You Say You Want a Revolution


I was very intrigued – actually, excited – by not one, but two articles that were published this week.  The first appeared in the New York Times on January 23rd by Tom Friedman: Revolution Hits the Universities http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/opinion/sunday/friedman-revolution-hits-the-universities.html?_r=0 ;  the second, was printed in the Wall Street Journal on January 26th and was entitled Bill Gates: My Plan to Fix The World's Biggest Problems.  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323539804578261780648285770.html

As you may recall, NNSTOY has been conducting research with Digital Promise, Pearson, and university partners, to collect evidence of impact on a variety of teaching and learning factors of implementing digital teaching and learning tools in the P12 classroom.  This has been a very exciting study as we have been doing qualitative research in schools, observing, conducting interviews and focus groups, and seeing first-hand what happens when you meaningfully use digital tools for instruction.

Two weeks ago, I was in Stefani Cook’s high school in Rigby, ID, where Stefani  and a colleague are leading the shift to blended learning.  They are starting small, with four teachers, but in a short time period have already seen results and are engaging others in this work.  A fifth teacher is utilizing virtual teaching tools, combining her math class with those in four other school districts; the students and teacher shared the relationships that have been built as  a result of incorporating technology and of the sense of a larger community, with more learners and teachers to share problem solving and understanding.

The Friedman article details the movement worldwide towards using free, virtual courses to students globally and includes universities like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT through online course companies like Coursera and Udacity.  To give you an idea of the scope and impact of these courses, one MIT course on circuits garnered 155,000 students from around the world, greater than the total enrollment at MIT over its 150 year history of existence.

From a 17-year old student with autism taking college courses at University of Pennsylvania online- in a letter to the university, he writes:  “During the course, I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard-of in special ed. Now I know I can benefit from having to work hard and enjoy being in sync with the world;” to a Princeton sociology professor teaching a summer introductory soc course to 40,000 students from 113 countries, who writes:  “I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands. ... Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars,” we are indeed witnessing a revolution in the way in which students and teachers interact how learning occurs – and where.

How will this change the traditional university educational system?  Harvard President Rafael Reif thinks that we will witness an entirely new way of thinking about what constitutes a degree.

I think it will also change the way that we think about course completion in our P12 schools, how and when and where students take courses, and what graduation requirements might look like in the future.  According to an Ed Week article, 36 states are already considering changes to the Carnegie unit, the required amount of ‘seat time’ that high schools students must spend in formal classes.  New Hampshire recognizes that learning can take place in many venues outside of the classroom and has instituted a program through which students and teachers together design a program of study that may include learning experiences outside of school.  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/03/07/23biz-state.h31.html

In reading the Friedman article, I could not help but think of the lyrics penned by Curtis Mayfield when he wrote – “people get ready, there’s a change a’comin…”  Thankfully, people like Stefani Cook are getting ready.

In the Gates article, Bill Gates spends some time considering the value of measurement in terms of setting the course for progress and enacting it, in each of the varied areas of interest that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds. As someone who spent twelve intensive years learning and living measurement at ETS, I too was constantly awed by the power of testing and measurement in terms of driving teaching practice.

When we built the first performance-based assessment (I went on to lead the development of a total of 9 statewide or national performance-based assessments at ETS), during my career at ETS, the National Board’s Library Media assessment, I was immediately struck by the impact on my profession of the standards on which the assessment was founded.  I learned quickly that by measuring the rich and rigorous body of knowledge encompassed in those standards, we were going to be driving practice for thousands of media specialists.

In order to successfully challenge the assessment, these professionals would have to be able to provide evidence that they could meet the facets of the standards measured.  I thought I was pretty good librarian; but if I had taken that assessment without preparation, I would have failed.  In order to succeed, I would have had to learn a great deal, change the way in which I did certain things, and advance my practice considerably.  This is a prime example of measurement – or testing – driving practice.  This held true in every performance-based assessment that was developed under my direction at ETS.

To read the Gates’ article’s description of how measurement is driving practice – and results – in the fields of medicine, education, and economics is heartening for someone who places great value on the importance of measurement.  As an example of the difference that measurement is making in education, he cites the evaluation program instituted in Eagle Valley High School, Colorado.  Bill speaks of the power of an evaluation system that is, “used to give a teacher not only a score but also specific feedback on areas to improve and ways to build on their strengths. In addition to one-on-one coaching, mentors and masters lead weekly group meetings in which teachers collaborate to spread their skills. Teachers are eligible for annual salary increases and bonuses based on the classroom observations and student achievement.”

Isn’t this what we have been asking for as teachers for years?  To be given information, data, that we can use in order to both strengthen our practice in area where it is needed, but also to find out where we are strong, so that we can help others and serve as leaders.  This is the result that all good evaluation systems should deliver.  Many of you are already engaged in helping your states to design such evaluation systems, making sure that they deliver meaningful feedback that we can use to strengthen practice for ourselves and others.

I hope that you will take some time to examine these two articles.  For me, they foretell two critical ways in which education may change in the very near future.  How can we, as exemplary teachers, best be a part of these two revolutions?

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