Rewarding Learning with Badges

Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers 2015 from Sprout on Vimeo.

There’s a great writeup today on the Remake Learning blog about Digital Badges and their potential to unlock opportunities for youth. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m especially drawn to digital badges’ potential to recognize and reward learning with something more nuanced than a letter grade. There’s a wealth of research around connected learning that captures the power of “anytime, anywhere” learning and its positive impact on educational outcomes. There’s great potential for kids who learn differently, and there’s particular promise for at-risk kids who are otherwise marginalized by the traditional educational system.

The key missing piece with digital badging is employers. Some people argue that, in order for these alternative credentials to be really worthwhile, they need to be accepted by employers — that is, this idea of validating out-of-school learning with a badge only matters if there’s a meaningful reward or unlocked opportunity on the other side.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written in the last nineteen months that I’ve lived here, it should be no surprise that Pittsburgh is leading the way in this conversation about education innovation. Last summer, I was a facilitator at the event featured in the video above. Cathy Lewis Long, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Sprout Fund (my new employer), is featured at length in the video, and she eloquently sums up the stakes of this work and its promise for the future. Digital badging is new and it’s unfamiliar to most big employers, but it also might be just what they’re looking for as they try to seek out the best and brightest employees. The world is changing and the workforce is changing, and digital badges might just be the outward sign of learning and achievement that twenty-first century employers are looking for.

Watch the video above. Then read the blog post. Then get yourself to Pittsburgh as fast as you can: This is a crazy-exciting place to work in education.


Against the Anonymous Internet

I do not like this Yak.
I do not like this guy.

When I joined Facebook in fall 2004 (“back in my day, when it was just at some colleges…”), one of the things that seemed most revolutionary about the site was that people were using their real names. To that point, the main online identity I’d had was the AOL Instant Messenger screen name I chose in the seventh grade. That was back when they taught us that using your real name online was dangerous (which, actually, hasn’t changed for kids), so I created a screen name that combined my favorite John Lennon song with the name of the first part I’d had in a play. Being “Tricia Monticello” online for the first time felt different, and it felt exciting to have the digits tick upward as more and more of my real-life friends became my Facebook Friends too. My numbers would never be as high as the people I knew in Student Government, whose profiles were always flirting with the site’s hard cap on 5000 friends. That seemed okay at the time, though. Why on earth would you want to connect with more than 5000 people on Facebook?

In the last ten years, almost everything about using the internet has changed, and Facebook has definitely changed with it. Groups changed (I was proud of the “I Am Spartacus” group I was in in college; all the members were officers, all our titles were “Spartacus”), everyone could join, and brands got their own pages. As Facebook’s algorithm changed, more powerful people and more popular brands got more screen real estate on the site, and social media suddenly felt a whole lot less democratic and a whole lot more like a pay-to-play ad space.

That’s my impression of the environment that Yik Yak‘s creators set out to “disrupt,” to use another overused tech term. By letting users post anonymously, Yik Yak takes away the connection between your name and the things you say. “Share your thoughts and keep your privacy” is one way Yik Yak promotes its product, and their take is that it’s a good thing. The most popular or prominent people don’t get a bigger voice or a larger platform. Everyone has a say, and everyone has an equal voice.

As compelling as that idea may sound to some people, it strikes me as pretty short-sighted. After all, one of the worst places on the internet is one of the main places you can post anonymously: YouTube comments. The hateful things people say in YouTube comments have never failed to astonish, disgust, and upset me. There’s a level of hatred, anger, and vitriol in the comments that I can’t imagine most people saying out loud to another human, but somehow lots and lots of people are comfortable typing such horrible things into a computer when there’s no chance of being confronted or caught. Sure, there are moments of moving self-disclosure and connection out there in the comments too (see this excellent TL;DR episode from the guys behind Reply All for a great example), but mostly it’s the worst place in the entire digital world, as far as I’m concerned.

Yik Yak has turned out to be one of the worst places in the digital world too, but for a slightly different reason. On college campuses, it’s become a tool of choice for cyberbullying. Most alarmingly, sites like Yik Yak and (and other sites out there) have become increasingly prevalent and damaging on high school and middle school campuses, and in spite of schools’ best efforts, it’s still been tough to fight back.

So I was thrilled yesterday when The New York Times published a long feature article on the subject over the weekend. Read it to get more detailed info, and to see a photo of the improbably named (and improbably youthful) founders of Yik Yak. The other photo I’d seen of these guys was this one, and I’m convinced that they’re aging backwards.

My take on the whole thing is that these companies and the people behind them are not bad people, and they don’t have bad ideas; it’s not a bad idea to take social media back from brands and celebrities. But there’s got to be a better way to do it. Yik Yak and didn’t invent the bad behavior; they’re just one more forum where hateful, hurtful, prejudiced, and threatening words can find a voice without consequence.

What has to change is the culture where it’s ever okay to say things like this. It’s a hard thing to address in American culture writ large — the ongoing civil rights struggles in our country speak to that — but it’s something we can endeavor to address in schools. I’m giving a talk in April about social emotional learning, and I want to talk about this issue then, and I know I want to talk about these sites. I don’t have the last word on this subject by any means, and I don’t know exactly what I’ll advise parents on yet, but I’ll definitely advise parents to talk to their child’s teacher and their school’s administrators about sites like these. If administrators don’t know about the sites, parents can refer them to articles like the one in the Times. If they say “we’re taking care of it, everything’s fine,” parents should probably still refer them to some articles online, because it’s helpful to see the range of schools who are working to combat these problems. If the administrator sighs, shakes her head, and says something along the lines of, “We’re working on it, and here’s how,” that’s the most encouraging response of all. That means your child’s school gets it: it means they know the severity and threat of sites like these, and  they know that no one approach will be an easy fix to make it go away. To me, the best weapon against negative anonymous posts is a school culture that abhors that behavior and makes it clear that it has no place on campus. It’s not enough to block a website on campus; instead, schools have to shift the culture and make it clear that hatred has no place in their community, online or otherwise.

Two great reads on the teaching profession

Still one of my very favorite stock photos when you Google “teaching.” It just screams, “Why, yes, Johnny, that IS South America!”

I’ve launched headlong into my 2015 Goodreads Challenge of reading 52 books in 2015. So far, I’m on a roll: I’m four days in and I’ve already finished two books! Of course, my highly developed sense of guilt won’t let me feel too proud about that: I grabbed these books from the library on my way home from the last day of school on December 19th, so it feels like I’ve procrastinated as my winter break ticks to a close.

The books I just finished are terrific and I highly recommend them. The first is Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. It’s a history of the teaching profession in the United States, and it’s as much a history of teaching as it is a cultural history of social justice in this country. Goldstein traces the history of American education from Catharine Beecher to W.E.B. du Bois to Wendy Kopp, and her book is a thoughtful look at the social, cultural, and economic pressures that have made teaching, as she calls it, “America’s most embattled profession.” I finished this book inspired and enlightened, and I’d highly recommend it as a reference for the office. The epilogue offers a list of eleven “lessons” that this history can teach us and which can propel teachers, education reformers, and policy makers to thoughtfully shape American education in the years ahead.

While The Teacher Wars was a great thoughtful read, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher was one of those rare fire-in-the-belly books that had me texting my ed reform-minded friends late into the night. Luckily, they’re like me, so they welcomed my elated messages late on a Saturday night gushing about how good this book is.

I read a lot of books about education reform, education policy, educational innovation, and edtech. I read those books to get inspired and to get informed, and they’ve helped me feel engaged in my work as an educator and they’ve helped me fill critical gaps in my knowledge and skills. Few books, though, deal so much with the nitty-gritty of what happens in a classroom as Green’s book does. I’ve read a lot of books about character education, about how we can organize schools to better challenge, nurture, and inspire children, and about how different teachers, policies, and tools have transformed classrooms for the better. Very few books, though, talk in as much detail and with as much clarity about the what of teaching. This is a book that talks very specifically about what’s hard about teaching–namely, exactly what you do with a roomful of kids for 45, 60, or 80 minutes of classtime. This book talks about different teachers’ approaches to doing just that, and the evolution of different methods of teaching (including TKOT, or “This Kind of Teaching”) and their impact on the classroom. The exploration of TKOT dives deep, and its focus not on classroom management but on the academic stuff of teaching was especially compelling to me. It made me reflect on my own teaching practice both in larger classroom settings, in my college essay seminar, and in one-on-one work with my current students. Green speaks so specifically about the strategies and skills teachers can develop to unpack complex concepts and explore them in detail with students. It also resonated with my own biased perspective that teachers need to be both skilled in content delivery and also subject matter experts in disciplines (like math or foreign language) in order to be effective teachers. It’s not enough just to know about classroom management or to know a lot about history. And it’s not just about being enthusiastic or nice, either. To be a teacher is to be endlessly curious, perceptive, and self-reflective. You have to know your stuff, know your kids, and know how to connect the two. 

I occupy an interesting space in the education universe. I attended a prestigious graduate school of education but I didn’t take a traditional path to teaching. I do not have teacher licensure in my current state of residence, partly because I just moved here, but also because I didn’t take the traditional ed school path to becoming a teacher. My undergraduate degree is in a discipline (liberal arts and English, minors in French and Classics), and my graduate degree is more disciplined (cognitive science and education) than broadly focused on teacher education. None of my formal education included classes in classroom management or assessment. However, I did learn those things, both as a tutor and a classroom teacher.

I’m a capable teacher, though certainly not a spectacular one, and I don’t think I got that way by being a “natural” or by being especially friendly or enthusiastic. (Though I like to think I’m both.) I got that way because I read, studied, watched, listened, and worked. I read other people’s lesson plans, textbooks, project outlines, and tests. I wrote and rewrote my lectures and the project rubrics for the History of Art, Music, and Science class I developed at Saint Thomas Episcopal. I filled two notebooks and a very detailed spreadsheet with my plans for my French class last year at Convent. I didn’t always succeed. Sometimes, my lessons failed spectacularly. But I got good reviews from students and feel like I did reasonably well by them because I had a lot of tools to draw upon. I could refer back to things I learned in school–both the things I was graded on and the things I learned from emulating some truly spectacular teachers.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a teacher, but I’m keenly aware that I could always do better. I think that’s what has made me a good teacher: I have good background knowledge in pedagogy and content, but I’m also deeply worried that I’m not doing enough and that there’s always more to know. This hunger or paranoia or curiosity–whatever you want to call it–means that I’m constantly reading and searching and asking to know more about how I can do better by my students.

Elizabeth Green’s book spoke to my hunger as few other recent reads have. This is a meditation on what’s worked in education, what it looks like in real time, and how we might structure teacher training to impart these same skills to more teachers. I love any book that challenges the idea that people are “born” to do certain things (I’m a disciple of the growth mindset, after all), and Building a Better Teacher talks about teachers who have honed and shared strategies that can turn enthusiastic neophytes into effective educators.

Read this book; then convince all your friends to read it too so we can talk about it together.

On Studying Smarter

Studying is hard. I know that statement isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s remarkable to me how tough it can be for people to figure out what it means to study effectively. Recently, I’ve read two books that address this problem in great detail and with great energy. I started to assemble a bunch of quotes, but I realized that the best thing would be to exhort you to run to your nearest bookstore or library and pick them up yourself. They’re terrific. They are: How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, and A Mind for Numbers, by Barbara Oakley, PhD.

Both books have excellent thoughtful, specific tips on how learning works and how different study methods can play to the brain’s strengths. I realized that there were about thirty block quotes I wanted to include, but I realized that the best (and most provocative) might be the one that follows. Instead of characterizing a series of solutions, it captures the problem.

The following passage is from A Mind for Numbers. It’s from the preface by Dr. Jeffrey D. Karpicke, James V. Bradley Associate Professor of Psychological Studies at Purdue University. Dr. Karpicke writes:

What’s surprising is that a lot of learners use ineffective and inefficient strategies. In my laboratory, for example, we have surveyed college students about their learning. They most commonly use the strategy of repeated reading — simply reading through books of notes over and over. We and other researchers have found that this passive and shallow strategy often produces minimal or no learning. We call this “labor in vain”–students are putting in labor but not getting anywhere.

This is exactly the challenge I’m seeing in so many of my students–students who are spending hours reading, re-reading, copying, and re-copying their notes and trying earnestly to internalize insights from their teachers’ lectures and their textbooks. The bad news is, this method will fail them. The good news is, there are tons of other things students can do that will help them learn–and most take a lot less time than transcribing their textbooks.

For an overview of some DOs and DON’Ts, check out these lists of rules for good studying and rules for bad studying from Dr. Oakley’s website.  Then really: go read these books. They’re thoughtful and warm and terrific. You won’t regret it.

From WBUR’s Here and Now: “I’m not stupid. I’m dyslexic.”

From WBUR.

I heard a great story this afternoon on WBUR’s Here and Now program on the state of research and intervention for students with dyslexia. Things I loved: this story featured kids’ voices, and these wise, seasoned students talked about how tough it is to grow up a dyslexic reader. Also encouraging was the latest-greatest research out of MIT and Harvard about using fMRI technology to better map and understand the differences between the brains of dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers, and the ways that we as educators might use that knowledge to better address every child’s learning needs. Interesting stuff! Check out the embedded story above, and visit the WBUR site here to read, listen, and comment.

Link Round-Up: Changes to the SAT

The details of the changes to the SAT have come out over the last week, and they’re fascinating. You can read the official release on the College Board website here. There’s an increased focus on “real-world” problems and less focus on the so-called “SAT words” that led students to study sometimes obscure (but often pretty valuable) vocabulary. There are good write-ups on the changes in the New York Times and the Washington Post that offer helpful context and information on the changes.

Doesn't the smiley face just say it all?The two pieces that I’m most excited about deal with preparation and grading. College Board is partnering with Khan Academy to offer a suite of free prep courses for the SAT. This is huge–and it could be a huge blow to the testing-industrial complex (see these guys and these guys and these guys). One big criticism of the current SAT is that students who have the resources to do extensive, expensive test preparation are the ones who get the highest scores. Offering high-quality free resources through Khan Academy might offer many, many more students the same sort of leg up.

It’s also exciting that the grading system has changed. It is currently the case that students earn a point for a right answer and lose 1/4 of a point for an incorrect answer. That will go away in Spring 2016. Instead, the SAT will change to the same grading system that’s used by the ACT: students only earn points for correct answers and are not penalized for incorrect answers. Now that the SAT has changed their system–or, now that they’ve removed the so-called “penalty for guessing”–more students might elect to take the SAT. I’ve known many students who’ve elected to take the ACT over the SAT to avoid this very issue. Indeed, it’s been an increasing national trend as students have turned away from the SAT and toward the ACT.

While I know College Board is using a lot of language around fairness and equity as they discuss this change, I can’t help but wonder if this change is partly motivated by a desire to draw students back to their test and away from that of their competitor. These are nonprofits, but they’re also businesses. Additionally, making the SAT’s essay optional–as it was until the last redesign in 2005–also makes the new SAT look a lot more like the essay-optional ACT.

The language the College Board uses to describe the new test aligns well (purposefully so) with the Common Core State Standards, a set of standards being used for curriculum and evaluation in schools across the country. While the Common Core is not without controversy, it is the law of the land in many parts of the country, and it’s interesting to see the SAT aligning itself more closely with its language and content. At best, this means that the folks who design and administer the SAT are eager to test students on what they’re actually learning in schools, and they’re uniquely poised to do so given this new set of national standards that are meant to ensure that all American students are learning certain core academic skills. At best, this means that the College Board is working to make the test more relevant to what’s going on in schools and perhaps a better measure of students’ academic abilities. 

More cynically, though, I think that these changes speak to the SAT’s decreasing relevance. The spin here is that the SAT’s redesign is making it more relevant to high schools and colleges. I’d argue, though, that changing its format may not achieve that goal. A student’s course grades are often a much better indicator of their abilities as a student. There are so many tasks associated with participating in class, turning in regular homework, completing projects, and taking tests in school–all of those grades will say more about a student’s capabilities than two Saturdays when they were locked in a room for several hours with a scantron. It’s hard to design any test that’s going to effectively communicate all of the things that a course grade communicates. In that vein, more and more colleges are moving to test-optional status for their admission applications (see the website to learn more about participating schools), and I wonder how long the SAT lasts as that list gets longer. Truly, I think that the minute Harvard and Princeton go test-optional, the whole model collapses. That may not be imminent–indeed, it may never happen. But I think that’s the real pressure at stake in these changes.

Moreover, none of these ideas are really innovations. The new SAT is more like the ACT (which more kids are taking already), aligns with Common Core State Standards alignment (which most schools are using already), and now partners with Khan Academy (which people already like). None of the is new–instead, it’s a collection of other good things that are done well by other people. 

Overall, I think College Board does a lot of good in the world and I think the people who work there have good intentions for education and advocacy. I also think they’re eager to continue to exist.

Should Students Choose?

Happy new year! Over the holiday break, one of my colleagues sent out a clutch of links followed by a thought-provoking question:

Below are a few articles related to my new quandary as an English teacher: Should students choose their own books?  I struggle with forcing a student to read.  I know it too often leads to a dislike of reading or the use of Cliffs Notes, instead of reading at all.

I thought about this for a few days, and I found myself having some pretty strong feelings on this subject. If you’re interested–and if you’d like to join the conversation!–read on.

So, should students choose? Short answer: sometimes. But maybe not in high school English class.

Longer answer: sometimes. I love the moment we’re in for education. I love that the rate-limiting step for achievement is less and less about access to information. The power of schools is no longer that we’re the keepers of all of the information. Schools like ours, though, remain powerful, because we are curators and stewards of information.

I think it’s critical that we not mistake our students’ ingenuity for knowledge. When I was fifteen, I hated the Odyssey with an unending passion. I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world to read it. Years later, I discovered that that reading experience informed and shaped my experiences reading other books. Because I’d read the Odyssey, I got the jokes in other books. I knew the references. Years after that, I found myself minoring in classics and reading the Odyssey again–in Greek. That’s a pretty unlikely path, I know, but it suggests that I–like most of our students–had no idea what was worth reading at school. I didn’t know that as a fifteen-year-old, but my teachers knew better. And generations upon generations of teachers knew better.

My Edward Said-reading, postcolonial-lit-studying self loves the idea of challenging the canon and allowing our students to stray beyond traditional ideas of what’s valuable to read. However, as a college preparatory institution, we have a responsibility to our students to give them a basis in the kind of reading that their professors are going to expect them to show up with. We also have a responsibility to our institution: if we’re truly preparing all of our students to be scholars, we have to equip them with experience in the canon and experience in how to grapple with it in class discussion, close reading, and analytical writing. It’s good to allow students to have autonomy about their education–the twenty percent project is a terrific example of this sort of opportunity. There are things that are fundamentally valuable to read, though, and I don’t want to deprive our students of contact with those works of art because they as teenagers don’t grasp the books’ value. Not every kid is going to love every book we read. Not every kid is going to love math or chemistry either, but that doesn’t mean we should throw out the unit on logarithms or thermodynamics.

The other way that we as teachers add value is in that shared experience of reading a book. I know that I read differently when I’m preparing to read and discuss than when I’m reading only for myself. There’s something nice and appropriately community-oriented about how we do things in our particular school: everybody reads Hamlet. Everybody reads the Odyssey. While we have honors and AP and regular classes, there’s significant overlap in the curriculum, unlike what many of us experienced in our own high school days. I like that there are some shared touchstones for our community that don’t separate people by intellectual ability. Though we have some students who struggle mightily with Shakespeare and with many of the other things they read, I don’t want to deprive any student of that shared experience. We never know what seeds we’ve planted. For that reason, I think it’s critical to preserve major elements of teacher-dictated curriculum, especially for literature.

So far, this is what our students can expect in college: to show up in a classroom with a more-senior leader and to be expected to talk about and ultimately write about a book’s content and import. That’s fundamentally a task they have to do alone, and it would be ideal if every student could pick their own book to read, read it critically, and then meet one-on-one with an expert teacher to discuss the book at length and in depth. Unfortunately, the structure of our school day and the structure of our school isn’t currently set up to handle that. In our school, one way this could work would be to carefully curate a list of books and to construct reading groups. This would require a lot of legwork on the part of the teacher, including choosing the books, organizing the groups, guiding discussions, choosing writing prompts, and grading papers. It’s a great idea, but it’s tough to do at scale. From a volume perspective alone, it makes sense to scale that experience to our small classes and to have all students reading the same book at the same time. It’s less personal to be sure, but it’s still fundamentally a valuable thing to do.

Additionally, the greater issue that may need addressing with high school students may not be solved by giving them more choices. In a world of selfies and self-promotion, we may be serving a greater purpose by dictating that they have to read this thing, at this time. Learning where freedom can exist within structure is a great skill for them to learn, and it may prepare them for a college experience where they are once again called upon to do tasks they didn’t elect to do.

If the goal of letting students choose the books they read is to engender a love of reading in our students, I’m not sure that that achieves our goal of preparing them for college. I’m afraid that that task may be more the province of elementary or middle school rather than high school. High school students are so over-scheduled and necessarily college-prep-focused that 1) I’m not sure that most of them take time to reflect on enjoyment as an end unto itself, and 2) as much as I think that’s terrible, I’m not sure that changing the books they read in literature classes will address that larger cultural problem.

To pull off real change, it would mean fundamentally altering how we do school. I like that idea a lot. However, in a world with limited school days and a whole lot of books they should have read before they show up for college, I’m drawn to exposing them to as much canonical literature as humanly possible, with as much class discussion and writing as possible. If that makes me a dinosaur, so be it.