Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why Pursue a Doctoral Degree? You Might Be Changed By It!

I think it is fairly obvious that I haven't posted anything here in some time. Some have probably thought I dropped off this earth, and there are perhaps those, because of my sometimes irritatingly political posts, who hoped that such had happened. The truth is, so much of my time is consumed with working on my dissertation that blogging has taken backseat. The constant reading, writing, and journaling takes just about every spare moment I have, and when there is a moment I am not working in my role as principal of a small high school, and working on this infernal degree, I am sometimes too tired to even look at a computer screen. In spite of all these travails though, I would gladly engage in this pursuit of a doctoral degree and would encourage others to do so too. Here's why.

This scholarly endeavor has changed me in dramatic ways. I don't look at education, my job, or even leadership in the same way any more. I now find myself entangled with the Postmodernists, Poststructuralists, and Deconstructionists. Now, I won't subject anyone to any attempt to explain those terms. If you're an English teacher, you probably encountered these schools of thought (if that is what they are) in your literary criticism classes as I did. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to them then. But what's different for me now, is that here toward the latter years of my career as an educator, the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze once again haunt both my work, my thoughts, and even my writing. They have unsettled everything I once believed to be "education science."

Once again, I won't subject you to a biography or description of the contributions of these individuals to literary or cultural studies; I simply say that these Postmodernists-Poststructuralists-Deconstructionists have  disturbed me as a practicing educator and educational leader. How can that be? Through them, I've learned that I don't really know as much as I thought I did, and many of those things I took for granted as "truth" are not the truth. Even my daily actions and thoughts about what it means to be an "effective educator" is not as simple as it once was. The intellectual challenge that these thinkers have wrought has made me more inquisitive, and even more skeptical it that was possible, of this thing we call education and all the "science" in which we wrap it.

In effect, I've actually come home, because in these thinkers, I've found the permission and means to continue to be skeptical, which I've always been when it comes to those promising "educational elixirs" and promises of quick cures. It's as if I've been given free reign to question and examine relentlessly all these things about education that we take for granted and take as a given. As the intellectual leader of my school, I have come to understand that "experts" in education are sometimes better at selling their wares than actually improving our field, but that is another blog post altogether.

All these years I've talked about leadership practices, teaching practices, and practices of engaging in using technology. Now, due to my explorations and doctoral readings and studies, I walk around each day on my job with each of these enclosed in quotation marks. In fact, every time I hear another educator or education consultant use the word "research-based," I see the quotation marks there too. Why is that? It is because these postmodernists-poststructuralists-deconstructionists have disturbed what I took for granted as the boundaries of our field of education. My dissertation experience has fostered a new habit of mind that demands that I be both inquisitive and question relentlessly.

Some would see no practical value in being this way. I disagree. This "ethos of critique" I live in now has freed me to think even more outside the box than ever. If we want to innovate and be creative, we have to suspend the rules and think in ways that are out of bounds. Besides, who was it that got to decide what is "out-of-bounds?" There's a long list of individuals whose thought was initially out-of-bounds. Now, I am not so Trump-like to say that "only I can solve the problems of education," but I enjoy thinking beyond the boundaries now more than ever.

So, what has this dissertation journey done for me so far? It is teaching me to think "out-of-bounds" and not worry whether some other educator-referee is going to call me on it. After all, who made them referee?

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Principal Plays Pokemon Go: Lessons Learned So Far

Curiosity won out, and I downloaded Pokemon Go for two reasons. First of all, the publicity and news about the app made me curious. And, secondly, as a technology advocate, I wanted to see if it has any educational value. Immediately, after downloading the app to my iPhone, opening it, and setting up my account, I found a world in which I knew absolutely nothing.

Upon entering the world of "Pokemon Go," the screen warned me "Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings." Music played, and the progress bar indicated I was almost there, wherever there is. Suddenly I was, or my chosen avatar was, in the game. Immediately, I was facing something called a "Bulbasaur." Not being fluent in Pokemonese, I had no idea what this creature was, and even worse, I had no idea what to do with it. On instinct perhaps, I grabbed the red and white ball with my finger and flung it at the creature. It flew over it, bounced and immediately opened and vacuumed the creature inside. "Gotcha" appeared on the screen, and I assumed that was a good thing. Now, a week later, after capturing more than a dozen creatures with names I've never heard of, I have advanced to "Level 6," whatever that means.

On a surface level, playing Pokemon Go pushed me well beyond my comfort-level from the start. I know very little about Pokemon. I certainly did not know anything about how to play the game. I could have perhaps found some online videos or instructions, but like so many young people do with video games, I just jumped in, with the knowledge that messing up in this world was not the end of that world or mine. In my brief discomfort because of my lack of knowledge, I was forced to learn. I used what knowledge I had from other electronic games I've played, and just played. I spoke to others who have been playing the game and learned more. While I am certainly not claiming to be an expert, I can say I have begun to learn more of the Pokemon world as represented in the Pokemon Go app, and more and more about myself.

Perhaps some would say I've been wasting time; I even have made the comment "What a time-waster!" But, I must not forget that I had many students who said the same thing about sitting in my high school English class. I would tell them, "You never really know when something you learn today might have use in the future." I should perhaps also take this same tentative approach in my judgments toward playing and learning how to play Pokemon Go. I don't really know when I might have need of what I've learned. On one level, immersion into a safe unknown and having to sink and swim has its own benefits. On another, well, who knows, I might find myself someday facing a Bulbasaur with only a handful of balls.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

When Transforming & Innovating Your School Seems Hopeless: 3 Things You Can Do

"You got to use the power that you got." Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Most of us face situations where success seems impossible or improbable. Many of these situations involve what Malcolm Gladwell calls "Goliaths." These are adversaries or adverse conditions that appear to be insurmountable. In education, we often find ourselves in these "Goliath" situations where our initial assessment is that we can't possibly succeed, because we are out-manned, out-resourced, and out-powered, but according to Gladwell all is not lost. At the heart of our problem is our misconceptions about the situation and about who really has the power.

So what can we do? According to Gladwell, we can do the following:
  • Rethink the idea of what an "advantage" is. Conventional wisdom sometimes tells us what is an advantage. For example, being a small school might seem to place that school at a disadvantage. It might not be able to offer all the extra-curricular activities, classes, and programs that a much larger school would be able to offer. Yet, the "advantage" the smaller school might have has to do with its ability to be more flexible, and hence change and improvements might be implemented much easier and more quickly than in a larger school. Nimbleness is certainly the case with smaller schools with smaller staffs. Often they can react more quickly and gracefully to changing conditions. We can as Gladwell tells us, turn our disadvantages into advantages.
  • Change the rules. Often, in the midst of situations where we face adverse conditions, and we feel that loss is eminent, we feel hopeless. We feel hopeless because, in that situation, if we play by the rules, we are certain to lose. But, who said we had to play by these rules? Why can't we change them, modify them, and approach the adversity in an entirely new manner? Like the David and Goliath story, David chose not to engage the giant in a conventional manner, because he would have surely lost. Instead, he fought unconventionally and in a way his adversary wasn't expecting and won. Changing the rules is climbing out of the box systems put us in and reinventing the game. When you're faced with a sure loss, what do you have to lose?
  • Use what you have. All of us in adversarial situations facing sure defeat, begin to engage in "What-if" thinking, such as, "What if we had more computers?" Or, "What if we had more money for teacher salaries?" The rest of those questions are outcomes we would like to see. Sometimes, though, in the face of adverse and adversarial conditions and sure loss, we have to turn to what we have, and often what we have and what we control is more than we think. For example, if you want a 1:1 computer program and can't find funding to purchase computers for every student, then "use what you have." Perhaps enough students have their own computers and you can open your network for BYOD and just purchase computers for those who can't afford them. This accomplishes the goal by "using what you got."
Sure defeat isn't always a sure thing, as Gladwell makes very clear in his book, David and Goliath. We can prevail in more situations than we think by being willing to rethink our advantages, changing the rules, and just using what we've got.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Teachers Impact Students' Lives in Immeasurable Ways

"The effects of teaching may not show up until long after students leave school and in ways the teacher never dreamed of." Elliot Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of Mind
How do you measure the true educational impact of a teacher? If you consult psychometricians, they say it is simple. You pre-test, deliver instruction, and you post-test. On this our "educational sciences" are based. But do these tests really measure the teacher's most important impact on students' lives? Is the most important task of a teacher to demonstrate that they can "improve a student's test scores?" And, equally important, no matter what our state and federal education bureaucracy tells us, "Are these state standardized test results really capturing learning that will be meaningful to those students' future lives, or are these results simply better predictors on how students will score on other standardized tests?"

Elliot Eisner's book, The Arts and the Creation of Mind depicts an image of a teacher that is much more complex and complete than that currently promoted by the "education sciences" to which modern education finds itself enslaved. The teacher is much more farsighted than the teacher who can't wait for the latest standardized test scores at the end of the year. Eisner's teacher is an "environmental designer" who "creates" situations and places where students gain "an appetite to learn."

Eisner's teacher is not a technician who uses "test data" to choose "canned scripts" and the latest adopted "scientifically validated methods and curriculum" whose purpose, is not to inspire wonder and imagination, but whose purpose is to make some education administrator or politician feel like they are effectively improving education. The teacher should not be teaching by following recipes; they should be engaging students in a "mind-altering curriculum" that forever changes them into forever learners.

What's wrong with the current grip that so-called "education sciences" have on schools is that they have created an impoverished, assembly-line form of education that students don't have to participate in; they only need to be subjected to it. Our education system still strives to run "smoothly," in a standardized manner and as efficiently as possible, and to get as many students through the credentialing process. It is short-sighted and its vision can't see beyond the "testing extravaganza at the end of the year.

But as Eisner makes clear in his book, if you really want "educational gold" in the classroom, then a "high-degree teaching artistry is needed. You need classrooms of "improvisation and unpredictability," not classrooms constructed according to rigid scientific principles. The teacher, in this innovative and creative classroom, is not a scientist who constantly studies the latest test data and looks at his repertoire of "research-based, scientifically-validated" classroom scripts for the one to apply because the data indicates it is called for. The teacher is what Eisner calls "a midwife to the child's creative nature."

As I look back at my years in elementary school, I see one teacher who I would really say was the midwife to my own creative nature. She didn't make noise about my performances on tests. She genuinely questioned and encouraged me when I showed curiosity in the solar system, astronomy, biology, tadpoles, frogs, and trees. She listened attentively when I read stories I had written aloud in class and encouraged me to write more. She encouraged me to read anything and everything I could get my hands on in our school library, even helping me get permission from the librarian to wander into and check out books from the "junior high section" instead of the elementary section where all six-graders were constrained. I read more books that year than perhaps in any other time of my life because of her. In a word, she designed an environment that helped me grow my curiosity and a massive appetite to learn that is still alive today.

My greatest concern with the Standards-Standardized-Testing-Research-Based-Accountability educational milieu we've created in our schools is the damage it is doing to students far into their futures. Does all this focus and obsession with test scores really matter in the lives of our students? The true impact we have on student lives is an impact that hasn't happened yet, and its an impact that can't be measured by standardized tests. My sixth grade teacher had no idea that the classroom environment she created would mean that I would become a teacher myself. She had no idea that I would become a principal. She also had no idea that my passion for reading, writing, and appetite to learn would stay with me the rest of my life.

Perhaps if we really want to focus on "student outcomes" we need to set our sights beyond test data and create places of imagination, creativity, and innovation where curiosity is treasured, learning is not just measured, but valued. Not everything worthwhile can be reduced to pre-tests and post-tests, and the real impact of our work with students will be measured by the lives they live far beyond the classroom.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Evernote Raises Prices & Degrades Service for Basic Users: Is It Worth It for Education Users?

Evernote is increasing its pricing for Premium users and Plus users while degrading service to those who have chosen to use the service's Basic option. I have been an Evernote user and a premium user since May of 2010, and I have often blogged about its capabilities as note taking software. I have also led staff and professional development about the product. I still use it every day, both personally and professionally. Still, I hope Evernote knows what it is doing.

In a blog post (see "Changes to Evernote's Pricing Plans") the company claims that it "doesn't take change to our pricing model lightly, and we never take you for granted."

I certainly hope so. I certainly understand that companies like Evernote need to raise revenue for improvements, but this personally places me at a price point where I begin to ask the question, "Is the yearly subscription price worth it?"  It's not like there aren't other less expensive options out there. For example, I've used and still use Microsoft's OneNote, and I could so easily switch to it and accomplish what I want with that software, or even find some other alternative, but I have loyalty to Evernote as a great product, but changes in prices and functionality weaken my loyalty as a long-time user.

At this point, I will wait and see what Evernote does with the added revenue, but I do have these words of caution for Evernote. I am not a business user, so I do not really care to see improvements that make the product better for corporate America, unless these also improve my own functionality. To assume that those business improvements to Evernote software make it a better product for my job as an educator and education scholar is a mistake. Often companies forget core users in their efforts to capture new markets. I hope this isn't what Evernote is doing.

As an educator, I chose Evernote in 2010 because it was a great note-taking platform that was inexpensive, versatile, and accessible across devices. At that time, it didn't pretend to do something else. It was reliable. It did exactly what I wanted it for. But this is important: Improvements of a product aren't always improvements to all users.

If Evernote is making these changes in pricing and packaging to go after business users, there is the danger that they are forgetting us, the education users and everyday users who have been passionately loyal, like in my case, for 6 years.

I am not at the point of cancelling my Evernote account yet, but I want that company to know that I will be watching out for those "improvements." If I am going to be paying more for Evernote, then you can bet my expectations for your product have gone up as well. Your claim that you aren't "taking me for granted" will only prove true over time.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Did SAS Provide Gifts to UNC System for Special Future Considerations of its EVAAS System?

It seems, according to an article, software giant, SAS, who already has a multi-million dollar contract with North Carolina Public Schools for its EVAAS value-added software system, provided undisclosed air travel for the UNC Board of Governors and candidate Margaret Spellings during the recent presidential search. (See WRAL's "SAS Provided Undisclosed Air Travel During UNC Presidential Search.") This raises some interesting questions.

Most of us in education are very aware that SAS would stand to gain should North Carolina adopt some of the proposals that would evaluate new teacher programs by tying the performance of these college programs to "student growth measures" on state standardized tests. In light of these "gifts" to the UNC system, SAS would "just happen to be there" with its EVAAS system should North Carolina make this adoption.

Is it not equally interesting that SAS provided air travel to Margaret Spellings, whom most of us in education see as a major advocate for standardized testing and accountability measures? We have her to thank for her support of the failure of the "test and punish" systems of accountability under No Child Left Behind. Naturally, SAS obviously wants someone as UNC president who would push the same kinds of measures at the university level, so why not provide her air travel? I submit that this means that North Carolina sees the adoption of EVAAS value-added measures in the future for all North Carolina university teacher education programs.

Ultimately, the UNC system in situations like this should not accept gifts from corporations who might stand to gain from future university decisions. The UNC system should reimburse SAS for the entire amount of these "gifts" to ensure that it is not subject to being bought by corporations. It is a matter of integrity, which our universities still have and our state politicians do not. It's also very convenient that SAS did not disclose the gifts as they were apparently supposed to do.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Are the Concepts of 'Grit' and 'Mindset' Attempts to Erase Importance of Social Justice & Equity?

While reading an essay entitled "Foucault, Power, and Organizations" by Stewart Clegg, I have begun to write and congeal thoughts about the new embrace by educationalists of the ideas of teaching students about "grit" and "mindsets." More and more books you pick up on educational methods and teaching practices seem to increasingly refere to Carol Dweck's ideas about "mindsets" and their role in success . (I have read her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.) Then there's all this discourse about "grit" as well. Though this concept goes back to Francis Galton, Duckworth, in her book, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has more recently brought this term to the forefront.
When reading Clegg, he writes: "Bio-power normalizes through discursive formations of psychiatry, medicine, social work and so on. The terms of these ways of constituting the normal become institutionalized and incorporated into everyday life. Our own reflective gaze takes over the disciplining role as we take on the accounts and vocabularies of meaning and motive that are available to us as certain other forms of account are marginalized or simply erased out of currency."
Some questions:
Is the employment of the now "psychological concepts of 'mindset' and 'grit' a means of constituting a new normal using the psychological and educational sciences to marginalize ideas of social injustice and inequity?
Is the employment of these concepts in the educational apparatus a means to erase any thoughts or ideas of inequity and social injustice from our society?

Here's some my of my working thoughts on this matter:
The discourse of "grit" and "growth mindset" could function as a discourse that seeks to install a 'reflexive gaze" into students that asks them to disregard their circumstances in life, their experiences of poverty, misfortune and lives lived in inequity, and "get with the program."
It is an explicit "scientific" manifestation of the "bootstrap mythology" that propagates the idea that "if you work hard, then you will be successful."
It is a reflexive gaze which banishes any thought of inequity in society. It is directed at the souls of students to make them docile and compliant with the educational program.
It conditions individuals to ignore inequity in society and allows those who continue to stack the economic system in their favor to retain their pre-eminence.
It attempts to dispel any resistance to a socially unjust society. Ultimately it is a application of the psychological and educational sciences to the service of disciplining those who question the injustice of society.
I think perhaps before we jump on the "mindset" and "grit" teaching methodology bandwagon, we might want to ask some of these and other critical questions about what they really are doing with our students and our society.