Theory and Practice


disrupt, \dis-ˈrəpt\, verb: to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way : to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something) – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Vince, a pianist with Orchestra for the Young, uses an iPad to house all of his music.
Vince, a pianist with Orchestra for the Young, uses an iPad to house all of his music.

Disruptive Innovations in Reading Research and Practice by Susan B. Neuman and Linda B. Gambrell (Reading Research Quarterly, January/February/March 2-15)

The editors of this literacy research journal explore the concept of “disruption”. They compare the corporate world’s definition of this idea, which focuses on the bottom line, with education’s understanding, which “is to promote lifelong learning”. Neuman and Gambrell do not see education as a problem that needs fixing, but rather encourage subtle changes that can agitate the status quo. Both feel this is a necessary step in teaching reading and writing today.

If we are to participate – no less compete – in a global society, we will need to open the door to a number of disruptions in reading education.

Neuman and Gambrell highlight certain areas that are ripe for disruption.

  • Bilingual Education (Disruption): Monolingual Education (Disruptee)
  • Universal Full-Day Kindergarten (Disruption): Hit-or-Miss Full-Day Kindergarten (Disruptee)
  • Multiple Literacies (Disruptor): Traditional Literacy (Disruptee)
  • Online Teacher Education (Disruption): Brick-and-Mortar Teacher Education Programs (Disruptee)

They close their editorial by calling on the reader to “use this notion of disruption to our advantage”.

To BYOD or not to BYOD? by Aileen Hower and Tom Whitford (Reading Today, January/February 2015)

Two educators square off on the promise and problems with bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives. Hower sees lots of possibilities, including increased student engagement, quick access to resources, and easy ways to assess understanding through apps such as Socrative.

In contrast, Whitford finds pitfalls in BYOD initiatives. For instance, how do schools address lack of access to devices and wireless for some students? Also, the management of multiple devices can be daunting for a teacher. What’s interesting is that neither Hower and Whitford denounce BYOD as a learning initiative, making the title somewhat misleading.

B.C. report cards enter the age of social media by Tracy Sherlock (Vancouver Sun, December 5, 2015)

Elementary teachers across British Columbia are using a web tool called FreshGrade to capture and share student learning as it happens. Parents get a notification on their smartphone or tablet when their son or daughter has a new artifact entered in their online portfolio. One teacher loves this aspect.

They (students) will do something that they’re so proud of and they will say to me, ‘Can you put this on my portfolio so mommy and daddy can see it?’ I can do it instantaneously — I push ‘share’ and the parents get it right away. The communication with the parents is amazing — they understand because they can see it.

The ability for students and teachers to upload video, audio, images, or text in real time is also supported by school leadership. Antonio Vendramin, elementary principal, questions the traditional grading structure now that many of his teachers are using online portfolios.

I think this is the direction we need to go — we need to make reporting less of an event. We need to make sure this communication with parents is happening as we go, not just three times per year.

IMG_0192Interested in learning more about online portfolios? Check out my book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment. It is on sale through February – $5 off when you use the code PASSION5 during checkout. You can also join our Google+ Community on the topic. There are over 300 people to share resources and connect with on authentic assessment.

K-12 MOOCs Must Address Equity by Norman Eng (Education Week, February 5, 2015)

A professor of education in New York questions the effectiveness of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. While these online learning platforms have seen some success at the university level, there are two big reasons why they are ineffective at the K-12 level. First, the delivery of information is often lecture-based, no difference than a lecture delivered in a physical classroom. Second, disadvantaged students may lack broadband access to the Internet at home. Eng sums up the issue well at the end of his commentary.

How you use technology is more important than the technology itself.

e-text and e-books are changing the literacy landscape by Bridget Dalton (Phi Delta Kappan, November/December 2014)

This article focuses on “the array of multimedia and multimodal devices and applications that promise to help struggling readers and engage all learners.” Dalton, a literacy professor, applies the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to ensure that digital curricula and texts address learners’ needs and explore the possibilities of enhancing student fluency and comprehension.

Dalton highlights a number of benefits of using e-books with learners, such as interactive vocabulary software embedded in the digital texts to help the reader make meaning of a challenging word. She also offers five clear steps for selecting and teaching with e-books and e-texts:

  1. Use e-text with audio narration to provide access to the general education curriculum and grade-level text.
  2. Select e-books with meaningful enhancements for vocabulary and comprehension.
  3. Teach students how to use e-text features.
  4. Create an e-reader community.
  5. Use professional development and get technical assistance.

The author believes that using digital tools for reading and communicating should be more than just an enhancement to the school day. “Every child should be reading e-books as part of his or her literacy curriculum.”

Putting the puzzle together…

Anything for the kids
Anything for the kids

Yesterday I was a waterfall. That is, I portrayed one for my students and school during a performance by Opera for the Young. When I wasn’t twirling a banner to simulate cascading water, I was sitting next to Vince, the accompanist for the singers.

At first glance, you wouldn’t really notice anything different as he played. But from my vantage point, the implementation of the iPad to hold his music was more than just not having to carry around songbooks. For instance, the app forScore saved all of his music in Google Drive. Also, Vince could annotate right on the sheet music, such as reminders during the performance to cue me as to when to stand up and perform.

Even more amazing were the pedals by his feet. He could press this device that was connected to his iPad via Bluetooth, and it would turn the digital page of music, half sheet at a time. There was no more quick gestures to flip a physical page. After the show, Vince shared that there was no way he could go back to physical sheet music. He was a better pianist because of this innovation. Disruptor = digital text; Disruptee = traditional publishers.

Can BYOD or MOOCs make this claim, that the introduction of their technologies has disrupted learning to the point of no going back? Apparently not yet. I took a MOOC myself last summer and can concur with what Norman Eng shared. As for BYOD, these initiatives vary in their implementation from school to school. Unfortunately, too many decisions to allow all students to bring their own devices came about because administrators got tired of being the cell phone police in their schools.

I think educators have been more discriminating about effective use of technology in classrooms than technologists and corporations give them credit for. This might be a disappointment for them, as they may view schools as antiquated and a market, respectively. When we have the ability to determine that e-books and online portfolios have a more positive influence on achievement than MOOCs and BYOD, we give the control of learning back to our students and ourselves. We can decide what’s worth disrupting.

Theory and Practice

Risk and Reward

“The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.” – Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford University graduation speech, about being fired from Apple

My wife and daughter ride a zip line across my physical education teacher’s pond.

High-achieving teacher sues state over evaluation labeling her “ineffective” by Valerie Strauss (Washington Post, October 31, 2014)

A New York City educator with an impeccable teaching record was recently given a low rating by the state’s evaluation system. The reason for the discrepancy appears to be the use of value-added measures, or VAM. They compare this year’s standardized assessment results with past year’s students, as well as other grade level learners. The article notes that this method of evaluation is less than reliable, a position supported no less than by the test developers themselves. In the past, other quality educators have received low ratings with VAM. The difference here is both her prinicipal and superintendent wrote letters in support of this teacher and questioned the validity of the results. The outcome of this lawsuit may have a large effect on other states also using similar evaluation models.

Take Notes From the Pros by Laura Pappano (New York Times, October 31, 2014)

One of the latest industries popping up in the higher education setting is the selling of lecture notes. Students have leveraged technology to distribute their work for a small fee, usually around $10. While having detailed notes have been correlated with increased achievement, current research is showing that the professor is still the best source for this information. In a study conducted by Dr. Kenneth Kiewra, a professor at the University of Nebraska, he found that “groups that reviewed instructor notes performed best.” If the professor isn’t sharing his or her lecture notes, a recommended strategy is to paraphrase what is being said, instead of writing it down verbatim. This method of summarization promotes deep thinking, which helps retention. The article reminded me of a short video about visual note taking shared by Crista Anderson (@cristama):

Charter School Boasts Big Pay and Big Results by Leslie Brody (Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2014)

The title for this article immediately caught my attention. A charter school in New York City has observed marked improvement in their students’ tests scores, primarily in mathematics but across the board in all core academics. The set up is nothing if not interesting: few administrators, teachers getting paid over $125,000, and daylong auditions for teaching candidates looking to land a job in this school. The faculty also participates in peer observations weekly to get feedback on their performance. So what’s the catch? There are larger class sizes to allow for more professional development time. Also, the staff is expected to work longer hours, which most teachers already do. I think the biggest red flag for me was the fact that this school has a 47% attrition rate. After reading this article, I felt there were too many variables to determine what really led to improved student achievement.

Dynamic Versus Static Dictionary With and Without Printed Focal Words in E-Book Reading as Facilitator for Word Learning by Ofra Korat et al (Reading Research Quarterly, Fall 2014)

In this study, researchers analyzed the impact that eBooks with visuals and built-in word supports might have on students’ understanding of key vocabulary. What they found was students benefited the most from words that were noted and attached to dynamic (animated) visuals. The researchers, from Israel, provided necessary background knowledge in the published study about cognitive load. Readers struggle to comprehend the text if there are too many pieces of information to attend to. The results shared here are worth disseminating to classroom teachers, as they consider apps and eReaders for the classroom. Does the technology get in the way of the learning, or does it augment the experience?

Designating the MVP: Facilitating Classroom Discussions About Texts by Carolyn Strom (The Reading Teacher, October 2014)

This article was selected for a close reading with my entire staff during a recent professional development day. It describes a protocol that teachers can use with students to find the main points (M), visualize (V), or find a phrase that stays (P). The acronym “MVP” provides a nice association for students who are familiar with its more common usage in the sports world. After our day of learning, multiple teachers let me know that they found the strategy described in this article to be very applicable to their areas, whether primary, intermediate, or as a specialist.

In summary…

When my wife and daughter decided to ride the zip line across my physical education teacher’s pond, there was some decision-making that occurred before they hopped on the rope. For example, would the thrill of the experience outweigh the possibility of falling in the water? Obviously, they said yes. But their was safety in this risk. The water was determined to be fairly clean. People were on both sides of the pond, ready to jump in should trouble arise. Safety precautions were reviewed beforehand. The environment created for this experience made it that much more likely that my wife and daughter would participate and be successful.

My purpose in telling this story is to explain the conundrum education currently faces with these new teacher evaluation systems. Yes, every student should have access to a great education, every year. Systems should be in place to help ensure quality. But is assessing a teacher’s effectiveness by using test scores and value-added measures the best way to do this? I say no. Beyond the fact that the results are unreliable, when we publically rate teachers, we create a climate of competitiveness instead of a culture of collaboration. Will professors, and K-12 educators in general, be open to sharing their coursework with students and the world? Will teachers be willing to apply the MVP stategy in their classrooms, knowing that their initial efforts may not pan out as expected? Will teachers experiment with different reading experiences on tablets and eReaders, and risk the time and possible loss in instruction inherent with action research?

We should not stifle creativity in the name of accountability. Our efforts to control the outcomes with education can often detract from the very same results we look to improve. At the same time, creativity and accountability do not have to be mutually exclusive. Steve Jobs did not get fired from Apple because of his lack of knowledge, or an inability to create a great product. His initial failings had more to do with his lack of trust he had in his colleagues. When he came back to Apple, he was more inclusive in acknowledging others’ ideas and gave top performers some latitude and leadership roles. Not that he wasn’t still obsessive about the products produced. He just learned to hire great people and allow them to reach their own potential.

How can we create learning environments where risk is rewarded? That is the essence of research. Disappointing results can be just as helpful as a study that leads to success. But when our students’ test results are tied to our evaluations and even our pay, little innovation is possible. The outcome will be instruction that lacks the essential elements necessary for learning to occur – time, trust, relationships, and connectedness. With that, one of my most important roles as a school leader is to create a learning environment with soft landings, lots of supportive people, and permission to innovate. Only then are the rewards attainable.