.

Daniel Rabuzzi is Executive Director at MOUSE.


Teacher Mentorship Programs Work!

Reposted from TeachBoost’s LaunchPad

Last week, the NY Times featured a lengthy piece on teacher mentorship programs, entitled, “As Apprentices in Classroom, Teachers Learn What Works.”

What are mentorship programs?

The idea is that teachers, like doctors in medical residencies, need to practice repeatedly with experienced supervisors before they can be responsible for classes on their own. At Aspire, mentors believe that the most important thing that novice teachers need to master is the seemingly unexciting—but actually quite complex—task of managing a classroom full of children. Once internalized, the thinking goes, such skills make all the difference between calm and bedlam, and can free teachers to focus on student learning.

Aspire Public Schools‘ program serves as the main focal point of the piece, which ultimately takes a stand in favor of these programs. Frankly, I have trouble understanding why they’re controversial at all.

Having attended an elite graduate teaching program and spent five years in the classroom, I can say, unequivocally, that I learned the vast majority of what I know about teaching while teaching. And I didn’t even have the benefit of a mentor! Teaching is too complex, too instinctual, and too relationship-driven to be learned exclusively (or even primarily) through study. It is through practice, rather, that teachers really learn to teach.

As evidence, consider the wisdom of Aspire’s program, which starts with classroom management: something with which all new teachers struggle, no matter how many books they read on the subject. Good classroom management manifests in a culture of learning—built on rules, routines, and trust—and requires constant maintenance throughout a school year. It is not a simple bag of tricks. It can’t be taught; it must be learned.

Classroom management is also fundamental to good teaching. No matter how masterfully crafted a lesson plan may be, how charismatic the lecturer is, or how wonderful the reading for class was, an undisciplined and disorderly class will not learn. Classroom management doesn’t make for a great class, but without it, there’s no chance for one. Appropriately, then, it is also the foundation of Aspire’s mentorship program. Teachers are introduced to the most important element of their practice as it becomes relevant, and master it through practice.

Extrapolating from this example, I would argue that all teachers, regardless of experience, should learn this way. Mentorship, targeted support, and active PD is more effective than one-size-fits-all, passive, trend-driven presentations. That also is our philosophy atTeachBoost: eval and PD should combine to give teachers what they need, when they need it. Give the platform a try; like educators, it’s how we learn.

Software Will Not “Eat” Education

Reposted from EdSurge

Marc Andreessen, with the support of long-time colleague and amateur rapper Ben Horwitz, famously leads Andreessen Horwitz with the thesis that software will “eat the world.” Naturally, I wonder whether it will “eat” education.

Most recently, Andreessen and Horwitz suggest healthcare, education, and government are poised to be eaten. They may be right about healthcare. Government, they admit, is a longer way off. Education may be more imminent. Andreessen explains,

Technology is not driving down costs in…education, but it should…[Access is] the critical thing. We need to get every kid on the planet access to what we consider today to be a top Ivy League education. The only way to do that is to apply technology.

Ostensibly supporting this thesis is the growing edtech industry, in which I work. $452 million of VC money in 2013 is no small potatoes. Andreessen and Horwitz must be on to something, right?

No – at least, not as they frame the issue.

The biggest problem in education is not, and never will be, that too few students have access to Harvard. Let’s ignore for a moment the discussion about the value of an Ivy League education. Instead, consider the myopia of this view of education. K-12, as opposed to higher ed, is more relevant to the vast majority of Americans. Rightfully, getting every kid into Harvard is far from the top concern of anyone involved in this space, whether as a student, parent, educator, policy-maker, or entrepreneur. Let’s get every kid into and through high school first.

The many issues in K-12 –the achievement gap, funding disparities, and teacher attrition rates, to name just a few –are not issues that can be resolved by instant access. In fact, they are not software problems. They are human issues, political issues. Software alone will not change ,  much less save ,  the world of education.

Software can help, under three conditions:

  1. Edtech should be designed to focus on a narrow set of problems.The complexity of the American education system can be frustrating for companies, but it exists for a reason: educating 77 million students isn’t simple. Certain parts of it must exist to manage so many people. Companies aiming to overhaul education with their product are DOA. Instead, they should be targeting inefficiencies in the system. Companies ought to recognize that there are certain confines within which they must operate.
  2. Related, edtech companies ought to make sure the problem they solve is a real problem, not a mere annoyance. Often, great edtech software never gets adopted because it’s solving a problem that doesn’t yet exist, or won’t exist until 20 years of innovation have transpired. Companies that believe that their software will help to usher in a whole new educational model, who will truly disrupt or “eat” education, probably won’t. Iterative –not radical – change is itself ambitious in education, an industry in which the most successful companies thus far reinforce the status quo.
  3. To focus on the right problem, companies must assume a purely Socratic approach :  know that they “know nothing,” and be inquisitive, open-minded, and responsive . By asking rather than answering questions, companies can deliver software that helps humans improve teaching and learning.

Using good software, humans begin to chip away at the big issues of the day: software might free up time to focus on the issues, surface data that elucidates the issue, and empower teachers and learners to grow in new ways. But humans do the important work. Software must strike a delicate balance between innovating and meeting current, non-technological needs–a balance that’s harder to strike in education than anywhere else. But who said startups should be easy?

The Gripes Project

Announcing the launch of the Gripes project- surfacing teachers’ frustrations, without media hyperbole, political rhetoric, attacks, or judgment. Participate here: http://www.edumusings.com/gripes/. Share with your colleagues and friends. The more people that participate, the more insight we get into the life of the American teacher.

Responding to Politico’s “Rating Teachers Not As Easy As 1, 2, 3″

This article originally appeared on the TeachBoost blog.

Politico’s recent piece “Rating Teachers Not As Easy As 1, 2, 3” does a solid job of reporting on the landscape of teacher evaluation right now. In sum, despite all the rancor—or because of it—very little is happening:

Teachers union pressure, error-riddled evaluations and a wave of more difficult tests for students have won many teachers a reprieve from the newfangled evaluations during the school year now getting underway.

Specifically, Arne Duncan allowed states another year to tinker with standardized tests so value-added measures are fair and reliable. But other changes have already been implemented:

Six years into the Obama administration, most states have made big changes. Evaluations are more frequent and far more complex. Principals must often conduct several highly detailed classroom observations of each teacher each year. Some districts also include factors such as a teacher’s absentee rate, feedback from parents and students and peer review by colleagues. Objective measures of student learning—often, test scores—frequently account for 25 percent to 50 percent of the teacher’s evaluation.

Certainly, some of these changes constitute progress. To wit, previously “evaluations were often infrequent and superficial. The principal might walk into a classroom, check a few things off a checklist and make sure the classroom was under control.”

In fact, our friends at Bellwether recently published a report explaining that while states are all over the map on value added measures, some progress has been made, albeit inconsistently, on other aspects of teacher evaluation. Unfortunately, Bellwether argues, much of this progress has stalled.

Upon finishing the Politico piece, a reader would be excused for thinking that the situation is much worse—that no progress has been made at all, that this is an irreparably damaged system. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

We at TeachBoost happen to know for a fact that very positive developments are happening nationwide. We work with schools and districts across the country in which instructional leaders are fostering innovation among their faculty, master educators are mentoring novice teachers, and teacher evaluation is genuinely believed to be an opportunity for growth, as opposed to a punitive compliance measure.

We don’t take a position on the particular issues discussed in the Politico piece, though we know them to be important. Our platform supports districts in implementing whatever evaluation system they have. Still, we do hold fast to one idea: high-quality feedback, collaboration among educators, and growth-focused dialogue are essential to improved teaching and learning.

We hope legislators, lobbyists, and voters keep our philosophy in mind as well. However the legislation shakes out, we need systems that:

  • promote growth rather than stifle it;
  • allow districts to develop master teachers and build collaborative cultures;
  • enable districts to go beyond mere compliance, pursuing better teaching and learning instead.

It’s possible. We’ve seen it.

The “Hype Cycle” as it Relates to 21st-Century School Transformation

Last week,  I led a webinar as part of TeachBoost‘s back-to-school series that introduced strategies for adopting a 21st-century approach to instruction and leadership, while working against 20th-century odds. Check it out!

What is an Excellent Teacher? Responding to Arne Duncan and the DOE

Reposted from the TeachBoost blog

Announcing the Excellent Educators for All initiative, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “Race and family income too often still predict students’ access to excellent educators. That is simply unacceptable. We must do better, and do better together.”

Watch the White House briefing here.

Reviving an unenforced mandate from No Child Left Behind, President Obama and Arne Duncan introduced three components to this initiative:

  • By April 2015, states must submit “comprehensive educator equity plans” that detail how they plan to put “effective educators” in front of poor and minority kids.
  • To help states write the plans, the Education Department will create a $4.2 million “Education Equity Support Network.”
  • This fall, the Education Department will publish “Educator Equity profiles” that highlight which states and districts fare well or poorly on teacher equity. (Huffington Post)

While the details of the plans and their assessment will emerge over time, we hope they are thoughtful, actionable, and well-supported. At TeachBoost, we will work tirelessly to help districts nationwide in meeting their proposed goals. As Duncan says at the end of his announcement, “All students deserve excellent educators.” Rich or poor, black or white, all students deserve the best education possible. The education community must work to put excellent teachers where they’re needed most.At the end of his announcement, Duncan shares what the DOE considers to be common themes identified among excellent teachers. He explains,

  • “Great teachers follow great principals.”
  • “Great teachers want to work on a team with other great teachers.”
  • “Great teachers need extra help and support, particularly early on in their careers.”
  • “Great teachers want to grow and take on additional leadership opportunities.”
  • “Great teachers absolutely deserve to be well paid.”
  • “Great teachers and principals are in it for the long haul.”

We’ve found dedicated professionals eager to grow, learn, collaborate, and lead in schools all across the country. One theme we’d add, though, is that these professionals are well-supported by a robust, efficient, collaborative, and targeted system of evaluation and professional growth.Even the best educators need support from their peers and administrators. An evaluation system that treats educators as the professionals they are is therefore vital to the success of the Excellent Educators for All program. We will certainly do our best to support the initiative on our end. We hope the DOE will as well.

A Response to Ariel Norling’s Story

Like many of my colleagues in edtech, I’ve been following the communal response to Ariel Norling’s surprisingly-unsurprising story. There have been some great responses, like Audrey Watters’s takedown of ISTE’s response.

There have been some disappointing responses as well. A lot of the negative response to Ariel’s post suggests that, if not to blame, she is at least partly responsible for what happened because of the poor decisions she made. Let’s think about that.

Remember your early 20s? Probably not. Probably because you were somewhere making bad decisions yourself. And if you are a man, those situations didn’t inevitably put you at risk of sexual assault. If you are a woman, perhaps you were more careful — but isn’t it crazy that you had to be careful?

Like Louie C.K. said, “there’s no greater threat to women than men.”  Whose fault is it if a young woman is at risk simply for drinking at a happy hour organized for a professional conference? Is it hers? Or the idiots around her?

Surely the latter. I’ve been to these same conferences. They’re boozy affairs that promote all kinds of mingling that blur the lines of professionalism. Yet, I’ve never once felt that I was in danger of being sexually assaulted. I’m sure I will never feel that way. Yet, for some reason, women do have to feel that way.

The two men in Ariel’s story made a choice. It was not inevitable. They decided to act in a way that did make her feel in danger. They didn’t just misread cues. They were older men, in a position of power, aware of the particular vulnerability of a young woman, drinking too much in an unfamiliar situation, who is likely to trust prominent figures like a well-known edtech CEO and principal. Who knows better how vulnerable young people are than an educator? I’d trust these guys if I were her. If I’m right about who they are, I’ve met them, and they did seem like nice guys.

How can you blame Ariel, at all?

It’s no secret that sexual harassment runs rampant in the tech industry. Edtech apparently is no different. Unlike the tech community, though, at least we can be a bit more thoughtful in how we address issues as they come up. Aren’t we supposed to be more caring, since we’ve dedicated ourselves to improving student achievement – a noble cause? We’re supposed to be better. So, before you criticize Ariel, ask yourself — is it really the victim’s fault for acting her age, or is it the men’s fault for taking advantage? Who is to bear the burden of protecting young members of the community, a 21 year old at one of her first conferences, or a CEO and principal, responsible for the well-being a hundreds or thousands of lives every day?

Seriously, folks. Thank you, Ariel, for posting your piece. Hopefully, we’ll listen.

Can You Just Tell Me What to Do?

Project-based learning (PBL) is pretty amazing when it works.

PBL units inspire kids to become a sort of paraprofessional, applying their learning in ways that actually make a difference. Well-executed PBL has students learning and doing. A lesson starts with a good question, which contextualizes all subsequent learning. Students identify what they need to learn to come up with their answer. Once they have an answer, they do something with it. For example, say the question is, “How can our town resolve its budget crisis?” Students will need to learn how a town’s budget works, what public resources go to, how citizens can become involved in city operations, the math involved in all of this, and a great deal more. Perhaps a group of students recognizes that there is a lot of money wasted in travel inefficiencies. Knowing when trains meet that leave from LA and NYC (or, local town A and local town B) at 10:25 going 25 mph and 32 mph becomes meaningful. So does their ability to give a presentation, since it’s not just their giggling, equally nervous classmates they need to impress; it’s the city’s council. The e-mails they will send to organize a visit from the local transportation authority require some pretty good grammar.

So why aren’t we all doing this?

Well, PBL has its flaws. Most obviously, it takes time. As adults, we know how long it takes to schedule a meeting, discuss an issue (no matter how uncontroversial it may be), and have someone with some authority make a decision on it. These processes don’t fit nicely into an already overbooked school day or curriculum.

It also requires there to be someone who wants to attend those meetings and hear from kids. If a 13 year old can do a better job than full time employees, then perhaps government bureaucracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (Oh, wait…)

The pressures to perform on state tests and meet standards ostensibly is an obstacle too, though PBL advocates will be the first to tell you that students often learn even more when they take active ownership over their learning. How much have you learned in training sessions versus on-the-job, trial by fire? Exactly.

Even with the right problems to solve, adequate time, a receptive audience, and open-mindedness on the part of administrators and evaluators, there is the remaining problem of the habits of teachers and students. Teachers need a great deal of training and practice (and willingness to fail miserably for the first time since their first year of teaching) to fully understand how to design a good PBL unit, support students through it, and ensure that important content and skills are taught by its end.

Fortunately, despite their reputation, teachers can and do change. Though schools may be built on an old model, teachers aren’t really doing the same thing as they were fifty years ago. The overall educational paradigm hasn’t shifted, but teachers’ approaches and resources have shifted within its confines. They could change again. Hop on an #edchat on Twitter. You’ll see just how many teachers are ready to take the plunge.

But there is another, real, oft-overlooked obstacle: the students themselves. Children like to play, we think, so they will take to a less rigid classroom like ducks to water. Wrong. We forget that children have learned to play school a certain way. And this game is actually easier than PBL.

When I helped to introduce a faculty, student body, and parent community to PBL, I learned just how resistant to change the student constituency could be. Through much of the year, PBL wasn’t the most popular instructional framework with students and their parents. The hardest working students chafed at having to work with their less driven peers. Students who had mastered the version of school that defines success as memorization of content and following explicit instructions struggled with the openness of this new format. I’d often hear, “Can’t you just tell me what to do?”

In PBL and other open-ended, student-centric instructional models with an emphasis on “real world” or “authentic” assessments, students chart much of their own path through the learning. Teachers and the community offer the materials, opportunities, and guidance they need to acquire knowledge, develop skills, and apply both toward some meaningful end. But the onus is on the students to do the labor, physical and intellectual. It’s hard.

Adopting these instructional models requires training of faculty, of course. But it also requires significant training of students. We need to scaffold the development of collaboration skills. Students need to learn how to act on a good idea, and how to discern good ideas from bad. Schools need to introduce social norms instinctual to adults but foreign to kids.

Traditionally, the dreaded “real world” taught college graduates these skills (though many adults never learn them, as I’m sure we can all attest). Now, if schools are to really evolve as advocates of PBL hope, we need to do more than send kids out into the real world to apply their learning. We need to bring the real world into school. Project management, collaboration, manners, professionalism, and more need to be taught as thoughtfully and deliberately as multiplication.

This recommendation does raise an important question: is this what schools should be doing? On the one hand, schools are supposed to prepare students to succeed in the very environments for which these new lessons will prepare them. On the other, schools offer students a sanctum from the “real world” in which they can stockpile knowledge and skills to be employed later on. Is there value in this separation, this distance between learning and doing? Is there a deeper reason for moving away from apprenticeship education than the transition to an industrial economy?

Perhaps. Having seen PBL at its best, I believe expertly designed units with serendipitous opportunities for authentic assessment to become meaningful can combine the best of the new and old. Still, it takes a great deal of time, resources, and energy to get students to a place where they seize these opportunities, instead of insisting that the teacher just tells them what to do. It’s work we need to do. Will we do it?

Most important article on edtech I’ve read in a while

EdSurge’s MaryJo Madda wrote a terrific piece on Hybrid High’s implementation of blended learning, which went from failing to flourishing with some important tweaks. Autonomy, high expectations, and accountability for students and teachers alike remedied the problems with the initial implementation. Hybrid High’s story offers helpful lessons to all of us in edtech. Definitely worth a read.

There are lots of great nuggets in the article, but I especially loved the following idea:

Teachers are using these “flex funds” to purchase the edtech that they feel best suits their needs. Enthusiasm for the tools they’re using may spread, influencing the choices made by other teachers. While the administration purchases large-scale edtech products (i.e. Hapara and Illuminate) with the school budget, teachers can purchase other curriculum materials as they see fit–from pencils to curriculum user accounts.

Whole thing here.